Last week I woke at dawn, in the home of my husband’s family, and took out my laptop to squeeze out a bit of deadline while everyone slept, but moments later closed my computer, and walked out the front door, and kept on walking, across the island, until my feet were in the sand, and the spray of sea met my face, and the sun burst above the clouds in regal light.
I trailed the surf then until I came to “my” beach–between the Pan Am & the Crusader–and noticed how the empty lifeguard stands bore the name of roads–all flowers–instead of men or soldiers or continents; something I once dismissed and now appreciate.
I turned away from the surf then and trudged through the deep, soft sand, and into the dunes past the place where the prickers always found our feet or our ankles or our shins no matter how carefully we stepped, and past the beach hotels, across Atlantic, and down along the Little League field where Mrs. DelConte sold the Reese Cups; and across Seaview, alongside what remained of the beach houses not yet turned into condos, until I came to a rose bush, on the corner of Pacific, just across from “my” house, but I didn’t pretend that I lived there, not this time, I just kept on walking, past the Way’s house, the sister house to ours (and a better-looking one at that, having aged with love and continuity instead of loss and abandonment), and nodded across the street to the church where I went to Sunday School and married my husband and buried my mother, and nodded too to the big house beside it, the mother house of the 3, Aunt Sue’s, which was now a summer rental for the wealthy, and turned past the Johnson’s and the DelConte’s and what had once been the Parsonage, until I came to the other end of the block which was once my entire world, traversed barefoot, at the age of 4, big toe bloodied by sidewalks shifting on sand, “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.”
Nothing left but memory.
Anderson’s Corner Shop, my penny-candy Mecca, now a Realty Office; the bakery with the jelly donuts, a parking lot; and the Polish Shoe guy’s repair shop where he still charged a dollar to fix the pumps I wore as a young teacher, a Driving School. Sticky Fingers, across Cardinal, a Surf Shop, and Snuffy’s Hoagies, across Aster, where my grandfather opened me a summer account at the age of 7, now the Jellyfish Cafe. (Who wants to eat with jellyfish?)
I kept on walking across New Jersey Avenue past where I enrolled in the second grade, for two weeks, before we moved out to Colorado, and even though I told myself that I had no need to see the house that had once been my mother’s, especially with the sun rising higher in the sky, and the day growing warm, my feet took me toward the bay anyway, and I stood still for just a moment and felt into her presence, there on the porch in her wicker chair, with her tomato plants beside the stairs.
I sank into her steady, constant, contemplative presence, with those chesnut eyes like my first born’s and dark hair that she had dyed lighter and lighter and lighter until it was lighter than mine had ever been (which she had always admired/envied), and then it was the morning of my wedding, just after Jackie finished my hair and put on my veil, and I stopped by while I was still on the island, wanting to be sure that she was okay, and found her sitting on the front stoop, almost sober, still in her nighshirt, hair matted with neglect, and careful of my veil, married twice but never in a gown herself, somberly kissed me on the cheek, and as I got into my car, she stood to wave, leaving, beneath her, a puddle of blood, not knowing she was bleeding…
So I turned away, and headed north, walking until I left the shore once more and returned to the Green Mountains, a safe distance away, from the undertow of a lifetime of accumulated memory.
For 17 years, I’ve loved my mother.
From the other side.
She had a kind heart.
A noble mind.
She loved me with tenderness
And maybe envy
though I never sensed it.
She hid so well.
Her deepest desires couldn’t find her.
She tended others
and took little herself, and then
Gentle was her soul
And sharp as stone.
A beacon and a martyr.
Her consciousness vast
Fed daily by study and contemplation and conversation.
Her compassion instructive
Large enough to include those who sought to injure us,
Forbearant to a fault.
She was an alcoholic.
She abandoned her children.
She had 10 years sober.
She made amends.
Some too late.
Some just right.
Just home from rehab, she apologized to me over lunch at an Italian restaurant.
I immediately vacated my body, terrified of what it would mean–to both of us–to accept.
She came to me when I lost the baby.
Sat beside me on my couch.
Let me fall into her body.
Set her arms around me, as I sobbed.
But the flesh of her presence was a mirage.
Just a bag of bony angles.
Protecting her grief, denied…
Perhaps the baby that came before me, or the men who forsaked her, or the fall out with her sisters, or all those mysterious years before she was wife or Mother.
