Mid July 1975 my family was driving to Brooklyn, NY, to celebrate the Rite of Ordination of a distant cousin we had never met. Having turned 13 a few months earlier I was enjoying the rights and privileges of my own upgrade to teenager, which included my mother sitting next to me in the back seat of the family station wagon. For the long car ride she had volunteered to hem the green and white–checked peplum top I’d started sewing in a summer school class but hadn’t quite finished. I held out the pinned-up hem for her as she sewed with both hands, taking out pins one by one from the fabric and putting them between pursed lips as she went along. The twangy country-pop song “I’m not Lisa,” sung by Jessi Colter, came on the radio.
I’m not Lisa, my name is Julie.
Lisa left you years ago.
“Oh, I like this one,” mumbled my mother through the splay of pins. I remember feeling mildly amused that my mother knew of—let alone liked— a popular song. Up until then I had considered her musical tastes to be old-fashioned, as out-of-date as the Queen Ann–style furniture she bought for our living room. Family music at the Wraga household consisted of folk groups like The Mamas and the Papas and The Seekers, as well as Broadway show albums. We were fluent in the lyrics of Hello Dolly, Oklahoma, Funny Girl, My Fair Lady, and Oliver, although I don’t remember my parents ever going to an actual Broadway performance (they probably thought the cost of a Broadway show to be an extravagance). I loved those songs and the other groups we listened to on a regular basis, but they belonged to my parents’ generation. I’m Not Lisa and other popular songs I listened to on the radio were my music. Were my musical tastes converging with my mother’s? The possibility felt like a lifting of the veil between girlhood and womanhood; I was catching up to her world.
The hem was finished, and I smoothed out the fabric in front of me to admire her handiwork. “My eyes are not blue,” sang my brown-eyed mother, “but mine won’t leave you.”
I had experienced similar mergings throughout that academic year. In fact, seventh grade had felt like one long turning point. The night before Thanksgiving 1974, I had gotten my first period. After dinner I had a really bad stomachache that wouldn’t go away. I somehow “knew” it was not a stomachache. My mother knew, too. She led me to the family room couch and prepared a hot water bottle for my crampy abdomen. My younger sister remembers feeling a little jealous of the attention. When my period finally arrived, my mother instructed me on how use the ginormous pads of the time, threading them through the front and back metal teeth of a sanitary belt. The next day my paternal grandmother, who was a guest at Thanksgiving dinner, took me aside and said she was surprised to hear I had gotten my period; she thought I would be a late bloomer. Cringing, I realized that my mother had told her. She had similarly told my father, who made another benign comment while passing me in the upstairs hallway. What felt like an assault on privacy then, I can now also see as acknowledgment of an important rite of passage.
This became apparent several months later, when my mother, Ellen, and I were cleaning up the kitchen after dinner. As we worked and chatted, it came out that Ellen and I both had our periods. My mother suddenly leaned in, confiding in a whisper that she, too, had just gotten her period. What’s more, it had been late: she had been worried she might be pregnant. “You still do that?” I asked incredulously, even though I had only the vaguest idea of what that was. My mother guffawed at my response, with head thrown back and high-beam smile revealing her two gold fillings. The pleasure in sharing a confidence with two of her daughters was evident in her shining eyes. I felt like a member of a secret club.
My mother’s guilty pleasure was watching afternoon talk shows like the Mike Douglas Show and Dinah!. One day she informed me that the musical comedy act the Hudson brothers were going to be guests on Dinah!. I had a serious teen crush on the youngest of the brothers, Brett, after seeing the group fill in for the Sonny and Cher show the previous summer. In one of their recurring sketches, Brett played a cocky but amazingly cute city kid named Chucky Margolis. During the chat-show banter on Dinah!, one of the brothers declared sarcastically that “Chucky Margolis is gay!” The audience broke out in laughter. Watching along with my mother and sisters, I had no idea what “gay” meant. Judging from the audience response, however, I assumed it was something funny and/or clever. So after the show aired, I repeated the phrase “Chucky Margolis is gay!” to friends as often as I could and even wrote in on the cover of my 3-ring binder in tricked-out 1970s bubble letters. “Do you know what the word means?” my mother gently asked when she overheard me repeating it to Ellen for the umpteenth time. “Sure. You know… it means silly,” I bluffed. My mother and Ellen smirked at each other and said simultaneously, “ She doesn’t know what it means.” My mother then provided the colloquial definition. It was my first and last conversation with her about a grown-up topic.
Another time 16-year-old Ellen went on a date with an older boy who took her to a nearby restaurant called Shatzi’s. They sat at the bar —my sister’s first time. She calmly ordered a beer. Soon afterwards, my mother and I were sitting around our white formica kitchen counter and she began recounting the details to me as if we were a couple of teenage pals. “Imagine being taken to a bar! What was Ellen supposed to do?” she beamed with pride. “I would have ordered a mint daiquiri,” I replied. My unexpected response one again sent my mother into stitches. I had never had the drink of course, but had read about daiquiris in my mother’s monthly magazine subscriptions to McCalls and Better Homes and Gardens.
These four experiences — islands of memory in a sea of misty void — are the only memories I have of my mother in good health that veered beyond typical mother-child relations. When I became an adult, one of the lingering aspects of her death was the realization that I had outgrown—quite literally— the person I had been during her life. I no longer resembled that thirteen-year-old, in looks or temperament. I didn’t even think like that thirteen-year-old any more. I was not her. Memory research tells us that large changes in circumstance between the time a memory is encoded and the time it is later recalled can hinder recollection. For me, however, the severity of the mismatch between encoding as a teenager and recalling as an adult has produced more than a faulty memory. It has created another, unexpected void—a nagging unknowingness about how my mother and I would have gotten along as adults. The void has lasted for decades, until now, when I began working on this blog. Three of the memories I described here resurfaced since then. They provide some relief that the relationship with my mother in adulthood might have been all right after all.