The Things We Remember

Jennifer Hillman-Magnuson essays

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“That's Mike,” my friend, Christie, tells me. She's holding a menu up to her face so no one can see her speak. “We dated, you know.” I watch this man, Mike, walk across the pool deck, his four children spilling into the club, carrying large foam noodles. I'm sure his wife isn't far behind, and I want Christie to stop. Instead, she leans in even closer, so the menu is now in front of both of our faces like that scene from Grease, and continues, “You wanna know what he sounds like when he comes?”

She tilts her freckled face up to the late summer sky and lets loose with a horsey whinnying, and as much as I hate admitting it, it’s funny. I watch from a distance as Mike wrestles a pair of goggles onto one of his children, oblivious to the fact that a mere pool's length away a woman he probably scarcely remembers is mocking his orgasm with a staccato neh-neh-NEH-nehhhh. She finishes, a self-satisfied smirk on her face.

That. That is why I could never stomach living anywhere for too long, especially a small town. I never wanted to stick anywhere long enough to be the target of something so personal; the intimate and inevitable result of living in a fishbowl environment where the blood sport of choice involves the dissection of your neighbors, friends and acquaintances. Despite my family lecturing us on the importance of roots in one place, ours were of the portable variety. For years and years we moved, nomads following my husband’s job as it took us from Washington to Tennessee, and finally India and Abu Dhabi. Although I knew I would eventually insist that we settle in one place (and we did; I’m tending their roots in my hometown), I’ve struggled with how our choices will affect our kids in the long run, and like any mom I dwell on the various ways I may or may not have messed them up. Will they remember the wonderful places they’ve seen? Will Jack recall the tiny, slippery jellyfish in the Sea of Oman the day he first learned to swim? Will Henry remember yelling out in Hindi when he was hungry? Will our oldest remember attending high schools in three different countries as a good or bad thing?

It's a mystery and I know this. Nobody can tell what impact your actions will have on your children in the long-run, although it certainly hasn’t stopped me from trying to crack the code. It’s with a grim certainty I believe that if I am an adequately good woman to my children -with ephemeral moments of maternal magic thrown in – that if I try my best and succeed 80% of the time, it’s still the 20% they will cling to, tell their therapists about, name as the reason they can’t quit nicotine. As I hard as I try, I know that along with any lasting positivity I tattoo upon them there will also be the irreparable markings born of all the things I wish could be undone. The tricky part is culling through the gaffes for the ones that stick since there is no obvious formula; that screaming match with the husband where I said unthinkably hateful things up until the moment I realized we weren’t alone is long forgotten. Instead, dutifully noted in the table of contents of my offspring’s anthology of childhood, Things Mother Did that are Quite Hateful remain the overblown descriptions of what I consider to be minor, if not downright funny transgressions. My daughters love to retell the story of how I yelled at them on the way to Sunday school. Church was a briefly-lived phase for us, and I hated the mandatory homework, which was always hastily scribbled in the backseat during the fifteen-minute drive to church. One particularly frazzled morning, my daughter, Maddie, called out from the backseat that she couldn’t fill in the blank for the last question. In my sleep-deprived state after having nursed her younger brother every hour on the hour the previous night, I snappishly asked her to read the question.

“It says Jesus was a p________,” she warbled, gap-toothed, from her booster seat behind me.

“Peacemaker,” I sighed.



“A what?”

I snapped. Whipped my head around and nearly snarled, “Peacemaker, dammit! Jesus was a PEACEMAKER!

This is an oft-retold tale, my daughters categorizing it as mildly traumatizing, even though when I retell it, I think it’s funny. They didn’t and still don’t, reaffirming that I can’t predict what will stick with the kids as horrible memories and those they will look back on and laugh off.

My own mother flogs herself for things I either don’t care about or have also forgotten. However, the indelible remains for me, as much as I’m sure it also perplexes her. As a small child of six, my sense of personal modesty was forever set after a single, brief interaction on an otherwise forgettable school day. She had summoned me into her room, wanting to tell me something before I left for the school bus. This was the seventies, a time when children committed brazen and dangerous acts like heading to bus stops alone. I remember the way the mustard shag of the carpet flattened beneath my feet. I remember my navy blue Famolare shoes, with their thick wavy soles embossed with an old-timey bicycle. I remember the hum of the hairdryer as my mom dried her hair in her bathroom.  And I remember with sickening clarity the moment I saw her, so cavalier in her actions, so unaware of the fact that she was a horrifying sight for such an uptight, reserved kid.

I don’t think my own mom knew the extent of my quirkiness; all I knew was that sleep wouldn’t come to me unless my toys were in order, vacuum tracks still evident on the carpeted floor. What my mom told me that day, above the din of the hairdryer, I’ll never know. None of her words registered with me as I dumbly regarded her. There she stood, naked as a baby, fluffing the tight, prolific curls of her pubic hair with one hand as she waved the hair dryer in quick back-and-forth bursts. The hair on her head, matching in its Tony Home Perm spirals, was already dry. My mother, this woman who was blithely unaware that I was melting into the floorboards, continued with her monologue. In the years since, her words still muted in my memory, I can see her smile and how everything about her body language said, hey, this is normal. Really, the most lasting recollection I have, aside from the high definition visual, was the faint acrid smell that is unique to freshly blow-dried crotch. These are the small things we hold on to over the decades, and just as my mom would be shocked to know that this is what burned its way into my cerebral cortex, I will likely never know what vignettes will carve their own furrows into my children’s minds.


About the Author

Jennifer Hillman-Magnuson

I'm an essayist and author, my travel memoir Peanut Butter & Naan: Stories of an American Mom in the Far East is currently a finalist for the INDIEFAB 2015 Book of the Year Award. You can find me on .

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