When I was a teenager, my mother and I were mirror opposites: both in love with the same distant and preoccupied man, and each brilliant in realms in which the other could barely cope. I aced my SATs, discussed Dickens with my father at dinner, and skipped two grades. She, by contrast, couldn't spell or balance a checkbook.
I spent hours reading in my bedroom and dressed in Army-Navy surplus, peering at the world through a curtain of messy hair. She wore her blonde hair up in an elegant Grace Kelly twist, and could sew herself an evening dress from a photo in Vogue. She made coq au vin with her own chicken stock, charmed everyone at a dinner table, and could get up the next morning to stain our deck. I often felt clumsy in her presence. I think she felt stupid, occasionally, in mine.
Sometimes, on weekends, I'd cook fudge in her kitchen and then retreat to my bedroom as she sponged off the cabinets and shouted up the stairs, "Everything I touch is sticky!" Occasionally she'd insist I wash the dishes and then redo them herself to fix imperfections I couldn't see. I once found a letter from her to my father (who was often away doing research): "Katy has been awful, but she always was your child, anyway." When I asserted my independence, or cooked myself special things, or escaped into the arms of boys, or failed to intuit what she needed, she called me selfish. I wrote, "I hate her!" in my diary, which she found and read.
Yet beneath my hatred, I…