My father passed away about 18 months ago. We hadn’t spoken much of the past 40 years, for reasons that aren’t at all important any more. My mother is living alone now for the first time in 57 years, and really did not need two houses, one in Illinois and one in Florida, so she is moving everything out of the house she lived in since I was eight years old. All of that is to say I have had more contact in the past year with the people and places I knew as a child than I had in the past four decades combined.
It’s been – interesting. The picture above is taken at Peggy’s Cove where I used to go skip school, before they built all the tourist stuff there. My friends and I would put our clothes on the rocks, swim naked in the cove (yes, it was cold), and then dry out in the sun before getting dressed again and heading home. Obviously, if our clothes were wet my aunt (who I lived with then) would know I hadn’t gotten that way at school.
Later, we went to the Citadel, and I told my husband this ammunition room was one of my favorite hiding places when my friends and I would skip school, slip by the soldiers (they’re not too on guard against the yanks attacking any more) and play hide and seek throughout the old fort. He said,
“My God, did you ever go to school?”
I was hardly a promising child. The fact that I made it to adulthood – period – much less, into my fifties, was grounds for mild astonishment to many people. That I did it without a single felony on my record was somewhat more surprising, and that beyond that I actually got a Ph.D., won a world championships, founded a couple of companies and raised what appear to be relatively normal children was a source of continual amazement. Not that the family wasn’t pleasantly surprised that I did not turn out to be a criminal mastermind or serial killer. But they were surprised.
I had no desire to do one of those southern novel type of things where I tell off all of the classmates who treated me like I was “less than” because they had money and I didn’t, insist on being called “Dr” by the teachers who told me after I dropped out of high school that I was going to end up in prison . It was funny to drive through the town where my mother lived and realize that I could probably buy two or three of those big, fancy houses I used to walk by and envy on my way home from school. (Don’t be too impressed. Housing prices in small towns are pretty dirt cheap and three of those big houses together wouldn’t cost as much as a nice condo in Santa Monica.) The truth is, I didn’t care. I went to mass with my mother and I am sure several of the people in the church must have been some of those kids I went to elementary school with. After all of this time, I couldn’t recognize a single one of them and it wouldn’t have mattered to me if I did.
The first time I went back, shortly after my father, died, a wise woman I worked with asked me how it went. I gave some noncommittal response and she said,
“I guess it is okay to go back occasionally, but there is great comfort in coming home to the lives we have made for ourselves, isn’t there?”
I had never thought about it that way, but I think she said something very profound. (I told you she was a wise woman.)
There is great comfort in the lives we have made for ourselves.
I’m sure a psychoanalyst would find something pathological in my disinterest in confronting my past. I think Katherine Hepburn, in “On Golden Pond” said it well,
Don’t you think that everyone looks back on their childhood with a certain amount of bitterness and regret about something? You’re a big girl now. Aren’t you tired of it all? Bore, bore. It doesn’t have to ruin your life, darling. Life marches by, Chels. I suggest you get on with it.
The past does bore me. You can’t change it. It is what it is. I do have a point, though, otherwise I would not be writing this. I see young people – and some old people – who spend their lives caught up in self-pity or anger over the things they didn’t have, the people who were unkind to them, the very unfairness of events that happened to them. I wonder if they enjoy wallowing in self-pity and telling themselves they are helpless.
Do they not understand that there can be great comfort in the lives we make for ourselves? Because there can.
And I suggest they get on with it.