It seems to me we spend our entire childhoods wondering who we will be.
Will we be beautiful, tall, successful, happy, rich, married, etc, etc.
We ask these questions and say we want to be a This or we want to be a That. We play MASH and determine we will live in a mansion with Aaron Carter and drive a blue punch-buggy.
We work hard to get good grades, good SAT scores, good everything so we will get in to a good college and be good and do everything good, so that when college is done, our lives will be good.
It seems to me that once we grow up—once we get the degree, get the things, find the cow as white as milk, the slipper as pure as gold—once we get our wish, or alas, we do not get our wish…there is a strange reversal.
We start wondering, and this time it’s more of an investigation because this time there are solid clues—real evidence. We start wondering who we were.
What were we thinking?
Why did we do that?
Why did we want that?
I have spent quarantine-time up at my childhood town in Upstate New York.
It has been both lovely and strange.
I have nothing but time…time to go through old boxes in my bedroom, time to go through plastic, dust-covered bins full of photographs in the basement. My boyfriend, who also lives in town, (and who I conveniently met three and a half weeks before quarantine began), has now sat through many dinners with my family and heard countless stories about me and my sister growing up:
“Jesse used to run upstairs and lock herself in her bedroom when we tried to sing happy birthday to her.”
“Jackie refused to face the audience during her 4th grade chorus concert.”
“Jesse touched the burner on the stove to see if it was hot the first time she made a grilled cheese.”
We all laugh.
But now with all this free time, I really, truly think about these things. I wonder why I couldn’t stand the attention of a “Happy Birthday” chorus. In a shyness all her own, why Jackie could not stand the audience watching her sing in a chorus concert.
I search my face in piles of old photographs for a sign of what I was thinking on that day in history. Was this the phase where I worried constantly about my pimples, or was I struggling with math…why did I love that T-shirt? Why that haircut?
Looking at a few, I wonder had you even met a black person yet? Had you had a black classmate? A black schoolteacher? When did you first know it was better to have your skin?
On HBO, Lorraine Bracco leads Tony Soprano, the famous, fictional mob boss, through therapy. Uncle June used to tease him about not making varsity, and why was his mother so cold and volatile and how has it impacted him? Why is he broken today because of who he was yesterday?
How will he ever stop fainting at the sight of sliced meat after watching his father cut off Mr. Satriale’s pinky?
I sit at a table with my mother and three of my aunts, listening to them talk about their parents (my grandparents). What they used to say to them. How it made them feel. What they said to “you and not me”, “he was that way with me and X”, “she’d say that to me, too”, “he never was that way with Y”.
“I remember a moment on my first trip home from college—” says Mom, “X, do you know what I’m going to say?”
X remembers, and she remembers how she sat on the front stairs waiting for her in the freezing cold and how later on Papa wouldn’t sit with her at the table. How that made her feel.
How that made Mom feel.
These women—these strong, influential women of my life—remember these tiny needles from their past, and they work through their memories and words to figure out how these needles lay in the giant haystacks that have become their lives.
It makes me all the more curious about my own needles, and I think I must have a lot of needles.
Nearly four months outside of my New York City life, I have enough space to speculate on my world there—my behaviors and habits, wants and needs, triumphs and failures. I can see the whole haystack that was my life there.
And here upstate, I have nothing but time to sift through it.
We became someone. We became adults. But who even were we back then?