I started a piece for Mother’s Day about my mother. Somehow, words were inadequate.
I started a piece about the Freedom of Information Act and open (transparent) government. The more I wrote, the less I liked how I was writing.
Going on the record – as a person or a public figure – has benefits and drawbacks. I would not want to criticize my mother – although my brother and I can laugh at her cooking, that’s not what she was about.
And I wouldn’t want to criticize anyone in public office for being candid about their views – although I spend a lot of time trying to be careful about what I say, unless I’m writing to someone who knows me well.
So instead of all those woulda / coulda pieces I may yet be able to write, I’ll share a story about memory.
When I was almost 9 years old, my grandfather died. This wasn’t much of an issue for my heart, but did mean that my grandmother sold the farm and moved into the house where my family had been living – and we moved out. The move itself was a point of interest to me. I got my own room for the first time in my life. And we moved tons of books in a little red wagon, trip after trip, from the old house to the new house (neither was ‘new’ in the sense of being recently built, but you know . . . ) Another outcome was that my grandmother now lived in walking distance of my family. If I thought about this at all – and who remembers the drama of being 9? – I thought it would mean that my grandmother would get to know us, love us, and spend time with us.
OK, I wanted a story-book grandmother. I also wanted a story-book attic, and a story-book life. Ahhh, childhood.
We never did spend much time with our grandmother.
The year I was 10 or so, my older brother and I were tasked with helping my grandmother with some gardening. I don’t remember how it happened, but I do remember the job: we were to hand-pick all the bagworms off the foundation evergreens, and she would pay us for the work. I don’t recall what the bargain might have been, but it was a certain amount per worm – maybe a penny. This task – hot, summer work without gloves – was slow, painful and seemed unnecessary to my child’s heart. But I was there, with my brother, and it wasn’t all bad.
And maybe we picked 200, because he wanted a dollar. I don’t remember caring about the money – I did it because my parents asked (told) us to, my brother and I spent time together, and my grandmother was almost nice to us. It was enough for me.
That’s what I remember.
My brother – just 18 months older, but living a completely different internal life – remembers that we clearly picked many more bagworms than my grandmother had expected us to. She paid us – he says – half of the bargained amount. He is angry about it to this day. And is regularly surprised that I don’t share his anger, because it was such a betrayal of relationships, contracts, and his childhood expectations about both.
My brother learned to get any business relationship in writing. He learned that what you promise a child, you pay. And if you have financial limits, you set the terms accordingly.
I learned that doing favors for others doesn’t change their attitudes toward you. My brothers and I were never close to my grandparents – and it wasn’t in our control to change that. I also learned that focusing on the bad things that happen just make me bitter and unforgiving.
Forgiving is much easier if you don’t embrace all the negatives. But while my brother never forgave my grandmother – I just forgot. Not important to me, didn’t shape my life, didn’t seriously affect my relationships with others.
By the time my brother and I were adolescents, we had begun telling people that we weren’t related – I had two brothers, and he had a brother and a sister. I couldn’t figure out why this fooled anyone, but it did. And now, I sometimes tell people about how my brothers and I lived in completely different families – with the same parents and siblings, but completely different lives.
And very different childhoods.