“We have two-for-one drink specials tonight… can I get you ladies a couple of Top Shelf Margaritas?”
“No.” Her face scrunches into a sardonic expression, the kind that causes me to look away and shift in my seat. The kind that begs Sharissa, our cinnamon-skinned waitress, to spit in her spinach dip. I try to make up for it by being overly friendly. Maybe Sharissa won’t spit in my food, at least.
Why can’t you be nicer to strangers, I say when we’re alone.
She’s plenty nice to people, she says, her eyes blaring at me as though I’m the one being disrespectful. She just hates change, she says. Her voice is soft. She just wants everything to stay exactly the same, always, she says.
But she doesn’t want to be left behind. She wants to be up-to-date. She tries to learn new things.
Her texting skills have markedly improved.
No, I say, you don’t just want things to stay the same. You want them to regress 25 years, and then stay the same, I say. But I’m not talking about learning how to use an iPhone. Accepting change isn’t the same as being open-minded. You’re so judgmental, I say. I can look at her face and know exactly what she’s thinking. Our waitress isn’t in the country illegally, I say.
Well, you don’t know that, she says. She has a tattoo on her wrist, she says, pointing to the location on her own. Some kind of tribal tattoo, she bets. I offer her the same expression she gave Sharissa.
Asking if you want to see a drink menu, or to open a charge account, or if you need help finding anything – those questions are all part of a job description, I say. They’re not asking those things because they’ve made an assumption about you or what kind of person you are. I sigh and shake my head. As if the very word “margarita” is offensive to her. And tattoos are NOT the mark of the devil, I say.
She giggles. Joan at church has a tattoo on her foot. She thinks it’s silly, but sometimes it looks kind of cute, she says, smiling. It’s a cross, she says, with lilies curved around it.
I give up. I have no response. All I can think is, please, God, don’t let me turn into my mother.
Sharissa arrives with lunch. I notice that she only looks at me this time. Mom tries to make me happy with a forced “Thank you.” Sharissa pretends she didn’t hear as she walks away.
I remember my mom’s frustration with my grandmother. She had no capacity for hiding it, ever. If she tried, her words came out condescending and trite, and the only result was my grandmother responding with a tired, drifting “Well,” and then sitting quietly for a bit. My mom would fume, reciting all that she’d wanted to say in her head, her breaths going in short, uneven bursts. This scenario took place pretty frequently, usually in the car. I’d be in the backseat, my innards pulling taut, because I felt my mom was too harsh, too quick to anger. I was uncomfortable with any confrontation, and I could pick up on the slightest threat of one.
I still can, and I guess that’s why her coldness towards strangers makes me so uncomfortable. I’m sure Sharissa has had a worse patron than my mother. I know I did, back in college when I worked at the mall. Within my first week, I upset a lady by smiling at her. She actually complained to the customer service desk, because she thought I was making fun of her. I was flabbergasted, but she taught me a lesson. Since my experience with that poor, self-loathing woman, I’ve always tried to think about what could be going on in the other person’s life.
My grandmother never learned to drive, and she happily sat inside her apartment all day, watching t.v. and talking on the phone for hours upon hours from the comfort of her recliner. She only left to go shop or to visit family for a few hours. She worried incessantly about thunderstorms, I-40, the music I listened to, and other ordinary pieces of life. She’d led a somewhat sheltered life, apart from the normal dramas of familial relationships, so she never outgrew her fears.
My mom has absolutely no sense of the ridiculous or the unconventional. Every single thing she does is with purpose. She knew how to be a better housekeeper at 6 years old than I am now at age 34. She could make breakfast, wash up afterward, sweep floors, dust furniture, and tidy up the whole house before school. Her uncles were drunkards, and my grandmother catered to them, giving her brothers beds and meals, because, well, they were her brothers. Her kindness towards them caused problems between she and my grandfather. I’m sure my mom witnessed all of this, and that little girl held onto all of those experiences and turned them into unfounded judgments and false generalizations. She simply never outgrew them.
When I was a kid, life was full of extremes. Both of my parents and my older brother all had healthy tempers. I was the odd one out. When things were good, they were fantastic. On-top-of-the-world amazing. When things were bad, they were nightmarish. They would say the most hurtful things to one another, and I learned way more than any kid every should about their parents. I would get this horrible empty pit in my stomach when I sensed a oncoming rift in my glorious technicolor world. Now, I’ve come a long way from that scared little girl, but I never outgrew that fear of uncomfortable situations.
You see, I am already my mother. Maybe not in what I do or say, but we share the root of our actions. The root is fear. She is afraid of how other people see her. I am afraid of how I see other people. Admittedly, I am happier with my fear than I would be if I shared hers. I feel that I can use mine to make myself a better person, but this means I have to apply this to my mom, too. I have to remember her fear, no matter how unfounded it is, when she makes a snarky comment to the waiter. I have to be patient with her when she says the Internet is useless and sends me a text message of nothing but zeroes. I have to attempt to build her up and weaken her fear. And, hopefully, in doing so, I will weaken my own by confronting hers.