The following interview is with Pam Brown (age 61), reflecting on her life at age 34, interviewed by daughter Sarah Brown.
When you were my age (34), where did you live?
I lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the second house that your dad and I owned during our then ten years of marriage. It was a one-story home with three bedrooms, two baths, and a long-yearned-for wood-burning fireplace.
The house was nothing special when we bought it, but we rather enjoyed the feeling that came from turning a so-so house into something pretty. We knew we could improve this one because when we first saw the house, the outside was painted a shocking fluorescent coral! So, just as we had done in the first home we lived in when you were born, we spent five years painting, wallpapering, carpeting, and landscaping until it was a very pretty, cozy home.
Your bedroom was painted pale chiffon yellow, with white eyelet curtains, and it was filled with dozens of stuffed animals and a bazillion of your favorite thing—books!
What was your typical day like?
1984 was an extremely rough year for our family. The year started very happily. You were 6½ years old when I turned 34 the first week of January. A week later I gave birth to your baby brother Stephen. We were ecstatic, just as we had been with you. I had suffered two miscarriages, but now we had two beautiful children, a girl and a boy. I was so happy!
Due to my C-section, my “typical” days didn’t start for a while. Even as things got back to normal, the morning rituals were still a bit hard on us all. Stephen was not a sleeper and most nights your dad and I were trading off rocking him and walking him up and down the hall for hours.
You couldn’t sleep either. We’d get you off to school, and then I would just do the things all moms of new babies do. Feed him, rock him, change him, have lovely little conversations with him, try to get him to take a nap. If successful, I’d try to get in some chores, to nap myself, to read, or try to bathe before he was awake.
When you came home from school, the three of us would sit on the sofa and read stories together. You were a great big sister! You’d bring him toys and happily play with him while I started dinner. We would play with you both at night and of course read you stories at bedtime. They were wonderful typical days. If I hadn’t had you and Stephen to care for, I don’t know how I would have made it through the rest of what was happening.
My daddy was dying, and my husband’s dad was dying too. Both had been battling lung cancer for over a year. My father was diagnosed first, and my father-in-law was diagnosed about 11 weeks later.
My father had just turned 61, the age I am right now. He was so positive he would beat this cancer just as he had beaten colon cancer. Instead it had progressed to brain cancer. I was devastated that this handsome silver-haired-executive Texas A&M graduate, who loved fishing, playing tennis, and telling Aggie jokes, actually could be dying. He was too young! It wasn’t fair!
I kept thinking about all he would miss about you, and he might never even know Stephen. I would never know how he could leave his family after 27 years of marriage and marry someone else. And I knew that the bond I had tried to have my whole life with my dad would never happen, and I would never know why.
My father-in-law was a pretty grumpy old man on the exterior, but he and I had become closer. He shared feelings and tears with me that I don’t think he had ever been able to share before. called him on his grouchy, bossy stuff, and he respected me for that. I sat with him during his chemotherapy, and I wanted desperately for him to live long enough to mend some of his relationships. I knew your father was hurting just as much as I was since their relationship had long been very strained.
My father died in late March, and my father-in-law died about 11 weeks later. Then those typical mommy days really started falling apart. I was so incredibly sad, but I tried to be a good mommy and keep things happy for you and Stephen. I sent out invitations to a group of little girls and their Cabbage Patch dolls to a fancy ladies’ tea party, and they dressed up in their moms’ dresses, high heels, hats and jewelry. I think that was the year you were a lovely redbird (with long pigtails) in a school play. For Halloween you were a magician in a black cape and top hat (with red glitter of course). Lots of wonderful moments were mixed in with long months of sadness and anger.
What did you worry about most?
Before our fathers died, I worried about them. I worried about my mother-in-law and how she would do. I worried a great deal about my mother, who had spent the 15 years since my father divorced her hoping and praying that he would come back, or at least that she would overcome her own sadness and anger.
Before my father’s death, I spent a lot of time worrying about what I would say to him when we went to Chicago to visit him for probably the last time before he would die. And when that trip came and it was my last night there, I stayed awake all night crying and trying to think of what I needed to say to him or ask him. What did I really need to know to find some peace?
The next morning I sat by him on his bed. “Dad, someone told me [I left out that it was my stepmother] that you are very concerned that I am turning out to be so much like my mother. Very concerned. And since I know you have pretty bad feelings toward mother, I wonder how you feel about me.”
He straightened up his frail body and said firmly, “That is a goddamn lie! I never said such a thing! First, I don’t think you’re anything like your mother! And I love you very much.” He held me a long time and we cried silently and talked more.
