This is an excerpt from my memoir, Mother Erased. It is my story of attempting to reconnect with my estranged mother.
It was a warm September day, but my body froze when I saw my mother’s bright red hair. She leaned out of her black Ford Mustang and waved at me. She still recognizes me, I thought. Twenty-one years ago she walked out of our lives leaving my sister, our father and me behind to piece together a new life.
Lisa parked her car and walked to the entrance of the café where I had been waiting. This is where we planned to meet. Half way between our separate lives.
As we sat down at a table, I looked at my mother curiously. I wanted to absorb every detail of her appearance. She wore a copper colored lipstick that complimented her fair skin. Her eyes were the same shade of blue as mine. When I was a young girl, I used to look in the mirror, staring into my own eyes, hoping to see the reflection of my mother. I had only one photograph of her which I hid from my father, knowing he had discarded the others. I was thankful to have found this one in an old bureau in our basement. It proved to me that my mother was real.
I wondered how I would begin to ask all of the questions I had waited so long to ask. Then Lisa just started talking, explaining everything the way she knew it. After a while, she stopped fighting the tears. I remained emotionless and distant as I listened to her story. I would not be vulnerable again. Not this time.
Lisa had married my father at the age of eighteen, she began, because she was pregnant with my sister Amy. They moved into the upstairs apartment of my father’s parents’ house. I was born eighteen months after my sister.
Lisa spoke of her bad marriage with my father and how it had eroded her self-esteem. “Your father got his college degree and bragged about his educated friends. I began to feel worthless and unappreciated.”
She described instances of abuse, though she did not call it that. “It didn’t happen every time we fought”, she said after telling me of her black eye and broken wrist. I felt a surge of anguish enter my body that would take years to dispel. The mental image I held of my father darkened as my past became clearer.
Then Lisa told me about her affair with a man that promised to take her away from my father. I remembered the man. His name was Bob. He was a big man with sandy brown hair and a ruddy complexion. I remembered going sledding together. Lisa told us that he was going to be our new daddy and that we were going to move far away with him.
“Your father found a letter from Bob”, she continued, “and threw me out of the house late at night. It was the middle of winter and I wasn’t even wearing shoes.” I remembered that night. It was the last night that my mother lived with us.
I lay still in bed. There is always this time between when Amy and I go to bed and before our mother and Daddy go to bed. I listen for their voices downstairs, to be sure they aren’t arguing. I know their arguments can turn into big fights and I’m scared of those. So I listen to make sure they aren’t raising their voices. If they do it will get louder and louder, worse and worse. Tonight I hear the voices getting louder. I am frozen. Amy and I don’t talk. I am wide awake now, trying not to breath, not to exist.
“Damn you!” Daddy yells. Then I hear some noise, like their bodies are struggling or somebody is bumping a wall or something. My hands are tingling but I don’t move them. I am frozen except for my heart, pounding, pounding.
I hear a mention of the letter. They are fighting about a letter.
Amy and I start to play our game. We sing “The bear went over the mountain, the bear went over the mountain, the bear went over the mountain, to see what he could see”. We sing that quietly, as many times as we can without taking a breath. I exhale only after chanting this three times.
“Let me go. Let my get by”, I hear my mother now. Then some more noise. I can tell that she is trying to get by Daddy and he won’t let her. Then their voices are further away, in the kitchen. It is getting louder and I put my head under my covers, blocking my ears.
A door slams. I wait for my heart to stop beating so hard. I let myself breathe all way. After a while I take the covers off my head, sweating. I listen for more sounds but don’t hear any. Eventually I go to sleep, everything quiet. In the morning, my mother is gone.
“I couldn’t face my parents, so I went to stay with Bob. I intended on coming back to get you girls, but your father had gotten temporary custody. His lawyer called it abandonment.”
I pictured my mother, hiding out with her lover, while my sister and I stayed at home with our raging father, not knowing if she’d be back.
“After that I had visitations with you on Sundays.”
“You’ll visit your mother on Sundays”, Daddy says from the driver’s seat of our blue station wagon. Amy and I are silent. I feel my body tense at the sound of my father mentioning Lisa. I fear the mention of her name will cause an explosion. I haven’t seen her since that awful night.
Lisa’s apartment building is red on the outside. Amy and I go there on Sundays. I’m not sure what Lisa is doing while we are playing. She is not the Mommy of our old life. I am not the same little girl. We are separate now, broken apart.
Still, my sister and I cry furiously when she returns us home. We don’t want her to leave. We cling and sob and Amy hollers.
“You and your sister cried so much when you had to leave me.”
I nod, letting her know that I remember this.
“Your father told me it was too hard on you both. He told me over and over again that you were better off without me. I began to believe him. I didn’t fight for custody. I didn’t have it in me to fight your father. I just broke down. I was dying inside.”
I was so overwhelmed by the emotions I felt, that I could not respond to all that she had told me. So instead I began to fill her in on my own life.
“You were never talked about, except for sometimes late at night when Amy and I shared our memories. We called you “You Know Who”, because we didn’t dare speak your name. We would sit in our beds in the dark and whisper about the past.”
This stranger I once called “Mommy” had suffered a huge loss of her own. She was sitting across from me, breathing, talking, crying. She had become real again.
“It was Dad’s way of cleaning the slate. Living as though divorce, and you, had never touched our lives. He needed to believe he had put life back in order and no one dared tell him otherwise.”
I surprised myself with my own honesty. But I couldn’t allow Lisa to believe that her abandonment had not damaged my life.
“Lord I am not worthy to receive you but only say the word and I shall be healed”. I remember being five years old and in church. I feel powerless as I recite these words. “Why?” I wonder. “Why am I not worthy? What have I done?” But my questioning lingers only for a moment, then I continue to recite, like always, to obey. Don’t ask questions, just do what the grownups tell you to. I am small. I am nothing.
I look around me. Everyone else obeys too, reciting the words, kneeling and standing and doing whatever they are supposed to do to get into heaven.
No one ever mentions my mother. No one asks me if I miss her. It doesn’t matter.
Lisa walked me back to my car. After an awkward moment, she put her arms around me. She told me she has had a terrible hole in her heart since leaving my life. I hugged her back but felt no real affection for her. She felt small, almost frail. She was weak after all. Too weak to fight for me. Too weak to stand up to my father.
When I stepped away, I noticed the despair in her eyes. Suddenly my heart ached with grief for myself and for my mother. I knew that even if I forgave her, it would never be enough. She could not forgive herself.
Where did this leave us? I wasn’t sure, and so we parted, knowing there was no answer. No tidy, happy ending to our story.