Scavenging a Family History

My mom was the smallest in her dance class, far right (she was also the littlest on her basketball team).

I hated history classes when I was a kid. Dates, political parties, wars, and speeches did little to engage my young mind, and I never encountered a teacher who presented history in a story-like or relatable way. I am not sure if my relatively newfound fascination with history is due to TV (my combined hatred for reality shows and interest in the abundance of interesting programs on networks like the History Channel and A&E) or just having grown up and realizing my present will someday be someone else’s history. But not only do I now lean towards educational programs and historical novels, shows such as NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? have tapped an interest in exploring my own past.

I have recollections of my mom reminiscing a fair amount about the neighborhood candy store down the block on Dyckman Street in the Inwood section of Manhattan, where she grew up—of her spinning on the stool at the counter, drinking lime rickeys for a nickel, buying dime toys, and having a freedom to explore that is rare for today’s city kids at so young an age. I remember her lighting up when she told of scoring points on her basketball team, the (by far) shortest kid on the court. She shared stories of misadventure, roaming rooftops unbeknownst to her parents or fishing along the river with friends, but for the most part her childhood seemed innocent and carefree. I asked her questions periodically as I was growing up, but like most children I didn’t delve deep into my mom’s past—she was my mom, a known quantity; I barely realized she was anyone else before she became my mother.

“My mom was a known quantity when I was a child; I barely realized she was anyone else before she became my mother.”

 

What was my mom like?

Now that I have my own child I profoundly wish my mom were alive to really get to know the woman she was before parenthood. To ask her how she changed, how she viewed life as a teenager, what her dreams and aspirations were. To hear her remember what was important to her, what made her laugh or cry. And to know the young mother she became, and hear talk about what baffled her as a new mom, what made her worry, even just about the toys she would recall me loving as a baby.

There are no family relatives who I can ask about her other than my grandmother, who now lives with me and my family (and who grew up in my household since I was about 10), a wonderful, strong woman, but one who has known loss and weathered much in her 86 years of life, who doesn’t much like reliving the past and doesn’t have a mind for details.

 

Pieces of a past

So I scavenge. I have found scraps of paper with hand-scribbled notes from 20 years ago in her desk and among her things. A treasure of about 5 years’ worth of slides was my most recent discovery—pictures that jogged memories of a Florida vacation when I was 6 and Halloweens around the same time (because we didn’t have a projector, those images weren’t part of the regular family lexicon of memories pulled off the shelf occasionally like the ones that lived in photo albums). I read the book that was on her nightstand, bookmarked just past the halfway point, and felt pangs of guilt when I passed that mark myself, knowing her mind hadn’t traversed the same fictional terrain.

I am currently in the process of selling her house (it has taken two long years, and I still knock on wood when mentioning the status now, yet pending) and am finally getting around to cleaning her basement. A dear friend who has done much to help me—including surveying the contents of a damp basement I couldn’t bring myself around to cleaning two years ago—recently braved the dark and the mice and called me to say that amidst the boxes of old clothes she unearthed a plastic tote of grade school things of my mother’s. A musty Catholic school uniform, black marble composition pads with her little girl handwriting. Even report cards. I haven’t seen them yet, but it is things like this that she had a hand in creating or that were part of the fabric of her young life that make me feel like, at least occasionally, there are still things I may discover about her.

My mother, Lillian Roode, pregnant with me at 22—looking like a baby at her baby shower.

I am so grateful and blessed to have had my mother in my life as a friend and confidant and nurturer for the first 39 years of my life, and I am fortunate that she was able to meet my own son before she passed away. My memories are rich and full, and I do what I can to talk about her in little ways to my son. But I will never stop feeling like I am searching for something, for a family history for which there is no text book.

 

 

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  1. [...] everyday things I shared with my mom are what make me smile when I think about her now: being comforted as I cried into her shoulder on my eighth-grade prom night; endless trips over the [...]



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