Remembering and Forgetting
For obvious reasons, the month of May always makes me think of my mom. Even though Mother’s Day wasn’t her favorite and she passed away over thirty years ago, I’m grateful we have a special day set aside to remember our mothers. Remembering has become more important to me as time passes, perhaps because as I grow older, forgetting is the new normal. I have learned to appreciate that blessings come from both remembering and forgetting.
In many ways, my mom and I didn’t have much in common. Mom loved purple and hot pink, and bright clothes with wild prints, ruffles, and bows. I lean toward more conservative greens and blues, and tend to wear solid colors without a lot of frilly stuff. She played the piano throughout her life and danced for hours on end as a child. She even released a 78 RPM record of her tapdancing while singing the popular song Ferryboat Serenade. Mom reminded me often that I had absolutely no rhythm, which probably explains why I’m a horrible dancer and don’t play an instrument.
One thing we did have in common was a love of books. Mom loved to read and introduced me to Nancy Drew books when I was seven. From that point on, I was hooked. No matter where I went, I had a book in hand. Most afternoons as soon as the elementary school bell rang, I’d walk a few blocks to the corner of Bayview Drive and Sunrise Boulevard in Ft. Lauderdale where I’d hop on a city bus to the library. Mom left work at five and came to pick me up, but I was never ready to leave. My love affair with books inspired me to become a writer.
For some reason I’ve never understood, my mom thought I could do whatever I set my mind to—except for stuff associated with music or dancing of course. She frequently sought my advice and had high hopes for my future. I suspect she sometimes lived her life vicariously through me. Her unfailing confidence led me to eventually believe I could do anything. It was a priceless gift.
Although Mom raised me to be independent, I went out of my way to avoid confrontation. It didn’t take her long to figure out I wasn’t going to stick up for myself, so she became my fierce protector. Whenever she noticed someone bullying me, she’d instantly transform into a crazy person. I have a vivid memory of walking through a strip mall with her in Incline Village, Nevada, when I was about fifteen. As three girls passed by, one of them threw a wad of gum into my long, blonde hair. Before I knew what was happening, Mom grabbed something from her purse, ran over to the culprit, and scribbled bright red lipstick all over the back of her white jeans!
Over twenty-five years ago, I sat down to write a memoir about my mom and how her choices affected the lives of others. The idea and the title came to me simultaneously: Thirty Years to Alaska. I’d been encouraged to write a book many times whenever someone heard about my family, and I often thought about how mom’s life had been a constant struggle. She suffered from loneliness and depression and spent most of her days searching for happiness and fulfillment, never realizing that true joy comes from within. It’s like the story of the man who spends everything he has traveling around the world in search of a pearl of great price only to return home and find what he was seeking in his own backyard.
Mom was born in 1932 and grew up in Maryland, near Washington D.C. In some ways, she was ahead of her time. She graduated at sixteen and wanted to study engineering at a college far from home. But she was also a product of her time. When her parents refused to support her educational dreams, she took one semester at a local college, then left to get married and had four kids by the time she was twenty.
In the 1950s, she took off for Alaska with a girlfriend, convinced all of her dreams would come true in the soon-to-be forty-ninth state. Mom made it as far as Seattle, where she gave birth to a daughter and was forced to return home. Thirty years later, after thirteen kids, three husbands, and more than a dozen moves in several states, she finally reached Alaska.
Mom’s story is complicated and, in many ways, tragic. Over the years I’ve learned that people who have been hurt usually hurt others, and she left a lot of damage in her wake. I’m convinced her story needs to be written, but my husband has warned me of fallout and suggested that some family members might need to die before this book is ever published. Not that I’m anxiously awaiting anyone’s early demise, but he may have a point.
Meanwhile, I continue to sift through memories and family stories while I try to figure out how to complete this project. I’ve written parts of it three times; the first time writing sixty pages in first person as if I were my mother, the second time alternating the chronological storyline with imagined scenes from my mother’s life, and the third time simply examining the past and interpreting events. My perspective shifts with the passage of time, making every version a little different. There are things I want to remember and things I wish I could forget. It may take a few more years before I finish writing this memoir, and maybe that’s not a bad thing. Some stories can only come to life when the time is right.
Lastly, I can’t write a blog post on Memorial Weekend without remembering our nephew, Army Staff Sergeant Shane R. Becker, who was killed April 2007 in Iraq. May we never forget all the brave men and women who’ve served in the military and sacrificed for freedom.
Sending a big thank you to an amazing author and photographer Stephanie M. Black for the heart-shaped knothole photo!