It’s strange, in a way, that there are things about us that we ourselves do not know. I am both fond of reminiscing and also allergic to it, happily recounting memories from my childhood to my husband about my brothers and friends, but I prickle and have sudden amnesia when it comes to a question that raises something more difficult. Recently we were talking about the sleeping arrangements in the house I grew up in. With 4 children and large house, there was a reshuffling several times throughout my childhood but I drew a blank on the actual timeline. I have memories where we were all upstairs, memories when there were 3 of us in one space, many years when I was alone in what was a tiny room behind the furnace, and then a time when I was back in the place where there had been 3 of us but under different arrangements. The timeline is correct, or chronologically logical, but I have no idea of the actual measurements of time I spent in each place. It’s a jumble. I asked my brothers for help in figuring it out and they remember about as well as I do – the order of things, but no actual amount of time.
Recently my mom sent me a piece of writing she did, a meditation on ways in which she and I are the same and different. I’m her only daughter, she has 3 sons. In this short piece she mentioned how I used to hide under tables when I was young after something scared or embarrassed me and nothing, nothing could draw me out until I was ready to emerge on my own. I knew this. I remember this. But she added at the end of that bit that it wasn’t always clear what had shaken me and you also couldn’t ask me what had caused my embarrassment because it would just throw me back into the shame. I never knew this part, and yet, as open as I’ve been about my emotions and struggles in my online sharing, I was somewhat shocked to read this and then there was this immediate realization that I am still like this. Something about myself I didn’t know, and became aware of as something still present.
At the end of this piece my mom wrote an anecdote that I remember, that I knew about myself, that is somewhat a defining story about “little Sylvie” that is more or less a piece of my Origin Story. When I was very little I wanted to grow up to be an old man. I’m not sure where I even got the image of an old man or what that meant to me, because there weren’t many old men in my life. One grandfather died before I was born, the other I only met a few times before he also passed. I don’t remember neighbors. I do remember illustrations of old men in books – Grandfather Twilight comes to mind – but I believe that was much later than this desire to be an old man was already present. So, as my mom tells it, I was about 2 years old. This is the same age when I stopped playing with whatever toys I was busying myself with on the floor of the tiny room where my oldest brother, then about 9 years old, was taking a violin lesson; I crept over to my mother and in a tiny voice, probably one of those “kid whispers” that’s not quite as quiet as you think, I asked my mom when I would get my own violin. It was an assumption, more than a request. And so I started violin shortly before turning 3. It was this same age, and probably a similarly casual question, when I asked my mom when I would become an old man.
“Never,” my mom answered, perhaps in a tone that matched the “cuteness” of the question, “because you’re a girl.” I burst into tears at that moment, dreams dashed. I remember this. I also remember being upset for a long time. In this piece my mom wrote though, outlining the ways in which we are similar and different, she ended by saying that she was wrong. Not wrong in correcting the impossible dream of a child too young to understand, but wrong in that she watches videos of me with Legends, laughing and talking with them, and she sees me as a peer of these men in their 50s, 60s, 70s… I have become this Old Man that I dreamed to be.
She sent me this on Mother’s Day. I cried. I told her so and then she cried. As my mother, she knows things about me that I can’t know, because I – what I understand to be me now – wasn’t conscious of it. I was too young. As an emotionally volatile teen, I lamented not being understood; and truthfully, there are things about me that I don’t think my mom can understand or know, because of the relationship we have, because of that bond. It’s not a failure, it’s a natural blind spot to the way we are oriented to one another. Two trees can hold each other up and thereby never see the other side of one another.
I have wondered since reading this piece, what kind of Old Man I’d want to be now. If 2-year-old Sylvie’s vision of herself has maintained anything over all this time. Would I be like Dieselnoi? A meteor that tears through space and time, igniting excitement and awe as we watch his tail rip through the night sky? Would I be like Arjan Pramod? Careful in word and posture but tireless in preserving and carrying forth the dignity of my life’s work? Will I be like Grandfather Twilight? Slow and diligent, carrying out a single mission with the purpose and persistence of a spirit custodian, whose duty never grows nor fades. It’s something I don’t know about myself and maybe never can, until it simply is… or I simply am.