I have my mother’s hands.
They’re crooked and veiny, and I have giant knuckles that look like I crack them every day (I don’t). When she comes to visit from her home in Florida, I watch her struggle to do any fine motor skills, and I realize I’m watching my future. Sometimes it’s difficult to reconcile those movements with the woman who used to sew wedding dresses and made all our clothes when we were growing up, wavy rickrack expertly applied to collars and cuffs.
But that’s how families work – as they were, so you will be, to some degree.
My daughter, Viv, is 6, and we all three put our hands next to each other to see if she would grow up to have them. It’s hard to tell – her hands are still soft and tiny, a bit of pudge on her knuckles. And there’s still hope – my three sisters all have my dad’s hands, which seem fine on him but translate to something delicate when reborn on a daughter. I’m always jealous – then I remember I got his ice blue eyes, and it all seems fair again.
Sometimes my mom jokes that she’s bionic – she’s had both hips and both knees replaced and has given up trying to fix a rotator cuff injury that wakes her up at night, makes her wince when she moves. She likes to make you lean close and kick her leg back and forth, so you can hear the metal in her knee scrape against itself.
It’s sort of her new trick – replaced the one where she took her bridge out when I was a kid, a trick I outgrew but Jack, 8, and Viv still adore. I’m sure she’ll appreciate that I put that in here.
You watch your parents, your mom especially, if you’re a daughter, and try to see which parts of your life will look like hers. Sometimes you can’t help it – you find yourself on some well-worn path of hers you never thought you’d travel, have a sudden understanding of things that made no sense when you were 10.
“I get it,” you say when you call. “I finally get it, and I forgive you. Forgive me.”
And most of the time, she does.
The trajectory doesn’t always match and sometimes you make different choices entirely because you know what the alternative looks like played out in someone else’s life. That’s the role of a parent, too: Do this, because I did that. Learn from me.
And you do.
But you watch all the time, and learn in ways you don’t understand, things you don’t realize you’re learning. For me, it was watching my mom make time to take care of herself.
Now, I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, so some of that involved Marlboros and “Dynasty,” but some of it involved Jane Fonda and the fitness craze that followed. And what I remember is that my mom went to the gym every morning before work, before driving to her job as a secretary.
That she had a Bianchi road bike and took it out on weekends. That she stomped the bleachers and cheered like mad for my sister Kim, when she ran track.
I don’t remember her going for walks around the neighborhood with girlfriends, and she never had a training plan taped to the refrigerator, but she found ways to make fitness a part of her life. Even after she retired and moved to Florida and had every earthly thing in her replaced, she would ride her bike around.
Now, she gets most of her exercise taking care of a few clients as a home health aide, or cleaning my house when she comes to visit. Trust me, I save it all up for her, so it’s really more of an endurance event. Instead of a hydration pack and a pocket of gels, I make her peanut butter cookies and complain about how she folds my socks.
It’s Mother’s Day this weekend, and I’ll take my kids hiking somewhere, and they’ll complain the entire way. It will be my first solo Mother’s Day with them, but going hiking is a tradition they know. It’s what I always asked for: Time together with my family, spent outside.
We usually go to Newton Hills, though we’ve done the Big Sioux Recreation Area before. I’ll pack snacks and a blanket, make sure there’s a playground somewhere and bribe them to walk in the woods with me for a half hour in exchange for an hour of that. It works out – I get to be out on the trail, and then I get to sit in the grass with a book while they run around.
Maybe one day I’ll get them to trail run with me for Mother’s Day. Or bike ride – maybe that’s the new tradition we begin together this year as a family of three on our days together. All that really matters is that we spend it together, outside, somehow. Then they’ll know what matters to me: Them, the trees, the swings, the slide, the drive home.
The path stretching before us, and even if it’s somewhere we’ve been, we weren’t there as who we are now, that day, that moment, in this life. It can make everything look different. Suddenly something you thought was finite, too short is too long, too unbearably long.
Or it’s the time when their whining turns to wonder, when they pick up leaves and try to figure them out and you realize you know nothing about nature after all, a child of suburbs and rental houses. So you learn it together, and what they learn is that mom isn’t afraid to keep figuring it out.
Wasn’t that what my mom was doing, buying a bike with the money her mom left her when she died, using it to figure out her own life, newly divorced. Lately I’ve been feeling like I’m hurtling toward the inevitable, and I probably am. We all are to some degree. You could argue that I’m a fatalist at heart – I see the story, know the arc, remember all the dialogue and can tell how it ends from the table of contents. All you really need to know are the characters. They’ll tell you what they’ll do, if you listen.
When I was an editor, we used to talk about big projects and say the hardest part is the last 5 percent – those finishing touches, that finesse, that quarter turn to what matters. As a runner, it’s the same – it isn’t miles 1-20 of the marathon that break you, it’s what comes after. You have to be stronger than the miles, stronger than the moment.
I watched my mom be that.
Thanks, mom, for showing me that chapters beget chapters. The gun in the first scene that goes off in the third doesn’t always dictate the fourth.
My characters can do whatever they want. They aren’t me. There’s something beyond every conclusion. And that’s where I’ll be.
Jacqueline Palfy is a longtime runner, reader and writer, marathoner, mom and board member of the nonprofit Sioux Falls Area Running Club. Her contributions to the 605 Running Co. blog will appear each Tuesday. You can follow her on Twitter @runnerJPK or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Story ideas are encouraged.