Before I was born and before my parents had moved into the building where I grew up, they lived in a few other apartments in our neighborhood. They described these apartments and their idiosyncrasies with fondness, but also to shock a person with what people might put up with in order to “make it” in New York City: an oven door that when opened blocked the front door, a plywood partition that was all that separated them from their neighbors in the landlord’s eagerness to increase the number of units on the floor. The neighbors on the other side were a lesbian couple who argued and had affairs, providing more detail into the intimate lives of others than my mother had been party to in her North Carolina sorority house. I picture the apartments as being like the minimal set of The Fantasticks, which I was taken to one birthday, in a nearby lower-ground space, with air shaft windows which would have been covered over so you could not hear the sounds upstairs of dishes being washed in the sink, which was the way we did things back then.
My father liked to tell the story of how my mother had installed kitchen shelving and on the shelves placed jars of dried beans and lentils. He was impressed—how had she mounted the brackets?—and then alarmed by the answer: strong, double-faced tape.
They had a dog and cat with ESP, who would rush to the door when one of my parents reached the end of the block. In looking through the photos, I recognize the wicker lantern, but what happened to their fabulous white leather chair? A few photos and a lifetime of hearing the same handful of anecdotes do not provide much clarity into the murky past of your parents’ lives before you. The modern apartment in my father’s photos looks nothing like the one where I grew up, where the style of furniture was dark and Victorian and their possessions multiplied and grew to fill the space and a child took over their lives and turned them from young modern people into parents.
Am I the only mom who worries about burdening her children after death with journals and notebooks detailing my past? They do and don’t want to know these things and much of it will be of little interest because it will not succinctly answer the questions about the person I was who influenced who they became. It will not spell out that which they had only felt in their bones. At what point do I give these things a last look through and pitch them to protect myself from embarrassment and them from the banality and trivia of my own youth? What explanations of yourself do you owe your children? They may surprise you now and then, but at their core, you know who they are. Possibly none.
Our parents are always a mystery, their lives before you a kind of incomplete mythology. Even now, when my mother and I cover familiar ground in her past, there are missing details, entire storylines to be guessed at. On Mother’s (and Father’s) Day it is now a tradition to post a photo of the parent whose day it is on social media. An international day of paging through family scrapbooks and thinking back. The family resemblances of the two- and three- generation photos are striking. The day has been a stream of time travel, Kodachromes and black and whites, of mothers and babies, of our mothers as children or as young women before motherhood, in which, by our absence, we bestow upon them the gift of being themselves in their own right, yet still define and claim them in context: That woman, whoever she may be, is my mother. Even if they sat you down and said, I want to explain it all to you, you would still be looking for dissonance, your own truth. We were happy. There was always something. It’s my story.