Bee's picture
Sat, 09/18/2010 - 21:00 -- Bee

Somewhere in the muddle of moving my daughter received a package from her paternal grandparents. The contents included copies of the videos they shot when we all lived in the same town.

I was pleased to sit down with my grown-up child and watch the scenes of her evolving life, from a tiny little mewling scrap of a human to the robust and fleet-footed wonder she became. She was an exceptional and entertaining child; we had wild fun all the time, adored each other completely. I am hugely thankful someone recorded those moments.

But I was not prepared in any way for the unsettling experience of seeing myself on screen.

The first tape opens with me sitting in the office of the lumberyard holding the baby, talking. Even calculating for the intervening years and geographic distance, the scene is shocking. My voice was pitched much higher, my accent was a looping rural drawl. My hair was long but wispy, not yet fully grown back from the cancer years. And, while you can't see the scars, you can see the damage - the way I keep my arm tucked under the baby because it wasn't strong enough to hold her. The way I flinch at every unexpected noise. The dazed, stricken expression on my face.

I was terribly young, looked far younger, and no passerby could have misunderstood the degree of physical pain I lived with. I looked sick. I was shattered.

Every scrap of documentary evidence indicates I was only about half alive by the summer of 1990, and I certainly would not have chosen to stick around to see what happened next. But the arrival of the infant who has grown into an indomitable and talented twenty year old was the decisive moment, the point at which everything changed. Irrevocably.

I didn't leave home then, in fact I retreated - dropping out of school, moving back to my small hometown, marrying the father of the baby. But the videos, offering up glimpses from holidays, family gatherings, birthday parties, show us all changing.

The baby, of course, was brilliant, at all times, in all ways. The adults in the vicinity acted as best they could. James appears every so often, sitting at the kitchen counter silently reading a magazine. The husband is spotted at an airport in his military uniform, fresh out of special forces training, looking more baffled than anything else. He exits for a couple of years then shows up again, captured on film saying not much at all, rarely talking to the baby, never looking at me.

And I hover somewhere near the camera offering up a constant monologue of bright shiny sarcasm. Adjectives, adverbs, what my cousins would call ten cent words, flowing corrosively and endlessly. It doesn't really matter: nobody is listening.

Except the baby, and she finds my commentary amusing.

Once I recovered from the injuries I became a whimsical, anachronistic sort of teenager who literally jumped with joy, exclaiming Hot diggity! as I opened Christmas presents. True, I was impetuous, intolerant, and used too many big words. But if you like that kind of thing, my monologues were pretty funny.

The mystery I have never solved is what went wrong, why it all fell apart. These tapes show what I remember: over the course of three years I went from weak to strong, changing in all perceptible ways. I was still myself, but better.

And that is probably the answer.

Until this week I never really wondered what broke up my first marriage, consigning it to the category "too young, too stupid" and refusing to discuss the devastation that ensued.

I've never invoked questions of morality, or even honour. I've never publicly or privately acknowledged that the father of my child abandoned her, failed catastrophically in his duties. The lack of financial support is not the point. He could have visited, called, sent letters. He could have been a friend.

He said he knew that I would be a good mother, and aside from a few casual threats of kidnap and murder, he left me to the task.

I'm picking up the keys to my new house on the twentieth anniversary of my first failed marriage, and there is a piquant satisfaction in that fact. My daughter is older now than I was when she was born. She is launched, in academic terms fathoms further than any of her parents at that age. The struggle to raise her was worth it, and look where we ended up!

Though it just occurred to me that someone owes me a really big apology for 1992.