By Stephanie Olson
I am so grateful for my revisionist memory. I can spend hours in that happy little space between my ears. It is what allows me to think back and marvel at the daring feats of my youth. My entire childhood was happy and stress-free. Each day was kissed by sunlight; every sepia-toned night held the hum of happy possibilities. In short, I am not bothered by the peskiness or ugliness of truth. Time has blessed me with an ability to allow most honest realities to slip through the holes in the massive sieve that is my brain. It is wonderful.
Unfortunately, the recent discovery of certain documents has pulled the truthful realities back into my Swiss cheese of a mind.
I was back home in Minnesota for a few weeks with the kids. Thanks to my parents’ gracious babysitting, I was able to slip away for the night to go to dinner with several old friends. It was so fun to see them again, and we spent a few hours reminiscing and catching up on one another’s lives.
Then came the notes.
One friend had sifted through her boxes in the basement to find her bag of junior high notes, and she hand selected only the finest to share with us. Coincidentally, when I returned to my parents’ house that night my mom told me that she had a box of stuff I had to take home with me. When I sat down to dutifully pore over old yearbooks and cards, I found my own bag stuffed with my own old notes from my junior and senior high years.
Wow. What a slap in the face those notes were to my happily hazy mind!
Don’t get me wrong, they were fun to read in the sense that they were often funny and silly and reminded me of many happy times in my life. But I also had to face an ugly truth. I had always fancied myself as a kind and sweet person. A champion of the underdog! A force for good in this often harsh world. The notes, however, presented a different story.
Truth be told, at 14 I guess I was kind of a b**ch.
It was an uncomfortable feeling to sit and spend time with myself as I was then. These notes were not formal papers. They weren’t journal entries composed to flirt with the future or walk through life’s mysteries and big questions. They were not written for posterity or to be seen by others outside my teen circle. They were small bits of everyday conversation between young friends — intimate, quick thoughts that were, at times, ugly.
I’m not going to reprint any of them here. But let’s suffice it to say that teachers were mocked. Kids were mocked. Friends were teased and parents were “ragged on.” (This was, evidently, a favorite phrase of mine. As were “mint,” “sweet” and “harsh”.)
Spending time with my old self has made me a bit more forgiving of kids that age. I was reminded of how important showing off was at that time. We were all trying so hard to jockey for position and find out where we fit. In those letters I could hear how much I was thinking about putting others down so that I could feel more confident and popular. We were trying on personalities and pushing back on the borders imposed by school, parents, other kids and our own perceptions of who we were versus who we wanted to become.
And so I write this for my memory as much as anything. I threw away most of the notes, but I want to remember the truth that they held. I need to keep in mind that the sepia perfection that I remember was not the reality that I lived. Part of growing up is sounding dumb or ugly sometimes and trying out new personas. I will need to be reminded of it again someday. My children may not always stand up for truth and justice. They might say things that I find ugly. They might like things that I don’t approve of. They may act or dress in ways that don’t fit my idea of who I would like them to be.
But I will need to give them time and space. Kids need time to cook. Parents are extremely aware of that when their children are very young, but we sometimes forget it as they get closer to adulthood. Just as there are stages of growth in their younger years, there are stages of growth as they get older. They need time, reminders and good examples of how to live. They need discipline, forgiveness and love.
I hope that the uncomfortable time I just spent with my younger self will make me a more compassionate parent, aunt, friend and neighbor. I was lucky enough to have parents, family and friends who loved me through the ugly parts. I am so grateful to them, and I hope that my kids are lucky enough to have the same.
Stephanie Olson is a mother of two boys who lives and writes in Seattle. She believes her golden rule in parenting, “Just wipe it off on your pants!” will be her epitaph someday. It has gotten us through pretty well thus far. Read more of Stephanie's work on her blog, Ma Swell Vie.