(Spoilers ahoy for “This One Summer” by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki)
There was a day when I was about seventeen, going on eighteen, and my mother was tired. I’d been watching TV in her room, a habit from when I was a kid that carried over into being a teenager, especially since during the winter time it basically warmed up the bed for her. For all the dumb bullshit clashes with my family as a dumb rebellious teenager with a shaved head, Sharpie tattoos, and thrash band t-shirts, I loved my parents and they were constant fixtures in my life. I could always rely on them to be right, if not always agreeing with me about certain things.
My mother’s a slight woman with short hair who gets cold easily, and the older I get, the more I look like her, though some people say that I look like my dad when I stand next to him. She’s got almost-black hair with grey in it, more now than then, which matches the almost-black I’ve developed as the color of my beard. I don’t remember if my dad was around that night (that’s another story for another time, but suffice to say he always wasn’t when I was a teenager) when I got up to move to another TV to finish watching whatever show or movie I was watching, and I asked my mom in passing if everything was OK. She sighed, and said “I don’t know.”
I consider that moment to be the time when I really, fully realized that my parents were complicated and flawed people. They weren’t the monoliths of my mind. They weren’t unbreakable, and the things that the world threw at them (myself included) could hurt them. I feel incredibly privileged to have lasted that long being able to rely on them for unyielding and constant emotional and mental support, but I’m fully aware that is a privilege that not everyone can have for as long as I did, to maintain a viewpoint of the world that has their parent(s) as a comfort to fall back on for some kind of support.
I’d been hearing about This One Summer for a little while, so a few months ago I got it and read it. It’s an amazing book, a story that combines a lot of little things into a narrative that addresses fundamental issues of growing up, and of growing up a girl. It’s not a preachy work, one that doesn’t even try to address the mechanics or theory of the issues it touches on. It’s not a text of ideas to teach, it’s a story to tell.
The revelation about the mom’s miscarriage the summer before, during swimming, which is a ritual that the characters seem to revel in, is the big bang of the story. The daughter realizing in a singular rush of feelings, portrayed through several panels of her eavesdropping, makes us the reader and her the character realize the vulnerabilities of her mother as a person, a real person, and not a monolith from a pair of overseers in her life (the parents). It makes Rose, that daughter, suddenly feel awful about how she’d treated her mother, both in an active and a passive sense.
Obviously, the primary themes are meant to focus on the relationship between the two girls and the relationships that they try to form with other people, in particular with their own senses of selves. Rose’s own struggles with self and the difference between her struggle and that of her friend Windy’s own personal growth are the driving element here, and it’s a powerful one. The entirety of this book was fascinating, because it encapsulated both really familiar concepts like the cusp of teenage years and the disruptions of routines that create comfort zones, but the fact that I, as a 30-odd year old man, was reading this story that is also important, because the non-familiar elements of how girls talk, hang out, and view themselves and the world they’re living in, are vital things for all of us to genuinely focus on. I don’t really stray too much from familiar paths literature-wise, honestly, though I do try to sometimes slip out of my own comfort zone to make sure that I’m not digging myself a foxhole of unconscious self-reflection in my reading. This One Summer was a way for me to expand a little bit, and look at the relatability of their experiences while recognizing that I can relate to things that aren’t directly related to me.
Still, the focus in my mind on Rose’s relationship with her parents, and that literal moment encapsulated in a few pages (which plays out as a few minute’s worth of dialogue in a conversation between Rose’s mother and a friend) is such a goddamn fucking gut punch.
That the revelation is tied in to the experience of the drowning teenage girl that Rose’s mom saved that night, an experience that is the peak of a brewing story running throughout that one summer supposedly only witnessed by Windy and Rose (but that everyone seems to vaguely know about) is another level added to it. Rose realizes her mom knows more as well as experiences more than she (Rose) realizes, because as a child, her worldview is so limited. Kids’ spheres of view and thought is such a present-minded thing, and barely extends outward to brush against their friends, of course Rose wouldn’t remember how her mother acted last summer, or think that her parents would know about the boy in town and what the girls have witnessed between the townie teens. Rose can barely manage to keep her sphere in contact with Windy at times in the story.
Her mom’s sphere is such a long-reaching and wide one though, that of course the impact of the miscarriage and the odd patterns or lack thereof she notices in her daughter that summer come into her view field. We just don’t know that she knows, because Rose is our point of view. This is the summer that Rose’s point of view changes.
I think everyone remembers that moment when their points of view about the world and their parents changed.