Loco Parentis: A Tangled Web

Technology is making it harder than ever to delete the past

It’s a thankless role. Even though I tell stories as faithfully as I can, my siblings insist that I “embellish.” I’ve never made anything up. With a family like mine, I never had to. But each of us remembers the same incident differently. We insert a certain adjective here, excise a detail there, and the slant, the takeaway, shifts, like the focus of a camera. The subject’s the same; what varies is the point of view.

I used to wonder how four kids raised in the same house by the same parents could have turned out so different from one another. Now I wonder how those two parents can be remembered so differently.

WHEN I LEFT home for college, I really left home. My school was 400 miles away, so I only came back for big holidays and in the summer. I didn’t even talk to home much back then. My friends and I would queue in our dorm hallway on Sundays for turns in a cramped phone booth, and used those weekly calls home for vital exchanges with our parents: I might be flunking biology. Oh, and I need money. My mom and dad didn’t linger on the line; raised in the Depression, they still pronounced “long distance” with a fearful awe.

A few weeks ago, my cell phone rang.

“Hello?” I said. A pause, a groan, and then —

“Mom.” The word long and drawn-out, like a sigh. It was Marcy, calling from college.

“Honey? What’s wrong?” Was she drunk? Pregnant? Expelled?

“My Women in Film class is so hard,” she said. “It isn’t anything like what I thought it would be. It’s all about lighting and camera angles and viewpoint and all this other stuff I don’t know about. I’m afraid to say anything! And last night Lindsay” — her ­roommate — “threw up all over the place, and our intramural volleyball team sucks, and I still don’t know where I’m going to live next year, and it was so cold today, and — ”

Marcy’s generation is overtaken by the present, what’s right in front of them. The narrow phone lines through which we once funneled information are broadband now, and let everything through. My daughter talks every day to friends all over the country, snaps cell-phone photos of the outfits she’s deciding between and sends them to their cell phones so they can weigh in. They all know what her room looks like, who her new friends at college are, how cute Mario is. I think of technology as cold and isolating, but to Marcy, it’s intimacy, the ability to talk on the phone with her boyfriend no matter where she is, share the minutiae of her day with the world.

She can’t even see the past for all this immediacy. It’s as impossible to imagine her poring through family pictures as to envision her rubbing lemon oil into my dad’s drum table. Between field hockey and AP classes and Key Club and choir and Project Runway, I never taught her to dust. I know this: She hardly has any photos of me. I was always the one with the camera, lining up the shots of her and Jake.

My sister-in-law once told me her therapist said kids don’t remember a good mother, because a good mother is just there, boundless and unremarkable, like air.

I want to be a good mother. But I want to be remembered, too.