It’s the time of year when most of us make the trek to the scene of our origins. It’s a return to where we grew up, or where the siblings that we’re still speaking to reside, or where our parents—if they’re alive— might still be hosting a neutral setting for others to come together.
When I was in my twenties, this holiday renewal took the form of careful baby steps.
My parents and I had had many confrontations during my high school and college years over politics and lifestyle, but once I had a “real” job (teaching), we all seemed to calm down a bit.
A detente of sorts.
My parents accepted that I had finally joined the mainstream of brassiere-wearing professional females, and I chose to ignore my parents’ many hair-raising inconsistencies.
My mother had always modified the truth to suit her view of circumstances.
Her Big One was lying to us about her high school graduation status. I always suspected she hadn’t graduated, and I was right. How did I know? Well, of course, I checked her graduation class stats in the yearbooks of the largest online database of high schools in the U.S. You know the one. They send you cryptic emails all the time, tempting you to see who remembered whom.
To Mummy’s way of thinking, if she had admitted that she dropped out of high school, she was convinced that we also would drop out of high school. Because of course, we would want to emulate our mother.
Not much chance of that—but that’s how she thought.
Big One #2. She lied about never having tried cigarette smoking. Not only did she exclaim boldly that she was “so glad” she had never tried cigarettes, but she said this in spite of the fact that we all knew—from the billowing clouds of nicotine that she left in the bathroom on winter mornings when she couldn’t open the window—that she was a bold-faced liar. The only person she was fooling was my father, himself a lifelong smoker with a permanent aura of cigarette vapors clinging to his clothes.
I had always yearned to have a wise mother figure with whom I could talk about boys or my period or the state of my ambiguous future. Someone like Barbara Billingsley or Donna Reed. Someone who might tell me where babies came from.
Instead, by the luck of the draw I got the antithesis of the nurturing stereotype. But things weren’t all bad. My siblings and I were allowed to run untethered from dawn till dusk from a young age. Yes, Mummy locked us out of the house—but we had more freedom than any of our schoolmates. We developed independence.
By the time I married and had children, I continued to visit periodically and kept my mouth shut about my early years. Let sleeping dogs lie, as it were. Mummy had her grandchildren to gift with polyester rompers and I could monitor her interactions, ignoring her parenting suggestions as I felt appropriate.
“Don’t pick up the baby when he cries. You’ll spoil him!” she said.
Year after year, my memories sifted to the surface with bits and pieces of long-forgotten trauma.
My father is gone. My siblings and I all get along fine, in spite of childhood years where we were pitted against each other. (My father’s special talent was his ability to make each of us feel that we were the least loved.)
My mother is now a remarkable 87 years old. I suppose it’s not surprising. She certainly acquired her share of immunity, and she passed it on to us.
“You’ll eat a pound of dirt before you die!” she always exclaimed when she picked up the slice of our cake that had fallen in the dirt and returned it to our grimy little hands. No forks and plates for us! No siree, Bob! No napkins either. We used our sleeves for wiping our mouths and our noses in no particular order.
At 87, I thought that she might be in a position to answer some of the questions I’ve long wondered about but never had the courage to ask. I tried for years, but always stopped short of confrontation. I had shed my tears long ago. No need to start them flowing again.
Last week, as Mummy sat at the kitchen table completing page after page of dementia-fueled word search puzzles—her obsession—I dared to ask where she had gone during those times when she dropped us off. At swimming lessons. At the movies and such.
She looked up confused. Did we go to swimming lessons? Yes, Mum, we did.
Was it indoors or out? It was outdoors, Mum. It was at the town pool where the other mothers sat in the bleachers sipping Coca-Cola through straws tipped with red lipstick while tapping their cigarette ashes against the cold metal benches and squinting into the sun at the swimmers flailing below.
I realized last week that I’m never going to get answers to the questions I have had for so long. And point would it serve?
We each have our own memories. How we choose to allow our memories to color our lives is up to us. We can use our past as a lesson, we can dwell upon it, or we can move on.