Sunday, May 8, 2011

Why My Mother Would Not Have Joined Facebook

After my mother died, my sister Lucy kept discovering interesting things she had left behind. One of the most fascinating was a do-it-yourself autobiography which someone must have given her (it was definitely not something she would have bought for herself).

Called "The Book of Myself", it is a blank diary with pithy statements at the top of each page which the diarist is meant to complete. For example:

"If I had any trouble with Mom growing up, it was in this area:"

MY Mom's answer? "None."

"I wanted this person to be my friend, but the feeling was not mutual."

Mom: "No problem people!"

"This person significantly influenced my life growing up:"

Mom: "No one in particular."

"This is the profession I most often mentioned when people asked me what I was going to be when I grew up:"

Mom: "I don't remember being asked."

"I kept this secret from almost everyone:"

Mom: "No secrets!"

"One big misunderstanding with a friend:"

Mom: "None."

"I learned to take myself less seriously through my friendship with:"

Mom: "Not applicable."

"I regret having burned this bridge:"

Mom: "I do not recall having burned any."

"Of all my personality traits, I hope my family will remember this one about me:"

Mom: "No comment."

The whole book is like this. Page after page after page of searching questions or leading phrases, each one answered in three words or less, brushed off,  pushed aside, deemed irrelevant or - perhaps - impertinent. After the first few pages, the answers become predictable. You know for a certainty that there will be NO revelations here. Yet each question is politely answered, as if the book had a power of its own, as if, in spite of having no intention of sharing anything personal, she still felt she had to respond.

There was one way she did reveal herself, however. Throughout the book, you can find her proof-reader's pencil at work: a comma added in the introduction, a redundant word crossed out in one of the headings, a misspelling silently corrected. 

But her own personal life is strictly off-limits: No mentors that she can recall, too many friends to list, no romantic interest other than her husband, no conflicts of any kind, no memorable teachers, no chores she disliked, no worries, no fears, no burnt bridges, no secrets!

I, on the other hand, provide a wealth of information not only for my friends and family but for their friends and families too. I have this blog and I love facebook. A day is incomplete if it doesn’t include an update or two. Some are profound and revealing: my worries about my daughter’s disability, my difficulties living in a joint family, my fears about nuclear war and global warming; but most are inane and of interest to no one but me:  an unexpected hailstorm in Dehradun, my passion for The West Wing, the soup I am planning to make for dinner tonight.

Yet even the most banal of comments (often the more banal the better) elicits a string of responses from my friends. Encouraged,  I make rash statements, declare my love and my disdain openly, take sides and express opinions with seldom a thought for who might be reading what I say or what anyone else might think.

My mother was far more discreet.  Knowing that words could be misunderstood and that what seemed like just a simple comment could in fact be wounding and unforgettable, she chose silence more often than not. 

But does it follow that her generation, comprised of those who kept their secrets close, who avoided social networking and would have refused to indulge in the mindless chatter of the net are by nature deeper? That their characters were stronger than ours and their relationships more lasting?

I doubt it. As parents, while we all worry about the ubiquitous nature of the net, and particularly about social networking sites and their deliberate and cultivated shallowness, I think our children are simply growing up with a different version of the backyard fence, the village well. Some of us had chatty mothers who yakked on the phone for hours or stood in the grocery store aisle holding up traffic to catch up with a neighbor. Some of us didn’t.

As a bit of a chatterer by nature, I think the thing to ponder on is not the mode or the frequency of communication but what is communicated. In my mother’s case, her reluctance to share personal details was itself a revelation of epic proportions, a clue to her selflessness and humility and, perhaps, the explanation for her kindness and deep compassion.

There have always been tell-alls and over-sharers; todays “forwards” are yesterday’s hand-written chain letters. Mom, on the other hand, really didn't think her hectic inner life was anything so amazing that it had to be retailed to the world. Ironically, that means that her mystery and allure just go  on increasing for me and many others who knew and loved her.

On facebook as in life, less is often more.


Lucy Cuseo said...

Lovely, Jo.
I would like to find more of mom's balance. I am a classic oversharer. Then I am overwhelmed by oversharing and I am overquiet. When will you be available for the meeting to discuss the smell?

Entropy said...

Suddenly the window will open
And mother will call me
It's time to come back

The wall will split
I will enter heaven in muddied boots

- Tadeusz Różewicz