By James Wallace Harris, Saturday, September 10, 2016
When I was a child, I felt my parents ruined my life. Looking back, I believe I ruined theirs.
[Click on all photos for a larger view.]
My mother, born Virginia Dare Little in 1916, would have been one hundred today. She died back in 2007. A century is a very long time, especially to exist in our memories. There are people who live well beyond the 100-year mark, who cram a whole century in their mind. My soul shivers. I now have sixty years that haunt me, which seems too much. I can’t imagine carry around 36,525 days. My mother was 35 when she had me, so I have little knowledge of her life before forty. Using photographs, family lore, and discussions with my sister, I hope to give a quick overview of her ninety-one years.
Instead of driving down to visit her grave for her centennial celebration, I thought I’d spend a few days and create a memorial blog post. There are two books I often thought about when writing this essay: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, about a family tragedy that results from parents and children not communicating , and The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr, a book that aims to teach writing, but really teaches us about the limits of memory. I highly recommend both to anyone who writes about families, or remembrances of things past.
Because I’m an atheist I don’t believe I’ll be reunited with my parents after I die. I should have asked them more questions when they were alive. I should have been a better son, but I wasn’t. I could say my mother and father should have been better parents, but they did the best they could. I was the best kid I could be under the circumstances. Our failure was not comprehending each other.
In the years since my mother’s death I’ve often wished she was around to answer questions about her history. I inherited all her photographs, many of which aren’t dated or labeled. So I have those kinds of questions. I’ve often thought about my own life, wishing she was around to verify my memory. My mom stayed sharp till the end, but she didn’t like to hang onto the past, especially if it embarrassed her. But her memory in her eighties was no worse than mine in my sixties. I used to ask her lots of questions that neither of us could answer – like, what years did we live in South Carolina the first time. Now I want to ask questions like, what books did you love as a kid. I only know one – Little Women.
As I have said many times, I wish blogging at been invented in 4300 B.C.E. If everyone in the past we want to know began blogging when they learned to read and write, think how many mysteries of history would be solved. I know surprising little about my mother and father’s lives. I wish I had their blogs to read, or just old fashion diaries. I’m going to try and piece together 91 years of my mother’s history with damn little physical evidence. I’m going to tell family secrets that would have embarrassed her, but they are all clues of trying to remember who she really was. My nuclear family, George Delany Harris father, Virginia Little Harris mother, Becky Harris sister, myself son and brother, was probably very typical for the 1950s. We never knew one another because we always withheld information. It’s a kind of family tragedy. We were all good people who had good intentions, but hurt each other because we really understood each other.
For much of my life I didn’t like my mother, but I tried hard not to hate her. She made it very hard for people to like her. To survive my parents, who had problems of their own, including alcoholism, I had to build a barrier between myself and them. The way I survived was to focus on myself, and selfishly ignore everyone else, starting around the first grade. I did not know when I was young, that my mother suffered from depression, and was probably bipolar. Her method of survival was to demand that everyone do exactly as she said, because I can see now she believed she’d be happy if only everyone followed her wishes. No one ever did, which caused her no end of agitation. Before she was given anti-depressants in the 1970s, she would try to cope by drinking. My dad was a steady drinker, but my mother was a binge drinker. She never binged for long because she couldn’t handle booze, and it made her Baptist soul feel deeply guilty. I used to think she kept her drinking secret from her sisters, but my sister recently told me that wasn’t true. That’s why I feel it’s okay to write about it now.
Looking through the photographs, my mother seemed happiest before she had me and my sister. We came late in life, at 35 and 37, and added a intense stress to her life. Becky and I were wild and willful, and she wanted us to be quiet and obedient. We were good kids – we just didn’t like being told what to do. Unfortunately, my mother loved telling people how things should be done. One lucky benefit of this friction was Becky and I were given almost complete independence. Both my parents worked, and after I was nine, and Becky was seven, we never even had babysitters. We truly lived in a Charlie Brown world where adults were seldom seen. It was easier for my parents to let us go do our thing rather than hang around them.
From what I can recall and theorize, my dad didn’t have a clue about children, or how to talk to them. He tried. He seem to expect us to be like kids in the 1920s, which was respectful, adventurous and independent, adhering to old fashioned roles for boys and girls. He expected me to drink and smoke like a regular guy, and join the Air Force like him, but I smoked dope and wanted to dodge the draft. I had long hair and was liberal, he worried I might be gay and a communist. I was neither, but he never could make out what I was. He was a Joe Pine conservative. We didn’t talk much, and he was never around much. Which stressed out my mother, who constantly bitched at him. Looking back, I wonder if my dad worked two or three jobs just to avoid my mother and us kids. My mother had 99% of the burden of raising us. And she would use her razor sharp tongue to let him know. They have so many fights burned into my memory that I can’t remember them ever having any happy times together.
