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Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Moment”: The Secret Life of Parents

Thursday, October 21st, 2010

By Elizabeth Gilbert

“Hearing my mother’s voice calling to my father like that filled me with the most eerie and unsettling realization—namely, that these two people, my parents, existed separately from me.”

I must have been three years old because this happened in our old house, and we moved when I was four. I was upstairs, on the hallway carpet, on my belly, pushing a Barbie across the floor on her belly, as though she were a racecar. It was evening—after dinner, but before bedtime—and the household was slowly shutting down for the day. I could hear my parents moving about downstairs, making the mild noises of domestic life.

Then I heard my mother call to my father, who must have been in the basement, “John! I need to borrow you when you have a minute!”

It was, as I think anyone can plainly see, an innocuous exchange: a wife asking her husband for help with some mundane suburban chore. Still, hearing my mother’s voice calling to my father like that filled me with the most eerie and unsettling realization—namely, that these two people, my parents, existed separately from me. It was the first time I’d noticed it. They had names (John and Carole) which they called each other privately—names which had nothing to do with their roles in my life as Mom and Dad. They spoke to each other even when I wasn’t in the room, and moreover they spoke about things that had nothing to do with me.

I wish there was a more subtle or elegant way for me to express this, but here’s what I realized in that moment: I wasn’t the center of the world. For heaven’s sake, I wasn’t even the center of this household.

I’ve heard it said that newborn infants believe the material world is an extension of their own bodies—that a baby can’t tell where she ends and her mother (or her blanket or her family pet) begins. But I seem to have held onto that feeling of extreme universal connection long past infancy—until that evening in 1973, in fact, when I overheard my mother call to my father in a private moment, and I realized that these two people were not my limbs, after all. Along with that realization came, of course, a deep and sudden sense of being utterly alone.

You could say, I suppose that this was my explosion from Eden, the awaking of alienation’s consciousness, the end of infancy’s comforts. All of that is true enough, but all of that sounds pretty grim. Here’s what it really was: the beginning of my life as a human being.

And below it all, here’s how I felt: Excited.

Elizabeth Gilbert is the author of Eat Pray Love, Committed, The Last American Man, Pilgrims, and other works of nonfiction and fiction. Her Six-Word Memoir is, “Me see world! Me write stories!”

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