The Only Child as an Adult
As a girl contemplating the mysteries and attractions of independence, of growing up and moving away from home to attend college and then graduate school — moving toward what I believed would be my real, or realer, life — I never imagined myself entering the world of adults as an only child. Wasn’t this a state of being that ended, necessarily, with childhood? After all, no one speaks of me now as an "only adult." As far as I could tell, unattached adults included the not-yet-married who were looking for love, single mothers or fathers who had perhaps given up on love, divorcees on the rebound, people confirmed in spinsterhood or bachelordom, and those who were widowed. In the wake of my father’s departure, my mother had a handful of affairs and, by the time I was 10, had embarked on what would become her last, with a man who left (but did not divorce) his devoutly Catholic wife to live with my mother, whom he nursed through her cancer, remaining at her side until the end of her short life. Long before I had the ability to articulate the observation, I understood that the aloneness of adults was measured in terms of romantic coupling. The term for it — the state of being single — sounded enough like singular to seem desirable to me. Certainly it was a much more attractive word than only, with its connotations of meagerness, of deprivation, its annoying habit of rhyming with lonely.
I was born in 1961 and raised among families in which single parents were very much an exception to the nuclear rule. The worst of being an only child, I felt, was the pity it elicited from adults who assumed that I lacked what they considered a genuine childhood. Was this undertaking impossible in the absence of siblings? By virtue of being middle-aged, I am no longer an only child. At least I don’t call myself one, not any more than I began to identify myself as an orphan after my grandmother’s death left me, at the age of 30, the single living member of my original family. Unencumbered by primary relations, neither do I have even one aunt, uncle, or cousin, because my mother had no siblings and my father was gone by the time I turned 1. But if I don’t admit to being an only child, I have become, unarguably, the sole keeper of my history.
Who else would care to preserve my bronzed baby shoes, my christening dress, or my grade school report cards? Who else would inherit my mother’s baby teeth, my grandfather’s reading glasses, my grandmother’s purse (and in it her wallet filled with old credit cards, many for businesses that no longer exist)? My great-grandfather’s Masonic ring. A silver baby rattle — blackened by tarnish. A tiny Torah scroll wound inside a sterling filigreed ark, and (in the same lockbox, hidden in one envelope sealed inside another) an antique gold pendant in the form of a swastika, that ancient cosmic symbol that before 1935 had yet to become an object of terror and loathing. A crystal goblet designed to commemorate the coronation of Edward VIII on May 12, 1937. Three canes that once belonged to my grandfather (one unscrews to reveal a dagger, the weapon of a gentleman who walked alone, at night, in dangerous cities). A pair of very beautiful hardwood shoe trees (also my grandfather’s). And hundreds of photographs, many of people I no longer recognize — if I ever did — others taken decades before I was born. I could go on and on, boring even myself, because the entire inventory of my family’s material history, as an anthropologist would call such a collection, belongs to me. It is mine to do with what I will, to make sense of, perhaps, assembling the pieces into a coherent whole, a kind of narrative group portrait complete with background and foreground. Or to make into fiction, to invent a history that is possible but untrue.
But what of my memories, decades old and unavoidably inaccurate? I try honorably to remember things as they really were, but the context in which I revisit a scene from my past — walking through a park, listening as my daughter practices piano, alone or in company — whatever my preoccupation, it necessarily contaminates the original. If biology, chemistry, and psychiatry can agree on anything, it is that memories are not received but created. What’s more, they’re subject to automatic, unavoidable revision. Honor is useless here.
Just last evening, my husband alluded to a mishap he believed he had witnessed. In 1994, our daughter, then 4, and our son, 2, stepped into an elevator while I was folding his stroller. I looked up, the doors closed, my children ascended without me. As we were visiting a big apartment building, with a whole bank of elevators, an hour of panicked weeping elapsed before a woman who found them in the laundry room reunited the three of us in the lobby.
"You weren’t there," I said, disagreeing with my husband.
"Yes, I was."
"No. If you’d been with us, if there had been two parents in that situation, it never would have happened."
"But I was sure I was there." He looked at me, confused.
"It’s just that we’ve spoken of what happened enough times that you think you were with us, but you weren’t." He nodded slowly, not quite convinced. "We could call Lori," I said. "She’ll remember that it was just me and the kids." Lori was the friend whom I’d taken our children to see and who enlisted her doorman and neighbors to help find and return them.
My husband shrugged and went back to what he had been reading. "That’s okay," he said, choosing to believe me because I had the means to correct his misperception.
