In another time and place
In about ten days, it will be five years since I walked away from my parents for good. It’s been a long couple of weeks, partly because of that, and – after a number of false starts and stops – I decided to use this month’s entry to publish something I wrote about my parents for a class a couple years ago. It is still probably the best thoughts I have for them, particularly my mother.
“I know it like the back of my hand,” they say, but I only know the back of his. Details escape me, and it is hard to close my eyes and remember. I cannot pull you back to the childhood memories that left me long ago – I only have scraps left to hold onto myself. But what I know in every cell of my body is him.
I called him daddy until I was 26 years old, and he calls me “little girl” still on rare occasions he sees me. I know every line of his face and I know the way his eyes squint when he is thinking, or about to laugh. To say that I know these things seems too small – even speaking of them, I can summon them and I feel them, in my core, the way the tides feel the moon.
I can picture every line of his hands, which still seem huge in my memory, as if I am still 6 years old and holding them – waiting to cross a street or tugging him with me to come watch Superman with me and protect me from flying Nazi robots. His hands are brown and rough, his arms constantly graced with a farmer’s tan. His cowboy boots give him a particular gait and when I see men with trucker hats and flannel shirts, when I see a stance that looks familiar in the corner of my eye, I feel my cells turn as if they are thirsty, as if he was the only source of water they had ever known.
All of this is true but he is not true. If I tell you all that and then tell you that I do not miss my father, will you call me a liar? I don’t know how to unstitch my DNA. I don’t know how to unpack every subconscious association I placed so haphazardly for so many years (if only someone were there to warn us of the dangers of packing without a plan). I don’t know how to educate each and every cell in my body or how to tell them that isn’t water at all.
I don’t have any of those memories to share with you, mom, and I’m sorry. I don’t remember what your hands looked like or what you sound like when you laugh. I remember you sitting in your chair reading, and it always seems far away. I remember what you looked like when you cried, and I remember that our house always rang with the sound of screaming and slamming doors (mine). I remember you standing in my bedroom doorway, again always out of reach, crying and apologizing again and again. I remember always knowing we would reenact the same thing tomorrow.
Sometimes I feel like I have spent my entire life trying to attach as much meaning to the pieces I have of you as to the ones I have of my father. Scrambling for every scrap of information you gave me and trying to put it into a coherent whole.
I’ve been thinking a lot about alternate timelines recently. I find myself taking comfort in the idea that somewhere in a very vast universe of possibilities, there are many versions of you. And at least a few of those versions are happy. I tell myself a story that may have no meaning for you at all, a story probably based at least as much on me as on you.
I say “Once upon a time there was a girl whose mother didn’t want her,” because I want you to have a chance in my story, a chance to write your own destiny without me having to rewrite your mother’s as well.
I imagine your childhood as much the same. Unhappy, full of books and dreams. I picture every single horse statue you had, and the horse you wanted so badly. But I imagine that you learned to fight back. I imagine you had a friend who was fierce and beautiful in high school and the two of you watched out for each other – a fierce and beautiful team. You once told me that you felt alone because your friend’s parents cared what they did, cared where they went, and yours didn’t. You got to go see Bonnie & Clyde because your parents just didn’t care but none of your friends could come with you. But what if your best friend (we’ll call her Carol) also had parents who didn’t notice where she was? What if you went to the movie together and witnessed this totally new thing happening in front of you? The two of you, sitting next to each other, watching Fay Dunaway on screen (looking like a goddess), bored with her life, ready for adventure. Maybe it felt like possibility to watch, instead of loneliness. Imagine you and your friend, coming out of the movie theater, debating if you would run away with Warren Beatty – imagining running away with each other.
When you and Carol move to the city for college at 18, you immediately get the dog you’ve always wanted – just like you did in our world – but you skip the skeezy 40-year-old boyfriend. You are happy and independent. You date and party and go to class at least periodically. You go to all the sports games you love and you are better at numbers than most of the boys. You can talk stats with the best of them, and spend a lot of time on it while you beat them at pool over and over again in the bars at night with your personal pool stick. Carol does impressions of them as you walk home together at night. Often you fall asleep on the same bed, drunk and tired from laughing all night, with the dog fighting for space between you.
I imagine that this once upon a time you maybe never got married, or if you did, it was to someone completely different. I imagine that you knew you never wanted children and stuck to that. You know that your worth doesn’t rely on being a mother. Maybe you and Carol fall in love, or maybe you meet a man who loves dogs, is crazy impressed by your pool skills, and loves to watch sports with you. Whoever it is, I imagine that they love your sense of humor (which is your best self) and that they tell you that you are beautiful. I imagine that if you ever come back to the church, it is to a totally different one – one where you never listen to James Dobson and the man you marry never listens to Rush Limbaugh. I imagine you have a concept of God that becomes vaster and calmer like the ocean, instead of narrowing to smaller points year by year. Maybe you are conservative, maybe you’re liberal. But I imagine you being more patient about it, able to breathe, able to know that it isn’t your own skin, and that your entire identity does not rest on every conversation.
I imagine you laugh, a lot. I imagine that you learn to accept your limitations and have a couple of good friends, but not a big circle. I imagine that the people who love you learn to love you enough to push below the surface and not let you shut down.
Maybe you become a vet tech like you wanted. I imagine you going back to finish your degree later once you figured out your life, like a lot of us. Or maybe you become an accountant. Whatever it is, you would do it well. In my once upon a time place, I imagine you living in a small house on maybe an acre of land. You would have enough space to have trees and a view of a mountain. You would still be able to count the swans as they migrated. You would still point out every hawk along the freeway. You are a short drive from town. You have two dogs, you have bred countless puppies, and you finally have a horse.