I have only recently learned how terribly common parent alienation is. I’ve been reading desperate stories, mostly from mothers, though I know it happens to fathers too. It is less than a week before Christmas and so many parents are heartbroken that they won’t be with their own children.
My memories of Christmases after my mother was gone are overwhelming; gifts that covered the floor from the tree in our living room to the kitchen doorway. I could hardly sleep on Christmas eve, knowing morning would bring more gifts than I could possibly want. It was not that my father had a lot of money. He didn’t. He was trying to give me something, make up for something. I didn’t know this at the time. Now I think of that room, all those gifts, and I know. It is the consolation, the proof that he is providing, the better parent, the hero. Gifts. They are my mother replacement, wrapped in Santa paper, too many to count, proof that he is a good father. What more could I ask for?
The only gift I remember though is a doll. She had blond hair and came with a diaper and a pink bottle. I loved that doll so much. In my mind, she was real and I carried her from room to room, putting her down for a nap, feeding her, changing her, rocking her. Playing Mommy was something instinctual, something I must have known, familiar. I had a good Mommy once, I know I did.
“You’ll visit your mother on Sundays”, my father 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 our mother. I fear the mention of her name will cause an explosion. I haven’t seen her since that awful, yelling night. I think she has been gone days now, but maybe it’s weeks.
We stop at Dairy Queen. I think it is odd that we are getting ice cream in March. As our father gets out of the car, Amy announces that she wants chocolate this time. I’m a little surprised at Amy’s request because we never get chocolate. Amy and I always have vanilla. “Okay, chocolate”, he says to Amy. I want chocolate too. I might like it better than vanilla, but I’m silent. He comes back with three ice cream cones. Chocolate for Amy and him, and vanilla for me.
When we return home, Amy and I go into Memere’s apartment downstairs. Memere wets a facecloth with warm water and washes the ice cream off of my hands and face. Then she makes some comment about how the ice cream will come out of my clothes in the wash. I am amazed that Amy doesn’t have ice cream all over herself, too. I wonder how anyone can eat ice cream without wearing it, even in March.
Our mother’s apartment building is red on the outside. Amy and I play with the phones. There is one on the wall in the kitchen and another in the bedroom. They don’t actually work, so it doesn’t matter what numbers we dial, or how long we have them off the hook. We pretend to be calling each other, Amy from the kitchen and me from the bedroom. Our voices carry to each other easily. It is a small apartment. I’m not sure what Lisa is doing while we are playing, but she isn’t talking to us. She is not the mother of our old life. It hasn’t been that long, but maybe I am not the same, either. We are separate now, broken apart.
Still, we cry furiously when she returns us home. We cling to her and sob. Our father pries us away and his words to our mother are filled with venom. This happens again the following Sunday, and the next and next until the snow has long melted and Memere begins to talk of returning to work in the summer. She has been staying home to take care of us while our father teaches high school.
One Sunday when the sun is shining and I don’t need a jacket anymore, Memere curls my hair and Amy and I are both in pink dresses. Amy’s hair is too short to curl. It is a pixie cut and brown like my father’s. Mine is long and strawberry blond like our mother’s, only not as red.
We wait with Memere in the driveway, but our mother never comes. Later, Memere tells us that our mother had to work at the restaurant near her apartment, and besides, she didn’t have any way to pick us up that day. She has no car.
Still in my dress and curls, I take my doll to the backyard. I walk slowly to the sandbox, noticing the grass has been freshly cut. Pepere is proud of this yard, with its fruit trees and wild grapevines. He grows rhubarb which Memere lets me eat dunked in sugar. I heard a cousin say that once when a strange dog wandered into the yard and peed on the rhubarb, Pepere shot it.
Minutes later Amy joins me in the yard and we have some squabble. Before I know what has hit me, Amy has pulled the head off my doll. I gather the two pieces in my hands and climb the stairs to our apartment. I wonder if I should tell anyone.