I was originally going to respond to the NaBloPoMo prompt, “Are you good at hiding your feelings, or is your face an open book?” but something else related to the topic of Masks has been on my mind lately, namely, do you hide from your roots?
There used to be an expression when I was young, “forgetting where you came from.” It was used in talking about people with humble beginnings who had risen to great heights, like Donald Trump being from Rego Park in Queens, NY. Rego Park is a nice enough neighborhood, but it will never have the same status as being from Jamaica Estates. Or Gramercy Park in Manhattan. One of the highest compliments anyone could pay such a person was that “he hasn’t forgotten where he came from”; to “forget where you came from” was despicable.
And it’s on my mind lately because I know two people who seem to have forgotten Where They Came From. One of them is my own daughter, who has apparently decided that her parents are too ordinary for her to bother staying in touch with. Or maybe it’s that our house, all 950 square feet of it, is too modest. It may even be that she has unhappy memories of growing up among us, though that was never an excuse for blowing off Family. Be that as it may, she recently acquired a hot-shot job with an international company that involves jetting back and forth across the Atlantic – I won’t say where – and other than apprising us of that fact (after telling her immediate world on Facebook), she hasn’t said a word to us about her life. Or her husband, or their children. The situation has gone on for so long that I’m not sure it can ever be repaired, and that’s not something anyone should be able to say about her children.
The other is an old friend of my husband’s from grade school. These two boys were over at each other’s houses every day, and were as close as brothers. They stayed in touch through high school and college, and even after military service, for a time. But military service seemed to change things between them, as (despite having a college degree before enlistment) my husband was assigned to the enlisted ranks, and this other fellow became an officer. After the service, he and his wife had us out to their home a few times, and we had them to ours; they lived on Long Island, in increasingly tony neighborhoods, and we lived in Queens, not too far from where we had grown up. He went on to a career in nuclear physics, my husband went into occupational safety and health. And one day, this guy simply stopped writing, and didn’t return telephone calls. We never figured out why.
Recently, my husband went to some trouble to look him up on the internet. He’s now living in the Southwest – I’m being deliberately vague – but he has an important position in his community, and is very obviously among the ranks of the Successful. My husband got an address for him and sent him a note, together with his e-mail address and an invitation to renew the friendship. That was three weeks ago, and he hasn’t heard a thing.
Meanwhile, over on Facebook, I’ve reconnected with a number of people who are cousins, or friends of cousins, from the old neighborhood. It’s so much fun to talk about the old haunts, to catch up on one another’s lives, to see what we all look like now – you can see the resemblance to who they were 40 years ago – just to reconnect. When we are “together,” even via the internet, the masks come off, and we are still pretty much the same group who enjoyed laughs together, and shared the torments of Catholic school (about which we laugh, now). Every once in so often, one or another of us will reconnect with yet another branch of the family, and the fun starts all over again.
I feel sorry for my daughter, and for my husband’s friend. Sure, it’s nice to have the toys and props to impress your new friends – maybe – I mean, aren’t you always on display? Don’t you always have to wear that mask? When do you get to be yourself, to slip and say “cawfey” when referring to your morning beverage, instead of whatever pronunciation of “coffee” is locally acceptable? Or talk about what it was like to move from a four-room railroad flat in Ridgewood to a single-family house in Maspeth? (A railroad flat is an apartment with rooms just like a railroad car – you have to walk through all the rooms, even the bedrooms, to get from front to back. A lot of Brooklyn and Queens apartments were railroad flats.)
Home has a lot of definitions: Home is where you hang your hat, home is where, when you go there, they have to take you in, home is where the heart is – my favorite came from the German author, Max Frisch: “Home is where we understand the people, and they understand us.” Home is where you can take the mask off. Home is where you came from.
Don’t forget where you came from. The loss is permanent.