Yearbook artwork by Cathy Doran, Class of 1963

In another month, I’ll celebrate my mom’s birthday–for the 12th time since her death. A dozen years, a milestone of remembering. With the day comes a sort of dread, that I will forget–that I’ve already forgotten how the back of her hand felt under my fingertips, how much she liked her hair brushed, how she looked while telling her favorite jokes (I can’t repeat in polite company).

Am I remembering all that right?

Since my last post on the myths–and reality–we make around boys, I’ve been thinking a lot about the myths we create to remember. And I realize I’ve done that with my mom, picked key memories to cobble together her story–one to tell myself, over and over–because we don’t forget a good story. And forgetting is the most frightening thing.

And so it was with relief that I got ahold of my mom’s high school yearbook, senior year, 1963–all skinny ties and strands of pearls–knowing the photographs and notes from my mom’s teenage friends would bolster the Mom-myth I’d written (providing supporting backstory, if no surprises).

My controlling Mom-narrative: Mom as earth mother-type, who, after marrying my dad, Bill, in 1969 moved out to the country where they would care for the house and garden, a goat named Esmeralda, ducks and chickens, and, finally, us kids. Let’s just say, before the term “granola” became popular shorthand, my mom made her own. Of course, she had a life before the 70s, as a college co-ed, the only girl in her family to go. Before that, she had a childhood she smiled through, if sometime just barely. Did she want to forget?

Only truth would be found within these yearbook pages, says the so-serious foreword, complete with classical (mythical) epigraph:

I flipped through the book, its barely-yellowed pages telling me my mom hadn’t done this, hadn’t looked back on her teenage years.

Would she approve of my snooping?

Me, if I ordered my own senior yearbook, I don’t know where it would be now, and I can’t imagine I would have shown up on any pages. I didn’t “do” senior photos or homecomings or proms, busy with ballet. Really, here’s the whole truth: when my husband and I were engaged, I took him to my 10-year reunion. “Why aren’t you talking to anyone?” Mr. Popular asked me. I realized then we’d had polar-opposite high school experiences. “I was too shy to talk to them then. Why would I talk to them now?” And that was the end of my reunion-ing.

Maybe I could live vicariously though these yearbook pages of my mom’s. I mean, look at all the notes from friends, sharing in their Annette Funicello-esque experiences of senior year. French class was a big thumbs up; gym class was a big thumbs down. No surprises there. Mostly, my Mom-myth was supported through cursive messages extolling her sweetness–even if she didn’t smile enough (sorry, Dick).

In the teenage years, when a girl could be expected to live only for herself–her future husband and children not even blips on the horizon of consciousness–my mom seemed already to be living for others. Maybe even us, her future family. I mean, if she can’t be here for us now, could she have made up for this lack by being there for us back then–even before there was an us?

Then there are the bold declarations from the guys, with their heavy-rimmed glasses and flat-tops: “P.S. I love you,” says Rog; “I would flirt with you, if only…” says Timothy, otherwise known as Dudd, Cisco, and Bones. Axel, aka Axl, tells my mom in his note that he’ll drop her a card from Paris.

Barb and poor Frank, stuck on the bottom stair

There are surprises though. Did Mom–Barb–really go by the nickname Booge? And why? What’s the story there? “Best Looking” superlative? She never told us that! All her poopooing her looks when we were kids. A show of modesty–or solidarity when we girls endured bad teenage skin and heartache?

Then, there came the real surprise, just one mild-mannered, four-letter word, but one I swear I’d never heard from Mom before. A serious high school boyfriend? “Take care of him,” one note says…”I’d flirt with you if not for…” and “good luck with…”

Who the hell is Walt?

Barb,

Best of luck always to a real sweet girl. It’s been fun getting to know you this year in dear old Carlo’s class and also our great (?!) gym class. Good luck with Walt, he’s a great guy and you make a wonderful couple. Have fun this summer…

Reader, stay tuned…

But first, tell me how you remember? How do you create the stories you tell yourself about those you’ve lost? And…did you save your high school yearbook? Were you at all surprised by your teenage self?

