“Sit back and shut up you stupid fool!”
My mother barreled down the rural two-lane black top at 80-miles-per-hour in her turquoise finned Comet. She was in dogged pursuit and edging closer to the car not fifty feet in front of us. Behind the wheel of the black Chevy Bel Air was John. In the sultry summer of 1968 John was her second husband. My stepfather. Although I would not know that for two more years. In the summer of 1968 I still believed he was my dad. My biological father. I even told friends I looked like him.
An hour earlier my mother had caught John canoodling with a voluptuous redhead near the man made lake at Ontelaunee Park in New Tripoli, Pennsylvania. There was a confrontation, a race to the cars and then the chase. My mother and her husband roared down the road toward the final settlement of their differences and I, from the back seat of the Comet, pretended this was nothing out the ordinary. That was my job, pretending nothing was wrong. I was only ten years old, but it was a job I was good at.
The cars pulled tight into our dirt drive in a cloud of dust. My mom pushed and pulled me toward the house.
“Get in your room.”
This was not the time to protest. I did as I was told. I knew she wanted me in my room so I would not see what was going to happen next. But I did see. Mom used all her weight in the struggle to get the front door shut and locked. John was too fast and too strong. From the other side he threw his own weight against the wood. On the second or third attempt the door flew open. My mom was knocked off her feet and landed hard on the floor. John straddled her, made a fist and began to swing.
Ten minutes later, it was over. Mom iced her face and looked for her Max Factor cover up. They were in a band at the time, Johnny and the Texas Tophands, and they had a gig that night.
When I was in grade school we played a game called Whisper Down the Alley. With our desks all in a row, the first student was handed a message that had to be whispered down a line of children. But as the words tickled ear after ear forgetfulness or a fit of giggles scrambled the meaning until the original intent was lost.
Research suggests that our memories are a little bit like that game. Each time we re-remember, the story changes. At first it might be the small details. Was John driving the Bel Air or did he have the Corvair? Was it the summer of 1968 or sixty-nine? Did my mother land on the floor to take the blows to her face or did she fight back? Over time, as more details change, the entire memory changes until we have to ask: is it a memory at all or a story we’ve created.
The only proof I have of this event happening is a faded black and white photo of a my mom’s Comet and my mother’s own dusty re-rememberings.
But it’s not the dark memories alone that change. Good memories change, too.
This past April I returned to Pennsylvania to visit my mother. While I was there I arranged to meet a girlfriend from high school. On the day we were to meet her mother passed away and instead of sharing dinner with a friend I was left to write a eulogy.
My friend’s mother was a wonderful woman who had unshakable belief in her only daughter and in all her daughter’s friends—including me. She believed we were nothing short of remarkable. As I tried to recall events that happened almost forty years earlier I realized that all I had, in truth, were soft, burnished impressions of a well loved woman and a life well lived.
And I realized the impressions that remain of an event are closer to the truth than the stories we like to tell ourselves.
While in Pennsylvania I met a man who lives in the same circle of mobile homes as my mom. Over the years he has become like a son to her. He helps with projects around her home. He sweeps her walk in the snowy winters and this past summer installed two ceiling fans to help keep her trailer cool. I invited him to share dinner with us and during the course of our conversation he began to describe a woman. As he revealed more details it became clear that the stranger he was talking about was the same woman who had roared down that blacktop all those years before.
It was an epiphany.
After all these years I finally learned that my memories—my re-rememberings—no longer serve a purpose. Sitting in front of me at the dinner table was a man describing a woman I did not know. My mother.
I know that sometimes, in order to understand our behavior in the present, we need to take time to understand what happened in the past. But it’s too easy to look at wounds through the eyes of my 10 year-old self and use them as an excuse. At some point I need to choose to stop telling myself the stories. To pull on the Big Girl Pants. But when? Both the wounds and the joys of childhood shape us but it’s the wounds to which we cling. Like a scabby knee, if we want those wounds to heal, we need to leave them be.
And so I’ll stop picking at the wounds and instead move to a place where the only act of compassion I can offer to the ten-year-old child in the back seat of a car and the woman roaring toward a savage beating is to stop re-remembering.
Because it’s time to be present for this relationship.
Mimm has been a yoga teacher, massage therapist, reflexologist and writer. When she’s not balancing in Ardha Chandrasana or wrestling with a sentence, Mimm’s either playing her guitar or doing homework. She is working towards a master’s degree in transpersonal psychology.