“Kelly, Why are you crying,” she once asked, when my best friend’s father died in his sleep.
“Kelly, Why do you need those,” she asked, when that same friend and I split a pack of pads between us.
“Kelly, Not now,” she said, when I asked her to tell me about her life just before she orphaned 8 children–two still at home, another few barely flown, some mothers to grandchildren who hardly knew her and later those who never would.
I sat with my mother as they zipped her into a bag.
I watched as that bag was stowed in the back of a station wagon, much like the one that she drove around town to t-ball games and the wicker store and Wawa for milk & eggs & butter & bread–and always some sugary treat–Bridge Mix, Circus Peanuts, Jellied Nougats, Maple Nut Chews, Milk Maid Royals and endless boxes of Entemanns–soberly sweetening all that had soured around her.
17 years later and she is still making the rounds.
She comes as Muse, as companion, as witness.
She admires my courage.
Champions my boundaries.
Kisses my forehead.
Loves me still.
Bows to the awesome depth of my presence.
Delights that it still includes her.
“Not to take one’s own suffering seriously, to make light of it, or even laugh at it, is considered good manners in our culture… Many people are proud of their lack of sensitivity toward their own fate and above all their own childhood.” ~Alice Miller, Banished Knowledge
I lost my parents when I was 19. It wasn’t a car accident or a plane crash, it was a divorce.
That year psychology was my major, and so I researched the effect of divorce on children. This was a relatively new field in the early 80’s; and when I presented my findings to my sophomore class, I repeated what I had read (instead of what I felt): Older children cope well with divorce.
Since I’d long relied upon my thoughts, instead of feelings, I stuffed my feelings and put my focus on my younger siblings, becoming the guardian of what remained of our family: our history, our traditions, our memories.
My parents moved on–turning their backs on what came before and reinvesting their lives in new relationships–new loves, new family.
My siblings and I were left in a No Man’s Land, highlighted on that first Easter Sunday after the divorce; when each parent thought the other planned to have the kids for dinner (or perhaps didn’t think of us at all.)
We did the divorce-kid shuffle that morning: waking at Mom’s for an Easter Egg hunt and then heading over to Dad’s for a late brunch. Fortunately for them, I did all the driving; so they could avoid any future contact.
In the afternoon, our father quickly ushered us out so that he could rush over to his prospective in-laws for dinner. We arrived back at home to a surprisingly empty house.
There was no ham in the oven, no Parker rolls, no applesauce with cinnamon, no mash potatoes and peas (that our father had always forced us to combine.)
We had been forgotten–all six of us.
I searched the refrigerator and cupboards for something to approximate an Easter dinner, but came up empty.
The “babies” (who were now actually preschoolers) searched the house for “Mommy,” while the middle two fought over candy. My second-in-command, at the tender age of 16, offered to shoot us all with the toy gun she held pointed at her heart.
I awkwardly called my mother at her future in-laws house, and she quickly abandoned her dinner there, arriving home with a box of frozen chicken from the convenience store.
Things didn’t go well for my mother in her second marriage. Her husband, twenty years her junior, was unfaithful, and she became the parent of two more children in her forties.
Our father, fared better, at least on the outside. He fell in love with a tall, attractive OR nurse (he was a surgeon), and began the jet set life he had never embraced with our petite, down-to-earth mother.
Right away, however, there were fireworks between our father’s girlfriend and his oldest daughters. Once engaged, however, she vowed that she would never let any of us come between them.
These plans were foiled when our own mother began drinking, and the youngest four children moved into my father’s condo, making him a full-time parent instead of an occasional weekend one. Soon after his wedding, a mansion was built by the bay, and our younger siblings were swallowed up into a new life without the rest of us.
With the family fabric further frayed, I took on the crusade of knitting us back together with great odds–two different households, myself off at school, and the second-in-charge, married, and expecting her own child after two weeks at college.
I did not grasp the concept of “Alpha Female”at the time, but my stepmother meant to keep us apart:
We were to knock before entering “her” home.
We were not to arrive there with friends, uninvited.
We were not included in special family celebrations–our father’s birthday for instance.
We were no longer asked along on family vacations.
There was no room set aside for us in the new house, not a bed, or any form of welcome, not even a photo on the wall.
