Friday, June 24, 2016

The Art of Difficult Giving



I don't think I ever got along with my mother. Maybe I did when I was very young - almost too young to remember - when we'd sit on the back patio drinking Dr. Pepper floats and watching lightning bugs. But in the last 30 years? We just don't see eye to eye. 

So when my mom first called to tell me about her "new friend," I wasn't really listening. "He's a very nice man," she'd say. Eventually, Tom—that's his name—became a regular topic of conversation. I must have heard what "a very nice man" he was a dozen times. Soon, he moved from "new friend" to "friend," but I didn't really think anything of it until he reached "special friend" status.

Mom and Tom were "special friends" for a few months. Then Mom had a routine-but-scary surgery, and Tom was there to take care of her afterward, which I appreciated greatly because I was a three-day drive away. After Mom came out of surgery, Tom called to let me know she had made it to recovery and was doing fine and would call me later. That was the first time I talked to Tom. He ended the conversation by saying, "You know, I'm very fond of your mother."

About this time, I started to see the writing on the wall. Clearly these two were meant for each other. Sure enough, a few months later, Mom announces their engagement.

Wedding time rolls around, and I've flown into town for the occasion. I'm sleeping on my sister's couch, I'm stressed the hell out, and for some reason - guilt? obligation? pride? - I've agreed to Mom's request that I make a toast at the wedding on behalf of her entire family. No pressure. I mean, the wedding was tomorrow, I stutter when I try to speak in public, and I have no idea what I'm going to say, but no pressure.

The morning of the wedding, Mom called. We argued. She told me that I didn't have to come to the wedding and hung up on me. I took a deep breath. And then another one. And then my sister said, "You always tell me that Mom's kind of like a toddler. When she's throwing a fit, just step over her and go about your life." 

Hemmed in by my own wonderful advice, I decided to pretend the phone call hadn't happened. I spent the day getting ready, showed up 15 minutes early, and braced for impact. And…

Mom wasn't there. I walked in and saw Tom, whom I half-recognized from photos. He greeted me with a hug and a quiet, "Do you know where your mother is?" I managed to smile and said, "I haven't heard from her since this morning," before making a beeline for the open bar. 

While I'm trying to find my seat, I'm stopped by an older blonde woman. "You must be Rachel. Do you know where the flowers are?" Uh, no. Black-sheep daughter of the bride here, not the wedding planner. I took another deep breath. And I went to find the flowers.

More wine. More questions. 

"Rachel, is the wedding party walking in THIS way or THAT way?" 

"Rachel, do you know where my seat is?" 

"Rachel, where's the bride?"

I DON'T FUCKING KNOW. But I smiled. And I drank. And I figured out the answers to all the questions. And when I finally spotted the bride and her siblings walking across the parking lot, I hurried over to them. Mom greeted me with, "I'm very angry at you." Deep breath.

I rushed inside to inform the MC, the officiant, and the groom that it's almost go time. I grabbed a last glass of wine before the bar closed. I got ready to take my seat…and I'm called over to where the wedding party is assembled. Mom asks me to help my stepsisters-to-be put on their wedding gifts—beautiful ruby necklaces. I helped. I smiled. I gave Mom a hug and told her she looked beautiful. (She did.)

Finally, I sat down. And almost immediately, I started to cry. I'm a crier. It's what I'm known for. Sad story, happy story, cute kitten…you can bet the tears are flowing. After my almost-stepsisters walked Tom down the aisle, they joined me at the table, and I saw one of them was crying too. She reached across the table. I took her hand. Squeezed. Deep breath.

The ceremony itself was pretty short. I don't remember a lot of it. They kissed. I remember that part. I was half-drunk and about as stressed out as I had ever been, and I suddenly remembered that I'm about to have to give a toast that I still hadn't prepared.

The officiant announced it was time for toasts, and they were going to start with Susan. Susan? Who the hell is that? Turned out, Susan (aka "Rachel, where are the flowers?") is Mom's coworker. She told a lovely, heartwarming story, and everyone laughed. I was half-listening and half-wondering if it was too late to run out the door and never come back.

Next was Tom's brother, who told a funny story about their parents and how much they would "love to be here to see Tom's happiness." Everyone smiled. I grabbed the rest of my sister's now-watery-vodka-and-cranberry and gulped it down because I knew what was next...

"And now the bride has asked her daughter to give a very special toast on behalf of the Smith family."

Well, fuck.

I weaved my way carefully over to the microphone. Deep breath. I focused on one friendly stranger in the crowd—my new sister-by-law, the other one with the leaky eyeballs—and I told her the story of Mom calling to tell me about her new friend-friend-special friend. Everyone smiled. I told her about Tom being "very fond" of Mom. I made a snarky comment about old people's ideas of romance. Everyone laughed. Then, I turned toward the happy couple and added, "But as much as I found all this talk of friendship and fondness old-fashioned and kind of silly, I've been thinking about it a lot, and I think that's probably about as a good a basis for a happy marriage as any. So, Mom and Tom, may you continue to have and grow in the friendship and fondness that have brought you this far."

Someone handed me a glass of water. I raised the glass and said, "To friendship and fondness." I heard echos all around me. I made it all the way back to my seat before I realized everyone was crying. The rest of the evening was a blur of food and family and at least a dozen compliments on my toast.

A couple of days later, before I left town, I met Mom and Tom for dinner. I was ready for battle. Instead, Mom pulled out a small box and gave it to me. Inside was a beautiful ruby necklace, identical to those I'd been asked to put on my stepsisters at the wedding.

"I wasn't going to give you this. But that was a lovely toast."

Deep breath.

"Thanks, Mom."

It's been a few months. I don't know if Mom has any idea how much I did for her that night, or how tiny a part the actual toast played in all of it (or that I was drunk and unprepared and terrified). I do know we'll never be able to talk about it without sparking another argument. So I've decided that all that stress and all the last-minute problem-solving she'll never know about, that's my wedding gift to Mom and Tom. 

And, you know what? Tom is a very nice man. He is very fond of Mom, and Mom does think he's very special. I may never get along with Mom, but I'm glad she found someone who does.

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