I didn’t start writing and sorting things out about my mother until she died. That was about a year ago.
I’ve been telling stories about her for years and when I finally started to write some things down, I was surprised at times by what I remembered and what I didn’t.
For instance I have no memory of any Christmas, Thanksgiving escapes me and Birthdays for some reason creates the same discomfort I get at Christmas, but with very little memory. I always figured I didn’t remember for a reason.
I remember that she called me sunshine once, but I also remember thinking even at that very young age, that it was really strange and I wondered what was going on to make her do that. When she was mad at me she called me Donna, it used to make me mad….There wasn’t a Donna in our house. Donna was their first daughter who died tragically about 13 years before I was born. My mother was 8 months pregnant with my oldest brother when she died and back in the 40s you just kind of pulled up your boot straps and got on with life. There was no such thing as grief counseling or therapy then. I believe this is the reason my mother never connected with me. She just pulled up her boot straps and decided two boys for children was good enough. When the “oops baby” showed up, she wasn’t prepared for the “new girl”. I had an “AHA Moment” when I was in my late 40’s about her calling me Donna. We were having one of customary arguments about how I don’t call enough, come see her enough and so on, when she called me Donna. For the first time, I shot back with “I”M NOT DONNA!”. As soon as I heard myself say that I realized what the true problem was, I’m not Donna, and being me was never going to be good enough.
There wasn’t ever a time, when I had a connection with her. Friends of my mothers from the old neighborhood used to tease her about how she could sit me down someplace and I wouldn’t move, wouldn’t want anything, wouldn’t play….I’d just sit there.
After she died, I pulled out all of the old family pictures, which were in slide format. About 6 years earlier, I had all the family slides scanned into digital files. It was a time when she was turning 88 and I was having a party for her at my house. I had even invited the two brothers, we don’t speak to each other so it was kind of a big deal. I made a music video with the pictures and made a disc for everyone to take home. No one really wanted it, but it filled the time so it wasn’t necessarily a waste. So now she’s gone and I pulled up the slides on my computer, I thought they would produce some profound emotion or trigger some memories I might be suppressing. Although I saw myself in some of the slides, I didn’t remember being there.
The sand dunes by Lake Michigan were a place you could go with your family and climb up to the very top and run all the way down. The sand is a very light tan, almost white. In the summer the sand can burn your feet and climbing the dunes requires a real stick to it kind of frame of mind, they’re BIG!
I know we went there a lot, the pictures say we did. So my very first memory is climbing the dunes with my family. I was very small, probably around 3 or so. My family had all made it up to the top of the dunes, I wasn’t able to make the climb at that very young age. The sand was very hot and kept shifting as I continued to try to make the climb, but for every step I took, I ended up two steps behind. I remember the hot sun beating down on my very blond curls and burning my head. I knew I wasn’t going to make it to the top. I couldn’t see my family, but I knew they were no where near me and had gone on without me. I hunkered down into the sand dune and feeling the heat above me and the hot sand below me, I knew I wasn’t going to make it. I was pretty sure that’s where I was going to die and I was at peace with that. I didn’t expect anyone in my family to come and get me. I didn’t cry out for my mother or even cry out in pain. I was good right there, thinking this was the end.
As I have recalled that memory over the years, the only thought I really had about it was at such a young age, I knew I wasn’t connected to these people and they would leave me high and dry. Even at the age of 3, death seemed to be the only alternative to the thought that my mother would come and get me. It was all very peaceful. I laid in the sand wondering what death would be like. Would I just fall asleep there in the hot sand or would it be painful?
More than 50 years later, I’m looking at the family slides on my 27″ iMac and come across the picture above. My Mother (on the right) and another woman (I have no idea who she is) are having their picture taken. Now that this picture was enlarged to fit my computer screen I can see on the other side of the dune, a very tiny blond head stuck in the sand. I had never seen this before. I said, OMG, that’s me! My mother has no idea there’s a little girl stuck in the sand waiting to die. Making this exclamation got my dog to come out of his state of slumber and see just who I was talking to!
It seemed like I had just had a memory validated, but what good was that going to do me now? As I scrolled through more pictures, I realized there were never any pictures ever taken of me with someone holding me. When I got to be maybe 10 or so, all my curly blond hair was gone….All the pictures of me look as if I have no life left inside me.
This process made me curious as to what my children’s earliest memories were….I’ll save that for another time.