After my mother died three years ago (see “Spare Every Expense, Except One,” October 10, 2008), my sister Lucy kept discovering interesting things she had left behind. One of the most fascinating was a do-it-yourself autobiography that must have been given to her (it was definitely not something she would have bought for herself).

Called The Book of Myself, it is a blank diary with pithy statements at the top of each page that the diarist is meant to complete. For example: “If I had any trouble with Mom growing up, it was in this area.” My own Mom’s answer? “None.”

“This person significantly influenced my life growing up.” Answer: “No one in particular.”

“This is the profession I most often mentioned when people asked me what I was going to be when I grew up.” Mom: “I don’t remember being asked.”

“I kept this secret from almost everyone.” Answer: “No secrets!”

“One big misunderstanding with a friend…” Mom: “No problem people!”

“I regret having burned this bridge.” Mom: “I do not recall having burned any.”

“Of all my personality traits, I hope my family will remember this one about me.” Mom: “No comment.”

The whole book is like that. Page after page of searching questions and leading phrases, most answered in three words or less, brushed off, pushed back, deemed irrelevant or impertinent. After the first few pages, the answers become predictable. You know for a certainty that there will be no revelations here, yet each question is politely answered, as if, in spite of having no intention of sharing anything personal, she still felt she had to respond.

There is one way she did reveal herself. Throughout the book you can see her proofreader’s pencil at work: a comma added in the introduction, a redundant word crossed out in one of the headings, a misspelling silently corrected. But her own personal life is strictly off-limits: no mentors that she can recall, too many friends to list, no romantic interest other than her husband, no conflicts, no memorable teachers, no chores she disliked, no worries, no fears, no burned bridges, no secrets...

I, on the other hand, provide a wealth of information not only to my friends and family, but also to their friends and families. I have a blog and I love Facebook. A day is incomplete if it doesn’t include an update or two. Some are profound and revealing: my worries about my daughter’s disability; my difficulties living in a cross-cultural family; my fears about nuclear war and global warming. But most are inane and of interest to no one but me: an unexpected hailstorm in Dehradun, my passion for The West Wing, the soup I am planning to make for dinner.

Yet even the most banal of comments (often the more banal the better) elicit strings of responses from friends. Encouraged, I make rash statements, openly declare my love or disdain, take sides and express opinions with seldom a thought for who might be reading what I say or what anyone else might think.

My mother was far more discreet. Knowing that words could be misunderstood and that what seemed like just a simple comment could in fact be wounding and never forgotten, she chose reticence more often than not. 

But does it follow that her generation, composed of those who kept their secrets close, who avoided social networking and would have refused to indulge in the mindless chatter on the Web, were by nature deeper? That their characters were stronger than ours, their relationships more lasting?

I doubt it. Although as parents we worry about the ubiquitous nature of the Internet, and particularly about social-networking sites and their cultivated shallowness, I think our children are simply growing up with a different version of the backyard fence or the village well. Some of us had chatty mothers who yakked on the phone for hours or stood in the grocery-store aisle holding up traffic to trade news with a neighbor. Some of us didn’t.

As a bit of a yakker by nature, I think the thing to ponder is not the mode or frequency of communication but what is communicated. In my mother’s case, her reluctance to share personal details was itself a revelation, a clue to her selflessness and humility and, perhaps, the explanation for her kindness and deep compassion.

There have always been tell-alls and over-sharers; today’s e-mail “forwards” are yesterday’s hand-written chain letters. Mom, on the other hand, really didn’t think her inner life (she could recite Shakespeare and the Bible, was at Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, took in anyone who came to our door) was so amazing that it had to be retailed to the world. Ironically, that means that her mystery and allure just keep increasing for me and for many others who knew and loved her.

On Facebook, as in life, less is often more.


Related: Face Time, by Matthew Boudway

Jo McGowan, a longtime contributor to Commonweal, writes from Dehradun, India.

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Published in the 2011-06-17 issue: View Contents
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