And what of my childhood memories? There is nothing that unfolded in the house of my childhood that anyone can confirm or deny. Countless transactions, most without consequence, but some fraught with significance — primal, formative, determinate — lack any witness other than myself. In the abstract, my being free of siblings, of parents, of anyone who might object to my dissembling or even take note of an untruth, might provide me a tempting invitation to reinvent history. But only in the abstract, only in theory. When I test the idea, contemplating how completely possible it is to rewrite my early years, it frightens me. What I feel isn’t freedom but a free fall, and what could check the speed of my descent? Humans agree that what we call reality depends on its being observed by at least one person. When a tree falls in my forest of memories and no one else hears it, has it happened? Is there a sound of one hand clapping? To be less philosophical, imagine yourself at a cocktail party, moving from one clot of guests to the next, one conversation to another. Are not these inadvertent opportunities to eavesdrop on the self as it slides from one context into another, shedding some pretenses, picking up others, revealing what, minutes before, it had hidden, sufficiently disturbing? If identity is fluid under these pedestrian circumstances, how reliable is the self whose past exists only inside her own head? How, without parents or siblings, can I really know what or who I was?
Replaying the Scene
Among my memories, that part of my history represented by nothing more material than traces of neurochemicals in my cerebral cortex, Christmas morning 1966 is the most puzzling of all I possess. I woke up early, so early that it was still dark outside. But winter mornings were dark, and I was always up before my grandparents or my mother. I got out of bed; I didn’t check the time. Either I couldn’t yet read a clock, or I was too intent on the stocking that hung from one of my bed’s tall posts. My grandparents’ house included a hearth that was greeting-card perfect for hanging a Christmas stocking; the mantel was carved from a massive oak beam and outfitted with hooks from which dangled pokers and pincers and bellows, even a bed warmer and a chestnut roaster, but I was not encouraged to leave my empty stocking in their company. I wonder whether this wasn’t because a single stocking looked too forlorn there by itself, too only.
I stood on the end of my bed to lift the bulging thing from over the post’s finial, unobstructed by the bed’s canopy, which had been removed because it gathered dust and made me wheeze. How satisfying was the stocking’s weight and the way tissue paper wrappings crinkled from within it. This stocking was one I inherited from my mother and had her name, Carole, embroidered across its top. Below was an appliqued tree of green wool felt, decorated with pea-sized ornaments made of colored glass and candles fashioned from minuscule strips of white patent leather, each about the size of half a toothpick, an orange bead for a flame. As if it were still hers, I carried the stocking to my mother’s room to unpack its contents with her. With regard to the issue of Santa Claus’s identity, I teetered on a cusp between what I wished and what I feared. That it might have been my mother who had assembled so perfect an array of tiny gifts, that she could have known me so well — enough to penetrate my desires and satisfy them — was a more seductive and cherished idea than that of a jolly old man who squeezed down chimneys. In service to the latter conceit, my grandfather effected the standard transformations, reducing the cookies and cocoa left on the mantel to crumbs and dregs, a thank-you note written in an unfamiliar hand. And he performed a supplementary trick, dipping his shoes into the cold ashes and leaving a trail of footprints from there to my bedroom and back, a trail so convincing that I was afraid it was true, what I’d been told. Santa Claus, corpulent and sweating, had been far more perverse than I could have expected from my department store visit to his red velour lap, criminal enough to break into our home and creep about while we slept.
But as I wanted the stocking to be my mother’s work, I intended to watch her as I undid it, in order to gauge her investment in my pleasure. I remember — I can see — my mother’s bed, which, as revealed by the moonlight, had not been slept in, and I stood for some minutes holding the stocking and trying to imagine a benign reason for her absence. Was there such a moment? Had I a brother or sister, I would have gone at once to his or her room that we might confer over this unexpected — alarming — turn of events. But I was alone, and so I walked by myself through the hall to the shadowy living room, anxious speculations about my mother’s whereabouts rendering me immune to the sinister power of a portrait whose subject, I’d convinced myself, climbed out of her frame to do mischief unobserved. When I’d determined my mother was nowhere in the house, I went to my grandmother’s bedside and touched her shoulder. A light sleeper, she woke instantly and sat forward rather than up from her pillows, piled high to keep her that much more upright and offset the breathlessness caused by her rheumatic heart.
"What?" she said. "What is it?" When I told her, she swung her feet over the side of the bed and stamped one in anger. "If that doesn’t…" she began but didn’t finish. Instead she snapped on the light and woke my grandfather. "Gone!" she announced to his startled countenance. "How do you like that! She’s gone! Snuck off in the middle of the night!"
