Earlier this week, Lisa Belkin, reporter, author, and outgoing editor of The New York Times’ Motherlode blog (she’s leaving to head up the new “Parenting” page at The Huffington Post), ran my essay, “The Bird-on-the-Head Look.” When I first wrote it I was going to post it here on my brant with this illustration: a fantastic poster by the artist Yann Legendre that I found, in all places, in the pages of Crate and Barrel’s funky CB2 catalogue. I didn’t act quickly enough to buy the poster for myself [EXPLETIVES DELETED] but I’m posting it here, with a credit to the artist, in the hopes that I’m not breaking any copyright/usage laws. Somehow the Bird-on-the-Head illustration completes the piece. (I mean, I loved Lisa Belkin’s photo popping up all over Facebook when I posted the essay and when friends were kind enough to “share” it or retweet it on Twitter, but this is so much more relevant!) Here’s wishing Lisa Belkin all great things in her new position.
THE BIRD-ON-THE-HEAD LOOK
For most of my life, I had trouble describing the signature look my mother gave me. Which is strange, given the fact that my unofficial hobbies are recreational-psychoanalyzing, conspiracy-theorizing and watching serial killer documentaries. In short: human behavior. Every child’s first science project is mapping and analyzing their parents’ emotional DNA, and while the official Human Genome Project took 13 years to complete, figuring out your mother – or trying to – is a never-ending farce. It requires decades of data collection, the patience of Margaret Mead and the skills of an FBI profiler. All I did was whine and complain and make mental notes. No wonder I failed to crack her code.
Proof of my efforts exist, though: there’s an anthropological field guide the size of the old New York City phone book inside my head, filled with all the “faces” and “looks” my mother made over the course of my lifetime, and hers: dog-eared, with Talmudic-length interpretations and annotations scrawled in the margins, it’s the homemade version of Darwin’s “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.” Like the real one, my collection of deconstructed facial-muscle contractions and gestures had expressions universal enough to make labeling easy – especially the negative ones: the “Majoring-in-English-won’t-get-you-a-job-with-benefits-but-a-teaching-certificate-will” face; the “What-will-become of you?” face; the “I-don’t-understand-why-you’re-still-not-married” face; and the “I-don’t-like-your-husband” face, to name only a few. But while monkeys and humans use the same muscles to laugh and show rage, I’d bet my door-stopper-sized tome that monkey-mothers are physically incapable of the faces human mothers make when their daughters’ lives don’t go according to plan. Expressions of maternal disappointment are luxuries of domestication, not the wild, and their variations are infinite. There isn’t a book – real or fake – big enough to contain them all.
For years, I opened mine to the same page and pointed to the one unidentified. uncaptioned look I could never get past: my mother, head tilted, brow furrowed, facial muscles a patchwork of bemusement, confusion and disapproval. Sometimes she just gave me the look; other times she added a verbal component: “You’re so weird!” But whatever the delivery, I always got the message: no matter what I said, no matter what I did, my mother didn’t “get” me. Anyone who reads People or watches reality TV knows that there are far worse things to overcome than not being completely adored by your mother, but being told you’re weird at a young age almost certainly guarantees you’ll feel weird as an adult. Some children grow stronger in the broken places, like bones; others grow sadder.
I did both.
I also grew more confused. My mother knew music theory, Latin, calculus and the answers in every “Jeopardy!” category, even British Monarchies, and yet she couldn’t grasp the simple concepts of honesty-management, feeling-sparing and tongue-holding. She had lost her first child to a rare and incurable bone disease, had survived breast cancer and was a lifelong liberal-democrat and inner-city school teacher, yet she couldn’t understand experiences, emotions and behaviors beyond her own. She’d adapted, survived and even flourished, and yet her personal evolution was capped by a lack of curiosity and a fear of introspection. She was completely and unapologetically uninterested in the unknown: psychotherapy, for instance, and the places it could have taken her, and us, was somewhere she refused to go. And so, that one unnamed expression remained in my head until I was 30, when the mystery was finally solved. One day, when I still lived in New York, after an uneventful meeting with a boss who didn’t get me and couldn’t stand me, a colleague-friend followed me back to my office and poked me.
“Did you see that?”
“The way she looked at you!”
I shrugged. She’d looked at me like I was incredibly weird. So what else was new?
“She looked at you like you had a bird on your head!”
I looked at her like she had a bird on her head.
