The other day while I was reading Harry Potter to my son I got a text from a friend I haven’t spoken to in years. It occurred to me that while my life has been a linear series of adventures and experiences to me, to my son, I am an entity that began seven years ago, with his birth. He asked who I was writing to, indignant that I was wasting time that could be spent reading Harry Potter on someone who, for him, was more fictional than Harry.
I saw clearly, for the very first time, that my son doesn’t really know me. That there is a whole person he may never know in me. He’s never met or even heard about the friend with whom I was texting—a friend I’ve known since I was barely older than my son is now. And in an Inception-esque moment I realized that I don’t know my own mother either. Or she hers. And on and on it goes.
Growing up not knowing my biological father, I was always interested in genealogy. So finally, I decided to order a DNA analysis to get some answers to questions I’ve long held. I’d highly recommend it to anyone interested in their genetic history, by the way.
As someone who loves empirical facts and getting as close to the truth as possible I was especially partial to this scientific method that doesn’t require parsing out fact from fiction in a relative’s colorful recounting of their own personal history. And the results didn’t disappoint. But as I went through them again, I found myself wanting to know more.
I wanted to know who these ancestors of mine were. Why did they migrate to Northern Europe? What spurred them to come to America? Why California? Were they motivated by geopolitics? Religion? Escape? Hope? Adventure? Love?
The test told me I was likely to have wavy to curly blonde hair, blue eyes and light skin. It said I preferred sweet flavors to salty ones and had muscles more equipped for sprinting than long distance running. It was right on all counts.
But it couldn’t tell me if I have the same laugh as some long passed ancestor. Or the same spirit, stubbornness, compassion, or desire for adventure. Do my personality traits originate in epigenetic memories stored from their long ago experiences?
Even though I’ve heard many stories about some of my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, I see now how anecdotal they’ve been. How woefully incomplete.
I was closer to my maternal grandmother than anyone in my life and yet I see so many gaps in my knowledge of who she really was. Like all kids, I was only ever interested in who she was to me. I never asked her what kind of life she’d envisioned for herself when she was a girl. I never asked her about her first love or heartbreak. I never asked if she wondered how her life would have been had she chosen another path.
I know she loved her kids and adored being a grandmother, but I never asked her what she may have done if she hadn’t had kids or gotten married. I never asked how she went from Sunday school teacher to cult member to acupuncturist. Despite some of these transitions taking place within my lifetime I never questioned them. She was simply my grandmother. That’s all I needed to know.
But now I wish I could ask her all of those things. I wish I could know the whole story of who she was. Of all people I’ve ever known she’d be the most well-equipped to tell me. But I didn’t know how much I didn’t know in time to ask.
And who knows? Maybe it’s not a question we can ever ask of anyone but ourselves. It’s like what people say about relationships: you never really know what goes on in anyone else’s.
None of us, however close we may be, ever know the fullness of feeling in someone else’s heart. We don’t see the myriad of nuances to every decision made or not made. We don’t see the struggle or feel the triumph of personal accomplishment. We often think, because of time spent together, that we do know. We see the patterns in behavior and maybe even accurately predict a lot of the outcomes. But in our hearts and minds the reasons we do the things we do can differ in exponential ways that are imperceptible beyond our corporeal husks.
We are each a mystery to all but ourselves. And right now, at this point in my life, I find beauty in the mystery. Mystery breeds adventure. And a life well-lived involves countless adventures.
In my current adventure of motherhood, I’m enjoying the existential philosophizing encouraged by my little co-adventurer. And I find myself wondering if I’ll ever know more than a sliver of him either.