As a kid I use to wonder, “Was my dad a drunk because my mother was a bitch, or was my mother a bitch because my father was a drunk.” But then I’d see photographs, like some below, where my father and mother looked very happy together. All those photographs were taken before we were born. I was born on my parent’s sixth wedding anniversary. When we were little, they’d tell me and my sister of their days of living in Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico – and they seemed very fond of those memoires.
I don’t have any photos of my mother when she was a baby or small child. Here is one of the earliest photos I do have of her, the problem is I don’t know which kid she. She would have been 11-12 in this school photo. One of her classmates gave me this photo before he died. He pointed my mom out nine years ago, but I’ve since forgotten. Now that he’s gone, I have no way to know. Maybe my Aunt Louise knows. My mom was one of five sisters, and Aunt Louise is the only one still with us.
My mother’s family centered around my grandmother, Lou Little, and she had five daughters. My father’s family centered around his mother, Helen Delany Harris, and she had three sons. I never knew either of my grandfathers. My mother’s family was from Mississippi, and my father’s family from Miami, Florida. Becky, my sister, and I traveled back and forth between these two worlds.
The five sisters, in order of age, were Arrah Belle (Aunt Belle), Flake Jerrine (Aunt Sissy), Teletta May (Aunt Let), Virginia Dare (Aunt Gen to my cousins), and Martha Louise (Aunt Louise) . They were born in 1908, 1909, 1911, 1916 and 1922. My mother, and maybe a couple aunts, and probably many relatives are in school photo above. I just don’t know who is who.
I’m guess this next photo, of three of the sisters, is the second oldest photo I have. I believe my mom is the one at the top, and the bottom are Aunt Sissy and Aunt Let. I’m guessing early to mid 1930s on this photo. I would be great if we could know our parents when they were young.
This might be next. It’s dated 1938, so my mom would have been 22.
The next photo I have has all five sisters looking fairly grown. My guess is this photo was taking in the early 1940s. From right to left they are, Aunt Let, my mom, Aunt Louise, Aunt Sissy, and Aunt Belle. It’s interesting the two brunettes were on the left, and the three redheads on the right.
This photo below is dated 1944. My mother is on the right. On the back it was labeled Mrs. Embery, Dorothy Atkins, and Annie Laurie Tillman. I think my mother was working at the phone company then, and probably before she married my father. My mother was married once before my father. Over the years I’ve heard stories about how she had married a bootlegger. Mississippi was dry even after the repeal of prohibition. There’s also a story that the bootlegger brought my mother home to her parents and told them he didn’t want her any more because she was too mean. And my mother could be mean. Now, I know it was a manifestation of her depression, and probably bipolar nature.
My mother was the wild sister I imagine. She’s the one that married and left the south. I know nothing about her teenage years, her first marriage, her moving to Memphis to live on her own, her meeting my father, or their years of traveling around the country without children.
The next several photos are ones I think were taken after my parents married, but before I was born. But I’m not completely sure. Odd as it might seem, I don’t always recognize my own mother in these photographs. Nor am I very good at judging her age. I do know mom and dad lived in Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. before I was born. Several of these photos are from Puerto Rico.
Here’s my mom and her mother. No idea of the date. My sister and I called this grandmother Nanny. My sister was always crazy about Nanny, and I liked her too, but never got close to her. She was very religious, and that was barrier to me. I realize now that because I kept my distance from so many people, I never really got to know them. My sister was far more aware of family dynamics than I was.
Here’s a photo of my mother with my father’s mother, whom my sister and I called Ma. She took care of us for a good part of a year when I was seven because my mother was sent to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania to recover from TB, and my father was stationed in Canada. I really wish I had known her better. I always thought of her as the happy person in our family.
Along the way, I was born in 1951, in Ohio. I’m guessing this older woman was my father’s grandmother, but I’m not sure.
I have no idea who this lady is with me and my mom, or why they wore loud plaid skirts.
This looks like a house in Florida. I was born in Ohio, moved to Miami, then to Memphis, back to Miami, but I’m never sure of when the photos were taking. My sister was born in Miami in 1953. The two of us lived in Memphis as small children for a short while before returning to Miami.
