My Real Mother
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We've all seen the soap operas where a character discovers her "real father." It turns out that the man who raised her and whom she called "Daddy" all those years was not her real father at all -- just some guy who married her mother decades before. Her real father is actually the town drunk or the murderer recently paroled from prison or the town's richest oil baron or even the nice older gentleman she started dating last month.

My story is not nearly as dramatic. For most of my life, I've had a sneaking suspicion that my mother was not my "real mother." As a teenager, I would look at my father and see that I had his eyes and high forehead and muscles and usually calm temperament. My mother sometimes seemed to be this alien creature so much more like my sisters than me. Don't misunderstand me -- she was a wonderful mother, dedicated and kind and generous and funny. But she wasn't like me. She was softer and had a rounder body, an unpredictable temper, a lack of patience, and an inability to drive a car effectively.

Dad was definitely Dad, but how could this woman be my real mother?

I understand that the biology behind this fantasy made no sense, not even soap opera sense. Finding out that your mother is not your real mother is something that happens only in Psycho sequels. My mother told so many stories about what a difficult pregnancy and birth I had been that it was clear to her that I was her biological son. Then there was my twin sister, obviously the child of my mother. The whole thing was beyond my powers of explanation, yet I held tightly to the not-my-real-mother fantasy for much of my life. "Don't confuse my theory with your annoying facts," as one of my high school teachers used to say.

It took two unrelated moments in my late-thirties to put away my childish fantasy. One afternoon, I was backing my car out of a parking space at the gym when my workout partner started chuckling. I asked what was funny, and she told me that I backed the car "like an old lady." I immediately got a flash of my father harshly criticizing my mother's driving. When I pondered that memory later in the day, I realized that I would never criticize anybody's driving. People drive the way they drive, different styles for different drivers. My father and I may have the same shaped hands, but when it comes to criticizing drivers, we took very different roads.

Of course, I realized that the relative I resemble in the car is my mother. Her driving used to make me crazy -- even back before I could drive myself. At age twelve, I saw that she had very little idea what was going on behind her. She was very happy to travel down the interstate at 40 m.p.h., confident that she would never run into anything or anyone. And she was right. She never hit a thing with her car. It was the drivers screaming past her and shaking their fists who were running the risk of head-on collisions. Mom was completely safe -- just a terror for everyone else on the road.

I actually do maintain and even sometimes exceed the speed limit when I'm on the highway, so that's not where the connection is. It's backing up. My mother would inch backward a millimeter at a time, looking frantically over one shoulder, then the other, then back and forth again until she was dizzy. I'm not that bad, but I admit that I always make a tight u-turn in the driveway so my car points headfirst toward the street. And I'll walk an extra half-mile at the mall to find a "pull-through" parking space that requires no backing to enter or leave.

Not long after the driving revelation, I decided to shave the beard that covered my chin for nearly twenty years. I'd started it back in my late teens and endured all the jokes about how scraggly it was. Eventually, the bald spots filled in and it became a pretty decent beard. People only occasionally asked me what I was hiding behind my beard. I usually claimed that I just didn't like shaving or that I was tired of being a baby face.

The day I shaved it, however, I finally realized what I had been hiding. As I wiped the steam from the bathroom mirror, I was shocked to see my mother's face staring back. I still had my father's forehead and eyes and the top half of his nose, but from there down, I was my mother. In my amazement, I uttered a few soft curses, and I even saw my mother's voice in the shape and movements of my mouth. "Good lord," I thought to myself at long last, "she is my real mother."

Maybe I don't back the car quite like an old lady, but you can bet I started growing my beard back that same day.

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