friendship

Eeek! I was mistaken for my son's grandmother

My mother’s visit is supposed to be low-key. This is the third time she’s traveled across the country to help us since we adopted Zachary, and it’s the first without a nerve-wracking event on the agenda: no trip to the hospital to get the baby, no visit with the birth parents, no visit to the lactation consultant to learn how to nurse an adopted baby.

We’re just living life, taking the kids to the park, grocery shopping with Zachary while my older son, Patrick, takes a dance class. And so we’re back to being a good team and tolerating the familiar low-level tensions, letting the little things slide.

As we wait in the grocery store checkout line, my mother eyes an Outside magazine without pulling it off the rack. I unload the groceries with one hand, cup baby Zachary’s bare foot with the other, and admire our cashier–an older woman with a mane of long, gray ringlets, dramatic jewelry, and a steady patter with the customers. The cashier ohs and ahs over Zachary as she swipes cans and boxes and weighs the oranges mechanically (organic oranges are so expensive! I can almost hear my mother thinking). Then the cashier pauses and gives my mother and me an appraising stare.

“Let me guess. You’re the two grandmothers, aren’t you?”

My smile freezes.

She grins. “I just think it’s great when the grandmas get along.”

The store seems ultra bright, and everything moves in slow motion, especially my thinking. I try to grasp what she just said. I look like the other grandmother? How can that be? People usually guess that we are mother and daughter, we look so much alike. It’s obvious, they say.

The cashier concentrates on the groceries, suddenly silent. I feel pressure to say something. But what?

Should I try to put her at ease, excuse her for the mistake that I think she knows she made. Should I make light of it, make a joke? Or should I tell her straight up, slam dunk, the message that not only young women have children? Should I make a point of claiming my child as my own? Is it disloyal this way I am standing here silently, grin frozen on my face, letting it slide? And laced through it all, the stunned question: Do I really look as old as my mother?

We walk out. As the automatic doors slide silently shut behind us, my mother says, “I’m sorry.”

“It’s nothing,” I say, but we both hear a tinge of bitterness in my voice.

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“I take it as quite the compliment,” she adds hopefully. Then she sighs. “But it probably doesn’t make you happy.”

I smile and shrug. Never before has anyone suggested that I am my mother’s peer. She is a beautiful woman, but she looks, well, she looks old.

That night, I turn on all the bathroom lights and look closely in the mirror and see them–a series of V-shaped lines etched on both sides of my mouth, like lines of geese flying north. As I turn my face, the lines fade and reappear depending on how the light hits them. I think of Tennessee Williams’s fading beauty Blanche DuBois putting a lampshade on the bare bulb in her sister’s apartment. That always seemed like a reasonable plan to me–it made the apartment more attractive. Was it such a crime to choose flattering light? Apparently so, according to Stanley and Mitch and my students. I taught A Streetcar Named Desire to college sophomores, and God, they hated Blanche (delicate, destitute, desperate to hold onto a refined plantation elegance that has long since slipped through her grasp).

Anyway, I have to admit that at this point, I look more like an aging Stella–the practical, earthy sister–than Blanche. I’m chubby, matronly, obviously more of a mom than a Southern belle. I wonder, idly, if I could create a merged version of both women. But then I’d be named Blella … or worse, Stanche.

One day, in my last semester teaching English literature–when we were about three years into our quest for a second child and I had finally succumbed to the pressure to take the entry-level fertility drug, Clomid–the class was discussing a novel in which a middle-aged woman pondered getting pregnant. A cute, usually silent boy piped up to say, “Isn’t forty kind of old for that?”

A few of the girls tittered nervously and glanced my way. I said nothing. I hadn’t mentioned my quest, and yet somehow it seemed that they knew. And then it dawned on me: They didn’t know about the second child I was trying to conceive. They were embarrassed for me because they knew about my first child. Yes, a six-year-old at my age. Imagine. Maybe they knew this because the previous spring I had brought Patrick to campus on Take Your Child to Work Day. Walking back to my office with Patrick, one of my former students had shouted to me from across the street:

“Hey, Professor Powers!”

I waved. I didn’t remember her name, but remembered her as upbeat and sweet and always willing to participate in discussions.

“Is that your grandson?” she shouted.

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“No,” I shouted back. “He’s my son.”

“I didn’t know you had a kid so young!” she said in the same chipper voice, and then swept her arm in a happy good-bye wave. “See you!”

A sour taste seeped into my mouth. Patrick walked silently by my side. It was impossible to guess what he thought of the interchange. (Years later, he told me that he thought she was “a complete and total weirdo.”) When he was, oh, maybe four years old, he used to brag gleefully to the other kids in his preschool: “My mom’s older than your mom!”

He hasn’t done that lately.

Recently when I was waiting for Patrick to finish class, I overheard one mom ask another: “At what age did we stop wearing makeup to look older and start wearing makeup to look younger?” I smiled ruefully but didn’t say anything. I was fifteen years older than them, easily, and I wasn’t wearing makeup. I hadn’t worn makeup in a long time.

But now, standing in front of my bathroom mirror it occurs to me that I might still have a green tube of wrinkle-covering Clinique cream in the cabinet. I resist the impulse to pull it out. I wish I could say this is a feminist decision–a proud claiming of my age, wrinkles and all–but really it’s only because I am sure that the cream won’t work. My wrinkles are too plentiful and too deep. Like it or not, I’m stuck with them.

I have chosen the path of the older mother. I have fought against the odds and peer pressure and common sense to get right here: a forty-nine-year-old mother of two young boys. Now I’m going to have to live with it, for better and for worse. And usually it’s better.

Neither of our children came easily, and parenting them is as much a challenge as it is a joy; but now the occasional hurtful comment notwithstanding, my life feels right.

I turn off the light and stand in the dark waiting for the bulbs to cool. Then I reach up over the sink and feel my way to the middle light bulb, unscrew it, then for good measure unscrew the bulb next to it. When I turn the lights back on my wrinkles barely show. Call me Blanche. Blella. Stanche. I’m walking away from this mirror and back into my life.

Ann Whitfield Powers is the executive director of Fishtrap, a literary arts organisation.

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