Loco Parentis: A Tangled Web

Technology is making it harder than ever to delete the past

MY DAUGHTER MARCY and her boyfriend Mario are sitting on my living room sofa, aiming her cell-phone camera at themselves. They kiss, shoot, check the image, kiss, shoot, check the image, seeking the perfect photo to post on Marcy’s Facebook page. I smile at them and head for the kitchen, passing, on my way, a white wooden cabinet that happens to be filled to bursting with yellow Kodak envelopes. Some of the envelopes are marked with a month and year on the outside, or “West Virginia Vacation,” but most of them aren’t. When Marcy and her younger brother Jake were little, I was dutiful about recording their lives in photographs, but less dutiful about organizing the results. My friend Ruth keeps her carefully selected pictures of her three boys in handsome albums, complete with where-and-when captions. Me, I just stopped taking photos when the cabinet was full.

There was a ritual aspect to snapping pictures with my old 35mm camera that even Marcy remembers fondly. You’d go to CVS, fill out the form, put your film in the envelope, drop it in the slot … and wait.

“When can we get the photos? When will they be ready?” Marcy used to natter at me. After a week or so, back we’d go to CVS, to pick up the Kodak envelopes with the photos inside. We’d pay, then stand right there in the store and take our first look, giggling together over the Girl Scout camping trip or middle-school talent show. Sufficient time had passed that the pictures evoked memories for us to point out: Remember Liz screaming at the spider in the tent? Jen tottering in high heels? And then there were the outtakes, shots with a thumb over the lens, or group red-eye, or unspeakably unflattering angles: Can that really be my butt?

 On the sofa, Marcy just deletes the bad photos, the ones that make her and Mario laugh or cringe: click, whoosh, gone forever. In a week, a month, she’ll tire of today’s perfect shot and send it into oblivion, post another in its place. She’ll never have an overstuffed white cabinet to silently nag her: Get organized!

I can see the allure in that. In the wake of my dad’s death last year, I became the caretaker of all the photos he accumulated in his lifetime, which include our old family shots, pictures from Dad’s parents, and even some from their parents, the subjects stiff and Dickensian in chin whiskers and elaborate clothes. As I try to find dry household spots in which to store this bounty, I think how much easier it would be to just click it into the ether. My lack of photo organization clearly is hereditary; the old pictures aren’t labeled. I don’t know who the people in them are. Nobody alive does. I should throw them the hell away.

I don’t, though. Instead, now and again, I page through them, searching for proof that these inscrutable, frozen-in-time lives are linked with mine. I look for glimmers of family resemblance — a tilt of a chin that foreshadows Jake, a hint of Marcy’s eyes.

AFTER DAD DIED, my three siblings and I went through his place with colored stickers, marking what we wanted for our own. My stickers were yellow. I stuck with the Episcopalian side of Dad, the mahogany drum table and Queen Anne chairs. My older sister, brisk and practical, took his Honda. My younger sister chose the local artists’ paintings he collected and the garish afghan he’d draped over his sofa, that my mom crocheted years and years ago. My brother didn’t take much of anything.

We weren’t just deciding how much clutter to add to our homes. We were editing Dad, defining him for ourselves and our kids, selecting which aspects of him we wanted to perpetuate. We were furthering our family roles: my older sister the austere pragmatist, my younger the wacky free spirit, my brother … well, he has some father issues. Me, I’m the recorder, the archivist.
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.
I’M AFRAID MY kids may be remembered in ways they never intended. The technology they love, that they couldn’t live without, pushes sharing on them, blurs the lines of privacy. Their Facebook pages tell strangers way more than I want the world to know about them: their hometown, their favorite colors, songs, TV shows. After a nude photo of High School Musical teen queen Vanessa Hudgens popped up on the Internet last September, I felt a duty to warn my daughter not to post compromising pictures online.

Mom,” she said, pained.

“Delete doesn’t really mean delete,” I insisted. “You don’t want an employer to Google you someday and find something embarrassing.”  

I was speaking from experience, in a way. When my kids were little, I used to write historical romance novels, complete with heaving breasts and throbbing manhoods. It was something I could do in the evenings, after Marcy and Jake were asleep, and it brought in steady money, and it was fun. It was just a man and a woman and … embellishing.

