Mothers and Daughters and “Lady Bird”

In a crucial scene from the hit indie film “Lady Bird,” a high school senior is shopping with her mother in a thrift store for a prom dress. The girl emerges from a dressing room wearing one of her selections, looks at herself in the mirror and says, “I love it.” Her mother—who has been standing just outside the dressing room door with an armful of other dresses—looks at her daughter with a critical eye and says, “Is it too pink?”

Crushed, the girl says, “Why can’t you say I look nice?” Then, after she has retreated to the safety of the dressing room, she adds, “I wish that you liked me.” The mother, not hearing her daughter’s precise words, responds swiftly, “Of course I love you.” Still in the dressing room, the daughter replies, “But do you like me?”

Thinking about the question, the mother pauses, then replies through the dressing room door, “I want you to be the very best version of yourself that you can be.” The girl comes out of the dressing room, looks at her mother and says, “What if this is the best version?”

Source: “Lady Bird” photograph by A24 Films via EPK TV. Used with permission.

My high school years were decades ago, and my mother has been dead since 2009. But as I watched that scene in the movie theater, I was propelled back at warp speed to my own senior year of high school and my contentious relationship with my own mother.

My brother, who was a year ahead of me in school, was off at his first year of college. My father, who sold library and laboratory furniture to colleges and universities across our state, was constantly on the road and was usually gone during the week. As a result, my mother and I were alone in the house for much of my senior year—a recipe for domestic disaster. Until then, I had not realized how much of an affable buffer my brother had been between my mother and me during my father’s frequent trips.

My mother was a sharply intelligent, high-strung, complicated woman whom I did not begin to understand until I returned home after decades away to help care for her in the last six years of her long life. I was in my late forties then, and—although I had come to admire much about her through the years, including her love of opera, her devotion to liberal political ideals and her barbed Irish wit—I was still a little afraid of her. I am thankful to my core that I had those last years with her; I think we became friends as well as mother and daughter during that time. But when I was in high school I often viewed my mother with fear and hostility; my relationship with her then could best be described as “guarded.”

The heroine of “Lady Bird” is a smart but cynical teenager who has abandoned her given name of Christine for the moniker Lady Bird, which—she is careful to explain at every opportunity—she chose herself. Lady Bird is much more openly hostile, and even hateful, to her mother and her other family members than I ever was. I never became so frustrated with my mother in the middle of a conversation that I threw myself out of the moving car my mother was driving, as Lady Bird did. Nor would I have written “F— You Mom” on the cast of the arm I broke as a result of that impetuous decision, as Lady Bird did.

But other aspects of Lady Bird’s voyage through her senior year of high school had nearly precise parallels with my own less-than-perfect senior year. Lady Bird discovered that she loved acting, and she was keenly disappointed when she wasn’t picked for a plum role in the school play. She hated her math class, and she could not bring herself to muster any enthusiasm for studying that subject. She longed to go to an elite college far from her home town, but she was unwilling to use her smarts to get the grades she needed to be admitted to those schools.

In my case, check, check and check. For me, the simmering feud between my mother and me came to a head in the spring of my senior year, when my trigonometry teacher called my mother to report that I had stopped turning in my homework and was not paying the least bit of attention in class, and he feared I was not going to pass.

My instructor was an earnest young man fresh out of teacher’s college who was completely unprepared to deal with a student with my level of indifference to his subject—especially when I had earned better-than-average grades in trig in the fall semester. When my mother angrily confronted me about this phone call, my first reaction was not embarrassment or remorse, but concealed outrage that the teacher had gone behind my back and called my mother without first telling me he was going to do so.

And never mind that, not long before he called my mother, the teacher had stopped by my desk in class one afternoon when the other students were diligently working on problems and asked me in a concerned whisper if everything was all right. I don’t remember what I said to him, but I know I didn’t confess my real feelings about his class. It’s quite likely I responded with a teenage shrug and a non-committal, conversation-ending, “Sure.”

Until that point, I had been an honor roll student in high school, somehow managing to pass my previous math classes even though the subjects I truly loved were English and foreign languages. But trigonometry was a subject I both loathed and was certain I would never use. My ambition was to be a writer, and as far as I knew none of the writers I admired had a working knowledge of trigonometry. By the spring of my senior year, I felt just as Lady Bird did when she said to her best friend, Julie, “I think we’re done with the learning portion of high school.”

