I rested my cheek on my mother’s chest, soaking in the warmth from her sun-kissed skin. I wanted to take in every last particle of her. With my eyes closed, I could still feel the sensation of motion, as if bobbing along with the waves. Mom pulled the soft yellow towel she had sewn for me over my sandy feet, and the giant brim of her black straw hat shaded both of our faces. My mother’s slow and steady breath buoyed me up and down in a hypnotic rhythm until I was lulled to sleep. Under a flawlessly blue Idaho sky, we drifted like this for what seems like hours, a three-year-old girl and her warm mama.
We had reached the best part of the drive to our cabin, where the parched farmland of Eastern Washington finally gives way to the jutting edges of the Selkirk mountains. As our Oldsmobile rolled along, I watched the tall pines flicker by out the window as if in flip-book animation. We were headed to the lake, a place where family and simplicity still made sense, possibly even to a 13-year-old girl.
To my surprise, Mom, who bristled at any non-essential noise, directed her hand to the radio and turned the knob to 98.1FM, Oldies but Goodies—Mom’s favorite, and the only station we received up there in Northern Idaho. It was Bob Seger’s voice that came through the fuzzy speakers to break the silence. The song “Old Time Rock and Roll” holds a power over my mother I will never understand, prompting her to leap onto the dance floor at weddings at the first recognizable note. I just love the beat, she used to say; steady, dependable. Boring, I thought. In that moment, with the sun in her eyes and the cool of the lake awaiting us, that song became Mom’s anthem.
My mom, who hates the wind the way most people hate fingernails on a chalkboard, rolled her window all the way down and stuck her head out into the breeze. She began singing and thumping her hand on the wood-paneling of our station wagon. I was mortified, as if I were watching my sweater-and-jeans-clad mother prance around in a miniskirt two sizes too small. I could hardly contain the urge to cover her up, to sit her back down with her lists and her disapproving head-shakes and sighs.
When my two older sisters joined Mom in her singing, my whole body recoiled. I felt a hot mass of rejection lodge itself inside my throat. I wanted to shut this whole thing down. I wanted to be let in. I wanted to punish my mom for my impenetrability to that moment. The lump in my throat wouldn’t let me sing along with my family, but it didn’t stop me from lashing out.
“Mom,” I yelled over her singing, “why are you so different on vacation than in real life?” I was surprised by how harsh, how hateful my words sounded. I ached to take them back, to laugh them off, but it was too late.
Mom stopped singing, and the playful light behind her eyes crumbled into laser-like shards. Everything else dropped away—the music, the wind in my hair, the smell of the lake in the distance, my sisters on either side of me. It was just the two of us, facing each other in an unfamiliar arena. I waited.
“Lisa,” she said, “This is who I am. You don’t know me at all.”
The ease and agility with which my mother slung her words at me made me feel as if she’d been carrying that neat little package of eleven syllables around with her for an eternity, polishing and sharpening their points, saving them for just the right moment. They were spring-loaded, delivered in staccato, and their intensity scared me. Trying to uphold my end of the mother-daughter bargain, I fumbled for a retort, but nothing seemed funny or clever.
Through the trees I felt the sun warming my face, and I thought, knowing one’s mother is supposed to feel like this, like steady warmth. My nose began to tingle with the threat of tears. Mom was the one who had failed to understand me. I was the child. This was my moment to twist and writhe with growing pains, to succumb to the angst of adolescence. She was the adult. She didn’t get to be the unknown. And yet, the truth of her words sat in the middle of my chest like a dark animal of dread.
I knew her. She had been there when I was three, napping with me in the lazy afternoon sun, my damp cheek soaking in the warmth of her skin. And although I couldn’t admit it to myself, I knew she was also in the car with me then, at that moment. I might not have been willing to let that softer mother reappear again after all these years to the voice of Bob Seger, but I did know her. How could she say that I didn’t?
How could she give up on me?
As we rounded the bend and pulled down the dusty driveway to the cabin, the scent of pines and sweet sap overpowered me. I tore down the path to the beach, and met the gaze of the clear green water. This lake, this blueprint of my childhood, this keeper of my secrets—it knows me, I thought. Just as I knew it. At that moment, I needed to be immersed in that bracing mountain water more than anything else in the world, to be cleansed of sweat and shame and regret. I yanked off my shorts and dove under the water as if my life depended on it, propelling myself down to the cool depths.
As I glanced back up at the surface, I could make out the distorted orb of the sun, shining through so many layers of air and water to reach me. Way down here at the sandy bottom of the lake the sun still found me, and under all that water I was safe and understood and whole.
When I emerged, my mom was there, waiting. She handed me a towel, the same oversized yellow towel she had sewn for me a decade earlier, rough and threadbare from wear, but still smelling of warm sand and summer. She wrapped me up like she used to do when I was a girl, and I rested my head on her shoulder, just for a moment.
It would take me a few more years to rise up to the surface of myself, to trust that the steady warmth of my mother’s love stretched wide enough to cover someone with long legs and complicated emotions; a person who was no longer her little girl. But when I surfaced, the soft mamma from those afternoon snuggles was still there, waiting for me, underneath all that hardness I had thrust upon her over the years.
My mom and I sat side-by-side in matching blue beach chairs, watching my three-year-old daughter frolic in the waves. She’s a fish, just like you! Mom said. Eventually my daughter succumbed to the water’s chill and climbed into my lap. I wrapped her in the new velvety blue towel my mom had made her, and she rested her face on my chest, all warm from the Idaho sun. As she closed her eyes, she whispered drowsily, “You’re such a warm mama. How are you always so warm?” I caught my mother’s eye and answered for both of us. “Because that’s how mamas are,” I said. That’s just how mammas are.