When I was four my mother and I shared our first apartment alone together. It was a glorified studio in a house divided into six apartments. I slept in a bay window seat converted by my mother into a bed.
My mother had me when she was young. Not MTV-will-put-you-on-their-show young, but young enough that I am in still in awe of her for it. When I was twenty-five I realized that when my mother was the same age, she’d had a four-year-old to take care of BY HERSELF. It was sobering to me. I could barely manage my weekly grocery shopping, was always a week late on my utility bills, and routinely forgot to register my car on time. I didn’t feel like grown up. I realized that my mother probably hadn’t felt like a grown up either, had probably, in fact been terrified most of the time. Single, far from her family in the Midwest, and painfully shy, it must have been very scary to realize you were the only thing keeping this strange, outgoing, loud and uninhibited child safe, happy, and alive.
We had very little money. We didn’t have a car. I’m pretty sure we survived hand to mouth. I know that many of my Christmas and birthday presents were pocket sized and easily concealed in the palm of a hand. I know my mother’s soul, and I can confidently say the only thing that would ever make a thief out of her was the health and happiness of her daughters. I do not begrudge her the Star Wars miniatures I got for my birthday and Christmas one year when we were getting back on our feet. I hesitate to mention it because I hope no one else would either. She didn’t sleep much so she could work to keep a roof over our head, and food in the fridge. She didn’t eat much so that I didn’t know hunger.
And I didn’t know any of that. I had no idea until I was a teenager that we’d been in such a dire way so often. That she would bundle me up at night and take me to the dollar movie theater on a cold night because the admission (I was free) was cheaper than turning on the heat in our poorly insulated apartment.
We left the house she’d shared with my father with a cat, not much older than a kitten. That cat became pregnant and gave birth to four tiny kittens on my bay window bed. Only two of them survived.
My mother, teaching me about the circle of life, had me help her bury the two kittens we lost. We found a couple of small boxes (I believe one of them was an old harmonica case, actually), placed the kitten corpses inside, and armed with a large kitchen spoon, headed into our wooded backyard to lay them to rest.
A few weeks later, I had a playmate from my day care class over for the day. We came running into the kitchen, bright-eyed, breathing heavy from play, and smiling slightly too much.
“Mom, where’s the big kitchen spoon, I need it!”
My mother turned to the kitchen drawer, and it was half way open when something seemed to dawn on her. She didn’t take her hand from the drawer pull, or turn to face me, but I saw her back go straight. “Why do you want the spoon, Fanny?”
“We’re going to dig up the kitties and play with them!”
She closed the door, and turned to look at me. She bent her knees so that her face was level with mine, “Oh, honey! You don’t want to do that. Those kitties are all covered in dirt and being eaten by worms!”
She reports that my face fell, and my eyes welled with tears. “Is that what happens to you when you DIE?” I wailed.
This moment has haunted my mother. She has always feared death. And she was sure five seconds after these words had left her mouth that she’d secured the same dread of the unknown depths of death in her offspring. She had just scarred me. She knew it.
I’m pretty sure she felt all the youth of her twenty-five years.
But, now... as the man used to say – the rest of the story...
What she didn’t know, and what I didn’t tell her was this: I had already dug up the kitten. Two days earlier. I had slid the harmonica case open and revealed what I remember to be a perfect, tiny, cat skeleton. I didn’t take it out, but I was fascinated by it. All the tiny bones, the position it still lay in, it seemed to me that it’s fur and flesh had just melted away. I thought it was beautiful. That was why I’d wanted to show it to my friend.
I’d known I wasn’t supposed to dig it up somehow. Though I don’t remember my mother instructing me about it. I just knew that death was somehow sacred, and you let something rest after that, you didn’t disrupt that. So, even though I’d found the skeleton fascinating and beautiful, I’d reburied it. It wasn’t until I had a friend over and wanted to share the experience, did I almost expose what I’d done.
When my mother said what she said about worms, I must have been very confused. That hadn’t been what I had seen, but I couldn’t tell her that, because then she’d know I’d already broken the seal of the kitten’s sacred grave.
Here’s the thing about being a parent and being a child – perception. I know, duh, right? I didn’t know when I was kid that my mother was still pretty much a sacred kid herself. That she was making it up as she went along. I knew my mother loved me with every fiber of her being. I knew she would keep me safe, I knew she fed me, laughed with me, hugged me at night, and insisted I brushed my teeth.
I’m a parent now, I hope my daughter doesn’t know that I have no idea what I’m doing most of the time. That the idea that I am a PARENT, that I have the psychic responsibility of a SOUL in the palm of my hand scares the shit out of me, and fills me with awe. I hope she thinks I’m a grown up, even though in my head I’m still sixteen. If I’m doing it right she won’t realize how much I don’t know until she is in my shoes one day.
And the things I think are scarring her, she may have already conquered. We don’t always know what bruises a soul, so the best we can do as parents is...
Yeah, I got nothing.