1. When your daughter calls at the last minute to say she wants to visit you for the July 4th weekend, don’t say, “This is so unexpected! But I’m having people over!” Act like you can accommodate her impulsivity; the way you over-serve, food won’t be the issue. Instead, say you would love to see her. Then if you choose to spread guilt like you spread butter—edge to edge on morning toast—by mentioning how long it’s been, over six months since her father’s tombstone unveiling, you won’t see her eyes roll, though you may feel her silent groan rumbling all the way from her apartment in Philadelphia.
2. Her arrival time is a guesstimate. Yes, she plans to wake up early in order to arrive by dinner but, because she doesn’t have to, probably won’t. Once out of bed she’ll need coffee, and a shower. After caffeine guns her engines, she must clean the guinea pig’s cage and feed it, pay some past due bills online, get lost in a morass of YouTube links. There may be a neighbor in her apartment building whose beloved cat died a week ago, who will need checking on before driving off into holiday traffic. She has told you before: since her divorce two years ago, the people living in her apartment building are like family to her, which she would like you to hear as accept me for who I am.
3. In anticipation of her arrival, transform your house into a home in which she will feel comfortable, not inferior. Leave a Snickers wrapper on your arts and crafts sofa table, litter your expensive Oriental rug with sandals and books, dump a load of clean laundry on the sofa to remain unfolded till her arrival. Since her last visit she will have uncovered things about you in therapy that may frost your daughter’s heart, not warm it, but dirty dishes left on the granite island will help begin the thaw.
4. When her car turns down the long driveway and her road-fogged eyes find you, for a moment she will wonder who that white-haired lady is. No longer will you be the multi-hued mother of memory; your small head atop a cream-colored palette and wide hips will make you seem vulnerable as a lone bowling pin. Brackish grievances will evaporate into misty-eyed compassion—until your beckoning brings her back. Stop waving! The gesture will make it obvious that you are already trying too hard. Better to remain inside the house waiting for her to knock. It will give her a chance to relieve pent- up road rage with several deep-centering breaths.
5. When she enters your house, hug her but for three seconds only—quickly and without rib-cracking pressure. The embrace should be firm enough to transmit your love but not your aggravation because two hours late, you ended up eating alone and now the baked chicken is cold. Don’t mention the dent in the side of her car, your first Camry bequeathed to her (along with her father’s stamp collection) when you traded up for the glossy cherry one with a moon roof.
6. Together in the living room, don’t gape at her the way you did when she came back from her year at the Sorbonne, a born-again Marxist wrapped in a Palestinian Liberation scarf. Back then your eyes transmitted horror as your words stammered that she looked so—so—European. Your raking gaze makes her self-conscious. No, she didn’t apply makeup before leaving her apartment, and yes, she has been getting enough sleep. Try not to overcompensate for her lack of communication by draping her with compliments about her new “cute” look, because at forty, cute will be cut from her lexicon along with words like bikini, married, and security. Don’t stand posed akimbo in your J. Jill skort and perfectly pressed Talbot blouse, admiring her pinkish white shirt and stub-heeled sandals, asking if they are new; without a second income she will only be able to afford Salvation Army prices on discount Wednesdays. Yes, she did receive the generous gift card you sent her and her teenage daughter at Hanukkah, but she gave it to her daughter, who took it, and then the bus, to the mall.
7. She will be grateful for the meal you have waiting. When she sits down to eat, sit across the dining table to keep her company, but try not to look like Pierrot the sad clown. Remember, beneath that cantankerous veneer she still cares about what you think. If you stare at her in the same way as when you pass a homeless person, she will see her own disappointments in your glassy hazel-blues. Instead, beam gladly, make small talk as she gnaws the meat off chicken legs and sips her Diet Coke—but don’t giggle while reminding her about that college summer she returned home announcing that only barbarians ate meat, and diet drinks were a capitalist plot to poison the poor.
8. Subjects she won’t mind talking about: Begin by asking about her job. There may no longer be a husband or a house, but she has a career she loves. You made sure of that with your “don’t do what I did” advice (although, at the time, the delivery felt more like a scolding). She will tell you how she managed to get one of her ESL students into college even though she could barely speak English. She will tell you how she borrowed a neighbor’s minivan and took six of her “kids” to the beach after school ended, and how the one from Myanmar hugged her when he tasted boardwalk fries. She will tell you if you want to listen. When the phone rings ignore it. Disregard the impulse to turn down her sheets. Talking will relax her. So will two Coronas. With lime. Have one yourself.
