Talent for Joy

I have ever been the little old lady my mother will never be.

All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That is his.

— Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

Since differing with Oscar Wilde must constitute literary blasphemy, I regret having to disagree with him about the universality of the above epigraph. It's not that I deny similarity to my mother because I dislike her. Au contraire, I admire her, but from afar, as a penguin might cast approving glances at a stork. That my mother and I have always seemed to be opposites is not just my observation. It's a fact agreed on by virtually all who meet us. To her immense credit, she never really held this against me, though our temperamental differences are so great it must have been, at times, like trying to raise a changeling, a creature of a different species. How did she -- an all-embracing, openhearted, zesty, demonstrative, unsinkably social being -- produce such a reticent, interior, broody daughter? Ah, the Russian roulette of genetics. I take after my father and other less vibrantly green leaves on the family tree.

My mother is upbeat, energetic, and gregarious. A gourmet cook and appreciator of every sort of cuisine from chocolate mousse to hot pastrami, she's also an avid sports nut bursting with vitality and enthusiasms, with healthy life appetites, though she's no fan of excess. In her heyday, she sang light opera and played the piano and accordion. She loves to swim. She remains a canny and unbeatable card player who adores traveling. Her deep regard for others taught me, long before I knew the word, what humanism is. And when my father died quite suddenly, I learned the depth of her bravery. She has a talent for joy, and for shared enjoyment, for appreciating life's delights. This quality can bring even the dourest people out of themselves, which is one reason she has so many pals. In her early 70s, there's something still girlish about her, a kidlike immediacy and sweetness, a wide-eyed quality that has mutated, now that she is on the nether side of childhood, into a lively, abiding grace.

By contrast, I have ever been the little old lady my mother will never be. That's just my sensibility. I've always liked wearing black. Hats with veils would suit me just fine. My main ambition as a teenager was to somehow resurrect the dark-minded writer Franz Kafka and become his girlfriend. Shy and uncertain, socially awkward and unspontaneous, I'm scared of the water. Traveling makes me nervous. Often I can't manage to make conversation even with people I know well. I hate card games. One of those quiet types who logs a lot of time in the bedlam of her head, I sometimes need to be startled awake to the fact that the outside world still exists. And, sad to say, Mom, I have no idea what a scrimmage is. But I love watching you leap to your feet and scream, "GO GO GO!" when you watch football games.

Like many confused and evolving humans, I live in constant danger of transformation. This winter I might gain 50 pounds, elect never to get out of bed again, or shave my head and troll the streets clutching a begging bowl. I might decide to start a llama farm. I might run away and join the circus (don't laugh: in contrast to my mom, whose limbs are stiff, I'm double jointed and can do some pretty interesting contortions). But unlikelier by far than any of these possibilities would be a scenario that featured me becoming much like my wonderful, cheerful, outgoing mother, however beneficial that might be. Sorry, Oscar.

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