Like Lady Bird’s frazzled mom, my own mother had a full-time job—as an executive secretary in a small advertising agency. With my father on the road so much, she had to keep our household organized and under control while working 40 hours a week, which didn’t leave much time for the sympathetic understanding I might have craved from her. At the conclusion of our row about my poor performance in trigonometry, neither one of us backed down. I maintained I was incapable of understanding trig, while she recalled the results of a test I had taken in grade school that she said proved I had a high IQ and thus I could understand and pass that or any other subject.

When school ended and I got my final grades, I learned that, in a way, I had won our little war. I had indeed failed the spring semester of trigonometry, a dubious victory that bumped me from the honor roll and was immortalized by large red circles around the red failing grades in the trig column on my report card (which, yes, I still have).

Ironically, my grade for the fall semester was high enough that, when averaged with my low spring semester grade, I could have had a passing grade for the year. But in my high school attitude counted for a lot. If I had earned my failing grade in the first semester but then pulled myself together and earned a passing grade in the second semester, I would have been seen as a motivated, come-from-behind student and I would have passed the course. But sullen indifference in the spring semester was considered unacceptable. When I learned about this punitive policy, I was even more rebelliously proud of my academic fall from grace.

By then I had been accepted to college in a big city 100 miles from home, and for whatever reason the college did not rescind its offer when it received my shabby final transcript. Like Lady Bird, I left my home state to go to college; as she said of her home town of Sacramento, “I wanted more.”

I lived away from the area where I grew up for the next three decades, including a 14-year stint in Honolulu—thousands of miles from my family’s home in Pennsylvania. My mother and I never talked about my stormy senior year of high school. Unlike Lady Bird’s mom, my mother did not draft a series of heartfelt letters to me when I left for college, and I never called home to thank her for everything she did for me, as Lady Bird did in her first few days at college in New York.

But my mother proved to be my champion in her own way, offering encouragement, suggestions and—yes—criticism across the miles and the years, often via beautifully written, crisply typed letters she would compose after work on her office typewriter. In spite of her encouragement and periodic praise, however, I could not shake the sense that I was a disappointment to her, that I had never become, as Lady Bird’s mother put it, the “best version” of myself.

I married a man who was completely wrong for me; we swiftly divorced and I never remarried. I couldn’t picture myself as a mother, and so I never had children—which I suspect broke my mother’s heart, as she was crazy about babies. I became a journalist, living my life from deadline to deadline in whatever job I had, and my mother worried constantly that I was working too hard. I lived a continent and an ocean away from her for more than a decade.

And yet, when I quit my journalism job in Honolulu and returned to the area where I had grown up to help care for my mother at the end of her life, her criticisms of me ceased once and for all. She still worried about me, but she was above all profoundly grateful that I had come back home. A few weeks ago, I came across a card she gave me in 2003, for the first birthday I celebrated in Pennsylvania after my return home.

Her once-forceful handwriting had already been distorted by the Parkinson’s disease she had been fighting for five years, but I could still clearly read her words. “Dear Susan,” she wrote, “Happy Birthday, with lots of love to my wonderful daughter. How lucky can a mom get?” Underneath the printed “Wishing you a wonderful year!” message on the card, she added, “…and a whole wonderful future. You deserve it. Lots of love, Mom.”

Although my mother has been dead for more than eight years, I still miss her terribly. I still worry that I did not live up to the hopes she had for me, and there are times when I feel physically ill that I lived so far away from her for so many years. But finding this card from her was like feeling her hand on my forearm, giving me an affectionate, reassuring pat.

Perhaps I never became the best version of myself that I could be; perhaps my mother’s vision for me always exceeded my abilities and my grasp. But knowing that, at the end of her life, my mother thought I was wonderful and felt lucky to have me for a daughter makes me think the version of myself she saw was one that met with her approval. And isn’t approval, along with love, what daughters want most from their mothers?

Copyright © 2017 by Susan Hooper

Photograph from “Lady Bird” by A24 Films via EPK.TV. Used with permission.

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