Monday, June 11, 2007

Growing Up a Little

Some time ago, in her fine book Motherless Daughters, Hope Edelman made a point that has resonated powerfully with every woman I've met who lost her mother at an early age: that often one of the unexpected and seldom noticed consequences of such a loss to a young girl is the destruction of her sense of confidence in her own perceptions of reality. That assurance vanishes in the darkness of her family's grief-stricken response to the early death of one of its younger members, a response that often consists of an impenetrable silence.

A child is, in normal circumstances, under the impression that her mother is the center of the world. It is obvious that the sun rises and sets on her mother; her value to everyone around her is unmistakable. And then she dies and the family shatters into a thousand irretrievable pieces and retreats into the silence of profound grief. And the child wonders (albeit not in so many words): what is going on here? I thought that everyone loved and adored my mother. I was under the impression that they all considered her to be the most significant person in the entire family. But now that she is gone, no one mentions her name. No one talks about the things she used to say and do. No one seems even to notice that she is no longer here.

And then, the inevitable conclusions: I guess I was wrong. I guess she wasn't so important after all. I guess my affections and confidence were misplaced.

And finally: If I could have been in such error about the person who was most important to me, if my understanding was so off base, then my powers of perception are really quite limited. Completely untrustworthy. Not reliable in the least.

An adult might say: The power of discernment has completely eluded me.

But I was seven and so, of course, yes, my vocabulary was limited and no, I could not articulate my sense of loss and confusion as I have here. But I remember it clearly. I remember the utter confusion with which I approached what had become my life, a life in which I was surrounded by loving grandparents and aunts and uncles who tried to fill in for a dazed father, but who seemed to have completely forgotten my mother. I remember the sense of slotting away my own emotions and reactions, the sense that my feelings were out of place and were not worthy of address, by myself or anyone else.

My youngest brother, as well as my mother, had been killed in that car accident. It happened the week before his first birthday. The next year, as October came into view, I asked whether we would be having a party to celebrate his second birthday. I certainly knew that my brother was gone, but I had apparently not yet grasped that that meant we would no longer acknowledge that he had ever been with us. The look on my father's face in response to my question gave me to understand that my hopeful desire to retain the presence of both of my brothers, one living and one dead, was painfully unacceptable. I think that may have been the last time I attempted to offer an expression of my own grief.

I did not begin to overcome that sense that I was a person whose views and experiences were not legitimate or, perhaps, even real, until I was in my early 30s, between pregnancies. It was the disappointment with respect to how badly things had been handled at the end of my first pregnancy and the ease with which my feelings had been disregarded that finally led me to understand that, if there were things that I wanted out of life, it was up to me to go and get them. No one else was nearly as concerned about my hopes and wishes as I was. And my hopes and wishes, I had begun to realize, were entirely reasonable and defensible, as least to the extent that anyone else's were.

I had graduated from a prestigious university with honors and had practiced law for seven years and I did not have any idea that I was a person of value. I was still the seven-year-old girl whose understanding of life was grounded in two fundamental realities: that the universe was catastrophically untrustworthy, and that my understanding of said universe, or any part thereof, was completely unreliable and insignificant.

Twenty years of learning have passed since the dawning of my discovery that I might have been a bit in error. I doubt that I could even begin to unravel the gradual transformation of my understanding of myself as an individual to be taken seriously. I am willing to settle for gratitude that I apparently managed to translate my experiences differently where the Lovely Daughter, who is (obviously) almost twenty, is concerned. We talked all of this over a few nights ago, and she is light years beyond the young woman I was at her age in both self-awareness and self-confidence.

However, the people who would pull us down and suck us under are relentlessly present. Certainly I have friends, women well into their fifties, who remain sadly damaged by words spoken (or not) long ago that seemed designed to bores holes into the fragilities of dawning self-consciousness. I don't think that most of the harm is a consequence of intention. I think that we, all of us, are often reckless in our interactions with others. We do not take into account that silence at the wrong time, or careless words of disregard, can destroy the most profound gifts others have to offer. And it seems that while the devastation can be quick and complete, the healing is more often a lengthy process of uncertain outcome.

The world will never be for me the locus of unadulterated ease that I knew at six. But my sense of myself has been much restored, and I no longer accept the assessments of others in lieu of my own. I am increasingly able to value the input of friends and colleagues and advisors, but that capacity comes from the knowledge that my own initiatives and responses are of value as well.


more cows than people said...

wow. thank you.

Mrs. M said...

gg, I started reading this post thinking, "How on earth did you know my mother wasn't present?"

I don't have words to thank you for sharing, but I'm deeply grateful.

Cynthia said...

Wow says it all.

Gannet Girl said...

I didn't know that at all, Mrs. M. I'm so sorry.

Interesting, isn't it, how we catch part of someone else's story and it makes some sense, and then we discover the underlying reason for the latter.

Anonymous said...

Well said! I lost my mother at 5 and was raised by an emotionally distant father and a step-mother who appeared one day a few months later. From that point on I grew up in a home that was totally unconcerned with any understanding or any expressions of loving care.
Many years and many mistakes later, I have found for myself what you found in your 30's. Your writings are always interesting and often speak to me in a very personal way like this article.

Grace thing said...

Hi, Gannet Girl. I tagged you for eight random things. Pop on over to my blog if you want to play...

Diane said...

You have been on an incredible journey. thank you for sharing.

Katherine E. said...

This is such a beautiful post. Even though my mother died when I was much older, like you I read "Motherless Daughters" and got so much out of it. Your growth and transformation are inspiring.

Quotidian Grace said...

What a powerful, hopeful message. Thanks, GG.

Keep it in a file for a future sermon. It'll preach ;-)

Kathryn said...

This was a powerful journal entry. My heart broke for the 7yo you who nobody helped through a time when everybody around you had lost all sense and reason.

Lisa :-] said...

Though my journey has been very unlike yours, we seem to have reached some similar epiphanies. 1.)...if there were things that I wanted out of life, it was up to me to go and get them. No one else was nearly as concerned about my hopes and wishes as I was.
2.) I don't think that most of the harm is a consequence of intention.

If at some point we unddrstand that (a) we are responsible for our own happiness, and that (b) our childhood caregivers--be it parents or whomever--didn't wake up every morning trying to think up ways to ruin our lives, we have learned some of life's more valuable lessons.

Carol said...

Beautiful entry, GG. Thank you for sharing so much of yourself.