I’m severely loathe to apply this prompt to myself, to turn it into a bit of autobiographical writing. At various periods of my life, I have looked backward at some earlier turning point and asked myself that very same question. By now I’ve learned to see it as dangerous ground, emotional quicksand, a short route to a very unhappy place.
But my very anxiety at handling the topic that way forces me to look it square in the face.
Who else might I have been?
And the particular example that fills my whole brain is my father’s death. It’s always my father’s death, more than which college, which job, which boyfriend/girlfriend. (My odd somewhat-accidental marriage takes second place nowadays.)
This morning I was listening to the radio, This American Life, which sometimes annoys me severely and sometimes charms me. A woman with one of those somewhat tedious radio voices was describing how she helps keep her dying husband clear in her son’s mind. (Her husband was dying of a freaky degenerative brain disease.)
And despite the grating voice, I found myself close to tears, remembering those fragments in my own life.
So that particular turning point always looms large behind any question of who I might have been.
My best boss ever was, I think, a lot like Dad would have been. Also ex-military, conservative, but with a wicked sense of humor.
When I was a teenager, I focused on how our material circumstances would have been different. Almost the minute he died, the family — us four women — became a family struggling to make ends meet, where money was always short and at the same time never talked about in any detail. Having the money to do X, whatever X happened to be, was a tempting thought.
And later I could also see how all of us were shaped by the gravitation field, any sort of normal tendencies towards depression, etc. pushed out of all reasonable bounds. In a more wishful thinking moment, I could imagine that I would’ve been a happy teenager, living in a normal family. Now I think this would’ve been ignoring the sense of social alienation and teasing that I already felt when I was seven and eight. But a girl can dream.
Something Mom said once, as a throwaway comment, turned into an idea that I couldn’t shake for years and years. He was, she said, just starting to get into computers, looking at starting a business with some friends, when he died. So that was 1983.
The lower-middle-class girl thinks first: OMG, we could have been rich.
The late-blooming geek has other thoughts. Yes, I was late-blooming in my geekery. Now people who know me see me as a “computer person,” but that didn’t come until almost after college. I used computers as souped-up typewriters, for the most part, until I was working at the Children’s Museum, where necessity and curiosity gave birth to knowledge. And then C brought me the rest of the way along, and Tom inspired me to learn web design, and here I am.
But might I have been a girl-geek at 10 or 12 or 15 instead? What difference would that have made? I don’t know what sorts of technology he was into; he was a radio man in the Air Force in the 60s and 70s and then worked for the phone company, when it was just The Phone Company. I never knew what he did there. His hobby was model rocketry.
Would I have learned hardware, soldering, become a girl electrical engineer? Or maybe by the time I took that “computers and typing” class in 7th grade I would’ve already known BASIC, and could’ve blown away the class. (The only thing I still remember doing is getting my name to print diagonally across the screen. Just as exciting as last week’s success with AJAX.) How would it have meshed with my love of books and writing? At eight I was already dipping my toes into writing for the love of it, instead of just for some assignment or another.
In college, I began to see — or at least imagine — Dad as a separate person, as someone I’d’ve been interacting with then and there, as I was. Would I have rebelled? Would we have fought?
Some years ago, I took a trip with C to California, where we visited with Aunt Susie and Uncle Bill (who died not that long after). Uncle Bill loved C right off, and kept saying how much he didn’t like Raul. Which was a bit of a shock…Grandma N loved Raul. How would that relationship have played out, with Dad there; which way would he have gone? (I always had the impression that Mom mostly just tolerated Ra.)
And I wonder about the path of my own beliefs and interests. Would the daughter of a living vet feel differently about war than the daughter of a dead one? With two religious parents, would I have still drifted out of the church and into a deepening agnosticism? It’s entirely likely, I suppose, but the question of that other person hovers over every element of who I am now. Again, that gravitational pull, suddenly gone, and the planets drift off into space.
He would have turned 68 last month, and I’m a month away from 32, and I can only glimpse occasional sights of the other person (people) I might have been, if he had lived this long.
(Whew. I had no intention of writing this much about this topic.)