Third Person, Limited

When my parents moved in with us in 2015, I expected there’d be adjustments. I knew we’d have to set expectations about how often we’d eat together, how we’d handle shared household expenses, what temperature to set the thermostat. My dad was already ill, and I knew it would be difficult to see the healthy picture I had of him replaced by his sicklier current self. I thought my mother and I might clash occasionally — the last time we’d lived together for more than a few weeks at a time, I was sixteen, and there was plenty of clashing. I didn’t know the half of it.

When my family gets together, we tell stories about when we were kids. They are familiar and funny, but they are not just entertainment — they’re designed to tell us something about who we are to each other. I love these stories and their secret meanings. I love the way they let us love each other through our most annoying spells and most irritating qualities.

We tell about that time at the beach that I licked an ice cream treat straight from the dry ice chest and got it stuck to my tongue. (Translation: book smart doesn’t always mean smart-smart!)

How once, Tracy joined my friends for a Pictionary game and drew a monster with TWO eyes for “cyclops,” or the time she gave the following clue at Taboo: “Please, sir, may I have some more?….but my leg is broken!” (Translation: endlessly lovable but not great with the literary references!)

Or how one year Marty promised a very cute 5-year-old Tracy he was buying her brussels sprouts for Christmas….and really did. (Translation: don’t question whether Marty will follow through with the joke. Ever.)

The time Nick spilled a beer in our parents car and made up the world’s funniest, least believable story about strange kids hopping into his driver seat with open beers, doing donuts in the parking lot, and then leaving as quickly as they’d arrived. (Translation: don’t be a borderline childhood delinquent and also be a terrible liar!)

The time Ian, unlicensed at age 14, “borrowed” the pastor’s car in the middle of the night to visit a girl. (Translation: Even non-borderline juvenile delinquents can grow up to be fully functioning responsible adults!)

Or how every time we’d go bowling, my dad would yell “mind your fingers” when the ball shot back out through the return. (Translation: consistent, predictable, safety-conscious, and fond of foreign vernacular!)

The stories about my mom are good, too: The time she grounded me for doing laundry, convinced (accurately) that the only possible reason for it was that I was trying to cover something up. How you had to be in need of surgery to stay home from school, even though we complained mightily about how our friends were allowed to take the occasional “personal day.” Or the origin story of Tracy’s oddly misshapen hands — the result of my mom deciding one day that we’d made one too many trips to the ER just to have fingers or toes taped together. From then on, any injuries to digits were met with a “let’s buddy ’em up!” and mom just used some medical tape to bind a couple of those suckers together for a week or two.

When we tell stories about my mom, they are always about the same thing: that she was a problem solver who was on to you from the beginning, and she was not going to put up with your crap. This is the narrative of mom that emerged for me in young adulthood. It replaced the adolescent narrative: “Mom is a mean, unreasonable control freak who would rather ruin my life than let me ever have fun.”

That narrative faded as she revealed glimpses of her own childhood, and of the grandparents I’d barely known who had struggled with addiction. When my children were born, I trusted my instincts and my training — just do what Mom did, or call her and ask! She didn’t have that luxury when we were small. I learned that she created my idyllic childhood out of thin air — out of will, and grit, and desire to love us so much better than she’d been loved. A different story emerged as it dawned on me that my secure sense of home and family and the natural order of things was built on her scars.

What I’d experienced as a teenager as her being (too) tough on me was reinterpreted as just tough: Mom has a steel core. Mom is badass. This is a good story.

Now, that story is falling apart.

Last week, when Nathaniel had more or less recovered from a bug and was clearly milking his remaining symptoms for all they were worth, Mom suggested to me that he should stay home from school. And that his tumble on the playground might have caused a head injury. I stared at her, confused, and called my sister to ask how you “buddy up” a concussion.

It falls apart when dad has pneumonia, and you’re at the hospital and mom can’t seem to make a decision, and the family starts looking at you to be the problem solver instead of her. It disintegrates when, late at night, mom grieves the loss of her healthy husband, crying quietly on the sofa. These things don’t look anything like steel.

I have to rewrite the story. I will make this one fuller and more generous than the one that came before.

It’s clear to me that it’s the storyteller who is at fault, and not the subject. I am an unreliable narrator of the tales I tell about myself and the people I love. I never really see the whole picture; I am always third person limited. Nonetheless, it has been profoundly unsettling to accept that my mom-as-superhuman narrative is just as reductive and incomplete as the mom-as-supervillain one that preceded it. My mother is strong and also weak. She is smart as a whip and there are things she knows nothing about. Her razor-sharp wit is sometimes funny and sometimes just cuts you. She is dutiful and also gets a little mean when she’s tired. How unfair to make her less than or more than human!

The narrative thread that persists in each revision is how her love shapes me. When my children are grown, when I am at the end of my rope because of challenges I have not even imagined yet, I will know just what to do even when I have no idea what to do. I will trust my instincts and my training — I will do what Mom does, and find my way.

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Kerry Searle Grannis

Kerry lives in the Washington, DC area with her husband and three children. She's a think tank administrator, elder in her church, and holds a PhD in English.