Monday, September 6, 2021

How do I know you're you?

I was watching an old YouTube clip of musicians doing an impromptu street concert in New York City.

Then, at :46, I spotted my father in the crowd!

My father died in 1980. I haven’t “seen” him for 41 years, but this man had his build, his eyes, nose, white hair. He was even wearing clothes my father would have worn, clothes my mother would have picked out for him; he was in a leisure suit. (So it would have been before the time I asked why he was dressed like a pimp, and he glared at my mother and never wore it again.)

But it really wasn’t my father. (I’m pretty sure.) For one thing, my mother wasn’t next to him in the crowd. There is no way my father would have been in that situation – an impromptu street concert! – or remained in that situation – without my mother, and she wasn’t there. (I’m pretty sure.)

So there’s this duplicate Dad, and I know it’s not him. (I’m pretty sure.) So it leaves me wondering: what is it that makes someone someone? What is it that would make me sure that man in the movie was my father?

When I was pregnant, I read that mothers could find and identify their babies by their smell. After Sophie was born, I spent a lot of time sniffing her, memorizing her. My postpartum existential worries included whether or not I could pick her out of a crowd of babies.

I’ve read about animals and birds that throw an intruder baby out of their nest, that they can tell if it’s not one of theirs. Yet, in reading The Lost Family by Libby Copeland, a wonderful book about DNA tests, there was one terrifying photo of a cartful of babies in a Manhattan maternity hospital. The babies were collected from the mothers – without little name bracelets! – and then redistributed after baths. Apparently, a big, switched-at-birth mix-up occurred. Aiiieeee!

Well, now, I would know my daughter anywhere. When she was in a play in costume and whirled around the stage, I’d just hunt for the blond ponytail … and end up tracking Seline, who also had a blond ponytail. Seline’s parents had the same problem. And recently, in a photo she shared of her friends all dressed up at a wedding, I asked, “Who’s the one in the middle?” and it was my own daughter.

So what makes us us? How do we recognize each other?

When I would visit my parents after a long time away, I would search the airport as I disembarked with a certain bit of panic pumping my heart: would I know them? Sometimes they’d look different, they’d aged, and I’d hunt for their “them-ness.”

Okay, this may be complicated by my own prosopagnosia, facial blindness. My brain has trouble processing faces into memory unless I can link it with posture, gait, expression, hair style, voice, etc. Unfortunately, my worst case involved a boss: I would show up every Monday after a weekend off and introduce myself to the “stranger” in the office. Sometimes I just stay home because it’s too stressful to run into people I’m supposed to recognize.

One benefit of Covid and mask-wearing is that finally, I can ask people who they are without risking social gaffes. I used to cover my cluelessness by blaming it on sunglasses, bike helmets, hair styles, poor lighting, or anything else I could claim…. Now I just blame it on the mask.

In the midst of my mother’s dementia, she’d often fake it, offer exuberant hellos to friends when she had no idea who they were. So that’s a memory thing; she couldn’t remember them. But I remember my father, and in photos from my childhood, I know that’s him. Is it because I was there, I know the situation, the environment, or is there something I see?

And would I be able to see it and recognize it 41 years later if he showed up in a video on YouTube?

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