jen groeber: mama art

4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.

Ocean Stones and Memories

Summer is the time for visiting with family. The summer months are just brimming with relatives. And it’s so necessary, this grounding, these reminders of where you came from. But it’s exhausting, too. Ex-haust-ing. And it’s not so much the laying of an extra plate, or two or four and the washing of the sheets in the guest room. It’s the psychic energy of time travel. It’s seeing the past through the eyes of someone else who lived it. It’s the stories.

Because we all have stories.

In my family the stories have sordid underbellies. And these stories belong to each of us individually, they are the things we’ve petted and fed, coddled and shared, we’ve polished them like ocean stones until they become something wholly different. I can’t begin to tell my siblings’ stories. I don’t even understand most of their stories. I am invariably shocked when a new one crops up.


“We’ve polished them like ocean stones…”
August 2014

Was I there? Because I don’t remember it that way. These stories are utterly foreign to me. But my younger brother’s two favorite stories, those belong to me, too.

“Jennie knocked out three of my teeth.”

And (my favorite)- “Jennie fed me a fried chicken drumstick covered with maggots.”

Now both of these are true. And while one is more Bad News Bears, the other is Poltergeist. Seriously. There were maggots on the chicken.

There were mitigating circumstances in both cases of course, a badly timed accident and misplaced responsibility on a child too young to determine the difference between secret spices and maggots. But still, the facts remain: a handful of teeth and a plate of maggots.

Dad, Butchie, my sister, younger brother and me, summer 1977

Dad, Butchie, my sister, younger brother and me,
summer 1977

With the family visits comes the stunning one-liners about wrongs perpetuated, some stories still fresh and writhing (unlike the teeth and maggot stories, which are perennial holiday favorites and thus already old news by a long haul.) And the most jarring memories are new. Eating-disorder, depressive, television-medical-drama revelations.

There is no defense. Why did I never know this? Was it something I caused? Is this really how it happened? And is this something I need to know now?!

I have tried to deny most of my stories. Because they can be so sad. They are evidence of a childhood not particularly well-lived. If I can’t add a ba-dum-bum chhhhhhh, then I don’t want it in my airspace. You know? For what? We cannot right these wrongs.

Last night my son woke up and I found him screaming, crying on the stairwell. For those who’ve wondered how I get my kids to sleep through the night, I’m mean Mommy when woken. It’s my self-defense against sleepless nights. Don’t wake me up unless you’re bleeding or covered in vomit. That’s my motto. (Mother of the Year material, am I right?)

And so to find him screaming, crying, inconsolable, in search of a toilet to pee in, well, that did not bring out the best in me. And he kept at it, this overly dramatic gasping inverted, barking laugh-cry, AH, AH, AH, his exhalation, followed by his wheezing inhale, fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa. Repeat. AH AH AH! So I whisked him away to the toilet hissing “Be quiet. Be quiet. Be quiet!” And just as I was beginning to threaten, “I will put you on the porch if you don’t stop making all this noise,”  my sister popped her head in the door. She crouched down, face to face with the tragic actor, “Tell me what’s wrong. Why are you crying?”

He looked to me with accusing eyes. Then turned his now doleful, glistening eyes to my sister and deadpanned, “Mama put me in the closet in the dark and I was scared out of my wits, apparently.” I kid you not.

And there it is. The next story. The dark underbelly. It has begun.

Did I put him in a closet earlier in the evening? Sure. With the door open, one of those closets big enough for furniture, like a bureau, and with nothing hanging down, just wood floor, an empty laundry basket and a bureau. For about four minutes. And the door was open, by the way. Also he’d been whining and crying and yelling so loudly and so stubbornly, kicking the bunk of the bed above him while his siblings attempted sleep. Also, I’d warned him twice that he was headed to a bad time out in a place where no one else would hear him (and yes, we could still hear him.) But still. His new truth sounded wonderfully, evilly dysfunctional with just enough jagged edges and dark underbelly to floor his siblings during summer vacations 40 years hence.

And so my sister offered to write down what he said, what made him scared, and then the two of them would throw it away. From behind him I was pointing at my watch (which read 4:21 am, by the way) and I was giving my sister the circle in the air sign, which means wrap it up. Wrap. It. Up. Together they took this memory in the making, they captured it on paper and threw it away.

Today my sister and I walked to a stark, rock-covered beach, just the two of us. We sat quietly. She looked out over the darkly crashing ocean waves and remarked that my father would have loved this place. And I agreed that he would. We picked up perfectly rounded stones and threw them away, away, far out into the surf. Then I scrambled down the beach until I’d found a large stone for her to hold, heavy, smooth and warm. We sat with this shared weight in our hands, a common childhood. And then we left it there on the beach to bask in the sun.


A rock too big to carry.
August 2014

(This post was inspired by the WordPress Weekly Writing Challenge, Memoir Madness, my dear family and a dramatic little boy utterly unwilling to do the time when he’s committed the crime.)

