My children forget that I am the person who set cupcakes on fire and threw them off a balcony, shrieking, "Halley's Comet!"
They didn't know her, of course. She was long before their time, before pediatrician appointments and room mothering and trips to school. But yes, I gleefully filled a cupcake--not once, but twice. Two flaming cupcakes!--with lighter fluid, lit a match and tossed the flaming ball of fat and sugar away, away, away. Irresponsible, yes, but I was quite careful in my irresponsibility. No one was walking below and my little arsons landed on tarmac, near a drain, so I could run down three flights of stairs and extinguish them if necessary.
I recently watched Incendies, which won a slew of festival awards and was also nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It is not about cupcakes. It's a painful film in many ways, filled with terrible lessons for both the ill- and well-intended, but it is also magnificent. At base, it is the story of how Canadian twins learn of their late mother's earlier life in the Middle East while on a quest to find the brother they never knew they had and the father they believed dead. And while the film is filled with set-pieces about war and reprisal, the heart of the story is the woman who preceded the mother. "You are looking for your father," the daughter is told by a hostile villager, "but you don't know who your mother is."
And certainly, my life was not like that of the mother in Incendies, but I carry my own secrets, and some of those are secrets that my children will never know. There is no reason; it would serve no purpose, though it did in the film.
But other parts of my life are not secrets, and are, perhaps, instructive. When it occurs to me to do so, those are the parts I give up to my offspring.
Not long ago, I came across a paper I wrote in college, one of the few of which I was really proud. I tossed it in the son's room, and told him he could read it if he so desired. And he did, and he brought it back to me, eyes wide. He saw in it the girl who existed before motherhood, and the truth that his mother talks the talk, but also walks the walk. He was astonished, and I think, pleased. And mystified by erasable typewriter paper.
Over the holidays, my sister sent me scans of some photos that a cousin had and one in particular caught my eye: my mother as a teenager, standing awkwardly, clearly uncomfortable in her skin. She stood that way in photo after photo. It explained a good deal about the cruelties she visited on me when I hit adolescence, all of it, I suspect rooted in her own insecurity which had never been so visible to me before.
No one, it seems, is such a cypher to us as our own parents.
Go listen to some music: "You and Whose Army" from the album Amnesiac by Radiohead.