Her dad was a farmer, and she grew up on a ranch in central California. Not the kind of ranch that rich people have, with horses that they show and a fancy house on top of a hill. It was the kind of ranch that grew dry wheat before irrigation and cotton afterwards. It was the kind of ranch that small planes flew over and sprayed pesticides on the crops while the children played outside. It was the kind of ranch that was far from the world, so the girl who became my mom spent two hours on a bus to school, each way, every day. She read books and did all her homework on that bus.
It wasn’t that she didn’t get to see anyone else though. There were some neighbors and extended family in the area (within five miles or so). There was church, and the family went every Sunday. But the social circles were pretty small, and everybody you did know knew a lot about you. Perhaps that’s why she hates people to know things about her now. She has a Facebook account, in her husband’s name, and never posts anything. She only has it so she can see photos we post. She has asked my siblings and me never to post anything about her: not happy birthday, not get well soon, not how she was doing during chemo treatments. Nothing.
(Neither she nor anyone who might recognize the photo reads blogs.)
When we were growing up, my mom sometimes told stories about her own childhood on the ranch, so different from ours in the city. We loved hearing about the adventures she and her two sisters had with their horse Ernestine or on the fishing trips with her grandfather. She picked the most amusing stories and told them in ways that made little kids beg for more. It wasn’t until I was an adult that she told me, once and in a somewhat abstract way, that her mom’s brother sexually abused her when she was a girl. I don’t know how old she was. I am not sure if it was once or multiple times. I know she hated this uncle but pretended she didn’t because her mother doted on this brother. She never talked about it again and changed the subject if I even got close to it.
So sexual abuse and lies to cover it up were already a pattern long before I was born. Pretending things were fine when they weren’t was a well-established habit.
I’ve always thought she and my dad made a strange match. She was focused, hard-working, an excellent student. She loved to read and liked quiet activities with just a few people. He was outgoing, a lover of parties, irresponsible, playful. He flunked out of college and had to spend a year getting C’s at the community college before the university would take him back. He spent more money than he had and then asked his parents to pay what he owed. I asked her once, probably 20 years after she and my father had divorced, what had attracted her to him in the first place. We were sitting at a restaurant, leisurely drinking margaritas and eating Mexican food. It felt relaxed, and so I asked something I honestly wanted to know. I wondered who she was as a young woman, deciding to marry this man so different from herself. What drew her to him? She avoided the question and later asked my sister, “Why did Q ask that? Was she drunk?” (No, I was not.)
Do not ask personal questions. Keeping things neat and avoiding upset is more important than talking about the truth, than building intimacy by discussing the things that matter, the things that make us who we are.
Do not say what you think. This seems to be rules she adopted somewhere along the way. Was that because of the uncle? Or other reasons? I adored my grandparents, her parents. I experienced them as loving and patient and supportive. But once or twice, almost by accident, she said things that suggested that’s not how they were as parents. She felt they were too intrusive, wanted to know too much about what she was doing. They limited her choices when she went to college: “Young women can study to be nurses or teachers, which do you want?” She hated blood so she became a teacher. At least that’s the story she tells.
What did she really want? What were her dreams? What are they now? What are her struggles and fears? Who is this person? I feel sad because I don’t know. And I feel sad because she never asks those questions about me. She never shows the slightest interest in my internal life. Even in my “external” life–big things like quitting my job and not knowing what to do next–her interest is minimal. Why is this? Is it rooted in something in her life, or is it something about me?