Sometime last year, I read a piece in the The New York Times about the relationship between a child’s resilience in the face of difficulty and his/her sense of an “intergenerational self.” Reading that piece, I contemplated the lack of an intergenerational narrative in my own childhood. My maternal grandmother is the only grandparent I’ve ever really known, and for much of our lives, distance, language and culture have posed nearly impassable barriers in our relationship. Both of my father’s parents and my mother’s father died before I was born, and neither of my parents talked openly about their lives before one another very often. In fact, when I stopped to tally all the stories I have from their collective childhoods, I realized that I could count them on my fingers and toes. I channeled my six-year-old self, tongue in cheek, brow furrowed, thinking, “wait, is that right? That can’t possibly be right!” But it is.
I think in our case, that lack of a cohesive and intergenerational narrative was exacerbated by the demands of military life. We moved so frequently that it was difficult to establish any kind of reliable tradition. Ironically, the only thing that stayed the same…was that nothing stayed the same. For most of my childhood, we were a unit of four (a unit of five after my sister came along) and that was it; we began and ended with one another. As a kid, I couldn’t name what I felt, but I remember being angry at times that we didn’t have that narrative and familial structure to anchor us to something. I longed for a place where we belonged, where we could return—a place that we both recognized and would be recognized by, in turn. It was nostalgia at its most literal, that longing or ache for a return home, but it was also the simultaneous recognition of, as Boym puts it in The Future of Nostalgia, “the impossibility of homecoming.” After all, how does one return to something that never existed?
It wasn’t until my mother’s recent illness and death that I really began to contemplate how many gaps filled our family tree—whole histories lost, limbs lopped off by our tradition of reticence. In those last months with my mother, I scrambled to discover some of that history before she took it with her. But as I sat there poised with my pen and paper in hand, I felt how much the radiation had dulled her once razor-sharp mind; I knew that it was already too late. We went through the motions together, anyway, grasping at all the threads and attempting to tie the ties that bound us to each other and to all that which had come before us.
As I’ve tried to make sense of our last months together, I’ve been overcome with a new nostalgia for those six weeks that she spent with us after my son was born. He was a 33-weeker, healthy but small. He spent nearly a month in the Special Care Nursery, and I was exhausted from the worry and work of living in two places. My mother swooped in as she always did, an amalgamation of old wives tales, “better” ways of doing things, tough love, and unsuspecting tidal waves of tenderness that nearly drowned me with their suddenness. She cleaned, put my not-yet-ready-for-baby house in order, and cooked. For weeks after I gave birth, she insisted that I eat the traditional Korean seaweed soup, miyeok guk, prepared for post-partum mothers. After about a week and a half, I begged her to let me eat anything else. She finally relented, but only if I agreed to drink a bowl of the soup first. I watched her make and remake that soup with a kind of ritual care. It was more than soup. It was her offering of peace and love. It was her way of welcoming me to the table of motherhood. So I drank it, dutifully.
As I ate, she would sit next to me in that little dining room of the apartment that we lived in then, made bigger, somehow, by the sunlight streaming in through the two enormous windows, and she would talk, sometimes for more than an hour. I remember being deliriously sleep-deprived, wanting nothing more some days than to tell her to be quiet so that I could lie down, but something made me hold my tongue. Maybe it was that well-worn guilt and obligation that she’d cultivated in me. Or perhaps it was the recognition, however nascent at the moment, that she rarely spoke so freely and that she was offering me something I would later value. So even though my body ached and my brain could barely keep up, I listened. And later, we would gaze at my son through his warm incubator, marveling at his feistiness, tracing its lineage in the small blue veins on his stomach back to the little umbilical stump where my blood and her blood had so recently coursed through him. When I think of that time now—the warmth of that sun-kissed space that we inhabited together, the love we felt for him knitting new bonds between us—it feels so much like that return home that I’d longed for as a child.
When my mother passed away, I felt momentarily frantic. What would I have to offer my son in terms of some historical trajectory—ours, mine, his? When my partner and I selected his donor, we took some measures to ensure that he could fill in some of those intergenerational gaps when the time was right. But I began to think of all the ways that I had failed to keep track of the day-to-day. I didn’t keep a baby book. I recorded things haphazardly here and there. I saw the same old cycle of silence situating itself in the gaps. So I began a new project. Each night I take a few minutes after he’s in bed, and I write something about the day. Sometimes, it’s just a sentence or a picture depicting the things he’s said or done. Other times, it’s a longer reflection on the memories or stories he’s called up in me. I make sure to include other threads, too: anecdotes about the people who pass through his life and the people who are a constant presence; observations about the ways in which he fits into his world; notes about the things he loves. Maybe I can’t provide him with some “oscillating” narrative about where we came from and how we endured, as that article discussed, but I can weave together these present threads for him, warp and weft, into a lineage of love. For so many of us and for so many different reasons, this is our story. We don’t know who came before us. Or maybe we do know, but would rather forget. We are resilient in the face of difficulty not because we see the long line of history trailing behind us, but because we’ve learned to craft our own stories from the moments around us, gathering together those strands of love, endurance and connection and wrapping ourselves up in them.