The two women had been talking very quietly, so I hadn’t been paying attention to them. Then the old woman suddenly raised her voice in anger.
“I am not going to let you make the same mistake I made!” she almost shouted.
It was late Sunday afternoon at a slow restaurant. Other than me, they were the only two customers. The younger was about 35; the older might have been 60. Now I was curious what they were talking about, but the woman lowered her voice again.
Now it was the younger woman’s turn to be a little too loud, but her voice was steady and almost cold.
“You really don’t care that I’m miserable, do you, Mother?” she said firmly. “I know what you think I should do. I know you think I have no right to rock the boat or give up all the things you think I should want. But this is my life. I know you hate the choices you made — but I am miserable. And all you can think about is yourself and your miserable life.”
I kept my eyes on my MacBook and didn’t look in their direction.
My sympathies were with the younger woman, but then her mother started sobbing. I’m not sure they even realized anybody else was there by this point.
“I sacrificed everything for you children when you were little,” she said through her tears. “I left your father because he was abusive to all of us, but what did that get us? I ended up poor by trying to marry for love the second time and then Gary left me, too. You have everything — and you can’t throw it all away like I did.”
The younger woman was completely calm, but she sounded angry at the same time.
“You want to make this all about you,” she said. “You made choices that made you unhappy and now you want to live your fantasy life through what I have now. But this isn’t about you. I’m never going to be like you — and you can’t stand that.”
The older woman was just looking down and didn’t respond, as far as I could tell. Then the daughter went on.
“I told you three years ago that I made a mistake when I married James,” she said. “You talked me into giving up the love I wanted and staying with him instead. Even when I had a breakdown and woke up in a hospital half dead, you still wanted me to stay with what was destroying me. All because you wish you had made different choices for yourself.”
“I just want you to be happy,” the mother said weakly. I could barely hear her now.
The women got quieter for a few minutes and I couldn’t hear what they were saying. Finally, the younger woman stood up.
“I can’t live the life you want me to live,” she said clearly. “I can’t pretend that having what seems like a perfect life to you is a life worth living for me. And I can’t pretend that growing up this way is going to show Emily how a married couple are supposed to treat each other. I have to do what’s right for us, Mother. I can’t keep letting you talk me into living out your fantasy life — because what you think is a fantasy is killing me.”
She turned and walked out, leaving her mother sitting at the table. She went outside and got into a car, driving away on her own. The mother stared blankly out the window for a few minutes before walking out and leaving in another car.
There’s no way I can say what the younger woman ought to do with her life. I don’t know enough about the facts and even if I did, I wouldn’t get a vote anyway. But the conversation left me thinking of some confrontations I had with my father when I was in my early 20s.
More than once, I had decided to do things that he didn’t approve of. Each time it happened, he talked me into making the choice he thought was best. And there was always the subtle unspoken threat that he might not be there to help me if I pursued my own choice and things didn’t work out.
I still wonder how my life might have been different if I had followed one of those other paths.
Most parents think they know what’s right for their children. My father certainly did. Those parents generally have good intentions. But their determination to make sure we don’t repeat their mistakes can sometimes stop us from doing things we really need to do.
There are no guarantees in life. No matter what decisions we make, there’s a decent chance that we’re wrong. The only thing I’m certain about is that we need to make our own mistakes.
We don’t need to wait until it’s too late to make changes — and then spend the rest of our lives wondering what might have happened if we had followed our hearts instead of living someone else’s life.