She might want to talk about her father. When she asks whether you think about him, don’t chitchat about your volunteer work with the Rotary and the other power-crazed retirees who sit on the board with you at Jewish Family Services. Your daughter will want to know that even though he was a difficult husband, sometimes you miss him too. She may snort that it’s a good thing he didn’t live to see a democrat get elected mayor. At the time she cried, but now she may want to laugh recalling how he mowed the front lawn shirtless, his indulged, grass-splattered stomach exposed for her high school friends driving by to see. Belly-laugh, forgetting to cover your mouth with your hand, and then talk with her about memories: the amusing, the uncomfortable; they are more important than which hors d’oeuvres you will be serving at the party.
9. Topic to stay away from: her ex-husband. Don’t. She knows you loved him. She will be tempted to break this spell he cast upon you years ago, when you swooned over his stuffed sea bass, by revealing to you his secret porn addiction. Don’t place on your fireplace mantel the birthday card he sent you next to the one she sent you. Her ears will throb with rage when she sees that her daughter signed his card too. To retaliate, she will tell you your nice Jewish ex-son-in-law is converting to Hinduism and planning a trip to India, not Israel, adding for good measure that he’s a month behind on child support.
10. Try to stay up with her until she is ready for bed. If you excuse yourself early, saying you need a good night’s rest for the party the next day, understand that as soon as you close your bedroom door, your daughter will head into the downstairs bathroom with the full- length mirror to take inventory of her aging body. Alone with the mirror on the wall, she will panic when she notices a second darkening spot in the loose flesh below her eye, trying to rub it out with a licked finger. Under your bathroom’s bright recessed lights, she will gaze at every part of her body with a mixture of revulsion and optimism. She will lift her skirt to examine her still slim thighs, raise her arms and watch her batwings flap, inspect the stretch marks on her stomach that never faded as you insisted they would. Distressed to the edge of sanity by this CSI assessment, she will find herself back in the den self-medicating in front of the TV with shows like Creatures of the Swamp or 1000 Ways to Die.
11. In the morning if you find her asleep on the couch, allow the clashing and scraping as you unload the dishwasher to rouse her the way it did when her teenage-self used to fall asleep in front of the TV. Let her slip back unnoticed into her old bedroom, now your crafting room where you make quilts of her old Halloween costumes. When she finally emerges sometime before noon, blinking and shading her eyes in your sun-drenched kitchen, ignore her until she drinks coffee. Once sleep has been removed and she rinses her mug clean again, ask if she slept well but refrain from pointing to the peace-sign pillow-rut carved into the side of her face.
12. Let her shower first. And when she’s out, don’t mention how long she took; your shower massage is a scarce pleasure that doesn’t make her feel guilty or fat. If you comment on your increasing water bills and shrinking pension, she will wonder how a woman with such a safe life can manage to find something to worry about.
13. When you go upstairs to freshen up, let her secretly exit to the backyard with a cigarette. Don’t spy through your bedroom window. When she comes back inside, don’t sidle up to give her one of your delicate sniffs. Yes, she knows you think smoking is disgusting, and yes, she gave it up before her daughter was born, but the divorce made her anxious. Limiting herself to three cigarettes a day, she will crave those cigarettes like she craved Big Macs during her pregnancy, demonstrating yet again her subtle self-destructive tendencies.
14. Ask your daughter to help prepare the meal for your guests. Let her chop the salad and shuck the corn; these are things she can’t burn. Find time to sit with her on the back porch. Work together, just the two of you and the pile of corn between. Wasn’t it you who taught her to snap off the end, peel back the rough protective leaves and vulnerable silk until there was nothing left but naked cob? But it turned out to be only corn and not some great metaphor. She will wonder why it was so easy for you to do what people expected of you while the work of revealing yourself was left undone. Other wife-essentials you taught her: how to make hospital-bed corners with a flat sheet, how to concoct a cold-curing chicken soup, and how to settle for a man who couldn’t give her what she needs. In this torpid moment, don’t get distracted by a house finch crying somewhere in the trees behind you. Disclose a secret about your own marriage (the one she presumed years ago) and then tell her you were never brave as she.