27 thoughts on “Mythologizing Mom…and other stories we tell to remember the lost

  1. Sweet, sweet post. I wish I had a mom like that to remember. My mom was popular, too. Sadly, she was better at that than moming. My dad was a social quadriplegic and I take after him. But he stepped up to the plate and raised me. My MIDDLE SCHOOL yearbooks had notes from my husband. We were an item then. I lost them when I lost everything (material). That’s a story. Sidenote: I did my first official “interview” today for my WIP. A police lieutenant. I was so nervous I forgot to ask some questions, even though I had them written down.

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    1. Love a dad who rises to the occasion! Omg, that is so sweet that you had notes from your husband from middle school–I hope you can remember the gist. And I could not be more excited for your interview. I always get nervous, so I totally understand. I’m sure he was happy to do it, fun for him, probably! Follow-up by email with the missed questions? Thanks for reading–I appreciate it!

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  2. This is terrific…looking back at pictures, scrapbooks, and high school yearbooks…it was all so much simpler then, even if we didn’t know it at the time….I love that you got a glimpse into your Mom’s formative years, to see who she was before she became “MOM”…again, terrific post!

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  3. Many thanks, John, for stopping by. It has been fun leafing through her old photos. And I think there’s a generational difference, in that I tend to talk to my kids quite a lot about my childhood–more than my mom did. So there are mysteries of hers to uncover, which is fun.

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  4. I love this! You get a glimpse of Mom before being Mom, but see the seeds of her mothering personality. Very lovingly written – it shows. I managed to choke down three reunions, but I still don’t know why I bothered. I have a couple yearbooks. Other memorabilia is a bit more meaningful, though.

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    1. Thank you, Eilene! (And I’m so glad you enjoyed ED KING; it was clever, wasn’t it? Even if it sometimes made me feel like I needed to take a second (or third) shower!) I appreciate your reading this post. I was happy to come into possession of my mom’s yearbook, but I wasn’t quite ready for the emotional affect it had on me! I’m impressed you managed three reunions–it is interesting to see where people end up, anyway. Yes, with your love of history, I bet you have some good memorabilia saved. (Oh, and I thought of you, with your Gold Rush research; a Twitter friend of mine will have a novel coming out in 2021 that follows 3 generations of women starting in the Cali Gold Rush–might be interesting.)

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  5. LOVE this! I always enjoyed flipping through my mom’s senior yearbook when I was growing up, laughing at the 70’s fashion and staring in disbelief at the fact that my mom looks exactly the same at 60/50/40/30 as she did at 17 lol
    I have every single one of my year books and look at them from time to time. I can’t help but get a little sentimental when I read the sentiment from my high school boyfriend, promising that he’d come to my book signing when I become a best-selling author. Sigh. There’s still time, right?

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    1. Thanks, Stacy! Yes, the 70s definitely had the wild fashion. I bet you got your mom’s timeless good looks. I think it’s great you saved yearbooks–definitely fodder for good stories! And, yes, there’s still time–I hope for all of us–to make good on our high school dreams. For sure! You’re not doing NaNo this month, are you? It’s such a busy time of year for me, I just can’t. But I’m hoping the NaNo energy helps me with my querying! I appreciate you stopping by!

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      1. Nah, I’m not a NaNo girl. Too much pressure, especially with 2 “real” jobs. I’m kind of at a stand still with my novel right now, lurking around agents’ websites and picking apart my first three chapters 🤣🤣

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  6. What a lovely, contemplative post, Rebecca. My mom has been gone for 30 years (!) and yet it seems like only yesterday I was spending time with her. I know what you mean about the milestone dread. Every year around the time she died (June 3) I always feel a little sad, a little off my game. I guess I do try to remember her, and my father, in what I write — though I really don’t write about either one as much as I’d thought I would. And as for yearbooks — yes, I have all mine, but no, I hardly get them out and look at them … too afraid (LOL) and lazy to do so, I guess. 🙂 Deb

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    1. Thank you, as always, for engaging with my work, Deb! Funny, it never seems to be Mother’s Day that gets to me, but this season is a tough one. 30 years–but I bet sometimes it still feels fresh. Funny, but the blog has made it so much easier to write about my family. In fiction I use so much distance. I bet our parents–and what they passed on–is in much of our writing, even if we don’t always recognize it. And I’m impressed you have all your yearbooks, but I understand feeling tentative to pore over them! I hope you have some glorious writing and reading on tap for your weekend. I’m finishing reading one novel for a friend and hope to get some editing in for Parhelion. It’s going to be cold here–perfect excuse to make stuffed cabbage (can’t take the Cleveland out of the girl!) and stay inside! Enjoy it, Deb, and thanks again for reading!

