24 October 2013

Ghosts of the Past

Retrieved 10/24/13 from URL:
The ghosts of the past can haunt us in ways we don't even understand, coloring our reactions to current events with shades of decades gone by.

I don't often talk about Quincy, the town where I lived during middle- and high-school.  When I left that place, I left and never looked back.  Well, that's not entirely true; I did go back once and was sharply reminded of why I'd left in the first place.  I haven't attended my reunions and no longer receive calls asking if I'm interested.

One of the memories I have is of the kitchen in the house where we lived on a seven acre horse farm.  The story has always been, and I've always parroted it, that my mother was a phenomenal cook and could prepare any meal to perfection.  Recently, my husband and I moved our family into a three-bedroom apartment, more than doubling our prior space and giving us a sumptuously large kitchen in which to cook.  I had forgotten how much I like to cook.

The ghosts came back to haunt me after my best friend left, having come to help me move and settle us into the new place.  I stared at the kitchen in shock, because it was mine, and because I could cook anything I wanted in it.  But who was I to cook?  Wasn't that my mother's purview?

Then it hit me.  My father is the one that tells the story of my mother, elevated now to the status of legend in the kitchen.  But I lived with my mother too, for eighteen long years, and there's nothing wrong with my memory that a little "listening to" wouldn't fix.

See, here's the thing:  the stories that are told about us, haunt us.  Good, bad, ugly, beautiful, heart-rending - it doesn't matter.  If the story isn't our own, then it's not our truth.  I'm not saying my father would deliberately lie about my mother, though there would be plenty of reason.  She suffered from mental illness most of her life and the two of us were isolated on that ranch after my father left.  We spent eight long years together in that house, and five bedrooms on seven acres isn't nearly enough room to run if you need to.

As I re-learn how to cook now, as an adult, I am startled by the realization that my mother wasn't a really good cook - for me.  She was famous for her New York Cheese Cake, but I never tasted it, not once in my life, because she refused to make it as being "too fattening."  I spent all of fifth grade eating frozen dinners because she was out in the evening at the bar.  I grew fond of Lean Cuisine, though I wrote them when one of the dinners didn't come out very well and was a little burnt.  I received eight fifty-cent coupons in the mail from the company, apologizing and begging me to try them again - eight!  That was a fortune to my young eyes, all mine, and all to be spent on Lean Cuisine.  I didn't like Chicken Cordon Bleu, and have never once eaten it since I left home at eighteen.  But fancy meals?  My mother stopped cooking holiday meals when I was eighteen because she didn't want to make fattening food.  I knew how to make ramen and cups-o-lentils, but couldn't boil water for an egg or make bread.

I don't think that the Story of Mom vs. my memory of her are necessarily at odds.  They're simply memories my father has and the way he tells the story to himself of his life.  The way to vanquish those ghosts, I've found, is to learn to tell our own stories.  By doing so, they cease to become ghosts and become our own bright memories that tell us the story of ourselves.  In doing so, the irony is my mother becomes more real, more three-dimensional, in my mind.  She becomes a person, and no longer a ghost.

But I still won't eat Chicken Cordon Bleu.

“It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”
- E.E. Cummings

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