15. When the guests arrive, allow your daughter to greet them at the door. Don’t bristle when she tells whomever she wants she is divorced; unlike in your day, everyone knows life’s not perfect. Allow her to flirt with your friend’s handsome son even though she used to babysit him. Don’t try to drag her away from a conversation with Little Bobby, now Mr. Bedroom Eyes, to talk with your friend the retired school principal because you think talking to him will somehow augment her career; her flirtations with Mr. Bedroom Eyes may be the only fun she will have all day. No worry when you see her taking a third beer from the cooler; her frozen smile is signaling that the memory of this man as a baby in diapers is secretly ruining her evening. Later, allow her to walk alone to sit and think on the stone bench at the far edge of your property—but rush to save her when you see your widower friend with the spreading potato nose has joined her.
16. Once the guests leave to enjoy the fireworks down by the river, ask your daughter to help clean up. As you place bottles in the recycling and leftover steak in the fridge, you may inquire whether she’s seeing anyone. She will regale you with anecdotes about Internet dating: the guy with the sixth toe who wore sandals anyway; the one who wanted to have sex with her and (oh, surprise!) his girlfriend at the same time. Your daughter will pause. Her voice will roughen when she tells you she doesn’t believe in her ability to be in love anymore, which is why she is visiting you this weekend. There was one guy, she will say, she thought it was going somewhere, but at the last minute she got cold feet. That’s why she is leaning over the granite island in the middle of your kitchen instead of lying on Bahamian beaches, digging her toes into warm sand, letting him nuzzle her neck. She will say how she tries planting seeds, tending to new relationships with clear-eyed water and sanguine sun; then, how with her history of disappointments, she fears her soil may be toxic. Reassure her with your arsenal of hackneyed expressions: “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger,” and “Everything happens for a reason.” At this point, all encouragement is welcome.
17. Later in the den while watching The History Channel, you may ask about your granddaughter, who is staying at the other grandparents’ house for the weekend. You may say as many nice things about your granddaughter as you wish, because despite her complaints about toddlers, your daughter takes consummate pleasure in watching her daughter transform into a woman, in the same way you should tell her you took pleasure in watching yours. As you discuss openly, joyfully, the aliveness and confidence of the young girl, you will feel the invisible cord connecting all women, the thrum of female
expertise and fluency you share. The perfect blossom, ignorant of its own beauty, as it opens itself to the sun for the first time; this experience crossing rooms, spanning decades. Smile at each other while thinking of her girl, of your girl, of yourselves and each other, at that moment when you stood on life’s fault line, seconds before insecurity cracked you open. Allow your eyes to fix on hers across the room. This connection will be the memorial her heart will conjure long after you’re gone. Then, as the heady silence lifts, agree you are both sleepy. Rise to go to bed.
18. When your landline rings the next morning and your daughter answers it, don’t get excited when you hear the baritone through the receiver. It’s only your ex-son-in-law phoning from an airport tarmac, informing her of the obsessive number of calls he’s received from their daughter, who is agonizingly bored at his parents’ house. She will find her phone at the bottom of her purse and discover it’s run out of juice. Being unavailable to her daughter unsettles her. She will search her luggage for a charger until realizing she left it at home (which is where she says she needs to go so she can rescue her daughter). Cosseted by your heartfelt conversation the night before, she will say she is disappointed to have to leave but will urge you to visit her and your granddaughter before the summer’s end.
19. While she’s upstairs packing her things, place washed fruit and a bottle of cold water in a plastic bag on the bench by the front door for her trip home. Decide you don’t want to make her feel guilty for leaving too quickly, too soon. Keep your chin up and a laissez- faire smile on your face. Walk her out to her car, allowing comfortable silence to stroll between. When she turns to look into your glossy eyes, your daughter will see herself as your “little shadow,” that five-year-old chatterbox who told you she loved you fifty times a day. As you both stand next to her car where the journey home begins, tell her that in six months everything will be better. Take hold of her shoulders. Look her straight in the eye. Promise. In that moment what triumphs aren’t the aversions or deceptions; what prevails is that you are her mother, and despite all the other promises you have made but could not keep, she will believe you. Linger in a hug for as long as it takes.
20. As she backs her car down the driveway, begin to putter in the garden as if you have already forgotten she was there. But in that final moment when her car turns onto the road but before she drives away, catch her eye, hold up your hand, smile.