Monday, November 3, 2014

November 2, 1969: Are You My Mother?

There is a black-and-white photograph of me on my second birthday. I am in a booster seat facing a round cake with three candles in it, one presumably for good luck. I am crying. 

When I was a teenager, I was fascinated by old pictures. My mother owned a lot of photos, but these were scattered haphazardly on two shelves of a cabinet in our living room. She'd made no attempt to categorize them in any way, and so I was forced to bombard her with questions about who this or that photographic subject was, and when and where a particular photo had been taken. Often she didn't know - couldn't remember or wouldn't share? - and I remember feeling sad for her and me, that so much history had been lost to disorganization, willful or not.

I have kept scrupulous pictorial evidence of the childhoods of my own kids. This is no accident.

When I asked my mother about the photo of me in tears at my second birthday party, she did tell me a story. I wish now that she hadn't.

She told me that because I had been born so prematurely - at thirty weeks - and had been so fragile and sick, she was terrified of taking care of me. So she outsourced my care to a nanny, a German woman named Helga. From all accounts Helga loved me and took good care of me, and I did find a picture or two of me with Helga in the pile of old photos. In them Helga is beaming at me. I can see that she was fond of me.

Apparently I grew attached to Helga, but not to my own mother. This is understandable, isn't it? Helga was my primary caregiver. But when my mother shared this fact with me, she sounded surprised (and amused) by my strong connection to hired help.

What did you expect?, I wanted to ask, but forbore.

On the day of my second birthday, I decided, for whatever reason, to ditch Helga in favor of my mother. Perhaps I had watched my mother being affectionate with my older brother one time too many and was jealous. I don't know. When I ditched Helga, though, I ditched her hard. My mother had to let her go not long after because I simply refused to be with her anymore. 

According to my mother, just after the photo of me with my cake was snapped, I clambered onto my mother's lap, and that was that. It was quite clear to everyone in the room that I had made a very intentional choice of my mother over Helga.

Poor Helga. Such family dysfunction she'd walked into.

As my mother finished telling me the story of Helga, she was laughing at my sense of purposefulness at such a young age.

Why, then, did I leave her to cry in my bedroom? I wondered then, and wonder still, why I had to choose my mother. Why wouldn't she have chosen me?