After my mother died, my sister kept discovering fascinating things she had left behind, one being a do-it-yourself autobiography that must have been given to her.
Called The Book of Myself, it is a blank diary with pithy statements that the diarist is meant to complete. For example: “If I had any trouble with Mom growing up, it was in this area.” My own mom’s answer? “None.”
“This person significantly influenced my life growing up.” Answer: “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.” Answer: “No secrets!”
“I regret having burned this bridge.” Mom: “I do not recall having burned any.”
The whole book is like that. Page after page of searching questions brushed off, deemed irrelevant or impertinent, yet each politely answered. Her 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, no memorable teachers, no chores she disliked.
I, on the other hand, provide a wealth of information to my friends and family. I have a blog and I love Facebook. Some of my updates are profound and revealing: my worries about my daughter’s disability, my difficulties living in a cross-cultural family, my fears about global warming. But most are inane: an unexpected hailstorm in Dehradun, my passion for The West Wing, the soup I am making for dinner. Even the most banal of comments elicit strings of responses from friends. Encouraged, I make rash statements, openly declare love or disdain, 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. But does it follow that her generation, composed of those who would have refused to indulge in the mindless chatter on the web, were by nature deeper? That their characters were stronger than ours, their relationships more lasting?
I doubt it. Although we worry about the cultivated shallowness of social-networking sites, I think our children are simply growing up with a different version of the backyard fence or the village well. Some of us had chatty mothers who yakked on the phone for hours. Some of us didn’t.
As a bit of a yakker by nature, I think the thing to ponder is not the mode or frequency of communication but what is communicated. In my mother’s case, her reluctance to share personal details was itself a revelation, 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; today’s email forwards are yesterday’s handwritten chain letters. Mom, on the other hand, didn’t think her inner life (she could recite Shakespeare and the Bible, was at Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and took in anyone who came to our door) was so amazing that it had to be retailed to the world. Ironically, that means that her mystery and allure just keep increasing for me and for many others who loved her.
Jo McGowan is a cofounder and the executive director of the Latika Roy Foundation, an organization for the developmentally disabled in India. Excerpted from Commonweal, an independent journal of religion, politics, and culture edited by Catholics. http://commonwealmagazine.org