In remembering our old farm, in thinking of hikes and the Blue Ridge Parkway’s picnic grounds, in recalling our first summer trip to Nova Scotia—in our small sage Subaru, my brother six and I eight—my mother often invokes what she calls our “little family.” It is an ideal unit of the past, so long departed that it becomes image, almost fiction in our collective memory. The family of two happy parents and two small children, girl and boy, still sweet, who didn’t yet fight with true anger or have growth-spurting legs sticking over the console into the front seat.
The problems we had were chosen because there were no others; we took them lightheartedly. They were laughing shrieks in long-sleeved pajamas as my father, instead of reading the story we had chosen for the evening, would begin to sing his modified beginning of “American Pie”: Long, long time ago, I can still recall how the music used to play… “Read it right!” I’d yell (always a stickler for accuracy). He would do it again the next night, and the next, our dialogue predetermined on the scratchy blue couch. Or it was that first trip to Canada, during which we discovered that my brother’s feet just really stunk in confined spaces. My mother brought him juniper berry foot spray and we spent the days up and back these coasts knowing exactly when he had taken his shoes off.
It’s easy to forget, as a person who values her current independence, that this time of the little family easily takes residence as the happiest in my life. Not that I’ve had so many bad experiences, or that I don’t love my life as it is now. But we had such luck. There wasn’t much money when we were that young, but there were fields and sledding and the space under the stairs my brother and I christened the “hidey-hole.” There were library books, the strand of green iron ivy strung along the brick wall of the kitchen. A front deck for sunrise, a screen porch with a hammock for middle-day reading, a back porch for sunset between our backyard mountains.
In her essay “Yonder” Siri Hustvedt writes, “After Mormor died, I walked with my own mother outside our house in Minnesota, and she said to me that the strangest part of her mother’s death was that a person who had only wanted the best for her wasn’t there anymore.”
We wanted the best for each other, invariably, candidly. There was so much earnest, sincere love, too much to hold, and I hadn’t yet become conscious enough of myself—my shortcomings, my prides—to decide that I might not deserve it.