The first moment I realized I was a grown-up was when I was nine years old. I came in from climbing trees in the back yard, orange trees, came through the back door, the kitchen. The house was quiet. I moved through the dining room and into the living room, past the sofas placed in front of the defunct fireplace at perfect 90 degree angles, and on toward the stairs.
And then I saw her.
My mother was sitting on one of the sofas, crying. She looked straight at me, and then, as if she’d not seen me, put her head back down and continued to cry. It was clear she didn’t want me to approach. I was filled with fear and dread. What had I done? I mentally flipped through my transgressions that week, my petty untruths, my backtalk, my ignored chores and homework. It took me only seconds to realize that I had done…nothing. This, somehow, had nothing to do with me.
I crept past her, allowing her privacy, and started up the stairs to my room. Halfway up, hand on banister, I turned and looked down, suddenly struck by the realization that my mother had a life I knew nothing about. Nothing. She had feelings that had nothing to do with me. Feelings so strong that they made her cry. I was frozen by the sheer enormity of it.
If my mother, my mother, the one person in my short life I took for granted that I knew intimately, and who knew me intimately, could have thoughts, motivations, ideas, and feelings, that had nothing at all to do with me, well then…anyone could. I didn’t know anyone. And I never could.
And that meant that I could have thoughts, motivations, ideas and feelings that were completely, utterly my own, that even she, my mother, might not know anything about. It was as if an entire world had unfolded and expanded before me. Empathy and independence, unlikely twins, were born to me at that moment on the stairs.
I started asking questions after that. Constantly. Of everyone. I knew that nobody really knew anybody else, parents don’t know their children, children don’t know their parents or siblings or each other, but I was determined to get at something, some morsel underneath what they showed to the world, some kernel that would make me understand something about them.
I still ask questions. Sometimes I make people uncomfortable because I ask them so much about their lives, about the experiences that shaped them, about their families, their parents, their children. They think I am nosey, and perhaps that’s all that I am. But they, people, are genuinely fascinating to me. Everyone has reasons for what they do, and I want to know what they are. Not to judge, not to use against them or make them uncomfortable, but simply to understand some greater human condition that still eludes me.
But I never found out why my mother cried that day.