When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.

– Mark Twain

the longer i’m a mother, the better my own mother begins to look.

i always knew she was a good mother, that i was lucky to have her. but we spent a lot of years with horns locked, she and i. never in a vicious way…rather fundamentally, inescapably, despite efforts on both sides to smooth the ragged edges of the bond. i lived away for fifteen years, always thinking that someday i’d come home and find that we’d become sympatico, the love between us finally morphing into companionability. instead, i’d arrive…and undergo a miraculous and instantaneous transformation back to scowling adolescence. i’ll never need a facelift, i joked with friends. if i want to drop twenty years, i just visit my mom. it’s instant.

my world was not hers. i called from university – my hard-drinking, eating-disordered university years, awash in ideas about High Modernism and international nuclear accords – and our conversation was about home, about what so-and-so had done in church on Sunday last. i called from Vancouver, from the Arctic, from Cambodia, from Hungary – seeing the world, sending money home – and our conversation was about whether i was hurting my back with that backpack/suitcase/big teacher satchel. are you brushing your teeth? uh, yes. and i’m seeing this! learning this! crickets. the sniff of disapproval and disinterest always lurked in the wings, ready for its grand entrance. and my indignance lurked too, hair- triggered, ready to sulk and feel misunderstood and pubescent at but a moment’s notice.

still, my mom was great for the big stuff. move away to Asia and decide to get divorced? from half a world away, i got motherlove and unintrusive but genuine support. while in Asia, getting gawked at on the streets by a culture not quite yet used to white folk, decide to dye hair platinum blond? still half a world away, i got nattering and tears and outrage and oh, what will people think? i was TWENTY-NINE years old…a little elderly for maternal panic over hair colour. but my mother, resolutely gray since her thirtieth birthday, disapproves of hair dye. stretching across contexts to imagine a world different than her own has never been her strong suit…suffering other people’s opinions with grace has never been mine. so on we went, like two small dogs with an invisible yoke between, yapping in tandem at the ankles of the other.

it didn’t miraculously change when i moved back here, nor when i had kids. the bickering about hair colour morphed into bickering about Children’s Tylenol and whether i should get my tubes tied, the nattering about brushing my teeth (my teeth, for the record, are quite well-cared-for) became don’t hesitate to take Oscar to the dentist/doctor/speech therapist. i took him, quite liberally. but the running commentary continued to rankle. until lately.

i’ve noticed a strange detente creeping over us.

only yesterday, i realized why. Oscar and i were playing pretend on the floor, Josephine curled against me, asleep in her sling. we were eating imaginary cookies at an imaginary restaurant, Oscar treating himself to the baby’s share too, since she only eats milk. we were a picture of happy pretend domesticity when, out of the blue, this suddenly so-big boy of mine leapt up and zoomed around the baby and i and announced, i’m going to space! i’m in space, mama! and i looked at him and understood, this is the trajectory of it all. our shared world giving way to realms unknown, all of a sudden. he has ideas now, that did not come from our shared experience. and i do not know so well how to play along. this is how it will go, how rapid it will be.

and i looked at him, and i said, space, honey? oh. do you want to bring a cookie? don’t forget your toothbrush!

never have i understood so clearly what it is like to stand in my mother’s shoes, relentlessly offering the known, the familiar, in hopes that it will somehow tether the one who has so suddenly soared away.  when i called her a little later, i mentioned, in passing, how i’d just bought new toothpaste.