I opened THE BOX. The one in my garage with notebooks and journals. The one that holds secrets (and lies), poems and stories and miscellaneous bits of my life before I stopped writing.
I opened the box.
And just like in Greek mythology, my storage bin, or rather Pandora’s box, had far more to show me and tell me than I had imagined. And not all of it was good.
I’ll admit, I have not read through all of it. And some of it, I am not even sure I wrote. I know I collected quotes the way that some people collect stamps or butterflies or buttons. The way that someone else could articulate what I was feeling was such a comfort. But what I have read was not all beauty and magic. There were dark and tragic poems, verses so full of pain that it scared me more than a little bit. Was I THAT depressed? And WHY? What could have been so bad? I keep trying to put my finger on one thing, and I can’t. Reading the bits that I had made me think more about the person I am now, and that I have been in my adult life-the anxiety and moods that I have carried with me all these years. Clearly they were present then, but why? Where did it start? And should I even keep looking, trying to figure it all out, or should I just let it go, and be grateful I have learned from it and know myself so much better than even a year ago?
This weekend my boys and I pulled out a bin of photos at my mothers house and started reminiscing about my childhood. We laughed at all of the awkward stages I went through in the class pictures (and not just me-my sister and brother had some doozies too). I kept looking for a clue, trying to see a crack in my smile that told me-THERE! That is the year it started. But I saw nothing. I saw glasses and braces and really bad fashion, but I didn’t see darkness or depression. I saw laughter and smiles and fabulous memories with my family and all the fun we had.
And then my mother pulled out one of the last pictures we have of my grandmother and her comment struck me so hard, I am still turning it over now.
“There is my poor mother. She just never wanted to be happy.”
In the picture, she is not smiling. Her face is set, as it always was late in life. But I saw pictures of her as a young mom-smiling and happy. Her face was lit from within when she was holding my mother. And the things she wrote in my moms baby book beam with pride and joy. The clipping in the paper announcing my mothers first birthday was full of love and happiness.
The memories I have of my grandmother were not bitter or awful. I remember a grandmother that made amazing ice cream sundaes for dessert. Vanilla bean ice cream, maraschino cherries, Hershey’s syrup from a can, whipped cream. I remember staying up all hours to finish a game of Rummy 500. I still crave her macaroni and cheese that she made with roasted chicken-my favorite meal made on demand. I remember spending summer days at the beach with her. I remember birthday lunches at Chan’s palace and trips to Old McDonald’s farm. I remember her always having a trinket or book for us from her shopping at the thrift shop. I remember five dollar bills folded precisely, tucked into large green plastic Easter eggs with fake grass. Who let us dress up in her little nightgowns and day glow shoes and plastic beads. I remember happy.
But I look at this picture and I do see what my mother sees. She is not happy here.But why?
I have to believe she wanted to be happy. No one really sets out to be unhappy, do they? I don’t think that is fair. I do believe that for some people it is not a natural, organic state of being. For some people, perhaps myself included, it is not the baseline normal-we fall below the mark, a bit left of center. For some people being happy sometimes feels like fighting your way out of a wet paper bag-it should be so easy, but sometimes it’s a big mess, and I get that.
My grandmother lived in the 60s when you didn’t talk about being happy or unhappy, and you certainly didn’t go to the doctor for antidepressants and medications were not handed out like Skittles as they are today. Then, you suffered in silence. You were the doting wife, the good mother-your role models were June Cleaver and Ozzie and Harriet for Pete’s sake. How do you shake a fist and say “I’m not happy!” when that is the ideal?
I don’t remember my grandmother having a host of friends or parties or anything like that. No sisterhood, or tribe, ya-ya’s or girlfriends to confide in, cry with, share a story or a glass of wine. She did not work out of the house, or volunteer, or have a hobby that I can recall either. I look at her and I see loneliness and sadness. I have been so very fortunate to have all of those things, and even with them, some days and times in my life have still seemed so very hard. I cannot imagine being alone with them.
My grandfather worked full time, and the other women in his life were his boat, Long Island Sound, and his fishing rod. My grandmother was often alone for dinners-even for whole weekends, as he went out on the water or spent the day out at the boat club tinkering and puttering. He got up early and went for breakfast and coffee at the donut shop and sat for hours talking to other diners, but again, she stayed home. And, while I loved him dearly and still do, he was a two (or three) martini man. Having a spouse that drinks with a young child in the house fills the air with hostility and resentment, keeps you on edge, and fills you with bitterness. Watching him fall asleep in his chair, cigarette burning to the filter while the news blared on, must have been infuriating and depressing all at once. I spent years with an alcoholic, and I know how it builds up. Add a child to the equation and…
I don’t believe my grandmother ‘didn’t want to be happy’. I think she wanted what we all want-the happy ending, the fairy tale. And as her daughter grew up and moved on with her own family, my grandmother was alone with a man that had his own life, and now she had none. I don’t think things turned out the way she thought they would and it made her sad, and bitter and angry.
I miss her, and I wish she were here now. I’d love to talk to her about it all. I have often wondered if the dark parts of me-the moods and anxiety and depression, have a lineage that I never knew, and I suspect that they do. I wish I could tell her she had a choice, she always had a choice-to try something new, to leave her husband, to change and grow, to take medication, to get a job. To shake her fists and yell ‘I am not happy! To Hell with Harriet and June!’ I wish we could sit on the beach and eat dry tuna salad sandwiches and black olives off our fingers, and that I could tell her to just be happy. To listen to the sound of the ocean and the waves and the seagulls and let it all go.
It works for me.