A fistful of napkins

I could say it started with the woman on the plane, but that's not entirely true. It didn't even start with Mother's Day. It really started with my own mother. It's just taken me this long to realize it. Motherhood, I mean. That's where the woman on the plane comes in.

We were seatmates on a Miami-bound flight full of vacationers. The vagaries of airline reservations being what they were, the two of us were seated side by side while her husband was somewhere aft of 12A and 12B, her son somewhere to the fore. I knew he was her son when during what passes for dinner on airlines this lanky towhead strolled by our aisle and without a word reached down and took the roll off my seatmate's plate. She simply smiled and handed him a pat of butter. It was, I realized, just what a mother would do for her child.

In my haste to contemplate this revelation, I overturned my teacup. This same woman, without hesitation, reached over the armrest with a fistful of napkins and mopped up the spill. I realized this was not just what a mother did for her own children, it was what a mother did, period.

Why had I taken this attitude for granted? I thought of my own mother who, along with my dad, has spent the better part of her life overseeing our family -- four daughters spanning that divide between childhood and adulthood, between spelling quizzes and homecoming dances, between college entrance exams and mortgage applications. In between the arguments over car keys, hair dryers, and allowances I remember my mother, eternally at the ready, a mixture of traffic cop and maid extraordinaire.

She was right there during junior high school, when she drove me in our blue Corvair to my first surprise birthday party and did not stick around to see if I was really surprised. She was right there during my senior year in high school, handing me a bobby pin when I was seconds away from snipping off an errant curl that would not stay down for the yearbook picture. She was right there during my junior year abroad, when on a lonely Christmas Day in Austria I finally got my call through, and the sound of her voice at the other end of the line simply took my breath away. It seemed she was always right there.

Still, I didn't really get it. To the extent that I expected my mother to be there and she was there, I never saw motherhood as anything other than an obligation fulfilled -- largely for my benefit.

I still remember that summer of the Watergate hearings, my mother laboring her way through the bale of family laundry, the ironing board in the kitchen, the drone of the senators on the tiny black and white TV, the rhythmic thump and hiss of the iron. No way, I said as I passed from the bedroom to the garage, keys jangling in my impatient hand. No way did I ever want to be caught like that.

I know now that was no way to behave, but try telling anything to an 18-year-old.

My mother now tells me that I lead a pretty exciting life -- a graduate degree, a salary, frequent travel, opportunities to meet some of the world's high and mighty. I don't deny any of this. I suppose it was one way of concretizing that avowed ``No way.'' I'm still not crazy about ironing. But thanks in part to the woman on the plane, my concept of motherhood has changed. Before I saw only a sense of obligation, now I see a fusion of desire and necessity.

I wonder if my mother knows this? Most of the time she and I act like peers. She asks me where I get my shoes, and I ask her where to get my sofa recovered. We listen to each other talk about our days. She might be any close friend.

But she isn't and I really don't want her to be. I like her as my mother. But even more, I now appreciate her as my mother.

In the midst of my supposedly exciting life, sometimes I just get tired of it. Then I water my plants, double-lock my front door, and drive to my parents' home and ask my mother to make me a bowl of tapioca pudding.

Sometimes we look at old home movies or the cracked and ancient photo albums. But mostly I like to put on my flannel nightgown, crawl into the four-poster bed and stare out at the cold, bare trees. Downstairs I hear my mother and father battening down the hatches of the day. At that moment, I know I have come home again.

Or rather I have come to a better sense of what home -- and motherhood -- is all about. That's when I am tempted to trade my credit cards, my condominium, my frequent-flyer coupons for just a minute back in that kitchen during the summer of the Watergate hearings. I think, instead of bolting for the car, I would simply dislodge my mother's hand from the iron and, for a moment, take over the job.

But I can't go back. I have to find a new way to show my mother that my concept of her, my concept of motherhood has, well, grown up.

This Mother's Day I want to get her something really special. I think I'll iron her pillowcases. I hope she understands.

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