Posted in Lanscape of Loss, Markers, My Bonnie

the worst cake ever

1 8oz cream cheese
1 stick softened butter (unsalted)
1 box sifted confectioners sugar
2 tsp vanilla
1 cup pecans

cream butter and cream cheese thoroughly; mix in sugar and add vanilla and nuts

if it seems dry, add a little milk

(my mother’s recipe)

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I remember the first birthday cake that I ever baked. It was my father’s thirty-second birthday.

It was also the first occasion that we celebrated in our new home on Connor Rd–a steep hill lined with duplexes, reserved for officers.  We lived at the very top, and looked out over the base and into the embrace of the Highlands above the mighty Hudson River.

Years later, many, many years later (but before Homeland Security), I returned to West Point to discover that I could no longer see the river from our place. The view had been obscured by trees–ones that had only just been planted when I first arrived on the base at the age of 11.

It was the mid-seventies, and my mother was still baking from scratch (sometimes), and sewing our costumes for Halloween (all the time), and keeping our house immaculately tidy–except for now. Now, she was crying in the tiny bathroom off the small kitchen which was just like all the others in this row of Captains quarters.

Beneath us, on the flat stretch below, were the First Lieutenant’s homes–somewhat smaller, and without a view, but nicer than those beneath them–in the apartments assigned to Second Lieutenants.

We would live on this base in this duplex for 3 years, until my father became a Major, which wasn’t enough of an advancement to get us one of those fancy homes with the big lawns and the screened porches. My father used to drive us down those tree-lined roads, which were closer to the Academy and the Chapel; and sometimes, he’d even venture into the exclusive cul-de-sac at the heart of West Point–reserved for Generals.

My mother hadn’t left yet. Hadn’t woken us girls up and carried the youngest ones out to the car sleeping, and then silently winded her way through the base, past the Generals’ homes, and out the gate, into Highland Falls; where she pulled up to the curb at the liquor store; and I held my breath; before she drove 4 hours in the dark to her hometown at the shore.

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Portrait of a mother in hiding, K Salasin, 2003

On my father’s thirty-second birthday, in mid-September, she hadn’t mustered that courage. Instead she was weak, and weepy, like a dog.

In fact, when I think back to this day, I think of Tigger–the dog that belonged to my baby sister once she was grown. I remember hearing her scold Tigger once, and then I watched, as Tigger bowed her head, slinked into the bathroom, and hid there until she was absolved.

My mother was hiding too. She had been hiding for a long time. Hiding pain. Hiding the bottle. Hiding from my father.

On this day, he banished her from the celebration at the kitchen table saying, “You don’t belong here, Mommy.”

She was drunk.

Because she was drunk, I decided that I would be the one to make the cake.

Carrot cake was my father’s favorite, and my mom made it every year with that cream cheese frosting and pecans.

It was a tall order for my first try. I never made it to the frosting.

The cake sat there–flat–on the table between us. Stiff, like clay, in our mouths. Especially after we sang Happy Birthday, Daddy to the sound of our mother’s shame echoing off the walls of the tiny bathroom.

Posted in Lanscape of Loss, My Bonnie

My Stupid Mother

I always forget that the fact that my mother is dead might upset me on Mothers Day.  At first, I have this guilty pleasure that I don’t have any responsibilities. (No cards to buy, no flowers to send, no calls to make.) Then I remember I have a stepmom and a mother-in-law, and the weight begins to shape, particularly as I consider myself as a mother too–How do I want to celebrate?  What if no one else does?  Should I plan something?  Should I give tips?  Hints?  Should I let it go?

I get pissed off when I click on a Facebook article, entitled, The Best Mothers Day Gift is a Mother, after I discover that it’s written by someone like me–without a mother–who makes everyone else feel bad because they don’t appreciate their own moms who are still around.

So with stinging tears, I decide to swing the pendulum in the opposite direction, and encourage people to bash their mothers if it makes them feel better.

So even though my mother is dead and this is terribly taboo, I’ll jump first…

~

My mother was stupid.

She was also the kind of person that people came to with their problems. Her unique perspective softened any angst, opening hearts and minds to new possibilities.

Wise counsel was Bonnie’s gift of spirit–besides being a prolific child-bearer–9 children over twenty years.

How then could she be so stupid when it came to living her own life?

Bonnie found herself pregnant after a summer fling with a lifeguard. She painfully gave up her first-born to adoption, only to find herself pregnant again in less than a year–with me–followed by marriage to a really intense guy who was still in college, with years of schooling ahead of him.

She continued to have children while he made his way through his undergraduate degree (child #3), medical school (#4), his internship, and his residency (#5.) We survived on cases of hospital Similac. My mother chose something stronger.

I was in the fifth grade when the fighting began, and a year later, my father introduced me to something new, the term: Alcoholic. Another year and another move, and my mother rebounded–giving up the bottle for two more babies (#6 & 7.)

Her drinking slowly resurfaced around the time I went off to college. One of my high school buddies stayed behind and my mom and he fell in love and made another baby (#8.)

My parents divorced. My mother gave birth to her last child (#9) while her twenty-something husband began cheating on her. Her drinking spun out of control.

Out of the frying pan and into the fire. My mother was the poster child.

Year after year, she watched as our lifestyles diminished, while our surgeon father’s exponentially expanded. “I should have just stayed with your father so that you girls would have what you deserve,” she’d say. (She never cared too much for things herself.)

I never accepted her apologies–doing so would mean opening up to all that was hurt and angry and sad inside of me; and I was afraid that she was too fragile for that.

When her drinking became a threat to the safety of the children, our family was torn apart.  The newest siblings (with their own father) stayed behind while the rest of my siblings went to live with my dad and his fiance. Sending your own children off to live with a man you can’t stand who is about to marry a 27-year-old who didn’t want to mother his cheating ex-wife’s 6 daughters was the height of my mother’s stupidity.

Macke/detail visipix.com

Later she died of cancer, at a very young age. 57. That was stupid too. Now there were all these wounded children who were orphaned.  Many of them claimed that I raised them. There are no words to explain how that  grieves me.

Bonnie has been dead for 8 years now, so I tell her to her face, with tears streaming down mine:

You were stupid, Mom! What were you thinking!”

She sits beside my writing desk as my muse.

Whenever she’d complain about all the demands on her, a handful of children closing in around her tiny frame, I’d say, “Why did you have all these children!”

But actually, she rarely complained. She just trudged along, offering wise counsel to anyone who needed it and making the most of the life she created–faults and all.

Ten years before she died, she gave up the bottle for AA, and so she spent the last years of her life, mostly alone, as she had always been, but sober, and profoundly present, and helping others in the program.

Despite the ravages of life around me, it was my her steady heart and soft spirit that sustained me, and sustains me still, through my own mistakes and stupidity.

She is and will always be, one of my greatest loves, stupidity and all.

Happy Mothers Day again, Mom.  You always said that once I had children of my own, it was “my” Mothers Day, but I can’t stop celebrating the gift of you!

(Kelly Salasin, 2008)