When we were packing up my parents’ house this summer to move them into assisted living, I ran across a letter I’d written to my mother in my early twenties.

In it, I described an episode where I rebuked an old friend for screaming at a subway ticket taker when something didn’t go her way. “How can you loose control like that over something so trivial?” I asked her. My letter continues:

It depressed me because I heard myself sounding like you, standing on the side of moderation and self-restraint, while she was acting like her mother, who used to turn into a screaming maniac in front of us. I wondered if we’re really doomed to act out our mother’s role all our life.

Ouch. Poor mother! “Depressing…doomed” to find myself resembling her? Did she save this one letter to show me how hard I was on her?

It’s true that women are often ambivalent about the way they resemble their mothers, especially when they’re young. I tossed this sentiment into an otherwise friendly letter because it seemed so self-evident that it didn’t even feel mean to say it.

It was the height of the feminist era. One thing was clear to me then – I did NOT want a life like my mother’s. She was economically dependent, house-bound with kids all day, and timid in ways that I didn’t want to be (although I suspected I was). There was a fair bit of over-compensation going in my “I’m 20 and I’m tough” act.

Of course, by now, the view of my mother has changed a lot. There are many things about her that I couldn’t see when I was 22.

For one thing, sometime well into adulthood, I began to notice that my mother had a delicious and slightly wacky sense of humor. “Who knew you were so funny??” I thought. “I don’t remember you being funny when we were growing up!”

And as for her much maligned fear of driving and reluctance to venture out into the world – we recently learned that Mother had for years driven to the “rough” side of Cleveland to attend an art class. Not possible, but true. And while I always believed that my mother had never in her life worked a “real” job, it turns out that she moved all around the country while my father was in the military during WWII, living alone and working at different jobs.

It’s true that she preferred above all being at home. But what once seemed to me to be a dull life, now seems richly colored with imagination and awareness. She had a feel for nature, for the subtle changes of light and tone and season, that can only be experienced in quiet and solitude. My mother is at heart a contemplative and an artist.

Packing up her house, I was overwhelmed with the lifetime of creativity in evidence: paintings, drawings, poems, essays, even a letter published in the Clevelend Plain Dealer refuting Betty Friedan’s argument that housewives were miserable and frustrated (The Feminine Mystique had just come out.)

And photos that reminded us of how gorgeous she was as a young woman, possessed of a wily feminine self-confidence that we daughters could only envy.

And if she wasn’t exactly the way we wanted her to be at all times – well, who said she was supposed to be?