Choosing 40

Choosing 40

March 6, 2016

Although most of her days were spent a lot like mine, shuttling us to and from school and practice and the dentist dressed in jeans, a little mascara—if time allowed—and maybe even a little peanut butter, I have this image in my head of her that just recently came with a force back into the forefront of my memory. I was just going about my day, doing the things that she did, when I remembered her as she would’ve been on a typical Sunday morning. A sleek cherry red pencil skirt that hit just below the knees, cream blouse, gold studded earrings and a red and white silk-like scarf, wrapped around her neck, also with touches of gold in it. Gold braiding, I think. Her hair was not quite permed, she had grown out of that phase by then, but it was short, and smooth. Regal is what comes to mind when I think of my mom in this moment, in that outfit. She was a few years older than I am now.

I don’t know if she, or my dad, ever wondered about what kind of memories their kids would carry about them as they grew up. I know I certainly do wonder. I wonder, essentially, about my legacy. Whether I will be remembered for the moments I screamed and grabbed Theo by the neck, or for the moments I was kind and said I’m sorry and danced with them in the kitchen. But there’s really no way to tell, and no way to force it. They’ll remember what they remember, but it’s probably going to be a mixture of both kinds of memories, both dark and light ones, and a slew of in between—because just like I remember my mom in that random Sunday morning moment, I also remember her meatloaf, the way she vacuumed, her fierce dedication and joy at keeping traditions alive and making holidays special for us; I remember sneaking down to her desk in the early morning hours to find her reading under a lone lamp amongst the laundry piles, and I also remember her frustrated and tired and yelling, which, I realize, is understandable and probably warranted given what I know about kids now and how they love to inch as close to the line as possible. The yelling, the long sighs, it’s much like I am when the day has gone on too long.

They are snippets, slivers of seemingly unimportant time that I would’ve never guessed in that moment, that I’d remember that moment, because it felt ordinary and everyday. Times like when I was driving my dad’s burgundy Beamer home from basketball practice down Woodfield Rd as the sun was setting, not too long after I’d gotten my learner’s permit, feeling a surge of confidence that he’d put his confidence in me to drive us home. The doors to that car shut with such conviction, it felt sturdy and heavy and well made, like a real machine. Or when we were at the beach and he told someone to shut up, on camera, because he was frustrated with the fishing rods and my older brothers thought it was hilarious. Him cleaning the white carpet because one of my friends came over and walked up the stairs with muddy shoes. When he stuck up for me at school after I admitted to cheating on a take home test that literally every other student cheated on. Singing the “Thank You Jesus” song, which he invented, at dinner, complete with hand gestures, which I can still do to this day because I literally just tried it.

And yet: at the risk of sounding pessimistic and bleak: does any of this even matter? Do my memories of my childhood and my parents matter? Do my words make a difference? Does it matter how my kids remember me? The more I think about it, the more I realize that everything I do is motivated selfishly and by self preservation. Even bland things, not necessarily good or bad, like changing Sophie’s diaper, is halfway selfishly motivated—sure, I don’t want her to get a rash or be uncomfortable, but I also don’t want to smell it, and what’s more—I don’t want to be a bad mom. I don’t want people to think I’m a bad mom. I want everyone to know that I’m a good mom, the kind that changes her kid’s diapers. And then even the really good things I want to do are motivated by a need to feel validated, to want to be important, to matter. Even writing this piece! I am writing it for my parents to commemorate their 40 years of marriage, which, by the way, is a full decade longer than I have even been alive. But I’m also writing it because I want people to read it and say: Damn, that girl can write. I want people to be moved upon reading my writing, I want to lodge myself and my words in people’s brains. Every day longer that I live, I am confronted by my duality and the bundle of contradictions that I absolutely am. And so the question I beg is this: do my motives, do our motives, matter? Do they color our actions and make the good things we do somehow less good because while we want to help and be kind and do the right thing and ease the pain, we also want to know that we matter, that our lives are not wasted, that our existence is somehow relevant. Is that duality, that conflict, a problem?

***

A few months ago my mom visited us in Chicago and we put on dresses and lipstick that we had just bought that day and went to the theatre. It was an absolutely freezing night, wind whipping and counting down the seconds until our uber arrived. We had seen East of Eden, which was the first book I read that I put down upon completion and was at a loss for words at how powerful and meaningful it was to me. I try to read it once a year now, and every time I see something new that I didn’t see before. I remember not understanding the significance of the word timshel the first time around. I didn’t know why Steinbeck spent so much time hammering that word and what it meant into the story, but after my most recent read through, it suddenly clicked for me why that word matters in the story, and in life. Here’s what it means:

“But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—“Thou mayest’—that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.”

I’m willing to bet that my parents have had similar thoughts to my own, wondering if any of what they were doing mattered as we slammed doors in their faces and didn’t say thank you and refused to eat the meatloaf. I’m guessing that they even felt conflicted, too, simultaneously loving us fiercely while also wanting some time, some space, some money to be the other person they might’ve been had their lives not been diapers and little league and the big, blue conversion van.

***

And what I’ve come to is this: it can matter, or it can’t. It’s up to us. We have a choice—much like joy is a choice, and kindness is a choice—to say that memories matter, that people matter, that our legacies do matter, regardless of surrounding circumstances and our mixed up, messy motives. We can choose what holds weight. And these choices will undoubtedly and profoundly effect those around us.

So, to my parents, thank you for choosing 40. Thank you for saying that we mattered, that you mattered to each other and that you still matter to each other after more than 4 decades together. Thank you for making the choice to say that the meatloaf mattered, even when you didn’t know it mattered. Thank you for choosing to be there. Because it has undoubtedly and profoundly effected me, and the truth is, I don’t really care what your motives were, whether you took us to the pool so we could have fun or so you could sit down and have a break—I care that you were there. I care that I could, and still can, count on you. I care that I have memories of a family at all, something solid to build off of as I forge my own road. The fact that you had this choice is what makes it meaningful and beautiful and hard. Because you could’ve chosen the alternative, you could’ve said that none of it matters, that we live and we breath and we buy groceries and we pay our taxes and we sometimes wonder about creatures in the deep sea, and then we die and that’s it.

Instead, you embraced the chaos and the mess and the noise, you embraced yourselves and your contradictions, you embraced us and you embraced each other and you embraced your faith. You fought for us and for each other and you fought for every trip to Bethany Beach, where so many of my best memories are from. Remember the big red house with the white trim? The one right on the beach? Where Grandpa Bob had the room off the porch and there was no air conditioning and we could see Town and smell the funnel cakes from the front steps? Remember?

All that, and so much more that you gave to us, it matters.

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