19 comments on “Ocean Stones and Memories

  1. Margie S
    August 9, 2014

    Yikes, you mean to tell me that all of my painful, childhood, parental memories I share with my kids just might not be completely true? Your sister sounds like she has a ton of patience or may be she is able to save it for her nieces and nephews. I know I am nicer to mine than I am to my own children. Enjoy your summer company!

    • jgroeber
      August 11, 2014

      My sister loves my kids to the ends of the earth, thank goodness. And I would triple check those stories of yours with family, I tell you. Memory is a terrifying thing!

  2. Amy Reese
    August 9, 2014

    Ah, the stories we pass down. Of course, they change depending on who tells them. I have my share of stories growing up. One of most memorable is when my sister bit me in the leg and when she ran around the house with knives. Such drama! I don’t think my kids have nearly the drama that I had. Great post, Jen!

    • jgroeber
      August 11, 2014

      I hope our kids don’t have the drama of our childhoods, right? But who knows how this childhood will play out in some therapist’s room in 20 years. Ack!!
      Thanks for reading.
      (And I totally remember a childhood knife story!!)

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  4. RamisaR
    August 9, 2014

    This is a beautiful post; I love the references to the ocean stones. Wow, your son’s memory makes me re-evaluate my own; what if I, too, am dramatising the things my parents did? (According to me, they did some terrible stuff..,) The picture of your family is so comfortable and relaxing to look at. ❤

    • jgroeber
      August 11, 2014

      Ha! I think we all rewrite the past, over and over again. Years ago I listened to a RadioLab podcast (out of WNYC) that talked about memory. They said we recreate the memory every time we revisit it. So the memories we recall the most are the ones we’ve likely altered the most. Wild to think about, right? And as for that photo, I don remember it being taken, and I do know that I loved that beach in Chatham, Cape Cod, but my Mom says my retarded brother Butchie screamed that whole entire vacation.

  5. Jenn Berney
    August 10, 2014

    That description of your son drama-crying? It’s like you’re describing my own son. Drives me crazy. Any sympathy he had coming dies when he gets his drama-cry on.

    • jgroeber
      August 11, 2014

      Right?! It’s the craziest, loudest cry. If they end up being theater majors, these years of fake-cry may all have been worth it. Maybe we’re living with Bill Murray and Chevy Chase… one can hope these years of fake-crying were worth it.

  6. Kelly L McKenzie
    August 11, 2014

    Oh Mama. I am constantly amazed how my own brother refashions a family memory. Like that time I took my cousin to the university pub and later found her sitting at a table telling stunned engineers that she saves red smarties for lipstick. My children can’t count the number of times my brother has repeated that delight having himself seated at the table. In reality he was thousands of miles away. And no, he is not an engineer.
    Please tell me your sister doesn’t have children. Or that they are 40 and 50. She has so much patience. Too much patience for a mama. Surely.

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  8. jgroeber
    August 11, 2014

    Ha! You totally got it. No kids. She saves her love and patience for my kids and my kids alone. Thank goodness.
    And the pub story? Perfection! Of course your brother steals your awesome stories. I think I may have been there, too!!

  9. donofalltrades
    August 14, 2014

    Mother of year, indeed. I’ve written a lot of stories from my own perspective, and they mostly make me seem like I’m a better person than I really am, if you would ask the other person or people involved in whatever it is I’m talking about, because they didn’t have the benefit of knowing what was going on in my head. I’ve often thought about taking one of those stories and writing it from the other person’s perspective, just to show how the same story can be told with the a completely different outcome, if that makes any sense.

    • jgroeber
      August 14, 2014

      Ha! Don, you are en fuego this morning (I don’t even really know if en fuego means ‘on fire’ but I pretend I know that.) I’ve always thought about having my mother Guest Blog. I mean, she doesn’t know how to turn on a computer so I’d have to have her recite her post (and boy, I’d be tempted to edit), but it would be awesome to tell a story about some childhood memory and then have her tell the same story. Because I bet they’d look nothing alike. So, yeah. It makes perfect sense.

  10. Carol Barrel
    August 18, 2014

    Hey, Jen…. Another beautiful blog as always! It reminds me of something Mark Twain said as he was getting older;

    “When I was young, I remembered everything, but now, everything I remember isn’t true!”

    I love that one, and I love you guys! With love always! xo

    • jgroeber
      August 22, 2014

      Exactly! And thank you for reading, Carol Barrel. We love you, too!

  11. drawandshoot
    August 20, 2014

    Memories come back the way the seasons do, I think. Every one just a little different. The same only different.
    Profoundly beautiful, Jen!

    • jgroeber
      August 22, 2014

      Oh, what a beautiful comment. This is what I posted about recently. “One season following another, laden with happiness and tears.” Very Fiddler on the Roof.
      And thank you.

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