So often, I want to call my mother and commiserate about having a different, outlying kid. This is not just about Iz, but also a selfish desire to know my own history through her eyes. I remember being so unhappy in elementary and middle school. Those eight years helped shape who I am now and reveal things about me that are both interesting and uncomfortable. But I do not know how my mother saw my unhappiness (and she saw it, for sure) or how it affected her.
My Iz, now 10, is more social than I was, though he can be deeply both anxious and sad. He is as quirky, awkward and as much in his own head as I was (am?), but he attends the Lab School of Washington, which is for “bright students with ADHD, dyslexia, and other learning differences.” He has friends of equal and ranging quirk. (I love it.)
But I cannot call my mother; I have not been able to for almost seven years. Again, I turn to her journals, those journals she wanted me to burn and never read. I find I need them. Her real, personal voice is still accessible, there to reassure.
Her journal pages from 1982 are typed on pages of lined, yellow legal paper. These pads were a staple in our house, in her office, by the phone, on the kitchen table. I turned 11 that May, near Iz’s age.
She does not write tons about me, which I respect because I cannot stand the thought of my own life revolving around my children, and I wouldn't want hers to have, though I know she loved me more than anything (no exaggeration). I do, however, pop up here and there. On May 2, she writes:
“Today is one of the most wonderful days of recent years. I feel alive again, as if I can indeed realize what it is my mind. It’s a funny, powerful feeling of utter satisfaction and possibility. So that this apartment, this life, which I see as never changing, sometimes confined and imprisoning, seem trembling with newness. First of all, it is well and truly spring. Lovely, lovely. Campus is beautiful, instead of being this dreary place along whose walk I carve a furrow with my footsteps. Classes will be over Wednesday, and I have practically four months to myself. There’s the MacDowell Colony, and I think I shall go to Ireland in August, if I finish The Woman Who Said Mouse. Caity has had a splendid school report, Lisa telling me Friday that she is particularly bright and has become one of the class, a person to whose birthday party children want to go. (Sometimes strikes me as a strange criterion for adjustment and success, but Caity is very happy.) Her summer arrangements seem good.”
My favorite phrase: “along whose walk I carve a furrow with my footsteps.” That woman could write, even when the words were to be private. I love that image of the furrow along the Columbia Campus walk; I close my eyes and can imagine a surreal image of the walk and a dark figure walking an actual furrow. I recall that real walk in an instant. I made my own furrows, walking to Bank Street every morning for five years, then to the 116th Street subway station when I went to high school in Brooklyn, to St. Ann’s, then again as a 20-something, returned to my city after college, for various jobs and grad school on that very campus.
But, oh, my poor young Caity self. (I will still answer to that name.) How I hated elementary and middle school. I do remember the year with Lisa (teachers went by their first names at Bank Street), and it was one of the better ones. But it sounds as if it took me a while to “become one of the class,” implies that I was an awkward outsider for at least the beginning of the year. I am not at all surprised. How my mother worried. I would have, too.
(Aside: my summer plans “good”? Was that the summer of that disastrous, hated first year of camp? I certainly was not “part of the cabin” that year. I pretended to be sick all the time to be in the nurse’s cabin. I begged my mother to take me home, but she was obviously booked. Was I also doing something with my father? I cannot exactly recall.)
On my 11th birthday, May 8, my mother’s mood was dampened by an uneasy last class (she taught fiction writing at Columbia) and the arrival of the author copies of Games of the Strong: “An ugly little book. Tiny print, out of proportion acknowledgements, and ugly red printing on that beautiful blue photograph. It looks crude, amateurish…So there is something of a letdown.” I did not know she disliked the cover and layout. Hm.
Maybe it wasn’t the class or the book, but rather her worries about me. She writes:
“And perhaps it is Caity’s birthday. Today. I am glad that Gordon is giving her her birthday picnic. I couldn’t have done it alone. But I am worried that the children won’t turn up, and that she won’t have friends there for the sleepover. At least Katarina and Christina are sleeping over. Sarah and Lola refused the invitation at the last minute. Lola said she had something else to do. Sarah said she had a friend coming over after all. Caity said that meant Lola was going to Sarah’s. She said Sarah hasn’t been all that nice to her recently. I asked her if her feelings were hurt, and she said they were. She really doesn’t talk about that kind of thing. And I can’t bear her to be hurt by other children. Am I uneasy because I have given her so many presents, and it isn’t the presents that make her happy? She loves the little unicorn and Pegasus best, and the $1.00 headband from Woolworths. The bike, well, the enthusiasm has waned, but that’s because I have frightened her about safety, about getting mugged.”
Where was I going to ride my bike nearby West 116th Street in Manhattan without at least some threat in those New York days? Anyway...
I do not remember Sarah or Lola fondly, so I now don’t care that they rejected me. They were run-of-the-mill mean girls. For example, the next school year, in a moment of wildly misplaced trust, I told Sarah I was “in love” with Adam, and she promptly told him, and he avoided me from then on. That sucked and further cemented my outsider status.
I marvel at how aware of the social dynamics I was. I was sensitive but not savvy enough to fit in or navigate. I have frequently used the same phrasing to describe Iz: “sensitive but not savvy.” He is a darling, but he has had some social issues over the years, been hurt or confused. He does not navigate easily in large groups. At least he does not face the constant social challenges at school that I did. I do, however, recall that something went on earlier this school year when his declared “best friend” was being cruel to him for a few weeks. Iz was so confused by the turn of events, but they are buddies again.
My mother was sensitive. I am the apple to her tree in that and other ways, and I can imagine my hard times, my quirkiness, my sadness, affected her deeply. Iz’s do me. Now I know a little more; I am not alone. I wouldn't have it any other way, though. I want to be tuned into my children, but the connectedness is also very hard sometimes. Like my mother, I also want to be caught up in my own life, have my own things going on, and not just be focused on my offspring. I do my best. Like my mother, I need my own space, and I do not write only about my children. That would be dull.
(For another time: I wonder about how being the only child of a single mother has shaped me, and how her caution affected me. My mother was always very aware of the possibilities, dangers, of New York City living in the 1970s and 1980s. Hell, the car battery was stolen from her Dodge Dart twice when she risked parking on Morningside Drive. She pulled the curtains of the street-facing windows in our fifth floor apartment at night, so no one could see in. But she didn’t hover; she was not a helicopter parent. I don’t find myself overly fearful, perhaps that is my reaction. I often don’t pull the curtains or drop the blinds, and I live in a house. Something to think about.)