Families in Public

Are anxiety-provoking. Not because of the inherent chaos – the toddler that loses a shoe that’s run over by a backing-up Ford Explorer, or the carseat that fails to buckle properly while the grocery cart rolls to a halt in the middle of the parking lot – but because of how absent such events are from grown-up memory.

Homes are degrees of broken. Breaking gradually, relationships might stall or stop as new families erupt and generate a gravity-like pull to the center, the nucleus. Or, as in my case, scarring fireworks might clip off supposedly-unconditional bonds.

Breakfasting this morning with a girl I mentor, she told me how upset she is when she hears her friends or her boyfriend conversing easily with parents and relatives. I told her I relate. Kind questions about my family and how well they are doing can trigger envy, resentment, rage, sadness and self-hatred in me.

I don’t remember the warm parts of the chaos of childhood, at least not accurately. Subsequent events overshadow them.

I think of talks with my mother in the car. How we sat together, sometimes unspeaking, with sun flashing between the trees and remnants of snow on the ground. Of how she would put out her arm to shield me from sudden stops when I sat in the passenger seat.

But the undercurrent violence wins. “I will not see you again.” “I will not want to.” Images in my memory bear these lines like watermarks.

Most often, I think of how my mother once left my younger brother in a department store. Of how she swore as she turned the car around. And the memories don’t make me want to look back.

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Tree Falls

IMG_2051Trees are blocking our driveway at home. It’s been so warm; they are probable casualties of lightning and rain, the same furious storms that lash the lake with lightning in summer.

I’m in a desert miles away, but my father texted me six pictures of our blocked driveway, with the unhelpful caption, ‘driveway blocked by trees.’ I don’t need the images to understand the problem and I don’t know why, when I am so far away, it is important for me to know about trees falling at home.

When my father sends me texts like this, my frustration softens when I realize that this will be his old age. Mundane images and snippets of life might be thrust at me.

I imagine my father’s mechanical approach to the trees. He will measure them or use rope to hitch them to the car. He will drag those trees back to the little forest in our yard. He will call me, impressed with their weight, and eager to share the facts of how trees are moved, in case I have to move them someday.

It was the same when I was younger. He would explain how to build a trailer and show me the progress he’d made. I would stand outside and listen to the wind and watch his eyes, his excitement at knowing what to do. I would feel the damp in the air, the ground sinking into the shape of my footprints. Sometimes I’d watch the light fade and grow and fade, or the sky darken.

I am not surprised by the land. So, a tree falls.

Still Face

I don’t know if I read it into my memory.

She would sit at the table, sorting receipts or reading, or clearing out the accumulated contents of her purse. I would be outside or in the living room, playing or drawing or coming home from school, dropping my backpack  on the floor with the front door slamming shut behind me.

She would be there in front of me, focusing through her glasses on whatever she was seeing. I would interrupt her to show her a drawing or to tell her, unprompted, about the fascinating events of my earlier grades. About playground drama, the scandals or how I was mad at a friend, or confused.

“Mom,” I’d say.

“Mom,” I’d say. I know at least once when I tried to show her a drawing she said, ‘that’s nice dear,’ without looking up.

But some or most times, she wouldn’t answer me. I was so curious then about whatever she was doing, and a little incensed that there might be something more important to my mother than me. Maybe she explained, but I don’t remember what she did that resulted in her strained and exclusive attention.

In those moments when she didn’t respond to me, I would look at how her hair fell after she ran her fingers through it, or out the back window into the yard. Or I would look down at the pages before her and try to make sense of the shapes. They seemed like long moments. That’s what concerns me.

I learned in linguistics about this phenomenon called the ‘still face’ effect. Children whose mothers do not engage with them for a period of roughly three minutes become ‘sober,’ or anxious, and then try to stimulate in their mothers the same standard pattern of interaction. The phenomenon showed how social infants are in their attempts to re-engage their mothers, and has been widely demonstrated and used to investigate the limits of an infant’s perspective.

My mother was depressed. And I know that now. Because the phenomenon occurs with depressed parents, I wonder whether those moments I remembered are remembered because of her unresponsive, still face. Because the frequency of still face reactions children experience is thought to be predictive of later attachment styles, I wonder if those were the moments when I inherited her depression.

I can’t know whether she was in pain in those specific moments, or if she was simply ignoring an annoying and overactive toddler. So when I sort through those moments, built of sparse memories and contradictions, I realize I don’t know what’s true.

I start to fear unconscious replication, but find that I can’t acknowledge everything. Maybe the solution is to practice intentional silence.

Old Journal Entry: Mom

I found this in an old journal, and I wanted to capture it here:

Dear Diary,

My father says I need a mother, when my hair is out of place. It doesn’t matter that I’m eighteen.

On the plane this past Christmas he watched a minute of this Turkish movie with me, where a granddaughter described how her grandmother folded jasmine into her clothing. The granddaughter says the scent is nostalgic.

Dad said he knew Mom wasn’t a mother when he saw a little girl beg her mother to French braid her hair at a cocktail party. But my mother curled my hair with her fingers before bed. At least until the third grade.

And I remember when this ended. It began as an ache in my stomach and I was out sick that week and I made myself pizza while my Mom worked. When the bleeding started I knew what it was but I asked for help anyways (it did not come).

When I was sick the next week I went to the nurse, to stare out the window and be sent home.

House was empty.

Just some blood.

And I am teaching myself motherhood.