This is me, and that’s my grandmother, my mother’s mother. She was born in 1881. I’m guessing I’m about two or three, which means my baby sister should be somewhere. I bet my outfit was made by my mother. She liked to make clothes of us. I protested when I started school, and she stopped making clothes for me.
I am not the son my mother and father imagined. I was born on their sixth wedding anniversary. My Uncle Bob told me that my mother didn’t believe she was pregnant for months, because a doctor had told her years earlier she couldn’t have kids. My sister came along two years later. Having kids at 35 and 37, back in 1951 and 1953, was hard at that age. My sister and I were full of active energy, and my mom was in her forties, and way too nervous to handle us. I realized early on, that my father didn’t know how to communicate with kids at all, and my mother expected us to be respectful and obedient, and when we weren’t, would go nuts on us. My solution was to stand back, and detach myself from the family. However, my sister spent her childhood trying to please both my mother and father, and she was routinely hurt when she failed to make them happy.
I’m not sure when this photo was taken. I assume my father took the picture. He’s not in our childhood pictures. I’m not sure why I’m the only one to look happy in this picture. My mother was crazy about us when we were little. I think she loved having kids, and while we were little and manageable, she was happier. Because I have stories about my mother having problems throughout her life, I assume I just didn’t see her spells early on.
It was around the time of this photograph that I actually remember choosing to back away from my mother. I remember two separate incidences when I was in the first grade, one with my mother, and one with my father. Each time I was trying to get close to them, trying to communicate, and each of them losing patience with me. My mother ended up spanking me in a store, and this freaked me out. But my father disappointed me quietly, because I realized he just wasn’t understanding what I was trying to tell him. That’s when I began thinking of my parents as robots – not literally of course, but figuratively. I realized they were all about discipline and telling me what to do, and they refused to consider my feelings, or even seem to be aware of them. So I stopped trying to explain myself. And that has shaped my whole life. I was too young to understand this then. I was too young to empathize with their problems. Growing up I thought adults were robots because they wanted to live by rigid rules.
Looking back, this is where I start my lists of regrets about my life. I don’t blame myself. I have no sense of guilt. But to survive I had to become very selfish. I am a happy person, and I’m totally nostalgic about my childhood, but that’s because I tuned out my alcoholic parents. Now that I’m older, I wish I had paid more attention to their lives. My mother and father were fascinating people, but they had problems that made them hard to like. In many ways, I realize how I am like both of them. My mother’s survival strategy was to demand that other people fulfill her wishes, and when they didn’t, she’d turn controlling. She could spend days, even weeks, worrying over slights. I called that “gnawing her bone.” And if you were the subject of that gnawing, it could get vicious.
The trouble is, my mother was a wonderful person when she was in her up moods. But because I feared her down moods, I was wary of enjoying being with my mother when she was in good spirits. After my mother retired, and moved back to Mississippi, and bought a little house she lived alone in for almost thirty years, she found more peace of mind. She had stopped drinking, and had anti-depressants. She still had her black moods, but she was by herself. She had many hobbies and craft, and she made some friends. She had her sisters. And she had a series of collie dogs. She read hundreds, probably thousands of books. She had her church. My sister provided her with two grandchildren, and she became a granny, and eventually a great grandmother.
I spent more time with my mother in her later years than my sister. Becky had moved away, and always had to come back for short visits. My father had died when my mother was 53. Until she died a couple weeks shy of her 91st birthday, she had a long life, mostly by herself, living with her dogs. I would visit fairly regularly, and talk to her on the phone every week. I avoided a lot of subjects. I would talk to her about old times, but carefully. Sometimes I would probe, but I learned she had rewritten her own history.
That’s the thing, we all live too distant from one another. That’s why I wished my parents had been bloggers since they were kids. I’ve love to know what they thought about their life. I never knew their ambitions, fantasies or dreams. I’m sure Becky and I were their dream when we were little, but I don’t think the kids they got were how they imagined kids beforehand. I probably heard my mother ask me a thousand times, “Are you ashamed? Aren’t you embarrassed?” I never was. My father was always quiet about what he expected of me, but I know I wasn’t the son of his imagination.
I’m going to cut this narrative short here. I don’t want to write a biography. I will finish things out with the photographs that show my mother getting older and older. They each have a long story, but I’m going to let the pictures tell them.
I think this photo is from 1968. My mother is leaving with my Aunt Let. It was at my Aunt’s house, which I always loved.
I think this is also from 1968. That’s Nanny on the right, Becky, and my Uncle Barnwell and Aunt Louise. My mother looks very young here now, but at a time I thought she was getting old. I’m now older than she was then.