Being a senior mama, I’ve stuffed decades of family memories into my cluttered brain. Most are vague, like old, uncaptioned photos in a shoebox, nameless and slowly fading. A few remain vivid, charged with remembered detail by the intensity of the emotions involved.
In a recent issue of The New Yorker magazine, author Marc Fisher questioned Kathy Pezdek, a cognitive psychologist from Claremont Graduate University, about the way memory operates over time. “At the top of the hierarchy of memory is the gist,” Fisher said, “and farther down are the details.” As mom to nine grown children, most of them adopted, and foster mom to a couple dozen more, I am intimately acquainted with the gist; the details, not so much.
Still, I remember where we started, my husband Bob and I. It is one of the vivid memories, perhaps because it was so fundamental to everything—and everyone—that came after.
* * *
The fact that he was interested in imprisoned children was the first thing I knew about Bob. To put himself through college at the University of New Mexico, he worked part-time at a juvenile detention center. At college socials he was the center of everyone’s attention as he spoke with passion and admiration about the children he supervised. Eighty boys and girls locked away in Albuquerque’s Juvenile Detention Home; not only those adjudged delinquent, but homeless kids—abandoned, beaten, or simply ignored. There was nowhere else to put them, not enough people able to reach out to them and care about the everyday details of their lives.
That first evening, at a college social at a friend’s home, Bob chronicled the adventures of Chris, a sparky, homeless nine-year-old. Just before his shift that morning, Chris had organized a simultaneous flush of his unit’s five toilets, with a blanket stuffed in each one. The resulting plumbing nightmare kept life interesting throughout the day and provided Bob with tales to share with his rapt listeners.
“What Chris needs is a career,” Bob concluded.
“He’s only—how old did you say? Nine?” someone asked.
And Bob was quick to answer. “That’s not too young to swing a hammer. Not when you’ve got nothing else.”
Bob was convinced Chris’s pranks were the product of a fine, inquiring mind trapped in a disheartening setting. He could appreciate the challenge of staying ahead of a youngster like that, steering his impressive energies into more constructive channels. So he was working toward a career as a shop teacher. Some day he would offer such troubled young men skills, self-confidence, and a trade.
It made perfect sense to me. You see a problem and you find a way to solve it, or at least whatever small part of it you can affect. I loved the practical, creative, can-do fervor Bob brought to his dreams. I wanted to be part of them. A trade is a fine start, but what about nurture? What about a mother?
That same night Bob asked me out, and after that we spent whatever free time we had together. Mostly, we drove back and forth around Albuquerque, talking about the needs at the Detention Home, envisioning ways to meet them. It was the early ’60s, a time of social ferment and sweeping change. Anything might be possible.
Often Bob would be on call, which meant frequent stops to find a phone and check in with the supervisor on duty. One evening his call brought news of a riot. Street kids, confined and aching for the familiar adrenaline rush of gang battles, and others whose long-unmet needs for nurturing and affection left them perpetually edging toward explosion, brawled through the halls, attacking their guards and one another indiscriminately.
Bob returned from the phone booth at a run and aimed the car in the direction of the D-Home, meanwhile laying out his plans for my safety. He would leave me in the car, doors locked; I was not to get out of the car no matter what I might see. I tried to imagine a breakout, with youngsters running suddenly free, desperate to put miles between themselves and this place of their confinement. And there would be the car, and me in it, ripe for the taking.
Bob swerved into the D-Home parking lot and, as though in answer to my fears, pulled a brick from beneath his seat and plopped it into my lap. “To defend yourself,” he said. “In case.”
He loped around the corner of the building, and I was alone, awash in the artificial glare of the parking lot lights and the vulnerability of my thoughts. In spite of the intensity of the time we’d spent together, the word “marriage” had never been spoken. But now it loomed. If we married and live out the life we dreamed of, there would always be these nights of danger and uncertainty, spilling over onto everything we touched, everything we loved. There would always be these children, their lives a nightmare of uncertainty without a centering home.
