By the time most of us have reached our sixties or seventies, we have lived several lives. We may be retired from our first lives, launched into lives of travel, recreation, study or second careers. We may have been homeowners all our lives and have downsized to condos or apartments or senior living communities. (Or, like me, having lived in an apartment all my life, have spread out to houses.) We may have lived in other states, geographically and emotionally. We may once have been bicycle riders, or blondes, but are neither, anymore. We may once have been poor or rich and are now the other. And little by little, as old ties become untied, through change or loss or distance, the selves we once were known to be, are no longer known at all. Fewer and fewer folks know that we were once PTA activists or picketed for certain causes, or that we hiked in Scotland for fifteen summers, until our knees gave out.
The connections we make in later life are in many ways important, but they are not the same as earlier ones. The connections we make as children, with our siblings, for example: can anything be more comforting – and infuriating, I might add – than a sister or brother who says, “You’re strong, you’ll do it, I know you,” or “Calm down! You were always impatient, even as a baby.”? The friends who knew our parents, or remember when we met our spouses, or how easily we could be made to get the giggles, become rarer, and when they are gone the things they know about us recede into the corners of fewer and fewer memories. And without a mirror to reflect those earlier lives, we forget what they looked like. That’s why I hold onto my high school ties so tightly and why a recent reconnection with grade school friends, co-remembering the name of the girl’s club we formed, our name and motto (The Darts. We aim for your Hearts!) was such a delight.
Of course, there is something nice about being new people, too. It can make us feel young to start out again, learn a new job, dig into a new discipline, act in new ways, be seen in new ways.
When my children were old enough, and I went to grad school, I remember how I loved being known only as a student. To my fellow students I was not my kids’ mother or my husband’s wife, I was just me, judged solely on how I answered in class, how good I was on the committee devoted to the study of this or that. I was thrilled that the rest of me was submerged and the tip of the iceberg that showed was the me I wanted to project. Until, that is, the day both my kids came down with something, M was out of town, and I had to ditch the committee work to take care of the kids. No one even knew I had kids, much less cared. They thought I was irresponsible. For all I knew, they thought I was lying, that it was a case of the cat eating my homework. No one asked how my kids were feeling and I remember thinking, “They don’t even know me.”
The more lives we live, the more of us there is to know, and the fewer are the people who really know us.
Now I am with people who don’t know how many years I have been married and what I did before I did what I do now, what my accomplishments were in those other lives. Sometimes it is refreshing and sometimes it feels as if I am living a truncated existence.
A while ago a colleague revealed that in the off-hours, he wrote thousand page novels. Hearing this, another colleague revealed that once she had been a chemistry prof at a top tier college. Another time, a quiet neighbor expressed a sudden urgency to find a local band so he could play his horn! How little we really know about the people we think we know. And wouldn’t it be nice if the selves we accumulate stayed with us? (Except, of course, in the case of murderous or guilty secrets, of which I will say more at another time, perhaps.)
But I suppose because time really has to march on, we might as well try to remember that there is likely to be a secret self or two in everyone, and no one should be taken at face value.
What we think we know about people is often just the tip of the iceberg.