And we no longer enjoyed free reign over our youngest siblings who we had practically raised, and who had suddenly become exclusively hers. We would need to make an appointment to “have” them for an outing, scheduled well in advance, subject to gross delays and sudden, heart-breaking, cancellations.
Finally, she made it clear that she saw no need for our younger sisters to spend time with what she dismissed as their “half” siblings; and she dismissed all of our efforts to spend time together.
A decade of anguish ensued as I watched everything I knew and loved slip from my hands. My mother, hardly able to hold together the new life she had created, was reluctant to insist on visitation; and in her self-pity preferred to let her daughters enjoy their new, “richer,” lives in coordinating Gap outfits and matching pigtails.
For my father’s part, it seemed to pain him to recall his life with us. In some corrupted way, we were held accountable for our mother’s shameless relationship with a younger man, and for the new half-siblings we adored, but were supposed to eschew.
He would often explain that we represented the children his new wife would never have with him, and thus our very existence was a source of anguish and pain.
Occasionally, the man who was once our father lavished fatherly affection on us for a single bright moment; but it was always followed by an awkwardness, as if he was embarrassed to love us in the presence of his wife–as if we were his ex-es instead of his daughters.
Once I was married myself, my stepmother refused to accept that I maintained my family name. Maybe she didn’t want to share it with me. I always thought it would have made more sense for my father to have shared hers. He had so little to do with us after the divorce–always following her lead and enjoying life’s special occasions with her family and friends.
To his credit, he did try to include us now and then. “Why don’t you join us,” he’d say, off-handedly, as if he remembered that we had once been connected. Frequently this invitation would be silently rebuked by our stepmother, and we could tell we shouldn’t accept although we felt unable to say why for fear of further alienated ourselves. Other times, she would be openly rescind the invitation; and on some occasions, we’d arrive on time, to find that we had been left behind or forgotten altogether.
For years, it was impossible to reach the man who had been our father. Letters or presents sent were never received, and he was rarely available to come to the phone. She would answer and we could never quite figure how to circumvent her. He was busy. They had important, prestigious lives. We were a distraction, an annoyance, a bother. What did we want?
It’s pathetic to admit, but during those years we formed an underground hotline on the man who had been our father. If one of us were to discover him alone, either by phone or in person, we would notify the others immediately, so that they too could grasp at his attention.
“Hey, she’s at the mall for the day,” we’d whisper to each other on the phone, or “She’s at the gym for the morning.” or “Dad’s here at the office, alone!”
A protective layer of scar tissue has formed since this god-awful time two decades ago, but I still feel the pain of my parents divorce and the loss of our family.
It’s as if we were once held in a beautiful blanket, with each parent holding two corners, only to be carelessly dropped. There has been healing for me–for all of us–for sure, but our bottoms are still sore from that fall
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.
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!
After posting “Lila,” I received a delicious email request from a young cousin.
What was she really like?…Nana…??
I don’t think Joy was even born before we lost Lila to that tragedy on the Burlington-Bristol Bridge; but I have 17 cousins so it’s hard to keep track.
Though I was 14, I don’t remember Lila’s funeral. I remember Auntie Fran’s funeral at the Catholic Church–which I mistakenly thought was Lila’s funeral. Were they on the same day, their funerals? And what about Auntie Ruth? I don’t remember hers at all. Myra’s must have been in her own hometown.
As horrid as it was, there must be something sweet about dying with your friends, especially your very best friend.
And that’s where I’ll start for Joy~
Friends. I remember how much laughter there was between Nana Lila and Auntie Fran–how much fun they had together. I mostly remember them in the kitchen, prepping up a storm. I think they had a catering business together for awhile.
I remember parties at Auntie Fran’s and across the road on the bay at the Breder’s–catching crabs.
I remember digging for clams at the River Place and I remember lobster.
That would be one word to describe Lila.
I would wake each morning at Nana’s to find her at her kitchen desk, pencil behind the ear, mouth pursed, working on a crossword puzzle, or a grocery list or plans for the day.
Although I was only 7 the first summer I spent with her, she allowed me free range of our island town during the day. I just had to tell her my plans–and eventually show up at the Yacht Club where I’d order a burger from the Galley and catch up with her somewhere inside.
Lila didn’t sail as far as I know. I don’t remember her dancing like the photos I see of Poppop. She cooked. And planned. And tended.
