A few month ago, a meme went around on Facebook to say 25 things about yourself. I thought it might be interesting to do them a bit more fleshed out than the FB venue allows for. I might not get to 25, I might do more.
Thing One: my mom died when I was 6 years old.
It’s interesting how 80 words sums up a situation: died at 35, leaving a husband and three boys. She died of cancer I’m told. Initially lung cancer, maybe doctors or parents telling me they discovered a brain tumor when they prepped her for surgery on her lungs. She didn’t smoke much. Although I could be wrong about this, I think it was less than a year from initial diagnosis to death.
My father, faced with the prospects of raising three boys aged 6 to 11 by himself, kind of freaked out. I think we ate a lot of hamburgers and pancakes, the only things he really knew how to cook. I began slipping a bit in my school behavior, to the extent one can do this in first grade. My father wrote a note on my report card that it was a trying time and my talking too much in class was not something he thought he needed to worry about, thank you very much. My brothers and I went to overnight camp that summer, for 8 weeks. In North Carolina.
The “I’m told,” “I think,” and “maybe” are all very much in keeping with my lack of memories of her. I poked around a bit and learned that episodic memory before the age of 4 or 5 is pretty unusual (for what brain people know, which isn’t as much as you might think). It’s known as Childhood amnesia, with explanations ranging from Freud’s belief that we suppress childhood trauma to biological-developmental explanations. Maybe we get emotions, but it’s unclear that we have episodic memory.
I have almost no memories of my biological mother that are unconnected to a photograph, a film, or a story told to me by someone else. I think of her as unfashionable, but that’s because of a particular set of photographs. It’s a little unfair to get branded by the 70s. An earlier set of photos from her junior high school prom shows her and my dad as the high school sweethearts they were.
My father re-married a few years later, to a woman I have called ‘mom’ for almost three decades. I love her. She, my two brothers, and I adopted each other pretty early on, both socially and legally. But I think surprisingly often about often about Ilene. I’m older than she was when she died, and she had three children by then. I’m not sad, truly, it’s been too long and my life has been too good to be sad about it. But my fundamental worldview is shaped by fragility in a way that is often hard to explain.
My dad told me a story not too long ago about her. It was winter in Chicago. He was in the Caribbean islands, as a young tax lawyer, at a conference of some sort, when she called him up:
Ilene: Oh my god, are you ok?
Bob: Um, yeah. Why?
Ilene: I’m looking at the news, and it says there is a massive hurricane over the Caribbean. It’s right on top of you!
Bob (looking out the window at impeccably blue skies): I don’t see anything. It looks completely beautiful outside, no rain in sight.
Ilene: Well, it’s 10 below zero here, and freezing rain, you jerk!
And then she hung up on him. My kind of woman.