Time did not pass as I sat there, eyes and ears straining for any hint of what my immediate future might hold. I fingered the rough surface of the brick and wondered how it might feel to wield it against the skull of a marauding teenager. I was sure that the sight of me—five-feet-two and a wimpy 110 pounds, waving a building brick in the general direction of his head—would not strike anything like terror into his heart. And I was not at all sure if I could ever whack a child with it anyway, not even one wild with the strength of his desperation.
Within 45 minutes it was over. Bob reappeared, striding toward the car, head down. I unlocked the door and he slid into the seat beside me, lifted the brick from my lap and replaced it under his seat. I waited for his story of what had gone on inside the D-Home, but he fitted the keys into the ignition and pulled slowly out of the parking lot.
“If you marry me,” he said, not even glancing in my direction, “this is what it will be like.”
This fear, this waiting, not knowing how it would all turn out. Not knowing even what might be possible, or what to hope for. This intensity. These unmothered children.
There were two ways to take his statement. Maybe it was a declaration of his determination to remain single. If anyone would choose to marry him it would be a life of perpetual anxiety, he seemed to say, so who would choose such a thing?
And on the other hand, he was talking—for the first time ever—of marrying me. I nodded in the darkness, marveling at the thought.
For several weeks our relationship continued as though that night of revelation had never taken place. Then one evening he came to the dorm to pick me up, and I sensed at once that a new distance separated us. Instead of driving we sat in the parking lot, Bob staring out the windshield in heavy silence.
I couldn’t know the image that filled his mind, and he wasn’t ready to express it to me: a youngster 15-years-old in a locked room, barefoot, faded jeans, a white T-shirt. He was sharp-featured, trimly built, his bare arms wiry with the incipient musculature of an adult. A handsome kid, his expression chronically tight and guarded, with jaws jammed closed on some private rage. Bob, doing rounds to check on his charges, glancing through the 12-by-12-inch wire-reinforced window found this child hanging by his neck from a knotted-towel rope of his own making. He was not dead—not yet—but his eyes were shut against a view he no longer wanted, and his body jerked convulsively in what might have been the last moments of his life.
The image contained an aural accompaniment: Bob’s own shout and his co-worker’s running footsteps approaching on polished green institutional tile. The keys rattling in the lock, the hoarse orders they shouted to one another as they struggled to lower the child to the floor. The sharp gasp of the child’s returning breath and then his whispery sobs.
“I am not going to marry you,” Bob finally said. Since that night of the riot at the D-Home, he had not mentioned marriage again. But the word, when he used it now, did not seem out of place between us. We had not left the parking lot, had sat for nearly an hour in silence, gazing out the front window. And I had waited, uncertain of the reason for his reverie, but willing to share the quiet with him. I shifted in my seat and looked at him. The car was dark, but I could make out the outline of his face, lit by the parking lot lights.
“I’m sorry if I’ve led you on,” he said. “I didn’t mean for you to feel anything for me—if you do.” I nodded, as much to acknowledge the feeling as to cover my confusion. “Well, it stops here,” he said.
“Us. This is a solo act from here on out. There are things I’ve got to do, and I’m not asking anybody to go along with me.” He hit at the steering wheel with both palms, pounding his point into place.
“What things?” I asked, but I knew already. That knowing was what had drawn me to him in the first place.
“Kids,” he said. “Kids nobody wants. And there’s good reasons nobody wants them, too. They’re not easy, these kids. But I’m going to find some way to hold on to them, and I’m not asking anybody to do that with me.”
“How about if you don’t ask, but I just volunteer?”
He turned to me then, regarding me curiously, as though he’d only just discovered me there.
“There was this kid today,” he finally said. “Fifteen years old, barefoot, locked in this room alone…”
* * *
I wonder now about the gist of the five decades of memories that have crammed into my mind since then. Homeless kids and born-to-us kids; those from war zones on the other side of the earth, and from the homegrown terrors of our own city streets. Kids abandoned because no one expected them to live, or adjudged wards of the state because of the violence done to them by the adults surrounding them. These children share our lives for the rest of their growing-up years, and then they leave, taking their own memories with them. Different memories than mine, even of our most intimate moments together. A different gist.
Maybe that is the deepest beauty of mothering, that sharing of ourselves without imposing. We instigate the creative process of making and storing memories, then let them go, to take shape in our children’s minds as something entirely original, winging free, and entirely out of our control.