October 22, 2014

Mysterious. Intense. Beautiful. Earth-shattering.

I finally received the Mother of the Year Award. I'd been campaigning for about 18 years. There was only one contestant (me), yet every year I waited, and no plaque came. I dropped a subtle hint every time I made a 10 p.m. poster board-and-marker run for the class project (due tomorrow) or picked out an outfit that didn’t fall into the category of "Uh, thanks, Mom … did you save the receipt?" I was forever losing ground. I needed only to mention that I was not driving if they missed the bus for the third consecutive day, and ZAP: "You’ll never be Mother of the Year."

Then, long after I’d given up, there it was: artful, beautiful, suitable for framing. As much as I choose to believe he worships the ground beneath my feet, this was not the work of my son. It was a daughter thing. All grown up and beyond such silliness, perhaps Sarah recognized, as only a daughter can, a mother’s yearning to be validated, not by the outside world, but by the ones she is genetically charged to nurture and protect.

In honor of Mother’s Day, Gulfshore Life set out to explore that mysterious, intense, terrible, beautiful, imperfect, perfect, earth-shattering, absolutely unbreakable connection between mothers and their daughters.

Where better to start than with a female psychologist? As it turns out, the answer to that question is "anywhere but there." Just use the phrase "mothers and daughters" in the same breath with "magazine article" and the therapist suddenly remembers she’s late to the airport for an extended trip to Tanzania. So we went directly to the source: some actual mothers and daughters around town, and a few tucked into the branches of my family tree.

I’m Not Mad. I Just Hate You.

Bookstores these days have whole aisles labeled "teen angst," and those seven years can seem a lifetime. Miraculously, as space expands between then and now, a mother’s brain is hot-wired to soften painful memories, not unlike that wonder drug they use in colonoscopies. Not that I’m comparing the mother/teen daughter relationship to a colonoscopy, although Dr. Roni Cohen-Sandler comes close in her popular book I’m Not Mad, I Just Hate You! So does clinical psychologist Dr. Anthony E. Wolf in his book Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall?

My precious niece, Hannah, could have been a poster child for these books. A gorgeous 22-year-old, she recently graduated summa cum laude from community college and is pursuing a degree in finance. Six years ago, nobody—least of all she—would have believed it possible:

"I now realize the strength it must have taken my mom to constantly hear me tell her how much I hated her, and a ton of other horrible things, and to make the decisions she did. Though it felt hurtful at the time, she knew it would be best in the end. We are very close now, and her strength during my teenage years is the thing I admire most about her."

Lorri and Taryn Benson

"When Taryn was born, I was overwhelmed with such love for her. She was breathtaking—the light of my world. Our family of five has always been close. Then she changed. You think you know your child, but you begin to doubt your own judgment. Is she a picky eater, or is there a problem? When I discovered the awful secret that she had an eating disorder, I felt betrayed by the universe because we had tried to do everything right for our family. Hiding bulimia is all about deception and manipulation, and I took it very personally. Weathering this crisis together, and writing Distorted, a book about our struggle, has made us closer than ever."

Changing Places

Today’s extended life expectancies have added a new dimension to the mother-daughter waltz: the subtle transition as daughters begin to assume roles of advisor, nurturer and finally, caretaker. Florida Gulf Coast University assistant professor Lyn Millner and Matlacha artist/gallery owner Leoma Lovegrove are experiencing those transitions.

Lyn and Nancy

"My mom and I are super-connected. She can call me from a shop in Mississippi to tell me about a great pair of slacks she thinks I’d like, and I’ll laugh, because just that day I bought those same slacks. Last year I started feeling a burning in my left breast, and soon afterward she called to say she’d been diagnosed with cancer in her left breast. After she and my dad divorced, she joined Match.com and confided in me about many of the men she met. She married one of them, but it soon soured, and she was devastated. I became the mother and she the daughter as I held her hand through that painful time. Now I’m the married, settled one, while she, a teenager at 73, is dining, dancing and playing the field."

Leoma and Rosemary

"At 86, my mother can’t see 100 percent anymore, and her memory is quickly fading. It was tough taking her that first day to adult day care. Rosemary and I are very different—I’m conservative, and she’s liberal. We both lean toward creative clothing, but I’m casual, and she throws on the dangly earrings and sequins. But our mutual lifelong love of art and music, and the hardships we shared, made us close. She’s my champion. She lived for 65 years in an abusive marriage and, at 83, finally got the courage to walk out the door with only her purse and driver’s license. When she started playing the accordion in my gallery, people kept giving her money, so I finally gave her a bucket. Last year she raised more than $1,800 in her bucket and gave it all to the Salvation Army."

