One afternoon, when I was about five-years-old, my mother gave me one of her tape recorders. I carried it around everywhere, dictating a sort of stream-of-conscious narrative. I remember taking it to a department store and interviewing an employee, asking her which of the dresses she found to be the “twirliest.” On another occasion, my mother gave me a quarter, and I whispered into the recorder, “This money is to me? I’m rich!,” before launching into a description off all the things I then felt empowered to buy. When each cassette ran out of tape, my mother would pry it from the recorder’s yellow, plastic jaws and file it away in a box along with my previous monologues. Most parents take photos of their children, hoping to preserve a piece of their adolescence in family albums. This wasn’t enough for my mother. She is a reporter, an observer by trade. She wasn’t content with knowing what color dress I wore on Easter in 1998; she wanted to know what I was thinking while wearing that dress. After I went to sleep, my mother would listen to my tapes and take notes.
From 1994-2007, my mother wrote a column for Dallas Child and later for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram called “Frazzled Parent” (a name that she copyrighted: that’s right, my mother owned the exclusive parental right to be frazzled). An editor at my mother’s workplace actually asked her to write the column after observing my brother and me during an office visit. Unfortunately, I do not remember this visit at all, but I can only assume our behavior was unruly and probably shocking. From that point forward, once a month, my mother would choose a single-parenting experience she thought to be humorous or poignant and would write it down for the whole world to read (or at least the subscribers of North Texas). My mother didn’t just archive my brother’s and my childhood, she created public records of all our most embarrassing moments. Readers would email my mother to offer comments and advice. A whole group, albeit a small and probably elderly group of strangers knew my favorite TV shows, my habits, and the reasons why my brother and I fought. I didn’t think this was strange at the time. After all, being a minor media personality had its benefits, like being featured in a children’s fashion article, posing in leopard footie pajamas.
I never actually read any of my mother’s columns, although my older brother did and would groan upon reading lines like “a 10-year-old boy stepped into the room with a pair of white Hanes underpants on his head” at the breakfast table, before crumpling up the paper in his hands and storming out of the room. I think I chose not to read them because I didn’t want to know what she had written; I didn’t want to know what my mom’s perception of me was. I have my own memories of my adolescence, and, recently, I have been curious to know if my stylization of the past aligns with my mother’s.
Over the past few months, I have read most of the articles she published and looked over some of her notes. There were certainly moments when I felt a pang of recognition, a familiar conjuring of the past. Yet, a few details would be different, and so I questioned whose narrative was more reliable, that of the child or that of the author. For instance, my mother wrote about a family trip to see Swan Lake. I remember looking at the mob of frothy tutus on stage with a general disinterest, poking my brother repeatedly, counting the number of tiles on the ceiling of the auditorium, and wandering into the hallway to eat Skittles. My mother acknowledges my apparent agitation, noting the “two Advil taken for back and leg pain resulting from squirming child on lap,” but her account includes some details which conflict with my own experience. She writes that there were no “snacks sold at the stand which complied with their strict Lenten diet,” and so the children went hungry. My brother and I did give up sweets every year, a sacrifice that surely honored Jesus’ crucifixion, but I distinctly remember sitting on the burgundy carpet, leaning against a wall in the hallway, mashing Skittles between my teeth. I also remember breaking my Lenten promise from time to time. Did I fabricate this Skittle-munching memory or did I sneak out to eat these Skittles in sin? I assume that my mother was right in saying that I forwent snacks, but I was concerned that I did not remember breaking my Lenten oath, or that I completely imagined this experience altogether.
Other times I felt that the child she was describing was not me at all, but perhaps some alien who had possessed my body. My mother wrote one column entitled “How well do I know my kids? Así así,” in which she gives my brother and I personality quizzes. Apparently, I watched something called The Facts of Life and my favorite character was Natalie. I was once a morning person, and I evidently spoke Spanish at home when the mood struck. This child did not seem familiar—Did my mother have another daughter I didn’t know about? No, sadly nothing as exciting as that. This child had to be me because my mother correctly noted that I had memorized the entire script of The Parent Trap, a fact that I took much pride in. It was time to face the evidence before me: my childhood was not what I had previously conceived it to be.
Obviously, the perspective of a child is different from that of an adult. When I think of my childhood, I picture myself sitting in clean pink room, wearing a sundress, and playing with Barbies. When my mother thinks of my childhood, it seems she imagines me as an overly perky, gregarious girl bouncing around the kitchen with her hair tangled up in knots. In reality, I was probably both of these girls. My mother thought it was her duty to catalogue my childhood day-by-day, and while she was certainly able to preserve many aspects of my younger days, her records were incomplete. Every overbearing mother wants to know what her child is thinking. My mother thought that by giving me a tape recorder, she could capture my juvenile thoughts, complaints and wishes. However, it seems that I, like most children, kept these fiercely guarded. The “Hadley” that appears in her articles are not entirely me, they are my mother’s “Hadley,” a construction of a little girl, but not quite a reality. Despite my mother’s best journalistic efforts, some bits of my childhood went unrecorded, lost to time, and I am fine with that. Everyone deserves a least a little mystery in her past.