I’m working on a personal project right now that has to do with my family’s history. It revolves around a family incident that happened when my mother was barely out of toddlerhood, a tragedy that changed the trajectory of, well, everything really.
When I sat down and began writing, I had this image in my mind of who each of the players were. I began to sketch out these people I knew, my grandmother and my grandfather, people whose expressions and voices were so familiar to me. It didn’t take long, however, before I remembered what we all have some basic awareness of: that knowing someone and knowing someone are hardly the same thing.
I was struck by all that I don’t know, all that will forever remain a mystery now that they are gone. The grandmother that I knew was a woman in her 50s and 60s, long-since divorced, forty years after the incident I’m writing about. The grandmother that I’ve heard about through my own mother is someone else entirely. And the woman who married at 17, the one before her husband went off to be damaged in the way only war can damage a person, the one who had yet to lose her children…who was she? Where do I find her? Hidden in the shy smiles in old photographs? In the words of love scribbled on the backs of photos shipped off to her man in uniform gallantly serving overseas? And what of that man? Who was he before the war, before the guilt and the loss and the heartbreak? He’d already known hardship and trauma by the time they married, but isn’t there some kind of inherent hope in the mere act of matrimony? A belief that the two of you can build something new, something strong and fresh together? When did that hope die, exactly? Somewhere in the rubble he photographed in Hiroshima, or did it suffer its final death throes alongside his son?
We live our lives surrounded by our loved ones, parents and grandparents and siblings and sometimes aunts and uncles and cousins and lifelong friends. We spend decades saying goodnight to a beloved partner or our children and we can so easily forget that knowing their voices and precisely how their eyes scrunch up at the corners when they smile, or what their favorite song is or how they take their coffee is different from knowing them. Is it even possible to really know another human? Hell, it feels nearly impossible most days to be truly honest in my knowing of myself. So I suppose not.
But isn’t that such a beautiful mystery? The slew of tiny memories and hidden corners and buried treasure hidden within each of us? To be able to spend a lifetime next to those we love and discover newness and uncharted depth within their hidden realms? We are all such messy swirls of dark and light, such untidy tapestries full of the pinprick holes made by the small hurtful words and little rejections, of the tears created when our hearts are ripped by pain, of the stitches where kind words landed at just the right moment or our love was reflected in another’s eyes or a forest showed us how to begin to mend ourselves. For every piece of ourselves that we share with the world, there are an infinite number that never see the light of day, that live within us weaving the complex beings that we are.
To recognize our inability to know or be known is to recognize that each person holds within them a magical mystery, an infinity of possibility. This we have in common, this each of us shares. I do not know where your ragged edges might be frayed, or when my hasty words might add girth to what had been only a pinprick hole, so I will do my best to tread carefully and with compassion. I will do my best to truly see you and treat you as the wondrous enigma, the boundless promise, the unknowable and undoubtedly flawed human that you are, that we all are.
Some small bits can be gleaned from faded sepia photographs and handwritten scrawl. Some bits can be inferred from empathy and attention to what is said between the words. But I will never know who my grandmother was, not the 17 year old and not the 63 year old whose voice I can still hear clearly after all these years without her. I will never know my mother or my sweet husband or my dearest friends. Their innermost selves will remain always out of reach, sparkling starry skies full of infinite galaxies, always a mystery, always a wonder.