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  7. This was so great to read. My mom still pulls out her yearbooks at age 81. I love the glimpses into the past. Our parents were young once, too! Imagine that. My yearbooks are also within reach and I still look at them from time to time and have shared them with my grown kids. Good work Becky!

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    1. Thanks so much for reading this post! I’m sure I could get ALL the scoop, if I called your mom. She remembers everything. And I love that she still has her yearbooks and that you have yours. I remember your senior pic–so glamorous! I know my guys love looking at old photos–and really, they are amazed that I was their age once. In fact, I still remember it, that excitement of turning double digits. The boys hit that milestone on Saturday and are so psyched! Love ya and hugs to all!

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  8. I have been saving this post for when I had a moment to read it properly, because I knew just from the title that it would resonate with me. I’ve been thinking a lot about this sort of thing through my mother’s illness, through my kids’ early days — how we tell ourselves stories about people to remember. I take so many photos of my kids because I don’t want to forget a second of it…yet when I look through photos from just a couple of years ago, I see I’m forgetting already. I’m constantly asking Mom to retell the stories she told me in my youth, because I’m only just beginning to see the significance of some of those people, and I’ve forgotten so much. Am still struggling to piece together the narrative that is my past, present, future. So I take more photos, ask for more stories.

    I’ve also been thinking about the stories we’re creating each day. I look at how I parent, and see how different I am from my own parents, from the parent I thought I’d be. In both good ways and bad. I tell my kids stories of my childhood, and see how they find some of the details shocking and some not shocking in the slightest. (And we haven’t really gotten to the juicy bits yet. 😉 )

    But more than anything, this post reminds me of discovering my grandfather’s love letters to my grandmother shortly after he died, and seeing a side of him I never knew existed. A man I would have liked to have known better. I saw that you’ve posted a follow-up to this one; I look forward to seeing what you found out!

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    1. Becky! Your Aunt Judy sent me this link……I AM BOOGE!!
      Just got off the phone with “Rog”, will send him this link as well. I have years and years of memories of the Petre family and will be more than happy to share them with you and explain some of your questions and add some childhood photos .
      pzshapiro@gmail.com ………..get in touch, can’t wait to talk to you!
      With much love, Phyllis Zent

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      1. Phyllis! Or, should I call you Booge!? I’m so glad Aunt Judy connected us! I will reach out by email soon–I can’t wait to hear more stories from you. At the moment, I’m celebrating my twin boys’ 10th birthday. If only my mom were here. That would be the best gift ever. But we know she’s still around in other ways–like memories from friends! More very soon…~Becky

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    2. Nicole, I’m so glad my post resonated with you—and that we blogger-friends have each other to lean on and inspire through our stories. I know your words—and images—inspire me! You are so great about capturing your motherhood and your kids’ young years. It all becomes extra precious when we realize our mothers may not always be at our sides. I can certainly understand why you’re snapping pics and asking your mom to retell her stories. Some we can only understand once we’re mature, ourselves.

      One thing I love about blogging is that we’re recording some of these stories—not something I really set out to do, but I guess I’m getting more sentimental as I age! I never think of my kids reading my blog—do you? But, really your kids and mine will be old enough to get a lot from our stories before too long.

      And those letters! What an amazing find! I love that sweethearts used to write love letters—and that you have them as more than keepsakes but that they’ve changed your perception of your grandfather a little. Maybe it was a generational/male thing, being able to be themselves in writing but not in person?

      This has been so lovely for me, this conversation. I always look forward to reading what you write—and looking at all the sweet images you capture of your kids! Thank you for being here!

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