Immediately I understood that alerting my grandmother to my mother’s disappearance had been the exactly wrong thing to do. My mother wasn’t lost; she’d escaped. And I had betrayed her, I, who was always searching to discover the means of ingratiating myself, of proving my worth to my remote and distracted young mother, of insinuating myself between her and the lovely reflection in her mirror, between her and the novel in her lap, the telephone receiver in her hand. Meaning well, I had done something awful and irrevocable.
The fight my mother had with my grandmother later that morning, when she accused my mother of being a — what word would she have used? Not slut. Certainly not whore. Well, whatever my grandmother did or didn’t say, their fight was what my mother would end up calling "the last last straw, the absolute, final end." Tart? Maybe, except tart wasn’t a word my grandmother used in anger. She thought tart was funny. Ditto trollop. Cheap, I guess. She might have called my mother cheap for sneaking out to spend the night with a boyfriend. Cheap, like other comparatively mild slurs, was a word my grandmother could pronounce as a dire insult. But just as possibly, she might have used no words, she might have just screamed: That was a standard, and unanswerable, strategy. My grandmother’s inarticulate, animal howls, which seemed to presage madness, or violence, or both, often won her an argument, either because of their inherent power to terrorize or because they testified to her ruthlessness, her stop-at-nothing determination to win.
A month or two later, my mother moved out, for good. Unwittingly, I had been the catalyst for my own abandonment.
Inventing a Past
The painter Rene Magritte remembered the suicide of his mother, Regina, as happening in this way: In 1912, Magritte, the youngest in the family, was 14. He shared a bedroom with his mother, and one night he awoke to find her gone. He roused the rest of the household, and they searched but could find her nowhere inside. But beyond the front door, traces of her steps led to a nearby bridge over the river Sambre, into which the woman had thrown herself. In the middle of the night, Magritte stood on the bank and watched as his mother’s corpse was pulled from the water, her face covered by her nightdress, her body naked and luminously white in the moonlight.
Asked what they remembered of the death of Madame Magritte, the artist’s childhood friends recalled that, although they themselves had all cried in fear and grief, Rene betrayed no emotion in the weeks following his mother’s death and from that point forward never spoke of her. As a famous painter, Magritte gave many interviews; in all of these he mentioned his mother’s suicide no more than two times. Asked (rather idiotically) if the event had "marked" him, he said only that it had been a "shock." His 1954 outline for an autobiography included a single, abbreviated reference, in the third rather than the first person: "In 1912, his mother, Regina, does not want to live anymore. She throws herself in the Sambre."
Veils and curtains recur in Magritte’s paintings, as do faces hidden behind hands or by objects or replaced outright by a death mask or an orb made of light. It’s easy to guess why such images might retain so strong a hold on the artist’s imagination.
The thing is, although Magritte did wake to discover that his mother’s bed was empty, apparently he never actually saw her body recovered from the Sambre. As a number of onlookers testified, the boy wasn’t there on the riverbank.
Psychology, a science Magritte dismissed as false, an attempt to explain what cannot be explained, to render irreducible mystery to pedestrian cause and effect, calls such memories as the artist’s "screen memories," which typically date back to childhood and which a child creates to protect himself from a truth he finds even more traumatic than what he invents to hide it. But what could be worse than the scene Magritte believed he witnessed? The face of his dead mother unveiled? Her body, for which he must have harbored — as all children do — a desire to possess, covered by a winding sheet and taken from him forever? A desire inflamed at the time of her death, when, caught up in the turmoil of adolescence, he still shared her bedroom and saw her in a nightdress that revealed perhaps a little more than it ought?
"It may indeed be questioned whether we have any memories at all from our childhood," Freud writes in an 1899 article on the topic of childhood memories. "But memories relating to our childhood may be all that we possess."
It is only as I consider my early years with the express purpose of divining how I feel, or felt, about having been an only child that I understand — suddenly and with no little anxiety — why this story of Magritte and his mother’s suicide has compelled and disturbed me for so many years. Ever since I learned of it, accidentally, while pursuing the larger topic of memory and how reliably (factually) true it might or might not be, I’ve revisited the scene over and over, picturing the artist as he pictured himself, seeing a boy, a boy the same age as my son is now — how clearly, then, can I imagine his form, the slope of his shoulders, the balled fists at his sides — as he stands on the bank of a river to watch as the corpse of his mother is pulled from the water. Of course the body frightens the boy in its faceless nakedness, its flesh I see as if rendered by the surrealist himself, gray and shadowed, like the shuttered house in his 1954 painting Empire of Light, in which a simple nighttime landscape is made sinister by its having a brightly daylit sky overhead.
