It was two days after my mother's 106th birthday and I called to run an idea by her.
"I have a theory."
"A theory, a perception I want to ask you about. It's something I've been noticing for the past number of years."
"How big a number? I'm trying to get used to big numbers. But before you tell me about your ideas, I have a related question for you."
"Is this the way you talk to a mother? About shooting?"
"Sorry, please, ask me your question."
"How did this happen to me?"
"What's the this?"
"To get to this number."
"Oh, you mean your age."
"What else? What other numbers do I have to think about?"
"I'd say, primarily because of DNA."
"Genetics. You had two sisters who lived to about 102. So good genes run in your family."
"Good other things too."
"I agree with that. But your getting to 106 is about that and also that you had and have an active and stimulating life. They say that contributes to longevity."
"Longevity, short-gevity, they're all the same to me as long as I feel good. And now that my birthday's over--which I do not like to celebrate, I still have vanity about my age--I can get back to feeling as good as it's possible to feel at these sky-high numbers."
She paused to take a deep breath, which I was happy to see since her breathing has been shallow in recent months. "So, already, shoot." She chuckled at that.
"Here's my theory--Remember what years ago Rona and I said to you when you turned 85, about how . . ."
"That I don't remember."
"Wait, wait, I haven't gotten to it yet. It's something we said to you about 20 years ago. How at that point in your life, rather than thinking always about other people and what they want and expect of you--something you did, devoted your life to to that point--that it was your turn. That if you wanted to you should say and do whatever was on your mind--not censor yourself or think so much about what others might expect of you--and that we would follow your lead. We would not put any pressure on you to think or say or do anything other than what you wanted and seemed right to you."
"This I remember. Rona said that when she got to be my age she'd start drinking and smoking again. That was funny."
"I'm not sure what we said influenced you at all, but it seems to me that since you were at least 90 you've been--how should I put this--feeling, acting more yourself. You speak your mind more, you do things that feel as if they are what you want to do rather than what you think others want. You speak your mind more forcefully. You seem willing to disagree more than in the past. You seem more focused on yourself than on others."
"And this is a bad thing?"
"No, no. Quite the contrary, I'm saying that this new, more assertive you is a good thing. You spent so many years . . ."
"Doing," she whispered, as if she didn't want anyone to hear, "Doing what other people expected."
"That's how it looked to me."
"Even voting the way your father told me to do. I remember that when we walked to the school to vote he would tell me to vote for this person but not that one." She chuckled again, this time it was mixed with a sigh. "As if I didn't know Republicans from Democrats. But, when I got behind the curtain, I did what I wanted."
"I'm glad to hear this. That curtain sums up what I'm trying to say--you could only be yourself, true to yourself, in private. Away from others' influence and expectations."
"I'll tell you something else."
"All the women I knew did this." She paused, and I tried not to say anything, not to fill the silence. To let her thoughts flow freely.
"That's the way we were brought up. Not to speak our minds. Not to take the lead. Not to disagree. To hold ourselves back. I had sisters who joined the garment union and Bertha marched to demand the vote. But they were criticized for this. By their husbands and even by their father. My father, who said we should have a home, a husband, children and not work, not picket."
"That was how your generation of women was supposed to behave, but . . ."
"No buts. Though this is what was expected of us, still we shouldn't have gone along with it. Some didn't but most did." Again she paused, not to draw me in but to relive those memories and disappointments.
"This included me. And when later women began to talk about liberation and became feminists still, though I was working as a teacher and even was the acting principal of my school, at home I was a wife and a mother. I loved being a mother but being that kind of wife I didn't like so much."
"You were a wonderful mother and . . ."
"I followed in the news what women half my age were doing and demanding and, though I agreed with the ones who weren't shrill or man-haters, I was too old to join them and burn my bra." At that she laughed so full-throatedly she began to cough. "And if I did," she had quickly regained her breath, "burning my bra would have caused a bonfire." Again she laughed. As did I.
"Your father." Again I heard her inhale. "He was a good man. In his way. In a traditional way. He worked hard, was responsible, accepted the family, which at first didn't accept or like him. He was born in America. All the rest of us came from Poland or Russia. I liked this about him. His being an American. I was proud of that. They thought he was arrogant for being born here and because his parents came from Austria. Can you imagine?"
"I can. Back then that was not uncommon."
"It's so different now? Where you come from? Not everyone is happy with immigrants. They forget where they came from."
"And your father was a strong man. A strong person. He made me feel secure. I still had fears from my childhood in Poland. From the pogroms. He protected me from that. Not the pogroms. Thank God we didn't have these in America. But places were restricted. Even in the Catskills. Some hotels had signs that said, No Jews-No Dogs. In my lifetime I saw those signs. But they didn't bother your father. He felt as if he belonged and because of him I belonged too. And was safe."
"I know he also could be a difficult man. Severe and harsh at times. Actually, often."
"He was never successful enough for him to feel like a true man. He saw others, including in the family, doing better and it ate away at him. It made him angry and he took a lot of that out on me. As if it was my fault. I tried to protect you from his frustrations and anger. But you know . . ." She paused this time to get control of her emotions.
"But you know, though I saw it as my role to do this--to let him be himself, to accept that and to protect you--though I did this, wanted to do it, saw it to be my responsibility to do this, it came at a price."
"I think I understand."
"But back to your theory," she had regathered herself, "which caused me to remember all this. Though my memory isn't what it used to be. You are saying that you are seeing something different in me."
"Yes. Definitely. To use a word many are using these days, you seem more authentic."
"You mean I haven’t been?"
"Not exactly. But for some years now you seem to be more your true self. If that's helpful."
"I think I understand."
Though concerned I might be pushing too hard, still I asked, "Do you agree?"
"That for the past ten to fifteen years you have been different?"
"I have to think about that for a moment. As I just said, there's a lot I forget. So it's hard to remember myself from so long ago." I sensed her struggling to recall the past. "Maybe, maybe . . ." She trailed off.
"It's OK, Mom, we can talk about this another time. I don't want to overtax you."
"You can tax me all you want. Everyone does. I just paid my quarterlies."
"I meant . . ."
"Maybe I am different. How long ago did you say this was?"
"Ten, fifteen years ago."
"And when did your father die?"
"I'm not good at remembering dates. Maybe 15, 18 years ago."
"So you see?"
"The relationship between Dad and . . ."
"Me, as you would put it, coming into my own."
"That's interesting. Really interesting. What about . . . ?"
"That's just what I was about to tell you." I'm not sure how she knew what I was going to ask. "All the girls here. It's the same thing with them. Those who came into their own. It was after their husbands . . . . They may have loved them but . . ."
"I see where you're going with this. How after . . ."
"It's a terrible thing to admit," my mother said, again after not saying anything for a moment, "Sad how they had to . . . before . . . I . . . we could . . . But yes . . . I . . . we . . ."
"So I need to amend my theory," I stepped in to interrupt those painful recollections, "To consider the reasons you became, were able to become an active feminist at an older, geriatric age," I opted for that euphemism, "I mean, not just you but some of the ladies."
"Many of the ladies. They also are different and . . ."
"And if you live long enough it can happen. Anything.”