What do we tell the children

What Do We Tell the Children?

In view of recent events, I figured it would be a good idea to put someone else on my bank accounts so that if I die, the 400 bucks I have in checking won’t end up stranded in probate or wherever else it might end up. I have a will but it’s a mess since half of what’s in it no longer applies.

So I went to the bank and said, “I want to make my son beneficiary on my account.” And a nice man wearing a discount suit said, “Do you know his full name and birthday?”

I paused as a few questions rolled through my mind:

  1. Does this man have kids?
  2. Are there parents who don’t know their kids’ full names and birthdays?
  3. Is this man one of them?

I didn’t ask any of those questions but I did say, “Well, I made him and I named him so yes, I know both of those things.”

I know all sorts of stuff about my kids. I could, given a few minutes, unearth pretty much every meaningful document regarding their lives. I could name every single one of their elementary school teachers and a few of the better preschool ones. I could produce artwork from ages 1 to 15 for the older one and ages 1 to just yesterday for the younger one.

After I left the bank, I went across the street to Hi-Life Burgers for lunch and thought about what information I could cough up at a moment’s notice regarding my children.

Food and drug allergies. Detailed medical histories. Names of best friends from kindergarten. Favorite colors. Shoe sizes. One of them snores and the other one for some reason always ends up sideways in his bed.

And then I wondered what they know about me, aside from the fact I eat way too many french fries and I love them very much.

And then I wondered if there were things they might need to know.

And here’s why I wondered that. My mom was in the foster system for most of her young life, from ages 4 to 11 years old, roughly. She lived in large institutions and smaller group homes. She developed a near violent dislike of organized religion because many of the adults she dealt with were mostly Catholic and their behavior ranged anywhere from garden variety unkind to physically abusive.

I knew none of this, except the hatred of organized religion. I knew that my mom had lived away from her mother because her father abandoned them. Her mother couldn’t afford to keep her girls with her on a waitress’ salary but that they saw each other every week. But mostly my mom refused to talk about her childhood. Listening to her, it seemed as if her life began when her mom remarried and could finally put her family back together.

My mom’s photo album begins with a black and white picture of two girls, ages 11 and 10, flanking a sturdy older man standing in front of a small white wooden house. From there it is idyllic, the tale of two pretty, healthy girls growing up under the bright Los Angeles sun. Swimsuits give way to graduation gowns, giggles and kittens and a gaggle of other sunburned girls slowly morph into hilariously huge cars and husbands and babies. “See,” the photo album seemed to say, “We started rough but everything worked out just fine.”

Fast forward 6 decades and I am trying to get my mom to live in a small assisted living center. It’s a nice house in a gated community. There are no signs out front, no nurses in uniform. There’s a nice couple who cook and clean and a bunch of other old ladies wearing their own clothes and brushing their own hair and there’s even a pool in the backyard. She has to go somewhere, she can no longer legally care for herself. If she stays in her own home the state of Arizona is required by law to put her in a state run health center and those places are endless dim, wide hallways, high staff turnover and the pungent smell of canned potato soup throughout.

I think I am offering her a better alternative. Why is she being so insane and unreasonable? Why is my formerly highly practical and reasonable mother ignoring the facts of her situation?

Her younger sister, who lived through the foster system alongside her, is going through this hell with me and even she doesn’t seem to know why my mom refuses to face reality. My aunt keeps saying that my mom is living in la-la land, another reason why I will eventually deeply dislike that movie.

A week after my mom died, my aunt sits at my kitchen table and, thinking out loud about what a clusterfuck my mom’s last year had been, says, “Maybe our traumatic foster care past was why she fought so hard against assisted living of any kind. Maybe she’s like me and has to control every part of her house or she couldn’t get to sleep.”

I was stunned. Traumatic? I thought my mom just hated nuns because everyone from that generation seemed to hate nuns. My aunt proceeded to tell me things I still can’t believe they survived.

The photo album lied. Everything didn’t work out just fine because what they experienced when they were young followed them around for the rest of their lives.

‘No wonder,’ I think as I go back over the geography of my childhood, equipped with new information about what my mom survived. ‘No wonder this is where the snags were, there is where we fell from, here is where we broke apart, and that is where the dark corners were.’

If I had known, I could have been gentler. I could have held her hand more and stormed out of her room less. I could have called more, checked in more. Been a better daughter and a better friend. And, come to think of it, I could have given her the benefit of the doubt and believed that she had a damn good reason for not wanting to live in a group home. It wouldn’t have changed the facts but again, I could have been kinder.

And, before you think I am playing blame mommy, it wasn’t her fault she didn’t tell me. If she knew it would have helped me she would have. Even if the telling harmed her, she would have done it. It was an ugly time in her life and I think she thought she was protecting me by not telling me.

So. What do we tell the children? I don’t know for sure but if it keeps you up at night, maybe think about starting with that.

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