"Oh gawd, Sunday is Mother's Day," says one of the women, looking up from the newspapers they are sharing. "I'd better remember to call."
In a moment, guilt is streaming up from both their coffee cups. Their feelings stand poised to be gift-wrapped. Suddenly, their mothers have become an item for the checklists on their bulletin boards: Sunday, Call Mother.
Mother's Day! one says to the other, a bit irritated. She has never really liked Hallmark-card, Ma-Bell ritualizations of family life. For that matter, neither of the women likes having deadlines for their feelings. They do not blow horns at midnight New Year's Eve. They feel uncomfortable with a national mother's day to prove they remember.
But the two women are mothers as well as daughters. More than anything else, they tell each other, they don't want their children to feel that they have to . . . call them, gift them, fell guilty about them.
"Save me from that," says one, looking at the heavens.
The other agrees and reaches for the Margaret Atwood book, the passage that holds her own worst nightmares about the Ghost of Mother's Day Future.
"Mummy . . . Mum . . . Mama . . . Already they're preparing for flight betrayal, they will leave her, she will become their background. They will discuss her as they lie in bed with their lovers, they will use her as an explanation for everything they find idiosyncratic or painful about themselves. If she makes them feel guilty enough they'll come and visit her on weekends . . . she will become My Mother, pronounced with a sigh."
They don't want to be My Mother, pronounced with a sigh. What I want, says one, is for my kids to be free to choose to be with me . . . .
The other says quickly, but do you want them to be free to choose to be without you?
There is a pause. They press each other. Would you rather have a guilty call or no call? A ritual stroking or none? "If she makes them feel guilty enough, they'll come and visit her on weekends." Will they someday settle for that?
Mothers, children and guilt. One of the women says this: My mother spoke to her mother every day. I don't do that. My mother understands and is somewhat disappointed. I feel understood and disappointing. I don't want my children to feel that way.
She has, you see, absorbed the message of her age: guilt is the prime-time crime of parenting. The two women don't want to be even subconsciously demanding of their own children. And yet.
They have a friend who was pushed away through guilt. She escaped her mother's magnetic circle through geography. She had to physically move beyond the pull of her mother's needs and demands.
In turn, this friend consciously raised her children to be separate, to be independent, guilt-free, don't worry-'bout-me. Just like it says in the BOOK. in June, her independent daughter will guilt-freely relocate to another coast. She says now, only half in jest, that perhaps she should have raised the child with just enough guilt to make her stick around. The two women don't laugh.
Are there two kinds of guilt: one a paddle we beat each other with, the other kind of cement? Is there such a thing as Good Guilt -- caring with a dose of responsibility?
The two women don't know a single parent who wants to ever be dependent on her kids, and they don't know one who hasn't wondered whether she will be able to depend on them. We don't want the children to be tied to us by guilt . . . or to abondon us. The centrifugal forces of society are strong.
"I want my children to call on me for the pleasure of my company," says one woman from behind the defenses of her newspaper ad pages for perfume and necklaces. Of course. We don't want pro formas. We want pleasure.
The women have a horror of being too needy. They lead different lives from their mothers because of it. They are afraid to put too many expectations in the child basket. The best protection from loss, one tells the other, is a full life of their own. Maybe.
In any case, they know this. They don't want to be "My Mother, with a sigh." Nor do they want a gift of their children's guilt. But still these casual women, who do not even approve of Mother's Days, hope their kids remember.