Meg was at the Decatur (Georgia) Book Festival this weekend. I started looking at Google Maps while we were talking and told her she was only a couple of blocks from 216 Avery Street, the house where my mother grew up. Oh look, I said, there’s Winona Park school. That’s where she went to elementary school. How do you remember that? Meg said. I didn’t. I saw the name on the map and the memory shimmered back into focus. Not just that she went there, but that it was up the hill from her house and when she came home each day, her father, a history professor at Agnes Scott college, just around the next block, was there, usually on his way to play tennis with one of his pals.
Mom’s father, the historian, lived to be almost one hundred. He wrote a history of our family that is engagingly packed with births and deaths and life passages. I know, for instance, that I am a distant relative of Colonel John Page of Colonial Virginia and of Judge Alfred Foot of New York and his wife, Jane Campbell Foot, for whom my mother’s mother was named. I have silver spoons and whatnot from generations of Foots and Pages and Davidsons.
But I don’t know why my mother, who died almost exactly seven years ago, at age eighty-four, was the way she was. Some things about her don’t need explaining: her kindness, her wisdom, her gentle spirit. But as to others, I just ask myself, man, oh, man, how did she get that way? The trouble is: I didn’t ask her.
I know so little about what happened when mom got home from those days at Winona Park school. Did her father sit on the porch steps with her and ask about her day before he went off for tennis? Did her mother have a snack waiting for her? I know she played piano beautifully and that when her piano teacher said she was good enough to play in concerts she stopped playing rather than go on stage. Was that the first sign of the anxiety that would plague her all her life? Did her parents know? Did they understand how bad it was, or was it a secret she kept? Did she tell them she was just tired of piano?
Her father moved from Agnes Scott to Vanderbilt University and Mom met my father there. He was charming and mercurial. Maybe bi-polar, I now think. Or perhaps he had narcissistic personality disorder. That’s popular now. All I know is that by the time I was paying attention, he was alternating between acts of extravagant generosity and marathon scoldings. Mom was in the background. Like a frightened villager at the foot of a smoldering, belching volcano. That’s the way I remember her in those days: in the background. Later I came to understand that she was being driven underground to an emotionally subterranean place where she could survive.
And survive she did. My father died at fifty and she lived another thirty-four years without him. Alone. But maybe that was better for her than being with him. Gradually she came back to herself. At the end, she was the mother I remember from my early childhood. Sweet and kind. Still anxious, but not truly afraid.
When you’re a kid, everything is about you. Your parents are something to be dealt with, not understood. When you’re an adult, especially near the end of an aging parent’s life, everything is about them. Day-to-day, that comes down to what you need to do to help them. Which is just another version of everything is about you, I suppose.
I did a lot for Mom near the end of her life. For ten or fifteen years, I was the parent and she was the child. You know how it is with children: you want to understand them, but most of your time is taken up keeping them safe and making sure they eat right. You try to amuse them too. That’s they way it is with aging parents. I kept Mom safe, made sure she had good care when she needed it, and tried to amuse her. I tried hard, but to this day I don’t think I did enough for her. Not a day goes by when I don’t wish I had done more.
And now I’m beginning to realize I have yet another regret. I wish I had tried harder to understand her. Not who she was. I could see that. I could see what needed treating. But why she was that way. Were her parents emotionally aloof to that little girl who went to Winona Park school? Did she never feel good enough for them? I could see my father’s rages, but what did they mean for her? When did they start? Did she, like a battered wife, feel they were her fault?
Some families may tell those stories. The whys, not just the whats. They’re hard, though. Hard to ask. Hard to tell. We fill in the blanks as we need to. In real-time, we do more coping than understanding. But later, after someone is gone, the longing to understand begins. Without the press of everyday events, there is time and space. And there is guilt. Guilt is a great catalyst for the desire to understand. Maybe in the hope that you’ll discover that it wasn’t your fault. That you couldn’t have done more. That nothing you could have done would have made a difference.
I wrote a novel that fictionalizes some of my life. Mom is in there. In the novel I explain her. I fill in the blanks. Now, years after her death, and a year or so after that novel, I have trouble remembering what was true and what I made up. Maybe I didn’t make it up. Maybe it was in there on some subconscious level, waiting for me to reach some place of peace and release that would permit it to show itself.
I was at dinner with a friend last night who is making arrangements for the last year or so of his mother’s life. He’s a good son. She has been living nearby and he’s been good to her. Now he is considering having her move to be near his sister in another state, where care is much cheaper. He feels conflicted, ambivalent and, already, guilty. He wants what’s best for her, but he can’t help wondering if he doesn’t also long for release from day-to-day responsibility for her. I told him we all go through that. I told him he’s a good man. I told him that whatever he does he’s going to feel guilty about it. When she dies, he’ll wish he’d done more. No matter how much he does, he’ll wish he’d done more.
I’m going to see him this afternoon. We’e going to the driving range to hit some golf balls, something I used to love to do with my father. I’m going to tell him the other thing I’ve realized: when his mom is gone, not only is he going to wish he’d done more for her, he’s going to wish he’d asked her more about herself, about the person who was inside the woman he knew as his mother.
Maybe there’s still time for him to avoid that second regret. I don’t think so, though. Our parents’ lives are only truly mysteries after it’s too late to ask.