When my mother called me last September, I was surprised by how easily I still recognized the sound of her voice. When I was four years old, my father had thrown her out of our home and within a year, she was erased from my life.
My mother became like a family myth, an outcast who people only talked about when they thought I couldn’t hear them. Pictures of her were discarded, except for one that I found in our basement. Scared of being caught with it, I left it there, coming back to hold it over and over, when no one was watching. It was a photo from an amusement park, my sister and I perched beside each other on the carousel, our mother standing nearby. I recognized her auburn ponytail and held the photo close, squinting, hoping each time to bring her face more into focus. The picture proved to me she was real. I wanted more. I wanted the details of her, instead of just the blurry outlines that had come to occupy my mind.
Sometimes late at night—always at night—my sister and I whispered about her in the bedroom that we shared. We called her “You-Know-Who” because we didn’t dare speak her name. Our loving, gentle mother had become like a ghost who only came out in the dark.
We recounted our memories of her. I remembered her last night at home, my sister and I standing by the back door with her, our winter coats on. Our mother’s hand was on the doorknob, when my father demanded to know where we were going. I recall how I felt the tension viscerally. We did not end up leaving, and my sister remembers hearing the fighting, yelling and crying, after we went to bed that night. When we awoke the next morning, our mother was gone.
I saw her once when I was a teen. My sister and I snuck away one evening and arrived on her doorstep at dusk, ten years after we had last seen her. She cried and hugged us. She told us that she has always hoped we would come find her. There were cards and letters she sent, she said, things we had never received. I believed her, because I remembered the day my sister found them in a dresser drawer. Letters, birthday and Christmas cards, stashed away, threatening to blow my father’s plan: to move on as if divorce—and our mother—had never touched our lives. He had even replaced her with a new mother for us, putting life back in order, or so he thought. No one dared tell him otherwise.
I stood mute in mother’s home. She was a living, breathing person, the answer to the empty space in my heart where Mother should have been, but I was not quite ready for this. Where was my voice? I silently reprimanded myself for my passivity, my succumbence. I knew this place of no-feeling. This surrender to powerlessness, I had been here before. What I thought or felt seemed of little matter when self-agency was off the table. I knew I could not have my mother back, not yet anyway. Not when I had to go home to my father. So, I let all of my feelings—my love and my grief—stay underground. We said goodbye and I tucked her back into the past, into the far corners of my mind.
Another 10 years went by and one warm fall day I saw her again when I was in my twenties, a mother myself. She met my daughters, who were babies then. For the next year we engaged in an awkward attempt at reconnection. We used email a lot, because it felt safe. We could choose our words carefully. And when we did meet up in person, we were polite, tentative. In each other, we saw a reservoir of grief, each encounter a risk of prodding the pain. We looked so much alike, reminding us that at one time, before we were strangers, we were mother and daughter.
I had no idea how I would integrate her into my life, the life that did not include her, that in fact was very much built on her absence.
Besides, my father was still in my life and I didn’t know how to tell him I was reconnecting with my mother. I could not find the words. I didn’t even bother trying. Where was my authenticity? Where were my words? It felt like loss and sickness and fear. I was that child in the dark again, the one who could not say her mother’s name.
Eventually, I pushed my mother away, because this seemed like the safest thing to do.
Devastated, she said “I think your father is controlling you just like he controlled me.”
“Well you’re the one who left me with him,” I snapped back.
Not long after this aborted attempt at a reconnection, she moved to Arizona.
And then 20 years slipped by, just like that.
But last September she flew up to Massachusetts because her mother, my grandmother, was dying. On the Wednesday before Labor Day weekend, she called me. I asked about my grandmother and about my mother’s flight from Arizona. I was eager to settle on a day that I would come see her, knowing this might be our last chance to reconnect.
If not now, when?
I offered to drive to my grandmother’s house the very next day, on Cape Cod where my mother was staying. She agreed, and then we hung up.
The next morning I went through my closet . . . what does one wear when she hasn’t seen her mother in 20 years?
It was a beautiful, sunny day driving to my grandmother’s house. When my mother answered the door, I thought how lovely she still was. I looked into her dark blue eyes, the same as mine, wanting to see my own reflection, wanting to see daughter in her eyes.
I saw my grandmother that day, too, and my aunt, people who had loved me, also casualties of my parents’ divorce. Now they embraced me, welcomed me as if I had finally come home.
My mother and I walked and talked of the weather and of my grandmother’s end of life. We talked of my daughters, all grown up now, and of family resemblances and of the ocean and of her quiet life in Arizona.
I wanted to talk about the stolen years, to face everything head on, but I knew that even after all this time, her pain was still raw; I saw it in her eyes that filled with tears at the slightest mention of the past.
I can feel her regret that is so vast it could swallow her; I think her grief might turn her to particles, to the dust in the desert she lives in.
I wanted to say I wish you would move back to Massachusetts. I want to spend time with you, to make up for all the lost years. I want her to know my husband and our daughters.
I want my mother back. I don’t want her to live two thousand, five hundred and seventy-two miles away for one more day. But I don’t say this. Instead I ask, “Don’t you miss the ocean?”
When it was time for me to go, we hugged goodbye and both said how happy we were to have had this day. We agreed that we both wanted to stay in touch, but we made no promises, no unrealistic mention of all the time we would spend together, knowing she would fly back to Arizona, to her life there.
We talk on the phone sometimes now. We are still getting to know each other.
I usually keep the conversation light, because I know that’s what she needs.
But the last time we talked, I did bring up the past. I told her that I needed her to know something.
“I know you meant to bring me with you when I was four. I know that was your plan. You told me so back then. You were preparing me to leave with you; I remember.”
There was a long pause . . . and some tears. She was relieved that I knew this.
“I love you,” she said. “I always have.”
I said, “I love you, too.” And then I asked about her day.