“Just tell me what you believe in, so I will feel as if I know at least one part of you.” My mother said this to me, as I laid in my childhood bedroom, after coming home from Boston for winter break. I held on to the way she emphasized “at least one part of you,” this meant that she did not feel as if she knew barely anything about me. But, what I held onto more than anything was the truth behind these words, the truth that was not only valid for her of me, but for me of her.
The months leading up to my departure from childhood and my emergence into partial adulthood [beginning college] were demarcated by the gaps in understanding between my mother and I. We would talk and it would escalate into my annoyance and anger turning a conversation into an argument. I was frustrated because we are inherently different, this I only knew because we shared complete opposite opinions of whatever we discussed. Every time we would launch into these arguments, I would want further explanation, not necessarily from my mother, but from her background. I wanted to know what it was like to experience the childhood she had, firsthand. I wanted to have some way in which I could step through each and every one of her memories, to further understand the woman that stood before me as “mother.” This I knew I would never have the ability to do. I will never have the ability to truly understand who my mother was before she created me.
In a film entitled “20th Century Women,” written by Mike Mills, Mill’s main character, Dorothea, grapples with the complexities of raising her son. She struggles to see past the need to have more figureheads of what “adulthood” looks like, in order for her son Jamie to become the man he is meant to be. This drives a wedge in their relationship, as this tumultuous time for Dorothea fosters an overbearingness that Jamie finds no sense of comfort in. He is frustrated, and the need of his mother to attempt to make sense of his world, or find figures who are able to do so and implement them into his life, is irksome to Jamie.
Dorothea’s constant desire to construct a carefully-collected coalition of people to influence Jamie into becoming the best individual he can be, stems from an inherent misunderstanding of her son. She does not understand his motivations, witness his desires, or listen to the anthems of his life. She does not understand the compartmentalized versions of himself that construct the developing individual that stands in front of her. Dorothea enlists a tenet of their house, Abbie, who is closer to the generational understanding of Jamie, to assist in bridging the gaps of misunderstanding in their relationship. During a conversation with her, Dorothea says, “You get to see him out in the world as a person, I never will,” (Mills.)
Thus, the point of this piece, and the film as a whole: Dorothea, the mother, never will have the opportunity to see Jamie, her son, as an individual immersed in the world he will make for himself. This central idea has always been one that has interested me in terms of my own relationship with my mother. I’ve understood from the start of having the ability to make sense of the world around me, that vice versa to Dorothea, I would never have the ability to see my mother as an individual in her world. I would only catch a glimpse of my mother, a caricature of the full person she used to be, before motherhood determined the person she would dilute herself into.
I hoped to find any piece of my mom in the photos I found of her in her youth. I thumbed through cabinet after cabinet within my house, searching through each and every laminated page of photo albums hidden inside. I procured a careful collection of photos of my mom; photos of her at her San Antonio childhood home, of her in highschool, and pictures of her and my father before I was even a thought in their existence. All stringing together a disconnected and haphazard blueprint of who my mom was. She was pretty, she loved her family, she loved studying, she was a veterinarian, then a doctor, then a wife, but she was never just her. Or maybe she was, maybe each photo showcased each element that she chose to use as identifiers to build her sense of self, but this I would not know, because she had never told me.
I think my best discovery during these haste attempts to build a perception of my mother, was the discovery of one of her diaries from the time she was around fifteen years old. This was a morsel of who she was, a crumb of how she thought and how she accounted the life she lived. From this I found she once had body dysmorphia, as she complained about eating Church’s fried chicken with her family, then asking one of her aunt’s if she was getting “bigger,” much to her relief her aunt answered no. She was 115 pounds and easily past 5’8. I learned that she had a crush on a boy in highschool, Robert Pina, a boy she would go on to marry after veterinary school, the center of the first secret she would divulge to me: that she was married before my father. I devoured each and every piece of the person that was illustrated out in front of me through each word on the page. I began to construct a rough sketch of Veronica Bugenhagen; the girl, eventual woman, eventual mother. It was a convoluted perspective, one that had minimal depth or understanding, but it was enough to satisfy my initial hunger of developing the understanding of who my mother was.
My mom stands before me today as a loving, Catholic, friendly, and empathetic woman, a woman I have rarely seen falter in any of these characteristics. She is intelligent and persistent in her own way, firm in her beliefs, and unwavering in her faith. So unlike the child she produced, so unlike me. Jamie, Dorothea’s son, was a mixed-up and muddled-up construction of a person, as any individual is in adolescence. He grows up in the punk scene, post-Depression, post-World War, and cannot fathom the true tragedies that has made his mother the type of woman she is. His losses were formed in innocence; the hopeful back-seat hook-up with the girl he likes, the fist-fight he engaged in after discussing a guys’ need to provide clitorial stimulation during sexual intercourse. These are the experiences he used to develop himself, his interests and how he determined what he wanted out of the life he was to live.
The music he listens to, the literature he reads, the people he surrounds himself with, are nothing like what Dorothea experienced during her adolescence, “It’s 1979. I’m 55 years old. This is what my son believes in. These people, with this hair, and these clothes, making these gestures, making these sounds,” (Mills). Dorothea visits the punk-music club her son and Abbie frequent, she gets a glimpse of his world, of his interests, only to find confusion within it. In conjunction, Mills writes a narrative for Jamie to describe his mother’s characteristics and his understanding of her, “She smokes Salems because they’re healthier, wears Birkenstocks because she’s contemporary. She read Watership Down and learned how to carve rabbits out of wood. And she never dates a man for very long,” (Mills). Just like Dorothea’s failed attempt at uncovering a multi-dimensional perspective of her son and his world, Jamie has collected mis-matched fragments of Dorothea’s whole existence. They each find no true solace in the things they know and see within each other’s world, they further the divide by even trying.
I further the divide between my mother and I each time I try to find out something about her. I want to dig deep. I want to have an authentic conversation with her. I want to know the opinions’ behind the empty labels of loving, catholic, friendly, and empathetic, to divulge who she truly is. A statement she has always said to me resonates each time I try to do so, “I will always be your mother and you will always be my daughter.” My mother values respect, her perspectives, and thoughts about the world pertaining to her, to an extent where she lets it get in the way of allowing me to construct a multi-dimensional view of her, the understanding I have always wanted. I showed her this film last summer, the summer before I moved to Boston, the summer before I started to build my own life away from her in college, in hopes that she would get the message and the importance of this understanding I so deeply desired. But, she didn’t.
Writing this, I readdressed the thought that a child’s relationship to a parent, and vice versa, hinders the ability to flesh out a blueprint of the individual that lies beyond the label. She disagreed with me, she said that she saw me as an adult, that she recognized the changes I had made within myself since leaving. She said that she admired how much I loved my life in Boston, and she reinstated the fact that she was always, and still is always proud of the person I have become. Within this exchange, there was still heart-breaking sentiment, she could not come to terms with what I was trying to say. She still did not understand that she had such a tiny sliver of knowledge of who I am, what I like, what I desire within my life, or how I will seek fulfillment within it. She doesn't know how much I have been hurt, she is not there when I am immensely happy, she does not see the photos I take, the words I write, the memories I hold close to my chest. She doesn't know me. I do not know her. She still doesn’t get it. But I love her, and she loves me, and for her this is enough, because I am her daughter and she is my mother, and this will always remain.