Excerpt: 'Not Becoming My Mother'

"I'm glad I'm over here and not at home.It's so hard to keep pure ideals at home when all anybody talks about is society."

The letter went on, a virtuous little screed about living an upright life. This sister sounded like such a Goody Two- shoes, so different from my dynamic mother, that I began to wonder why Mom had loved her with such fierceness.

Still trying to picture this long- dead aunt, I spotted the signature and realized that it did not belong to her after all: My mother, seventeen, had signed the letter. This was not the young Mom I had imagined, and I released the letter, heart beating, to peer down into the box.

It was utter chaos, a jumble of voices belonging to people who died long ago. Letters from dozens of different friends and family members, shopping lists, unused prescriptions and newspaper clippings were crammed in, helter- skelter. Time telescoped around me as I pulled out the yellowing bits of paper and began to read, rocketing dizzyingly from 1924 to 1988 and back again.

Mom did not keep what any normal person would call a diary, but constantly wrote notes on scraps of paper. They were threaded through the pile of letters like shouts from the past, eager to be heard. Who was she writing to? What was she trying to say? And would I have the courage to listen?

I wasn't sure. Looking for a sign, I closed my eyes and picked up a note at random, the way you open up a fortune cookie or consult a Magic 8- Ball. If the words told me to, I would close the box and let the past lie undisturbed. But if they beckoned me forward I would follow them and go searching for my mother.

I opened my eyes and looked at the note in my hand. Mom had been an old lady when she scrawled these words across the paper. "Who am I? What do I want? Why do I stand in my own way so often? It's not good enough to say that my mother thought self- analysis was self- indulgent. She's been dead for 25 years. I need to find me."

Could the message have been clearer? And so I began traveling through the box, trying to answer my mother's questions. As I sorted out the handwriting I got to know my grandparents, who both died when I was small. I discovered that my father was an ardent lover, a wonderful writer, and deeply romantic. But mostly I met my mother— as a little girl, a hopeful young woman and an increasingly unhappy older one. And the more I came to know this woman, the more grateful I became that I did not have to live her life.

Mom turned out to be very little like the comic character of the Mim Tales. She was more thoughtful, more self- aware and much more generous than I had ever appreciated. Getting to know her now, I realized how much I missed by not knowing her better when she was still alive.

But there was something more. As I came to know this new person, I began to see how much I owe her. Mom may not have realized her dreams, but that did not make her bitter. She did not have a happy life, but she wanted one for me. And she made enormous emotional sacrifices to make sure that my life would not turn out like hers.

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