A Spy In the House of Love
I wrote a scene for an essay called “The Mother Bed,” and I return to it repeatedly, involuntarily. Writers aren’t supposed to repeat themselves. The assumption is a writer works through the emotions of a scene and then lets it go. Whoever developed this theoretical ideal didn’t grow up in my mother’s house.
The scene is about my digging around in the crawl space of my basement storage area when I was ten years old looking for a Halloween costume and finding a small unfamiliar suitcase. Something told me I shouldn’t open the suitcase, that it wasn’t mine to open. But I pulled the suitcase towards me and opened it. It may have been my first transgression of the rule that we should respect what belongs to others. I thought there might be something secret inside and I wanted to know what it was. Why I thought that I couldn’t say since the suitcase was unlocked and in the normal course of things when a person wants to protect the contents of a suitcase, they lock it. In this case the owner was my mother and perhaps she was confident no one but her would ever visit the crawl space in the basement and she left it unlocked.
Inside the suitcase was a cache of photographs documenting my mother’s first marriage and early life with my two older sisters. I was the only child from my mother’s second marriage.
The discovery of the photographs, what I came to think of as the record of my mother’s past secret life, was a revelation since my mother had removed any photographs of her first husband from the house. But it was also a confirmation of the unease I had felt about my mother’s feelings about her second marriage and her feelings about me. I did not believe my mother was happy being my mother. I spent a great deal of my growing-up years wondering why—was it something about me, was it something about her, could it be fixed, and how would I survive such unhappiness. And then I found the suitcase and there she was happy with her husband and my sisters and I saw that there was something wrong with me, I was the problem and it couldn’t be fixed.
The scene was a wound and I return to it over and over. Do I return to the scene of the suitcase in order to hurt myself and keep the wound open? Or do I return to the scene because it refuses to be worked through once and for all?
I included and then deleted the scene in another essay about portraits of writers—how writers are often invasive. They are forever peeling back the surface of things to get at what lies underneath. Sometimes a writer’s attentions are unwanted, inserting themselves where others would prefer they didn’t go. My opening the suitcase was my first act as a writer—I opened Pandora’s box and then I couldn’t close it, could never close it. I cast myself as a spy in the house of love. My parents and sisters certainly wished I’d leave things alone. If my mother had known I had discovered the suitcase and opened it, she would have said with some belligerency that I was sticking my nose where it didn’t belong. She’d probably go on to say my hurt feelings served me right.
But it was more than a wound—I learned that I could trust my perceptions, that I was right in thinking my mother had secrets and that there was a history behind her problems with mothering me. I wasn’t supposed to find things out about my mother, at least not the things she wanted to keep from me. But I was never satisfied by appearances, by the accounts my mother gave or all she wouldn’t say. The endless deflections, denials, and secreting away of important stories inspired me to hunt down the truth. Isn’t that what a writer does—hunt down the truth?
But beware for there are consequences to the hunt. The trouble between my mother and I could never be stuffed back into the suitcase. I can still hear the click of the latches and the lid of the suitcase springing open. I can still see the tumble of little photographs spilling out onto the chilly cement floor, and feel my heart rise up at the images before me.
Marcia Aldrich is the author of the free memoir Girl Rearing, published by W.W. Norton and part of the Barnes and Noble Discover New Writers Series. She has been the editor of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. Companion to An Untold Story won the AWP Award in Creative Nonfiction. She is at work on Haze, a narrative of marriage and divorce during her college years.
Marcia Aldrich’s work has appeared in Hotel Amerika including, “The Blue Dress,” Winter 2015: Volume 13, “The Art of Bring Born; Letter to a Daughter,” Spring 2012: Volume 10:2, and, “Sidestroke: The Mother Essay, 2.0,” in Spring 2010: Volume 8:2.