Heart to Heart

Fran and Kyra

"What can a mother of a new daughter possibly have to tell you about the mother-daughter relationship?" one gentleman friend wonders. We asked Naples mother Fran Bussing to respond.

"My husband and I already had a wonderful son. Though my biological window had closed, I felt in my heart there was room for another child. After much prayer and research, we found an adoption agency that works with orphanages in many Third World countries. Our hearts led us to choose an older child who might otherwise be left in the system. Many, many things fell into place, leading us to a Russian orphanage that looked like the one in Little Orphan Annie. I remember every single second of that miraculous day. They brought her out in her orphanage gown. Her hair was closely cropped. I could not catch my breath. She was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. This was my daughter! It was like a birthing experience. She got into our car and all the Russian mamas were waving from the windows of the orphanage. But she was looking at me. She never looked back. She’s 13 now, and I’m still in awe. She still delights my heart and soul every day."

Ginny and Dorothy

Naples Realtor Ginny Lee has earned a comfortable life her mother never knew, but she credits her mom for the woman and mother she became.

"My mother was divorced when she was very young because my father went to jail for breaking her arm. She had to put us four children in an orphanage until she could support us. Besides being a divorced woman, which was like wearing the scarlet letter, she hadn’t even graduated from high school. 

"She worked hard to get us out of the orphanage, rising up through a large advertising agency, handling several prominent accounts.

"I love my mom, God rest her soul, and I hope that just a little of her is still in me. My daughter is equally amazing. Her first husband died of melanoma six months after the wedding. Over the years, she has raised 17 foster children and five of her own. When I fly out to visit them this month, we’ll do our favorite girly thing: We’ll all go out for pedicures."

The Mani-Pedi Connection

For 21st century women, there does seem to be a spiritual connection between love, herbal tea and pampered toes. Whether it’s foot rubs at home with a rented movie, a pedicure at the mall or a full day of indulgence, "spa" is No. 1 on the mother-daughter bonding agenda.

Sarah and I love the peaceful cocoon of a spa. We like to arrive early and envelop ourselves in velvety quiet. Even if we just have massages, we’ve learned to stretch out the experience for hours. At the Ritz-Carlton Spa, Naples, she books the new holistic Eco-Luxe Facial with all-natural products for sensitive skin, while I go for body smoothing. Before and after, we recline on cushy white chaises, read magazines, detox in the sauna, slather on fragrant lotions and meditate. She sees my empty cup and brings me fresh honeyed tea and some fruit. Everything’s in slow motion.

At the Pink Shell Resort’s Aquagëne Spa, Fort Myers Beach, we lunch lazily at poolside, then slip into the teal and green oasis of the spa lounge. We sip cucumber water and await our massages. As she drifts to sleep in the too-big terry robe, I see once again my vulnerable little five-year-old daughter, and can’t resist running motherly fingers through her curls. Twenty years melt away. And the treatments haven’t even begun.

It Seemed a Good Idea at the Time

"It was her 16th birthday. The pizzas I had delivered to school for lunch were well received, but not so much the six-piece brass ensemble from the Barron High School marching band blaring Happy Birthday." —Name Changed, Witness Protection Program

"There was that morning at Girl Scout camp when we moms came out for the flag ceremony, only there was no flag, just mom-size underwear flapping up there. Not cute little underwear, I might add." —Bonny Eads

"We were in the restroom at JFK airport around Christmas; 20 people in line. My 83-year-old mother got out her harmonica and started playing Joy to the World. There was stunned silence until a woman came dancing out of her stall singing, ‘… let heaven and nature sing …’ " —Leoma Lovegrove

"I made Kyra sit still for hours on end wearing frilly pinafores as I tried to paint my idea of the perfect portrait. She’s pretty, but she’s definitely not a ‘girly girl.’ It was a terrible mistake to portray her in a way that didn’t suit her at all." —Fran Bussing

Kyra responds: "I’m so proud of my mom’s art. We made a home art studio for her, and (giggling) there are at least seven paintings of me in there."

My Sarah

"She was the reserved one in class, but she wore a purple floppy hat and gold sequined Doc Martens boots to middle school and danced in silver sequins at high school football games. She picked oranges alongside migrant farmworkers and helped spearhead the University of Florida Student Farmworker Alliance. She tutors children in danger of falling through the cracks. She makes gourmet feasts for her friends, and professionally she raises huge amounts of money to help change lives. If I squinch up my eyes, I can see my mother who died so young—the grandmother Sarah never got to meet—so pure of heart and so willing to see only the good in everyone. She’s all grown up, capable and wise. Nevertheless, in my eyes she is forever my baby girl, who raises her little arms to be picked up and says, ‘Hold you!’ " —Karen T. Bartlett

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