When I look back at memories I have from birth to age 12 of my childhood, I’m stunned at how little I actually remember of it or of my mother.
What about those few sharp memories that my mind has chosen to keep? How did it choose these memories, and why? If I were to string them all together would they comprise a whole childhood, or just a biased snippet of my viewpoint? Do they draw a rounded, fair picture of my mother? (Well, I know the answer to that last one: they do not.)
To paraphrase Churchill, what I remember of my childhood and of my mother is a mystery wrapped in an enigma.
Mostly in my mind’s eye I am alone: playing in the forest, playing dolls, impersonating Elvis. I know my memories are accurate, but there is a huge body of information – normal things, like eating breakfast in our kitchen, or someone doing homework with me, that I simply can’t remember. I’ve read about how when ACOA’s are children, they develop “memory loss” as a coping mechanism. They block things out and can’t remember them; this keeps them from going bat-shit. For example, my mom walked into my Sweet 16 birthday party naked, and I forgot about it almost immediately – within days of it happening. I didn’t remember it until years later, when some friends who were there brought it up, how one of them had thrown a blanket over her and led her back to her bedroom. I’m glad I forgot it because as a teenager, I didn’t need to think about it. I need to remember it now, though.
My mother must have put huge effort into raising me, but there is so little of her presence that I actually recall, and this disturbs me. I have only whiffs of her, really – literally the scent of her Chanel No. 5. I have only one memory of her driving me to school, even though she drove me there hundreds if not thousands of times. In it, I remember being alone in the backseat and watching the back of her pretty blonde hair as she drove. I watched as she used her hands to “talk to herself” on the steering wheel, because she was always preoccupied, an other-worldly mother, one that inhabited another world with conversations that none of us had access to. She was Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice - beautiful, good-hearted, displaced. Irreparably damaged by the past.
I’m sure that if she was still here and I could forage through her memories, she would have hundreds of happy memories of us together. I don’t have them though. They just aren’t there. My first memory of being in her presence wasn’t until I was almost five. I find that strange. I don’t have a single memory of ever sitting in her lap or cuddling or anything like that – but I remember her as a very sweet-natured, maternal mom (aside from her alcoholism).
Maybe a lifetime isn’t just the snippets of memory you have in your own mind; maybe it’s made up of all the collective pieces from all of the people who were there too, that only when put together form the whole picture?
I can list the moments I remember in bullet points. But this phrase – bullet points – fills me with dread because I don’t know how I would feel if my grown-up kids condensed their childhoods into a few random bullet points, leaving me mainly out of the picture or trying to conjure a vague, sloppy, half-version of me out of the fog of their pasts – one that consists mostly of the cruddy parts of me, the one who shouts at them or waves them away from the computer when I’m writing. Actually, I do know how I would feel: betrayed. I would feel betrayed because I am here with them. I am their mother. I have been here from the moment they were born all the way through, up until now, witnessing them, rooting for them, crying for them, being here for them in ways they cannot even know, let alone remember. Could it all really be reduced into a few bullet points? And if that was all their memories could scare up of me, would that make my experience any less valid?
I suppose the main differences between myself and my mother are that I am not a depressed, alcoholic mom, I am not a working mom, I did not survive WW II in Berlin, or spend five years growing up in DP camps. I did not experience so much incomprehensible sadness after that, like she did.
When I put my mother’s life into context, when I consider all that she went through prior to having me: it is a wonder she was even able to smile, let alone try to give me what little pockets of joy she did have left over to share. So really, despite the few memories I have of her, I am in awe of her. She did a really great job, considering. Had I gone through what she did I don’t think I would have managed to get through any of it.
That said, here are the random bullet points of things I remember from birth to age 12. Strangely, there turned out to be 12 of them. This means there is either a heck of a lot of repression going on in my mind still, or I simply have the world’s worst memory. Ever.
- Age 2: I was on my bed being changed by Beatrice, our live-in au pair. I felt ashamed because I was too old to be wearing a diaper and my older sister was watching me. This is my first memory.
- Age 3: A quick blur of me holding my little sister, Gail. She was giggling, and I was delighted.
- Age 4: My older sister and I playing on the hospital lawn waiting for our parents to come out. A pretty nurse walked by and I said, “Googoo, gaga!” – pretending to be a baby so she would smile at me and give me some attention, and she did. At that point, I had already slipped through the cracks and was pretty much on my own, fending for myself.
- Age 4: My first memory of my mother – she had come home from the hospital and was lying in bed, in pain from her operations.
- Almost 5: Gail had died when I was 4, but we had no funeral or closure, because my parents were beyond grief-stricken. By now they had gone to la-la land, understandably; they were in deep grief, and emotionally I was on my own. In kindergarten I remember suddenly starting to cry. I remember the teacher kneeling down to my level and putting an arm around me, comforting me. She looked into my eyes and asked me what was wrong in such a present way that it surprised me – because no one had ever done that before.
- Age 5: Bringing The Children’s Bible to my mom and asking her to “read to me about the Baby Jesus” – seeing her shoo the book away and tell me to bring another, less ridiculous, book. She didn’t believe in God anymore, after what happened with Gail. I had the thought: I’m never going to ask her to read me this book again.
- Age 6: The strong scent of freshly cut grass, my dad yelling, people running. He had accidentally cut his toes off with the lawnmower.
- Age 7: Trying to drag my mother by her feet from where she was passed out on the floor and into her bedroom. Getting a blanket, putting it over us, and falling asleep on the floor beside her.
- Third grade: I was a child with undiagnosed ADHD and serious anxiety issues, and hopeless at math. I was caught copying the answers out of the back of my math book. I remember the terrible feeling of seeing Mrs. Pike standing behind me with her hands on her hips, shaking her head.
- Fourth grade: A memory of crying myself to sleep, wishing-wishing-wishing that another girl’s mom in the class was mine, or that maybe I could get adopted to another family.
- Fifth grade: Having a friend over for a play-date and the two of us finding my mother sitting on the floor of her bathroom, sobbing.
- 8th grade: Going to Marine World and seeing my mom laugh when the dolphins splashed us. This is one of the few memories I have of seeing her happy and carefree.
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