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Monday, January 13, 2014

To My Daughter, With Love becomes To Other Moms, With "I'm SO Sorry!"

To My Daughter, With Love: A Mother's Memory Book
Original paintings by Donna Green

I found this book about a decade and a half ago. I was working then for a national children's book club, and the book is exquisitely beautiful, outlandishly girly, and all sorts of things idealistic young moms and moms-to-be for the first time (or, not-yet moms, as I was at the time) could possibly find appealing. A lavishly illustrated write-in journal with prompts for recording all manner of heartfelt comments, ponderings, memories, anecdotes, dreams and visions, and history for one's beloved daughter.

It hooked me. I wanted it. I wanted to offer it for sale. And that I did.

I had to go through an interview process with the author/illustrator first. She said she did not want her book sold "just anywhere." Vendors had to be approved first. (Ironic that now, it's available with two separate listings on Amazon, and many eBay sellers also hawk it readily to the highest bidders. The trial by market all must come to.) Our book club was approved, and then, I did it. I put this book out there for all the others like me to be wooed by.

And they were. We sold thousands upon thousands of this high-priced (for our club's range), hardcover keepsake book. I'm sure it was more than 10,000 copies. It was probably closer to 20,000.

Since that time, I've had four daughters whom I love. And though I remember a good bit about the babyhood of the first, and some about the second, and a little about the third, and a few anecdotes from the fourth, for the most part, those years are one big swirling blur of chaos and needs and joys and stresses and surprises. Before I knew it, a decade was gone in a flash. And then, half of another one.

Our very modest ranch house is packed from end to end with all the accumulated clutter that six people can muster. Not often enough, I reach my wits' end with the mess (I'd much prefer the zen-like serenity of an uncluttered existence, arranged in order and simplicity, with unpretentious touches of art that are never noticeable enough to demand the title decoration, but alas--such is not my destiny, at least not at present) and carve out a day or two to hack away at it with the enthusiasm of a machete-wielding trailblazer in the Amazon jungle.

On one such day about four years ago, I was dumping books from my overly packed shelves when Cathy stopped in for a visit. Cathy is one of those friends who is always welcome to walk right into my house. She's been there for the crises and celebrations, the illnesses and the triumphs. And she doesn't judge me for my mess when she comes upon it. Therefore, the open door applies. She even has her own key, just in case I'm feeling paranoid or insecure about my surroundings.

On this day, I had decided to thin out the books because too many were wedged flat into the space on the shelves atop the ones appropriately standing at attention. And that irks the OCD in me. So several big packing boxes of books were going to the used bookstore for cash or credit, if found acceptable for resale. Cathy sat on the step to talk to me while I pulled and sorted and remembered how each was acquired before it got selected for banishment from the home. It was then that I rediscovered To My Daughter With Love: A Mother's Memory Book.

My heart almost stopped when I saw it there and lifted it down, dusty and forgotten. I wiped the cover to restore the shine to the glossy dust jacket. A flood of nostalgia hit me and I remembered all that I intended. All that life was going to be, and how sweetly and perfectly with idyllic prose I was going to record for My Daughter, whom I loved, everything I wanted her to remember about her childhood, and about me, her one and only mother. I had forgotten. I had forgotten the book and the promises to keep up with it. I had not written one single word in it, ever.

I felt overwhelmed with guilt and remorse. I stood on that chair and condemned myself for my terrible mothering, my terrible failure. So many memories completely lost now. So much of what I wanted my daughter to have for her adulthood that I could never restore because of the blur, the blur, the blur of life. I choked back the tears, not very successfully. And I knew, I was never going to do it, never going to fill in that stinking book.

Cathy has a daughter--and just one, not four! Hers was young enough at the time that maybe she could take the book and make good use of it. So I turned to my dear friend and offered it: "Do you want to take it?"

And I think her answer was a resounding, "NO." It might even have been a "H***, NO." I remember that there was no negotiating the matter, that was clear. "Why would I burden myself that way?!" she emphasized.

It was a shock at first to realize, especially considering just how many of this book had been sold, that any mom of a daughter could outright reject the whole idea wholesale--or even free! And it was unbinding too.

Over this past weekend, I was talking with another mom of a largish family who said that she could not remember certain important milestones in one of her children's lives. She didn't write them down, and now they're gone. I thought again about the book. And the guilt. And the sense of loss.

Why didn't I write in the book? Why didn't she write in her own baby books? Simple.

Because we were busy. We were busy raising our children.

We were busy feeding them and rocking them and reading to them and breaking up quarrels and playing with them and working to provide for them and taking them out into the world and to doctor appointments and to parks and play dates and church and shopping. We were planning birthday parties and cleaning up vomit and taking photos that may never get organized and washing their laundry and going to the grandparents' homes in different towns or states. We were living our lives, with our children.

How is it that anything can make a mom feel guilty for that? But it can. We're wired that way. We know we can't do it perfectly and it takes only a few hours of motherhood before the reality starts to set in that our ideals aren't going to hold up for long in the face of reality.

I'm glad the book is gone from the shelf today. I am glad it is no longer sitting up there, above my head, raining down its reminders of condemnation of me for my failure to be the perfect parent providing the perfect childhood and recording every detail of it, like I'd planned. Given the way things have gone, the absence of a written record may in itself be a real blessing. Today is one of those days in which our interactions are better forgotten. We only need to look back later and remember that we soldiered on through, together.

And to others who may have bought the book because of my initial (or long-term, as it turns out) enamoration with it, I want to say, "I am truly sorry." I am sorry to have participated in laying such a burden on you, like I did on myself. I aided. I abetted. And I'm sorry if the zeal for that ideal has resulted in the same sort of guilt for you at falling short in an area that does not matter at all. So go to your own shelf, and take it down and get rid of it.

Just don't try to sell it at the used book store. Because they didn't want to touch the thing either.

At least someone out there has some preemptive wisdom.


glenwied said...

Even if you ever did write in it for the first one, the second one would never get a line because of the busyness and then, you would feel guilty that the second one might find it and wonder why unless they, too, had children. Then, they'd know. I've tried it with a Grandmother's book but early on hit a blank spot and just have to write in my journals. I already gave one to my oldest because it held my anguish over my youngest's choice in a mate, which I knew in my heart would bring her grief and sorrow and it has and I never wanted her to know.

--Rebecca said...

My two big girls and I did a prayer journal once for a young friend who was going into the Army. We prayed at least twice a week for him in the year of his preparation, and recorded a scripture and the gist of the prayer each day in a small, leather-bound journal. Then when he got commissioned, we gave it to him, so that he could see how our prayers for him and his future men would be met by God. I wonder if he ever looked back at it to see for himself. We never heard again.

Regarding the children, I kind of expect that, if it matters later, God will restore the blurred memories... Or maybe he won't. Maybe we'll be looking ahead and not back. Hard to say.