Embarrassment - it’s central to a daughter’s relationship with her mother.
Not just in middle school, when your mother’s choice of everything from clothes to career is a source of humiliation.
Not only in high school, when she is liable to ask your prom date how he copes with a cold with that ring in his nose.
It begins in elementary school, when she strides into your classroom in the middle of math to deliver your snowpants. She couldn’t leave them in the school office like a “normal mother?”
It’s there when she leads the nature walk and, in that tone you thought she reserved just for you, orders the Biggest Kid in Class to “put down that stick.” She can’t figure out who’ll pay the price for this lesson in appropriate field trip behavior?
It’s there when she yells “defense” at the top of her lungs at your basketball games. Does she think that you and she are the only ones who know that she has no idea what defense means?
It’s there when the neighbors come over for dinner and someone notices you practicing the piano. You hear her extolling the progress you’ve made in only three months of lessons. She wonders why you stopped playing?
To be an adult, though, is to be beyond all that. To be an adult is to be your mother’s equal, her friend, her companion. To be an adult is to no longer feel your face flush when she boasts about your accomplishments to a stranger.
Well, sometimes it depends on the stranger.
Here you are at breakfast in the Federal City: daughter on the dais trying to wax wise about the writing craft, mother in the front row gesturing wildly, as if she is being swarmed by unseen flies. Of course, there are no flies. She is simply trying to tell you - as she has been telling you since you were 10 years old - to get your hair out of your eyes.
Here you are at the presidential luncheon: daughter on the dais with a dozen writers and editors and one Leader of the Free World, mother at a front-row table, looking intent, as though she is listening to a foreign policy speech when she is actually planning her strategy.
The fact that the president is hobbled by a knee injury gives your mother a definite advantage over Bill Clinton. Should he come her way, those crutches will slow a hasty retreat.
“You must be very proud,” he says, when she gets his free hand in her firm grip and informs him that her daughter is one of the writers being honored at this luncheon by the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
“Oh, you don’t know the half of it,” says she. “Did you know my daughter won the Pulitzer Prize this week?”
“No. No. I didn’t. That’s wonderful,” says he, displaying the charisma that catapulted him to a second term in the White House. “Which one is she?”
A lot of people have asked me in the last week to identify the single best thing about winning the Pulitzer Prize. Is it hearing from friends you have not seen since third grade? Or talking to readers generous enough to say that a column touched them? Is it seeing the headline, “HUNNEWELL MOM WINS PULITZER PRIZE,” in your children’s public school newsletter? Or having editors at magazines and publishing houses pretend to have heard of you before last week?
Those are all wonderful things. But they are nothing next to standing on the dais in a hotel ballroom in the nation’s capital watching your mother chatting up the president of the United States.
In that moment, she is compensated for all the prizes you did not win. The spelling bee. The math quiz. The Irish step-dancing contests that yielded no medals, despite her prodding to keep your spine rigid, your carriage erect.
This is your mother, the woman who sold socks at S.S. Kresge, who filed medical records at a hospital, who threw mail in the back room of the post office and who is right now prepared to put the president of the United States in a half nelson if he moves away from her one moment before she is ready to let him go.
“Which one is she?” he asks her again.
“Right there,” she says, spinning Bill Clinton toward the stage and the middle-aged woman with her hair in her eyes.
“Do you pay her to be your press agent?” he laughs.
“I don’t have to, Mr. President,” you reply. “She’s my mother.”