Speak, Memory: An Only Child Remembers

With her parents gone and no siblings to help her remember her childhood, Kathryn Harrison wonders: What was growing up really like?

By Kathryn Harrison

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.

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