So there it was. It had all boiled down to “Daddy, do you like me?” That moment was a huge gift to me.
I also worried about your dad. Since we had both lost our fathers, it was very hard to talk together. We were each afraid to share our sadness for fear of bringing the other one down even more. We went through grief counseling and that helped us.
I would lie in bed at night and feel guilty that I wasn’t being as good a mommy to you and Stephen as I could be. Yes, I planned fun things for you, and you and I could talk about what was going on. But I knew that the first year of a baby’s life was so important for bonding, and I felt I had been emotionally absent due to my grief. I worried that Stephen was picking upon my emotional distress. Rocking him or holding him would not comfort him. He would squirm and push away. I was sure it was my fault.
I didn’t worry about normal stuff, like money. I just wanted to be in a nice home and always be with my husband and children. I admit that for way too long in my marriage I was worried that your father would leave me. I knew it was mostly because my dad had blindsided my mom and our family by leaving after 27 years. I didn’t know if I could trust men, or trust love. Your father was so quiet, and I was always thinking I was making him unhappy. I’ve learned through our almost 38 years now just how wrong I was. He has stayed by me through good and bad times. He is such a good man.
I knew as early as junior high school that I worried too much about everything. I even carried little clippings from the newspaper in my purse to remind myself not to worry. “Worry is interest paid before it is due,” and “Don’t tell me not to worry. The stuff I worry about never happens.”
I have worked very hard in the last few years to try to stop worrying. I’ve learned that worrying just wastes time and does nothing to stop anything.
What did you think the future held for you?
If someone had really pressed me to think about it back then, I probably would have answered that we would raise our children, probably buy one more house, take travel vacations when possible, educate the kids, maybe have grandchildren someday, retire and share many great times with the whole family.
Truth is, though, that I never really thought much at age 34 about what the future held for me. I do wish I had thought more about it. Our marriage even at 10 years was relatively new. We were very busy. We had sick parents, much younger than we ever thought that would happen. I knew that I wanted to stay at home to raise my children. I didn’t think that was the way it HAD to be done to have your children turn out great. That’s simply what your father and I agreed we would try to do. I consider myself lucky to have been able to do it, but I can’t say for certain that it was the wisest thing to do for myself or even for my children.
Thank goodness that your father was always thinking about what the future might hold. Remember all those times when he would ask you where you pictured yourself being in five or ten years? Picture the goal, plan how to make it happen, and then keep working the plan. He was right, and I’m lucky he was thinking about it.
How do you look back on that age now?
Some days it seems like so long ago, but at other times it was just the other day. Basically, I look back on age 34 as very young! Every thing was possible. We could take so many different paths. I was young and had a lot of energy. I explored ways to teach my children, and I learned something new every day from them. We had so many fun times with you and your brother.
I also know that at 34 I had pretty low self-esteem. I doubted that I would be good out in the business world, whereas today I feel I could do anything if I set my mind to it and had enough time left. At 34 I felt I had to figure out everything, and now I’m much more able to sift through things and decide what I really care about knowing.
I also was very confused about what I had been taught about religion and God. I read many books, went to church, and took classes taught by a true scholar with vast knowledge of religion, history, language and science. Today I am completely comfortable with my higher power and feel that power and comfort all around me.
I wonder now just how that age could possibly be so far in my past. I feel basically the same in my heart and in my head as I did back then, except that hopefully I am a lot wiser. I was probably pretty naive at 34 about what life would bring. Even though some of the hardest times seemed like they lasted an eternity, life in general has absolutely flown by.
And here I am at 61 years old.
And life is good!
I knew the bare bones of all of these answers already, but some of the details made me cry. They also made me wish I had a time machine so I could go back and punch a few people on my mother’s behalf, and give 34 year old Pam a hug. I’d tell her, “You are a loving mother and devoted wife, and your children and husband love you so much. And even if they tease you about your worrying and idiosyncrasies, it’s all done with love, and the knowledge that they’d be nowhere without your care and attention to detail. So stop worrying and get some sleep: we all turn out happy, and not one of us has been in jail (as of July 2011).”
My mom encouraged creativity, for as far back as I can remember. One of the happiest moments of my life was hearing the joy in my mother’s voice when I called her and told her I’d received my first book deal. She taught me to be confident, and that money isn’t everything. She also taught me how to recognize the good people. I know it sounds trite, but my mother taught me how to show love, and I feel like that’s helped me find the best people to share my life.