She would put us all in the bath or the outside shower (depending on the season), and then line us up on the bed to powder our bottoms.
After we were dressed, she’d clean our ears with a cu-tip from the ceramic swan on the vanity sink in her bedroom. Then she’d comb our hair–holding each chin firmly (and I mean, FIRMly) so that there would be no wiggling.
Occasionally, she let me lie down on her reclining chair and place the hair dryer over my head–just like I was at a salon!
Once, when I was just coming of age, she let me blow dry her hair–a first. And it looked good. She had just gotten a new haircut (maybe even by your mother) and she didn’t know how to use a blow dryer. (She had always worn a wig or put curlers in her hair.)
I remember her kitchen rules. “No children in the kitchen before or after dinner–until you were old enough to help.” I had just made it into the kitchen when she was taken.
I remember the looks when Uncle Jeffrey’s hip young wife (your mom) couldn’t wash the dishes without rubber gloves due to a soap irritation.
Lila’s “no nonsense” didn’t leave much room for “variables.” And your mother was a big outspoken “variable” while all the older son’s wives just did what they were told.
I remember my mom standing up to Lila just once–and it still makes me proud. Nana Lila had come down to the cellar to find that my younger sister Robin and cousin Sandy had been playing with her doll house from Switzerland–and had wrecked it.
She was so furious that she spanked all three of us–even though I hadn’t been with them. I was the “oldest” and should have stopped them, she said.
I loved that doll house–and loved that my petite, demure mother defended me to the likes of her towering mother-in-law.
Lila was an enigma. Beloved–and blasted–every evening. Typically an excellent cook, I remember many dinners with raw biscuits and other inedible items that I would covertly spit out in the conveniently located toilet off the kitchen.
Stern all day, in the evenings Lila would lavish affection–sometimes embarrassingly so. I remember many evenings at the Yacht Club, pulled onto her lap, while she smothered me with kisses–telling everyone how much she loved me and that I was “her first granddaughter”
I could see that everyone, like me, knew that she was drunk, and I felt complicit.
I remember fights between Nana and Poppop. I remember her trying to send us to bed in the dormitory over the garage way too early. I couldn’t tell time, but I checked the television guide and it wasn’t even 6 yet.
My favorite fight was the epic one at the River Place which was also witnessed by my sister Robin and cousin Sandy. Poppop had gone to bed early (maybe he had been in surgery all day) and Nana was in the kitchen when Frank Sinatra’s, “My Way,” came over the radio.
Lila turned the radio up full blast, explaining just as loudly to her amused (and concerned) granddaughters that THIS was how she lived HER life: MY WAY!
Within a few moments, our typically good-natured Poppop was up and out of the bedroom shouting, “LILA, turn that GODDAMN radio OFF!”
We all still act out that scene now and then–with sweeping arms and great drama. My Poppop’s funeral was the last time. He was in his early seventies. Lila died 20 years earlier.
I thought Lila was beautiful–and was surprised one day when my stepmother said to my father, “You mother wasn’t very photogenic.”
But Lila had that affect on people. Even after she was dead, they were threatened by her lack of approval.
I remember another epic fight–this time between my father and me in London, outside a restaurant. He raised his hand above me–and was stopped in his tracks when a guttural voice rose out of all of my five feet to say, “DON’T YOU TOUCH ME!”
Later I was told that he returned to the restaurant and told my stepmom that he saw both his ex-wife and his mother–Lila–in me. I was so proud.
Lila, and her mother Mildred (Nana Burrows), instilled in me a love for travel–and for education. Mildred went to college back in the days when women didn’t and she taught in a one room school house until she got married. Later she traveled around the world with our great-grandfather who was a Merchant Marine.
In middle school, I studied French too, and when I began my advance studies in high school, Nana would help me with my translations. We always thought we would travel together. She thought I’d make a great cruise director 🙂
She had begun to inquire about whether I was menstruating too, and I think that I would have appreciated her matter of fact approach to life as I came into adolescence. Maybe, she would have helped me avoid some big mistakes.
Maybe there wouldn’t have been so much infidelity in the family either. She certainly would have called people on it if she knew; though why she never addressed it more directly in her own life must have led to her drinking…
So dearest cousin Joy, who once wrapped me around her finger with her sweet toddler-faced requests to take her into the ocean, I hope this in some way answers your juicy question–
and I look forward to harvesting more at another time.