Magritte and I knew only the same few facts: One night we awoke; we found our mothers’ beds empty; we alerted our families; a tragedy ensued. That the artist’s story, far more dire than my own, included a set of ghostly footprints leading to a terrible truth would appeal, naturally, to a child who followed the ashy tracks of an intruder in her home, one who threatened to steal an idea she valued above all her possessions: that, contrary to appearances, her mother had been paying her careful attention all along. But if Magritte unconsciously fabricated a narrative to explain his terror, might the Christmas memory in question, over which I’ve puzzled for 40 years — holding it dear, the way one guards the instrument of a dangerous wound (the way, for example, a soldier might preserve a piece of shrapnel dug out of his chest) — might that morning never have happened? Or might it have happened very differently from the way I believe it did?
The pieces of the story are, all of them, as emblematic of my early unhappiness as are, say, a dove and olive branch ready examples of religious iconography. My mother’s bed that she hadn’t slept in was the bed I visited each day after she moved out, standing before the lie it spoke, its sheets changed weekly as if to suggest, like the rest of her room, that her return was imminent. The Christmas stocking, whose contents I fetishized and displayed each year, never playing with the toys or eating the candies but arranging them in a tableau on my dresser, a little altar to my fearful worship of my mother: what better evocation of the celebrated position of my single parent, who removed herself from the realm of the everyday mother to become a kind of holiday apparition? The night itself, when Christmas Eve becomes Christmas Day, is the one upon which a child’s worthiness — her naughtiness or niceness — is judged and found either sufficient or wanting. It well represents the everlastingly long night of my soul, obsessed, as I was to become, with the idea of my goodness and what it might afford me; if not the return of my mother, then some other reward, someone else’s admiration. The bedpost with its missing canopy recalls asthma, a looming threat of suffocation (and the grandmother, too, propped up on her pillows to avoid feeling smothered). And, finally, the most troubling aspect of the memory, that it was my actions that caused my mother to leave me, is almost too neatly textbook to be true. Don’t all children hold themselves responsible for their abandonment?
Do I remember this night so vividly, with a heightened, almost hallucinatory attention to detail, because it evoked my childhood so perfectly? Or did I unconsciously collect and/or fabricate symbols of my past to assemble them into a story in order that I might contain them within the mnemonic device of a narrative so as not to lose these critical aspects of myself?
Within the embrace of psychotherapy, in whose arms I’ve spent an hour each week for 15 years, "The feelings are the facts." Which is all very well, assuming the availability of reality checks. Of, say, a brother who might call me on the claim of straight A’s: "There must have been a frigging B in there somewhere," he’d say. "PE," I’d answer, "and that doesn’t count." But maybe it would count to my brother, the one I don’t have. He might be a professional ballplayer, a perfect uncle for my son, who dreams of a glorious future as a New York Yankee. Or what about my sister, who might say, in her intimate knowledge of my flaws, "Piss off. You’re always hiding inside your head, behind your good grades, whatever." But I wouldn’t waste their voices on my grades — for topics like that, I have my boxes in the basement.
I didn’t mind being an only child, when I was a child. I understood the bargain it implied, that if I’d had siblings I would have lost the monopoly on my grandparents’ affection, halve or even more drastically reduce my mother’s infrequent attention. Like most children in such a position, I knew the stresses of the family in which I’d landed: a pair of guardians who were, respectively, 71 and 62 at my birth, old if not frail; a child-mother who never grew up; endless conflicts arising from our dwindling financial resources. Another child in the family would have applied that much more pressure to what was already as frayed as the carpets and drapes, the sprung sofa upholstered in an impractical pink chintz. Another child would have endangered me.
But as an adult, having long ago reached the age at which I’d expected to have left my only childhood far behind, I mind it very much. I want a witness, or better, two or three, to what I remember, a person or persons to whom I could turn and ask, "Remember that Christmas, the one when Mom…?"
Kathryn Harrison’s most recent book is Envy: A Novel (Random House). This memoir was adapted from "The Forest of Memory," which was recently published in Only Child: Writers on the Singular Joys and Solitary Sorrows of Growing Up Solo (Harmony).
Originally published in MORE magazine, February 2007.