Time passed. My interests changed. Marcy grew  old enough to go on dates, and I found myself reevaluating the concept of a literary genre dedicated to a woman’s need to land a man to be happy. I’d started writing essays about gender issues, parenting, education. I’d moved on. I didn’t talk about my novels. I sort of hoped they’d go away.

But with the Internet, nothing ever goes away. Not long ago, the women’s website Jezebel.com linked to an article I wrote about my kids. The Jezebel commenters are a bitchy lot, and before I read what they had to say about me, I toughened up my skin. Sure enough, they called me a bad mom, a mean mom, a psycho mom. The gibe that really stung, though, was from someone who’d done some Googling: “This lady writes romance novels for a living!”

There went my feminista credibility, just like that.

WE USED TO be able to escape our pasts, run ahead of them — or at least manipulate them. Along with Dad’s photos, I have his letters — letters he sent home during World War II, ones he got from girlfriends, ones he wrote my mom while they were engaged. Plus I have all the letters Dad became guardian of during his life: to his parents from his siblings, to Mom from her ­relations — on and on and on, chains and fardels of words. These letters are bad. No one is ever going to construct a riveting family narrative out of  “Drove down to Atlantic City last weekend. Weather was fine!”  
My family’s letters are most remarkable for what they don’t say, the information that has purposefully been left out. They’re like the photos of my ancestors in their stiff Sunday clothes; not even between the lines is there any hint that the writers’ lives were messy or complex.

Our pasts are museums. We’re their curators. If there ever was unhinged grief or wild desperation among my ancestors — and there must have been; they had their share of nervous breakdowns and bouts with the bottle — it never was committed to paper. I can’t blame my kinfolk for editing their storyline. Marcy and Jake can balance the history I strive to create for my father against their own reminiscences. It’s different with my mom, who died before they were born. I got to conjure her from whole cloth. I edited out of her story what embarrassed me when she was alive — her South Philly loudness, the sour-onion scent of her hands — and kept only the good parts: her beauty, how she could put anyone at ease, her uncanny bodysurfing ability. The result was a grandmother Marcy and Jake admire — and don’t know at all.

My parents and their parents treasured privacy, the right to construct one’s own story. Actual artifacts were rare enough that you could lop a wayward wife or unsavory uncle right off the family tree. Now, we put our shame on show to the world, let cameras capture our addict children, cheating spouses, drunken selves. The rush of content onto TV, blogs, YouTube, has overwhelmed our filters — Can’t stop the flood, might as well dive in! We only complain when the memoir’s fake, when the degradation turns out not to be true.

It’s hard for an archivist to relinquish control. If my (eventual) grandchildren Google me, will they find columns I wrote about their parents? Jezebel.com’s Hingston haters? The romance novels? How weird would it be to read your grandma writing about throbbing manhoods? I should have thought of all this 25 years ago, when I wrote that first book. Why would I have, though? The past used to be set in stone. It was agreed upon, permanent.

To Marcy and Jake, nothing’s permanent — not triumph, not disgrace, not identity. That’s the lesson they’ve learned from their brave new world: Nothing lasts, nothing endures. Amy’s in rehab again! Britney bounces back! Something different and brighter and faster comes along and changes everything. It’s the opposite of what I grew up believing: that the past was somehow truer and more righteous than the future would be.

That edited past gave us heroes we couldn’t live up to, relations who were remote strangers, family histories we couldn’t glean any real lessons from. The more angles there are, the less any one picture means. Maybe that’s why I never sorted through the photos in the Kodak envelopes. Why not hold onto the outtakes, and not just the perfect portrait? There are worse things than finding out your grandma knew about oral sex.

Marcy doesn’t respect me less because I’ve told her about my bad boyfriends, those psychedelic mushrooms, that unplanned pregnancy. Her knowledge of my mistakes has freed her to admit her own to me, kept me in the loop of her life as she turned into a woman — and keeps her calling me on her cell to say nothing much at all.

Technology isn’t dehumanizing us; it’s fleshing us out, plumping us up. Making us more human, more knowable, to one another and to future generations. I’ll take that any day over perfectly posed ancestors who don’t look like me from any angle. Go on and Google me, kids. I guarantee: It will embarrass you more than it embarrasses me.

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