Now that dad’s gone and mom is 84 years old and slowly losing her memory, I find myself trying to put together the puzzle pieces of my life. Of their lives. Of how our lives intersected. And, how it all made me into the person I am today.
This quest is generating more questions than answers.
I remember very little from childhood. I have what I call snapshot memories, because that’s what they feel like. Moments in time, preserved like a photograph in my memory bank. I don’t recall what preceded the photo or what followed. Interestingly, most of these snapshots don’t include my mother. I find myself asking, was she there? Of course she was. I know she was. I feel her presence. I just don’t see her. I wonder why?
What I do remember are signs of her.
Evidence she was there. Her stamp clearly imprinted on our family. For example, I recall as clear as day the professionally curated living room she put together with the help of an interior decorator from Alan Jones Interiors. Why on earth do I remember the name of the interior design firm and that it was located in the Vons shopping center about a mile from our house? Why do I remember the living room furniture and not mom? I can see the coffee table with its elegant gold leaf base and glass top, with a tint of green on its thick beveled edges. And the cream-colored sofa we weren’t allowed to sit on for fear we’d soil it.
I suppose it makes sense I remember these furnishings as they’re still in mom and dad’s house, and I stayed there three times last year while visiting. But what about the gold striped velveteen chairs that originally flanked the sofa? I remember them too, and they’ve been gone for years. Mostly what I remember is we never used that room. In fact, I don’t think my siblings and I were even allowed to go into the living room. Well, except when it was time for chores.
The chore I remember most is dusting.
It was my job to dust the entire house each week. I distinctly remember the wrought iron that divided the living room from the entryway—floor to ceiling metal dividers comprised of scrolls and curls painted Navajo White to match the walls. I was responsible for dusting all those intricate scrolls and curls every Saturday. I’d wrap the dust rag around my index finger and run it through every inch of that curved metal, standing on a foot stool so I could reach the top. My siblings and I each had our own set of chores to complete before we could begin our weekend. We’d clean the entire house for mom. What I don’t recall is where mom was while we were cleaning. Perhaps she was supervising. I do remember getting scolded for dusting around knick-knacks on the furniture instead of picking them up.
Another of my chores was packing lunches, five of them every night.
After the dinner dishes were washed—I don’t recall whose chore that was—I’d spread out five brown paper sacks and proceed with my assembly line process of making five identical lunches. One for dad—he was a middle school teacher and like us kids, he took his lunch to school every day—and one for me and each of my siblings. Five sandwiches, five pieces of fruit, five baggies of potato chips, and five baggies with two cookies each. Mom would have been the one to instruct me to make them all exactly that way, but the only memory I have is of standing at the kitchen counter and filling those brown paper bags, night after night after night.
I remember the forest green Qiana skirt mom sewed for me to wear to my first formal high school dance.
While my friends went shopping with their mothers for fancy dresses, mom made outfits for me and my sister. I’m guessing because it was the more budget-friendly choice—my parents never keeping it a secret that money was tight raising a family of six on a teacher’s salary. What stands out in my mind about that clingy green floor length skirt was mom telling me to hold in my tummy. Looking back I had no tummy to hold in. I was a twiggy young teen, devoid of curves, so that skirt pretty much hung from my waist straight down to the floor.
I remember a Halloween party mom and dad hosted when I was in high school.
The house crowded with neighbors decked out in festive costumes and imbibing in food and drink, I specifically remember a neighbor I used to babysit for. My impression had always been that she and her husband were quite religious and conservative. Yet there she was wearing a black dominatrix costume. Her pale, voluptuous body pouring out of a strappy black leather bustier and fishnet stockings. Yet, I have no idea what costume mom was wearing that night. What I do remember is being in the kitchen with mom and a few neighbors and hearing her say, “I’ve never been drunk in my life.”
My brother—who has been living with me since dad died—often shares stories he remembers from our childhood, which further illuminates how little I recall.
The other day he asked if I remembered what mom and dad gave me for my high school graduation. When I admitted I did not, he proceeded to tell me they gifted me and my twin sister each a one hundred dollar bill, which I used to buy a car stereo. I have no recollection of the monetary gift or the stereo I apparently purchased with it, but I vividly remember grandma giving me a gold Cross pen and pencil set. I wonder why I remember the gift from grandma and not the gift from my parents?
When I look back at my childhood, the snapshot memories include riding my purple Schwinn bike, with its banana seat and high sissy bar, around the cul-de-sac on Lanewood Court. I remember playing on the swing set in the backyard and getting my tooth caught in the chain when I dropped to the ground, yanking it out and causing quite a ruckus because it was the weekend and we had to find a dentist that was open and could treat me. I remember getting hit in the temple by a thrown rock while walking home from school and going to the doctor and getting a white butterfly bandage—not stitches. I remember spending time at my friend Laura’s house, eating delicious chocolate and coconut haystack cookies her mom baked in the middle of the day.
Mom is not present in a single one of these snapshots.
As a stay-at-home mom she would have been home while I was riding my bike or eating cookies with Laura, who lived just down the street. She and dad would have driven me to the dentist the day I accidentally yanked out my permanent tooth. Or, even if dad took me and mom stayed home with my siblings, she would have cared for me after the accident. That’s what moms do. And she would have been the one to take me to the doctor for that butterfly bandage because dad would have been at work.
It’s not that I feel like I didn’t have a mom, or that she wasn’t there to care for me. My twin sister and I are the oldest of four children, born to our parents within a span of five years. Mom may simply have been busy taking care of my younger brothers.
When I was 19 years old and mom was sad I was moving out, I remember dad telling her, “Well, you raised her to be independent, what did you expect?”
Maybe I don’t remember her being there because she was indeed raising me to be independent by giving me space. Or, perhaps because she was always there, it’s just not memorable. In the same way I stop noticing the holes left in the wall after I decide to rearrange pictures. They’re still there, I just no longer see them.
My lack of detailed childhood memories was never an issue until I decided to write memoir.
Memoir literally means memories in French. As I mine my life for content, I’m unearthing more questions than stories. Dad’s gone, so I can’t ask him. Asking mom only serves to remind us both that her brain doesn’t work the way it used to. So I keep looking and hoping if I tickle my memory cells enough, they’ll begin to awaken and shed more light on my past. In the meantime, I’m trying to be satisfied with remembering small details and maybe more importantly, how situations made me feel. I’m finding as I excavate those feelings I’m starting to understand myself and my life journey a little more clearly. Ultimately that’s my goal in tackling the genre of memoir; to pore over my life and uncover a theme—a story with meaning and a message—that others may resonate with and can potentially learn from.