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