I couldn’t remember what I’d said in the meeting and I couldn’t have cared less, because I finally had a caption – The “There’s-a-bird-on-your-head” face. No longer would I strain to describe the look to my shrink – the person I paid never to look at me like I had a bird on my head. No longer would I think feeling like I had a bird on my head was all in my head: my mother had looked at me that way all the time when I was growing up. And who could blame her? At 4, I’d admitted to a fear of clouds; at 7, to a fear of carbonated beverages; at 10, to a fear of orange vegetables. Her face worked overtime during my teenage years: at 13, I’d insisted on wearing a three-piece brown corduroy suit – jacket, vest and skirt – for my bat mitzvah, instead of a normal dress; at 15, I’d exchanged myself to a friend’s high school – in Holland; at 17, I was still taking – and trying to get gym credit for – weekly pantomime classes. By the time I reached adulthood she could have used a face-making-double: I refused to take GRE prep classes despite scoring in the low 400s on my SATs, then dropped out of my one-year MFA Fellowship after only three days; I married my husband two years after having our son; I waited until most of my novels were out of print before finally getting an author-Web site and blog to promote myself. Nothing I did made sense to her, which never made sense to me.
Sometimes, nothing I did made sense to me, either. Like when my son and soon-to-be husband and I moved back to the town I’d grown up in and we accidentally bought a house one ZIP code-digit away from where my parents still lived. Though Boston was my husband’s idea, the secret fantasy of returning to the place I’d always felt had stunted my growth to prove everybody wrong was mine. It’s what emotionally secure people did, and, in a strange case of mistaken self-identity, I thought I was one of those people: I’d survived a lifetime of my mother’s “What-will-become-of-you?” looks and coupled and procreated; I’d managed to earn a living without a teaching certificate; Ashley Judd had even played me in the film adaptation of my now-out-of-print first novel. Hadn’t I earned the right to take my L-shaped fingers off my forehead? Freud says there are no accidents and my move home proved him right: for all my weirdness, for all my Sinatra-like insistence on doing things my way, I was completely normal at my core: I wanted to make the bird on my head disappear. I wanted my mother to like me.
Every woman fears she’ll turn into her mother – even the ones with birds on our heads – and I vowed not to turn into mine. I never forced my son to eat orange vegetables or go to Hebrew School (despite living down the street now from the one I’d gone to), and I never looked at him like he had a bird on his head – except for the one time when he actually did have a bird on his head. He was a few months shy of 8, and we were waiting out a storm in a nearby hotel – my husband’s mental health crisis and a temporary legal separation – when Spring Break approached. A close friend invited us to Rochester, N.Y., and while we wouldn’t get tan and have umbrella-drinks, she promised home-cooked meals, domestic calm and, most exciting to her – a nature-freak – a trip to the local bird preserve: “Whenever we go, they eat out of our hands,” she gushed. “Sometimes we put the seed on our hats and the birds land right on our heads!”
She had me at bird on the head.
Seeing a bird on my son’s head while having one on mine completed me – it was the perfect happy ending to a story I never thought would have one: maybe my mother and I would never understand each other, but my son and I did. I took pictures of our birds, filed them away in my head and on my computer, and finally closed the book on my mother and her bird-on-the-head look. It was time for me to move on.
As it turned out, it was time for my mother to move on, too. Last year, not long after the birds had eaten seed off our heads, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer; she died five months to the day of the news. It was early June when we moved her into hospice, an old brick estate on lushly landscaped grounds where the ironies of life were dramatically apparent: the world was in bloom – for everyone except us. My mother got a large corner-bedroom on the second floor with French doors to a tree-draped balcony, outside of which was the biggest bird feeder I had ever seen. Every morning we’d open the French doors and every morning my mother would turn her head to the noise and activity of their feeding frenzy. Birds, she’d whisper. Birds.
Humans need to find meaning in the mundane, patterns in random coincidence. It’s how we make sense of things that don’t make sense; it’s why that field guide is still in my head. As my mother lay dying in a room with a front-row view to a comically enormous birdfeeder, I saw what all those birds were trying to tell me: that at some point in the journey to the end of her days, she had stopped looking at me like I had a bird on my head. And just like that, I realized something else:
I had stopped looking at her that way, too. I’d become my mother in a way I’d never expected to – as a daughter – which meant her head was probably filled with all the unforgiving and unempathetic faces and looks I’d ever made, too. How could I not have known that? For all my interest in human behavior, I’d been completely blind to my own.
Dying, like living, is about the here and now. It’s about making the most of the time you have, even if you barely have any. In those last sad hours of futile pillow adjustments and tiny sips of liquid, of silent prayers and unspoken goodbyes, I took my mother’s hand and stroked her face. For once, it was just the two of us. Our birds were where they belonged, finally – outside at the giant birdfeeder just beyond the open window, beak to beak, giving each other mother-and-daughter bird-on-the-head looks. Sitting there, with a light head and a heavy heart, I hoped there was time for my mother to add one more page to her book.
Like I had.