The Stories We Tell Our Children
Deep into therapy for the last two years I am still deconstructing, and reconstructing in some ways, my early life so that I can exist in my current one. I go to therapy in person now, which I much prefer, to sit across from an older man who is present, intuitive, reflective, has lived, and offers me some help. When we head into my past it’s mostly about my mother, who has been painfully baffling to me for most of my life, but then my therapist will carefully bring up my father and remind me that my dad is part of this picture, his leaving when I was ten years old -- being left by a parent is significant, he will say. Oh yes, I know, I know. I have no unknown, unresolved feelings about his leaving. I spent time with him in my 20’s before he died and reconnected and we’re fine, just fine, he and I . . . in my memories.
I’m reading a book about a middle-aged man listening to his old mother talk about her childhood and I wonder if my children will want to hear about my childhood when I’m old and I wonder what I will say, what small details will emerge as they often do in old age, that at this moment I can’t even recall. Will it just be another recounting of the worst stuff they already know that’s left me with this legacy of longing and anxiety and loneliness? And then a picture of my father in our backyard standing over the barbeque pops into my head, him turning towards me laughing.
This moving picture comes from an actual photograph that I’ve stared at so many times. And I think, there it is, the story an old woman shares with her children. My dad was fun, he started stuff, stirred it up, changed a room when he walked in. He was big and loud and wanted us to think he was that way; that he was having a good time. But it was mostly because he was broiling underneath, trying to find ways to burn his hard feelings off, let them rise, so he would come up with schemes and outings.
And then, as quick as that photograph arrives in my mind, I have the understanding that when he left he had taken my stories, the construction of the rest of my childhood that felt like childhood, that I would someday as an old woman tell my children, if it was real. He was the keeper of the good stuff. He took with him more backyard cook-outs and more neighborhood games and more camping trips and more perfect Christmas trees and more dogs he kept bringing home and neglecting and more furniture he would build in his shop -- like the lovely corner bookcase that couldn’t fit through the bedroom door so he had to take it all apart and reassemble it for my older sister.
The image of a man carrying off in a suitcase my would-be childhood in the dark of night, hits me like a warm flood running through my body, because it makes sense of the yearning for belonging that has been so potent all my life, and the anger and confusion. Yes, of course, I’ve lived with his leaving and known it had a significant effect. In our family story he’s the bad man who left, the black hole that gobbled up everything. Any good pieces got sucked up into the deep recesses and only came forward in weird, obscure flashes.
Now, so many decades into my life, with the help of therapy bringing me closer and closer to myself, the self I've kept under wraps as I was pretty sure she would only bring me pain, I realize that this dad character held in his possession the critical ingredient –– he made the outside world match up with my insides, who I felt I was, even as a kid. Living with this somewhat wild, unpredictable, difficult man overflowing with enthusiasms and ideas and confronting me and hurting me and looking like me made me feel like I was home, a difficult home, but a real one. His life, his being around was communicating something profound to me. By ten years old I had only gotten an inkling of who I was. When he left, that inkling went with him.
And ever since then I’ve been in search of it, that thing which can be found nowhere outside of me, but I’ve spent a lot of my life looking. I do get fleeting glances of it in the eyes of certain men -- erratic, impulsive shiny men with slightly scary faces and big, agile bodies, and adventure in their glances toward me. I love those kinds of men. But I didn’t marry one because the way my story goes those guys can’t be trusted. I married one who stood stock still, and didn’t look away – something brand new. The steady part of me knew that I had found someone important and worth doing my life with. But I’ll never stop glancing around the corner, and it’s time to stop feeling bad about that.
So, what stories will I tell my children when I’m older? The true ones, I suppose, a lot of which they’ve already heard, but hopefully some new ones about their mother, their wild, unpredictable, difficult mother overflowing with enthusiasms and ideas and being confronting and hurtful; a looking-like-them mother. A woman who settled into herself, a woman whose insides finally matched up to her outsides, a woman who wasn’t so afraid to step out into the world, messy bits and all.