When I was nineteen I had a major crush on a boy I met at a summer job in Michigan. He was smart, sweet, earnest, funny and boyishly hadsome. We were inseparable for much of the summer but did not exchange so much as a kiss – it was fun; I thought it had potential. At the end of the summer we cooked up a plan to visit my family in Missouri before returning to our respective colleges. I knew my mother would like him, and she did. The feeling was mutual, I guess, because on the first evening at our house he said to me, ” When I met you I thought you were such a unique person, but now I realize that you are really just like your mother.” I should have known at that moment that the romance was doomed; he entered the seminary the following year.
Fast forward twenty-seven years. My husband sits down in front of the family computer situated at the desk that I use, and looks at me and says, “Look at the way you have all of your notes and photos up on this wall and all of your papers here – you are your Mom.” He is smiling – he loved my Mom. “I think you do it on purpose.”
Well, I didn’t; I don’t. I make rolls like she did on purpose, I speak truth to power like she did on purpose, I try to make my home welcoming like she did on purpose. But as my hair goes grayer and the questions from my children get thornier I find it maddening for it to be so hard to lift myself out of her ruts in my road – she did not overtly impose her ways on me and there are so many ways in which our paths greatly diverge. I know we have faced the challenges on our lives in fundamentally different ways. And yet, her influence is an incredibly strong default mechanism. It can make me frustrated, because in the years since her death I have begun to understand how she crafted the myth of herself by selectively sharing information with her children. But I also can empathize with why people do that – there are so many conversations that people will do anything to avoid. Parenthood doesn’t have a full disclosure clause, and the line between honesty and too much information is constantly shifting. When you share you risk two responses: “Why did you tell me this?” and “Why didn’t you tell me this sooner?” I have been through this with my own children over the most minor events already, and perhaps I do share too much. One person’s enlightenment is another’s burden, one person’s honesty is another’s pain. You never know.
I witnessed enough drama in my Mom’s life to know that, as her youngest, I missed plenty. I wasn’t very good at letting those moments I did know about fade; I have a penchant for rehashing events in hope of prying out more details, reasons, answers. I keep looking for a version of the truth that I can live with, knowing full well that my ability to live comfortably with any truth changes from day to day. What is acceptable in one moment is decidedly lacking in the next. Sixteen years ago, I spent weeks camped out in my living room with my Mom, quizzing her about her life while we waited for my overdue baby to arrive. We covered a lot of ground, but I noticed gaps in her memory that I attributed to advancing age. It doesn’t really matter what she kept to herself, it is that she made that choice – repeatedly – that caught me off guard as the details emerged in later years after her death. He legendary candor was not what I thought and some of the things and people she put faith in were, to my mind, not worthy of her devotion. She didn’t owe me full disclosure, but some examples she tried to set have not entirely stood the test of time, either, because she obfuscated.
But these things are true of all parents, all families. For when we tell a story we are telling our own version, and that, by design or not, means that anyone else who was there as there may or may not agree. We have a large family – something as simple as a Thanksgiving Dinner in 1975 can come off as Rashomon on steroids. And I know that, quite often, there are plenty of good reasons to let sleeping dogs lie. And so I struggle to calibrate what memories are rightfully mine, what traits I truly own, how I can understand what it is to write honestly knowing that truth in memory is only our own version of the facts at a particular moment in time.
I will always love and admire my mother, and there are many ways that I am glad to be like her. Still, even in the throes of middle age, it is difficult to know where she ends and I begin, and I am reminded of what she said in the weeks before her death. “You’re going to be forty,” she said as she spoke of her terminal illness, “this is a good time for me to go. It will be a liberating experience. When your parents are gone you are truly free to make your own choices. I never really felt like a grownup until both of my parents were gone. It’s a good thing.” Now, I think I know what she meant.