A few years before my first child was born, my mom and stepdad took all five of us “kids” to the Turks & Caicos for one of those “everything included” vacations that tends to encourage all manner of indulgence. A fine time was had by all, indeed, and it was a week I’ll never forget, though (as frequently happens as time passes), some of the most memorable things about those days didn’t feel at the time like they’d be the most memorable. For example, one night we went to a hibachi restaurant (talk about “dinner and a show”!) where we sat at a horseshoe-shaped table with about three other families. My mom was wearing a pair of earrings I’d made her for Christmas one year–a pair I liked a whole lot and of which I was particularly proud–and one of the other women at the table, also a middle-aged mom, who’d engaged her in friendly conversation and who seemed fun and smart and kind, complimented her on the earrings. It was one of those all-too-rare compliments so specific that it was obvious that there was a lot of thought behind it, and my mom said, “Thank you! My daughter made them,” and then proceeded to give the earrings to her. Just like that. It seemed like she’d barely thought twice about giving those earrings I’d made her away. My twenty-something self was stung. I thought her giving them away meant that she didn’t really like them that much or care about the fact that I’d made them, specially for her, in her favorite color (blue, always blue). It really rankled for a while. Now fast forward about a dozen years.
When my first child was about eighteen months old, my brother asked me, “So what’s it like being a parent?” (I love this man because he asks questions like this and cares a whole hell of a lot about the answers, but this was obviously not an easy one to sum up in just a few words.) After staring at him dumbly for long enough that it made him laugh, I thought of a way to give him an idea that would really resonate with him on a personal level. “You know that perfect sandwich? With all of the components layered in beautiful order and in *just* the right proportions? And you know when you get to that perfect bite, a few bites in–you know the one? Like, the tomato is a saturated red, and the bacon presenting is mostly meat and just a little fat, and the lettuce almost cries with crunch? And everything is so fresh and smells so good and the crust and crumb of the bread is both the crown and cushion for this positively kingly mouthful of food? And you’re really hungry and those first few bites just fanned the flames of that hunger?” That’s basically what I said, and I could tell by the look on his face that he could almost taste it. (If you know Peter, then this will make excellent sense.) He nodded, thinking about that perfect bite of the perfect sandwich, thinking that what I meant was that being a parent was basically the best thing ever to happen to a human being. “Well, if you can imagine that bite, then being a parent is like wanting to offer that bite to your child. Actually turning that sandwich, on purpose and unbidden, away from you to feed it to your kid.” I’ll never forget the look of disbelief that crossed his face, but when he has kids, if he has kids, I’m planning to remind him of this conversation, and I know he’ll understand it then.
Rewind about a dozen years, back to that hibachi table. If I’d known then what I know now, as they say. But I couldn’t have known it then, I don’t think, because I hadn’t experienced parenthood. If I’d known what it was like to willingly forgo enjoying that perfect bite in favor of sharing it with my child, I’d have appreciated my mother’s gesture of generosity as it actually was, the way I appreciate it now. What she was doing when she handed that pair of earrings across the prepaid pork fried rice and bottomless glass of sake was a symptom, a beautiful one, of motherhood. I was right that she didn’t think twice about it. A mother becomes an artist of giving, and my mother, mother of five, is one mighty fine artist. The other woman, a mother herself, who accepted the earrings, who didn’t refuse the gift, must have understood this. The part I might like the most about my mother’s act of beneficence is that the bigger gift was the connection there, the way her hand, holding out a pair of earrings, was really offering an unspoken, “I see you; I know you.” I’d be really surprised if those earrings haven’t been given away at least a few times since then. But maybe the best gift of all is the one this moment gave to me in hindsight, the clarity of perspective that is born along with the child and that changes the way a mother sees her sandwich forever. I hope that one day I walk out of a restaurant, smelling of sesame oil and with fortune cookies in my purse, wearing at least one fewer pair of earrings than when I’d entered.