Where on earth have you gone, little Barbara?

Going through some family memento items recently I happened upon a small handful of very old black-and-white family photographs. Included amongst them was one showing three children? Fortunately, they are identified. It’s my uncle Basil (always a favorite of mine) who is now, alas, off in la-la land at around 90; my aunt Audrey (another favorite), still going remarkably strong and alert at 95; and my mother, who fled the life scene at age 72 back in 1992,

The photo is dated 1924, so my mother would have been four-years-old at the time.

Yet, despite her cute li’l Prince Valiant pageboy, I find the photo a bit chilling in an odd way. It’s something about the eyes. Whilst the other two kids are looking at a photographer, my mother is looking off to the side at another world that only she seems to be focused on. Barbara had left the building in some odd sense.

She was always like that – is the thought that struck me in a revelatory way. What was she looking at? What was she thinking about with that enigmatic expression?

I have really no idea, I only know that the expression she shows, with the passionless and fixed semi-smile and the faraway eyes was how she always seemed to look in my recall. Whatever was there for her was not to be accessible.

God, no wonder my parents had a terrible marriage. I couldn’t bear being married to somebody who gave a default appearance of being emotionally absent. Yet, I do believe that such was the case with her. And it obviously began in early childhood.

I never really figured the woman out, which is weird, since she was my mother. But honestly, I know virtually nothing about what made her work. As I have mentioned, she died of chronic alcoholism at a relatively premature but entirely predictable age. And in the later stages, as is the case with most alcoholics, she wasn’t a hell of a lot of fun. I need elaborate no more on that aspect of her being.

She was, I do know, extremely intelligent. She did very well in school, skipping grades and the like. She was notably well-read. I will grant her a great deal of credit in terms of my connections with literature, and for that I’m grateful. I was reading adult books by age 12, and pondering the social and political musings of people like Dos Passos by the time I was 15.

And she loved music, and she loved art. But about all of them she was almost pathologically lazy. In fact, she never did anything with them. In fact she gave up at a very early age. In fact her life in terms of self-fulfillment was predominantly a waste. For that, I am sorry for her.

For the fact that she also seemed virtually incapable of conveying any deep sense of love to her three children, I am not sorry for her, I am self-indulgently sorry for us. We missed out on something vital and have had to spend a lot of years compensating for the lack.

But, in a way, the photo tells me why. She wasn’t there. Maybe she never was. It’s OK with me. Eventually I had to move on, and I did. But, I still wonder about where she was all those years.

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12 responses to “Where on earth have you gone, little Barbara?

  1. My mom once said how lucky my generation is, that we don’t have to have a family if we don’t want to. In their day you got married and had children and that was that. Perhaps your mom, like me, just wasn’t cut out to have kids and circumstances being what they were, she got married and had them anyway. God knows, I’d have made a miserable mother (both literally and figuratively).

    Sure she could have bucked the trend, but it takes a special kind of person to do that. Had I lived back then, I don’t think I would have had the courage to do it. And I would have had children and I would have hated it and myself for doing it. And probably taken to drinking or whatever was the trend in the suburbs of the era.

    Just a thought.

  2. This isa sad story for everyone in it. But you rose above it. Your poor mother couldn’t. How dreadful to live so trapped in one’s own emotional desert.

  3. Good comments above, both. You give the impression, Ian, of searching. It’s probably a lot to do with what you’ve written here about your mother. I’m one of the fortunates who decided not to have kids, then realized I wanted them after all and now have what I think are amazing sons (biased much?). My mother, like yours, was trapped in the expectations of her generation. Nurturing was not her strength. Fortunately duty was since it was even less my father’s strength. 🙂

  4. A poignant post and comments. I’m not sure which I feel sorrier for, you and your siblings or your mother. If only she had seen herself as worthy of help and gotten it, all of you might have been happier or at least had some understanding of her situation. You, it seems, endeavor to understand yourself and your own life and inner workings, something that requires both empathy and fortitude.

  5. Thank you everybody for your comments. They are apt and basically yes, Jazz, she wasn’t cut out to rear children, but saw herself as having no other option. I’m not lacking in understanding of her plight in doing what was ‘expected’ in those days, but it’s unfortunate that she left a lot of damage in her wake. Yes, when somebody close to you is obviously desperately unhappy you cannot help but feel grief for that person. At the same time, however, she refused to be honest regarding such things as her alcohol abuse, for example, and refused to get help she sorely needed, more’s the pity.

  6. It is awful when someone, due to whatever circumstances, is placed in a position in which they don’t want to be at all. When that position is motherhood, and there are innocent children involved, it’s even worse. How sad for you and your siblings to have had such a detached mother, but how sad for her that she couldn’t give you emotionally what you needed and so she couldn’t ever experience the fun of children and the joy of loving them. That being said, though, how awesome that you have risen above a lot of that and have turned into a pretty good person! xo

  7. It’s quite possible she had some sort of mental illness. Most people with mental illness in the past became alcoholics. And some still do.

  8. Luckily, my ‘distance’ has come long after my beloved children had grown, been loved, and know they are still very beloved.
    I find I really struggle now, to accept the role of ‘wife’. It seems hard, and odd. I am still happy to be ‘mother’ but detest being ‘wife’.

  9. I don’t think I have anything helpful to add, but I read this with sorrow for all concerned, Barbara and her children, and her husband, too. Perhaps she had a dream deferred which withered like a raisin in the sun, and how sad that she never shared it with you.

  10. Susan: The sensitivity of your comment is hugely appreciated by me. But, coming from you, I am not surprised at all.

  11. It can humble us when we learn about the human side of our parents. They have a backstory that often never gets told.

  12. Good thoughts, Deb. The problem is that there is now nobody left on earth who can actually tell me the elements of that backstory so I can only rely on conjecture.

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