I’ve always been plagued with having a horrible memory. I know people who can recall every detail from elementary school, every friend they sat with at lunch and every birthday gift they ever received. If it wasn’t for one of my best friends who has that kind of memory, my high school years would be a blur. If it wasn’t for my journals, my past would be mostly lost. My childhood memories are even more splotchy and since I didn’t grow up with people who like to talk about things, I’ve been left to fill in the gaps with snippets of memory and innuendo. My dad can give you an entire history of our family on both sides of the ocean but he shies away from the kind of questions I’ve always wanted to ask.
Why did you marry my mother? What did your 20 year old self see in a 25 year old woman with 4 kids? Why did you get divorced?
Since I didn’t feel comfortable pressing my dad for answers, I asked people on the periphery, who weren’t even there when it all happened. They shed some light but I always felt like my story was incomplete. When I’d ask similar questions of my mom, the timing was always off. I’d ask her when she was drinking, or when I was drinking and I never felt like I had the puzzle pieces I was looking for. Eventually I stopped asking.
I have a big family and 6 half-siblings. I have cousins I’ve never met and nieces and nephews I barely know. I remember being at a family gathering a little over a year ago and watching one of my nieces sit awkwardly and uncomfortably in her chair. I always thought I was the resident outsider but as I looked around, I saw that in one way or another, we were all awkward and uncomfortable with each other.
Not too long ago, that same niece sent me an email asking me if I was willing to answer some questions about our family. I could feel her trepidation through her written words and they felt so familiar; that need to find answers, the hope that those answers will make her feel whole and complete. I know those feelings well. I was so proud of her for having the courage to seek the answers and I wanted to help.
I did my best to provide information but realized that I didn’t know all of the answers myself. I had stopped asking long ago or had been afraid to ask in the first place for fear of bringing up sensitive subjects that would upset everyone. As we corresponded, it occurred to me that there was nothing holding me back from asking those questions now.
I’m 44 years old and it’s time I get some answers. I’m considerate and caring and I can approach this in a loving, healthy way. I’m going to do it. I’m going to ask every question I’ve ever wanted to ask.
I decided to start with my mom because we’ve grown very close over the years. She stopped drinking nearly 18 years ago, me nearly 3 and I knew this conversation would be different from the kind we used to have. I didn’t want to jump right out of the gate and ask, “Why did you divorce my dad? Why did you drink?” I started slowly, asking about my grandparents.
We talked about her parents and how Granddad placed an ad for a wife and Mamo responded, about how they moved from Indiana to Arizona to ease Mamo’s arthritis. She reminisced about the family road trips back to Indiana that they used to take each summer and the friends she played with. We talked about what it was like for my mom to be pregnant at 15, living in a 2 room shack behind her in laws’ 4 room shack, about how much she loved her in laws despite the fact that they didn’t speak the same language and about how she had to cut her new husband down after he tried to hang himself for the first time. I found myself asking questions about her life that I had never thought to ask before, questions that had nothing to do with me or my upbringing yet the answers revealed everything about where I came from and told me more about myself than I ever knew was possible.
The questions that I originally came to have answered didn’t seem relevant anymore. They didn’t weigh as much as they did when I first walked in the door and seemed to float away into insignificance. Unwittingly, I had allowed those old questions to define me and let the lack of answers tell me that I was incomplete. Now, a whole new set of questions and answers set me free from the idea that there would ever be conclusive evidence for why my life was the way it was when I was a kid or why it had turned out the way it had. My life began to look more like a tapestry where each individual thread had little significance on its own and where the beauty could only be seen by stepping back from it. Interestingly, it was the back side, with all its bumpy nubs and poking threads that was the most revealing of all.
I left my mom’s not knowing if I would ever ask either of my parents the questions I thought I wanted to ask. After all, I lived those experiences and even if I didn’t remember the details, they were inside of me and somehow still accessible. I left knowing that I knew enough and that I am enough.