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Open Road

by Catherine Watson
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Looking for Mom

"We waited too long,'' my sister Jane kept saying, and I agreed. We were on a fact-finding mission, spending a cold November weekend on the Canadian border, hoping to find out anything we could about our mother, who grew up there. She died 25 years ago this month.

Everyone we talked to - while they were plenty old - were too young to remember what we most wanted to know: What was our mother like when she was a girl?

We had to settle for what life was like in Rainy River, Ontario, and Baudette, Minnesota, in the 1920s and '30s. But what we learned helped flesh out our image of Mom. And along the way, we got a startling lesson in the unreliability of family memories and family lore. Family legends would be a better label.

I've long thought of myself as our family's archivist, the one who "does genealogy'' and keeps track of ancestors. But on this trip, I realized that I hadn't been curious enough about my mother while she lived.

Growing up, I had asked her things, of course, and I remember what she told me, but there is a big age spread between her oldest child (me) and her youngest (Jane), with three other kids in between. They all asked questions too, but our questions weren't the same, so we ended up with different answers.

Each of us assembled this information into a portrait of our mother, and the portraits turned out not to match any better than our questions had.

All of us knew she had been a good student, that her father had died suddenly at age 49, that her mother had worked hard to keep the family afloat afterward. We knew that Mom got a partial scholarship from the University of California at Berkeley, that she made Phi Beta Kappa studying economics, and that she cleaned houses to help support herself.

I remember her saying that she sometimes had to study for finals while she vacuumed other people's carpets, holding a textbook in one hand, pushing the vacuum cleaner with the other.

From tidbits like that, I had fashioned a gloomy, fatherless life story along the lines of "Wuthering Heights,'' her favorite book. I pictured childhood hardship, not warmth; hard work, not happiness. But there had been all those things in her young life, and our trip to the Canadian border gave us new glimpses of it.

With help from the local historical society in Baudette, Jane and I were introduced to a 90-year-old man who remembered seeing our mother - "she was older - I didn't know her '' - but he did know her younger sister and her brother, a high school football star.

And he remembered vividly what it had been like to be young in their hometown. He described, just as my mother had, how much fun it was to skate on the frozen Rainy River. Who made the skating rink? we wondered. Nobody made a rink, he said. As long as it wasn't snowing when the river froze, the ice would form as smooth as glass, and you could skate for miles.

He told us how it felt to cross the river in summer, before the car bridge was built. Kids went back and forth all the time, he said, walking on the old single-track railroad bridge, hoping a train wouldn't come through.

Our mother was scared of getting trapped on that bridge, we told him. She used to have bad dreams about it, years later. "Oh, it WAS scary!'' he said, but it didn't stop anybody.

He also told us where Mom's house had stood in Baudette - the one her family moved to after her father died - and added that it had a big front yard. "We played pom-pom-pull-away on that lawn,'' he said, smiling as he saw it again in his mind. And I realized I had never pictured my mother playing.

The best moment came in a conversation with one of the man's neighbors, a tiny woman of 88, who said she was too young to know our mother. Jane and I were disappointed, starting to say, yet again, that we had waited too long...

But then the lady offered a detail we never thought to ask about: "My older brother went with her in high school,'' she said, as if it were routine.

To us, this was stunning news -- like getting a gift -- and it added another dimension to our mother. I'd never pictured her dating, either!

The beau had died some years ago, the old lady said, but she proudly showed us his photo. Even in old age, he'd been a strikingly handsome man. It occurred to me that he and my mother must have been a great looking couple.

What was there for high school kids to do in Baudette then? "They went dancing", the lady replied. "They went to movies. Just normal things.''

Normal things -- those are the very things that kids don't think to ask about, and parents don't think to tell simply because they ARE normal.

I've been pondering this ever since Jane and I got home, and I've concluded this:

Kids NEVER ask the right questions. They CAN'T - they don't have enough information to go on. And they never ask enough. And then they grow up and kick themselves for it. I think it's time their elders - namely, us - helped them out.

There is always more to everyone's life story, more than we choose to tell - or think is worth telling. But that's what kids, even grown-up kids, are going to want to know. It's time to start telling them everything we can remember - everything - even if the kids and the grandchildren and the nieces and nephews don't ask the right questions.

It's time for all of us to answer as if they had. Think of all those stories as a gift you can give them - because someday that's exactly what they'll be.

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