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Hair, Memory, and a Mama I Love

March 29, 2011

I love my friend Jenni (she knows this) and tonight she posted on her blog something quite profound about hair, but not just about hair, about the particular challenges and joys of being a white mother with a black daughter, of balancing between familial connection and acknowledgement of difference. I love Jenni’s daughter Desi (she also knows this) and I just learned through said blog post that each night Desi states that she “misses” her birth family, a family she last saw when she was a baby. (Desi, it should be said, is a beautifully contemplative child.)

An excerpt from Jenni’s post:

My daughter and I do not have the same hair. We do not have the same skin, the same eyes, the same body build, the same smile. Every night, she looks at the photo of her birth family, she sees images of biological relatives that look very much like her, and she says, “I miss my birth family.”

She doesn’t actually remember her birth family. She was eight months old when she last saw them.

But she misses them. She misses them with a piece of herself that understands that physical appearance creates a bond even if circumstance and distance do not allow that bond to be a fruitful one. And we honor that. We promise to make a trip to Ethiopia, to try to find living birth family members so she can meet the people who look like her. But in the meantime, we’re going to make sure she knows she belongs here, knows she is so thoroughly a part of this family that I can’t imagine it without her.

In all my wanderings through memory, I never really thought about that before. That one can miss with a piece that understands the bond of physical appearance. I’ve written about my father’s appearance throughout the book in different settings for different reasons. And I’ve written about the loss of something, someone, never known. If you miss something in your organs, your skin, your hair, but you barely knew that something in the first place, if at all, it’s a different sort of loss, one sensed in a fog, like the faint odor of gas when the neighbor’s tank is being filled.

The other night, J & I watched a news magazine hour produced by his program. I was riveted by one couple as they spoke of their comatose daughter. The story wasn’t even that riveting, but the couple was. Or rather, the father was. I liked him, but I didn’t say anything. Out of nowhere, Justin said, “You know what? He reminds me of what your Dad would look now.” Studying the man’s face, I sort of saw it, too. Did my body know that before J said anything? Was I missing what my father would have looked like at 68, when I can’t even remember what he did look like at 40?

J’s comment and Jenni’s lovely post tonight have mixed up into a new sort of body memory idea. It’s cooling on the stovetop, so I can’t test its character yet. For now, I think it’s not a memory stored by the body, but a latent memory of bodies, whether in the past, present, or future (bodies that will never be).

Such a memory cannot be articulated in narrative. It’s a memory that tells us to say we miss people we can’t remember as we climb into bed, that tells us to keep watching the face on screen for a familiar expression we don’t realize we need to see.

Ah, Jenni. And I was supposed to be working tonight.

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  1. Cheryl, first of all, that is one beautifully crafted line. And second, I think you are right in that it is honest. I wonder if you feel your body even moving in the direction of the curve, your abdominal muscles tensing on one side, as you write it, read it, revise it. I love what you say here, that you sense first, describe second. Sometimes when I’m trying to come up with language I close my eyes and move my hands and draw shapes in the air thinking the words will come. (Sometimes they do. Sometimes they don’t!)

    The whole concept of body memories is multifaceted in itself. There’s phantom pain, olfactory triggers, response to pheromones, and more. And what Jenni wrote in her post, this sense of remembering a body (as opposed to remembering with one’s body) because that body looks so much like your own.
    As much as we talk about the brain’s limitless complexity, the body holds its own secrets!


  2. Cheryl Wilder permalink

    Earlier this morning I read your dialogue on memory, and find the study of Reactive Attachement Disorder a fascinating subject. (And also wondered if they called it RAD) It made me question how my memories suit the reality of my past. I am inherently better with remembering how an experience made me feel than what actually happened. I know I’m a kinisthetic and visual learner, which must tie into this rambling somehow. But, to slowly get to my point, I was just editing a personal essay and came across this line: “I approached a slight left curve in the road and I know now it’s my body that holds this memory, not my mind.” Though I haven’t researched memory, I do know that is an honest statement; when I think of this particular memory it comes first from a sensation in my body, and then I am able to see what happened.


  3. Clearly. Our work calls are most, most, most productive. All of what you say is fascinating, made moreso by the unique position you hold while saying it, that of the person who was not there during that first year, but so powerfully recognizes what it meant for her and, therefore, what it means for you as th person who must parent her as she considers all these weighty things (Desi doesn’t seem to shy from shouldering the heavy stuff). Thinking on your role, I’m starting to believe that besides loving the act of making the things that you do for your home and for your kids, besides seeing it as genuinely fun to knit and paste and photograph and cook and scrape and hammer and plant, you are also subconsciously creating, rather than purchasing, totems of a sort that will serve to trigger their memories much later in life. I wonder if by adopting Ben and Desi when they were already past this first year, you have made even more of an effort to create a home that is tangibly memorable. You’re a very neat person, you are.


  4. jennieaton permalink

    Yeah, I was supposed to be working, too. Clearly, not so much.

    I’ve often thought about you when she does her “I miss my birth family” routine. She doesn’t consciously remember them, but are there smells, colors, sounds that trigger something? Something inaccessible, but still there? Or is it just the photos, something she feels like she SHOULD remember, but CAN’T, and that’s enough of a trigger? She was loved, she was held, she was fed and nurtured before she came to me; that had to leave some kind of impression, a dent, a wrinkle, even if she can’t pinpoint it. I’ve done too much reading lately on Reactive Attachment Disorder. It typically develops in kids who don’t develop an emotional connection in the first year of their lives. The first year. No one consciously remembers the first year. But it’s there. And it’s impact is lasting, forever. Even if you can’t touch it, summon it, see it the way your visual writer brain wants to, it’s there, and it weighs in every. single. day.

    Clearly we didn’t talk to each other today for well over an hour. 😉 Love, love, love you.


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