First Chapter from a memoir of a strange life up to about age 16
November first would have been my Mother’s eighty-fifth birthday. She died in 2009 around the same time that Michael Jackson did. That makes it easier to remember. Her death was a strange experience for me and the subject of another little vignette.
In the past few weeks I’ve been at home after a shoulder surgery and not really able to do anything so I’ve been watching a lot of historical documentaries. The thing I keep seeing over and over and over is “Remember this that you’ve seen so that it doesn’t happen again.” Or words to that effect. Of course, we’ve all heard talk like that, wisely considering these expressions of distant horror as they might be applied to the atrocities committed by the Nazis upon the Jews in concentration camps.
I’ve been taking it literally and personally. I was thinking about my history, our history. Thinking about my own life growing up and how I hadn’t thought I really wanted my personal history revisited upon my son. To be clear, I do not think of myself as a victim in any way. Far from it. I consider myself a surviver, a victor. I just kind of “Took the long way home.” It took me a very long time to find my real truth; to learn what mattered in life and what didn’t.
So, I’ve been thinking about my life when I was growing up, which can’t help but involve thinking about the life of my Mother. She was complicated. Why? To what extent? What happened to her? I started thinking about all these things when I was asked, “Did something happen to you guys when you were kids?”
Why would anyone ask a question like that? Pretty obvious, I suppose. Damaged goods. It was my niece, the grown daughter of my brother who had asked via a message on FaceBook, of all things. It’s a funny thing, I feel as if I know her, as if I’m really close to her, but I’ve only seen her maybe two or three times and then it was when she was really little. From a distance, anyway, she reminds me of my better self. She’s smart, athletic, funny. She looks a little bit like I did growing up, but with darker hair. I have a soft spot for her. She could ask me anything and I would tell her. I feel a deep connection for no reason. That connection that comes from being “blood.” When someone does nothing more than resemble you physically. Someone with whom you share some DNA. Sometimes I think if I had a daughter she would look like my niece.
After rolling it around in my mind for a good long while, “Did something happen to you guys when you were kids?” I guess the answer here is both “Yes” and “No.” I wrote what I could think of that may help answer the question about what “coming of age” was like for me, and maybe, to a lesser extent, for my siblings.
What, if anything, happened to us? Or was it that nothing happened to us that made life so hard? I always, and I do mean always, felt as if I was waiting for something to happen. I didn’t know what, but something. There was always change in the air.
My brother Daniel once told me, “It was like being raised in a vacuum!” I was stunned since he usually didn’t make much sense, in my opinion, at least after we were adults. I had never heard anything that described our particular situation with so much clarity, so much precision. I didn’t know what exactly made it so, or why it felt so true, I just knew that it was true. It was my truth. It was our truth. Our one shared thing was our shared past as children. But it was only the truth of our past. This, whether or not he would remember or forget it in the future, was our one shared thing. It was, as the alcoholics would say, his moment of clarity.
Our shared past wasn’t meant to be our fate. It wasn’t our destiny. It was only the truth of our past. It didn’t mean anything. It didn’t have to hold any power over our lives. It was just something to remember. Just like all those historical documentaries warn us. It is, I believe, reflecting on things, the recipe for sociopathy. It’s like when dogs or cats aren’t handled enough when they’re puppies or kittens and then they’re so mean and awful later. Biting people and then having to be “put down.” The animal equivalent of humans being sent to Death Row and ultimately, the Electric Chair or the Lethal Injection Chamber. I’m somehow fascinated by the work of Forensic Psychiatrist Park Dietz and FBI profiler Candice De Long, both of whom have worked with a lot of serial killers and other people who killed and/or did very bad things to other people because they just didn’t know how to handle life. They didn’t know how to cope. They often describes their lives in ways that scare me a little bit in that they sound and therefore feel a little too familiar. Sort of like my own. Raised in nothingness. Cut off from family, friends, extended family. Socially isolated for one reason or another. Constant upheaval. Fear, motion, change. Violence, alcohol, abandonment, weird religious practices, incest. Like those people, we had it all.
My brother also has a way of both remembering and forgetting the way things were when we were growing up. I think that’s referred to as a “coping skill.” Maybe it’s just survival. I can only speak for myself. Although we were siblings, our lives were all very different. In our later years during boarding school, it was as if we were each one an “only child,” since typically only one would be home at a time.
We lost touch with those other mysterious ghosts who had escaped from our Mother’s womb and lived somewhere doing something. We all emerged with wounds and some skills I would guess. Hopefully more skills than wounds. Here again, I can only speak for myself. We are, as adults, complete strangers. Since the death of our Mother in 2009, we have lost all reason to connect. She was the single thing we had in common. Our Mother.