Susan Katz’s informative piece Is the Big Move the Right Move? struck terror in my heart. Not because of the options for living she outlined but because of an option she didn’t mention, but one my friends and I often discuss: Living with our children when we can no longer live on our own.
I have two wonderful, responsible, loving and kind adult daughters. They are married, have children and manage busy, organized lives. They love me. And my relationship with each is good. But I’d sooner die than live with either of them. The very idea horrifies me, and I have good reason.
When I was 31 my mother came to live with me. It wasn’t her choice any more than it was mine. She was a refugee of East Pakistan’s 13-day civil war – believed to be the shortest in history – that resulted in a declaration of independence and the establishment of Bangladesh. Mother Hazel, a bold and adventuresome sort who added pretty good Urdu and Bengali to her Italian and dicey French, joined the U.S. Foreign Service in 1959 when I was 19 and newly pregnant. It was my suggestion that she “do something fun” with her life since, at 45, she was still young, and both her daughters were married and gone. She took me literally and left the country.
For more than a decade she lived a wonderful, international life that included marriage to a British ex-pat and travels around a Middle East that was then glamorous, sophisticated, beautiful and great fun for an American who loved exploring the world and experiencing new cultures.
Then it all fell apart. Just before the war, her Colonialist husband was jailed as an enemy of the state and she fled the country and, after months of dispirited wandering around Europe staying with other displaced friends, she landed on my doorstep, ill and disheartened.
And angry and demanding.
The girl she only saw once in 11 years was now the mother of two active children, a busy community worker, adult college student and part of a slowly failing marriage. There was little room in my life for her, but I’ve always been a responsible person, so my youngest daughter gave up her bedroom and moved in with her sister, while Nana got her own space. There the five of us were in a small suburban house. It wasn’t good.
Accustomed to household help, Hazel expected me to fetch and carry. She competed with my children for my attention - constantly talking over and interrupting anyone who was talking to me - and she carped at my husband and treated him like an interloper in his own home. She criticized my pale Mary Quant lips, my short seventies skirts (of course I had white vinyl boots, didn’t you?) and my big, big, big afro. We all suffered mightily. Now, I know she did too but then I could only see it from my perspective: This self-centered, needy, often hostile woman had invaded my already-challenged home and turned it upside down.
I was so caught up in my own distress and what she was doing to my life that I was unable to appreciate that she’d lost everything. Her husband, who by this time had been airlifted from a Bangledeshi jail to England, had become a refugee without a passport in the country of his birth. The only way we knew this had happened was from the New York Times because they’d lost all contact. Her home was gone, she had no money and she had two heart attacks in the first six months she was with me. The second after visiting her dying husband who’d taken refuge on a pig farm south of London. Perhaps most important to this brave and desperate woman was that she’d lost what she most prized – her independence.
Over time we bought a larger house, she recovered, got government work again and moved out to live on her own, but the scars she left on us all were permanent. My husband and children remained wary of her, and I continued to be stung by feeling my main attraction for her was my usefulness. And I believe she hastened the end of my marriage.
Now I am much older than she was when she came to live with me, and Is the Big Move the Right Move? reminded me that some version of what my mother and I experienced could happen to my daughters and me since I share my mother’s passion for self-determination. And, I probably share some of her less-than-attractive qualities. No, I’m not my mother and my daughters are much older and far more mature than I was in 1971, but the fear of losing my kitchen, my space and my freedom feels as real and raw as the anger and fear I saw in my mothers eyes when I had to “take her in.” She hated it and, I believe, deeply resented having to depend on me to save her. It changed our relationship, and I don’t believe either of us ever fully recovered from the experience. I do not want history to repeat itself. I’d sooner die.