I wrote this piece many years ago, after meeting up with my mother in adulthood.
It was recently published on the Sisterwives site.
It was a warm September day, but my body froze when I saw my mother’s bright red hair. She leaned out of her black Ford Mustang and waved at me. She still recognizes me, I thought. Twenty-one years ago she walked out of our lives leaving my sister, our father and me behind to piece together a new life. My father remarried a year later and we’ve called his second wife “Mom” ever since.
At four years old, I was abandoned by the person I loved more than anyone. How could I trust another adult again, especially a mother figure? Besides, my stepmother did not choose me. She chose my father and I was just part of the package. And so, toward my new mother I felt an indifference that seemed mutual. My father would not see this, though. He needed to believe that he had put life back in order and no one dared tell him otherwise.
My real mother, Lisa, became a family secret. She was never talked about, except for sometimes late at night when my sister and I shared our memories. We called her “You Know Who”, because we were afraid to speak her name. We would sit in our beds in the dark and whisper about the past. My sister remembered a big fight. She said there was a lot of yelling and crying and then our mother was gone the next morning.
I remembered our mother returning on my fifth birthday to bring me a present. We had a new mother by then and Lisa wasn’t welcome. There was a lot of tension. My new mother was upset that she had come and Dad was angry. I wasn’t supposed to love Lisa anymore. I had already been taught to deny her. When strangers asked where I got my red hair, my father or stepmother would answer for me by saying, “She has an aunt with red hair.”
Lisa parked her car and met me at the main entrance of the mall where I had been waiting. As she walked towards me, I thought she looked young for her forty-seven years. Her hair was still red and long and her body was petite like mine. When she got closer though, I saw the lines on her face and the tiredness in her eyes.
We walked together through the mall, looking for a place to sit and talk. We barely glanced at each other as we made small talk. Here we were, two women with such similar features, obviously related, and yet we were strangers.
As we sat down, I looked at my mother – I wanted to absorb every detail of her appearance. Her eyes were the same bluish-gray as mine. When I was a young girl, I used to look in the mirror, staring into my own eyes, hoping to see the reflection of my mother. I had only one photograph of her which I hid from my father, knowing he had discarded the others. It proved to me that my mother was real.
It felt like a dream to be seeing her again. I wondered how I would begin to ask all of the questions I had waited so long to ask. Then Lisa just started talking, explaining everything the way she knew it. After a while, she stopped fighting the tears. I remained emotionless and distant as I listened to her story. I would not be vulnerable again. Not this time.
Lisa had married my father at the age of eighteen, she began, because she was pregnant with my sister. They moved into the upstairs apartment of my father’s parents’ house. I was born eighteen months after my sister.
Lisa spoke of her bad marriage with my father and how it had eroded her self-esteem. “Your father got his college degree and bragged about his educated friends. I began to feel worthless and unappreciated.”
She described instances of abuse, though she did not call it that. “It didn’t happen every time we fought”, she said after telling me of her black eye and broken wrist. I felt a surge of anguish enter my body that would take years to dispel. The mental image I held of my father darkened as my past became clearer.
Then Lisa told me about her affair with a man that promised to take her away from my father. I remembered the man. His name was Bob. He was a big man with sandy brown hair and a ruddy complexion. I remembered going sledding together. Lisa told us that he was going to be our new daddy and that we were going to move far away with him.
“Your father found a letter from Bob”, she continued, “and threw me out of the house late at night. It was the middle of winter and I wasn’t even wearing shoes. I couldn’t face my parents, so when a cop picked me up I had him drive me to where Bob lived. I intended on coming back to get you girls, but your father had gotten temporary custody. His lawyer called it abandonment.”
I pictured my mother, hiding out with her lover, while my sister and I stayed at home with our raging father, not knowing if she’d be back.
“After that I had visitations with you on Sundays”, she continued. “You and your sister cried so much when you had to leave me. Your father told me it was too hard on you both. He told me over and over again that you were better off without me. I began to believe him. I didn’t fight for custody. I didn’t have it in me to fight your father. I just broke down. I was dying inside.”
By the time my father remarried, the Sunday visits with Lisa had stopped. “You girls were everything to me. The sadness, and the anger I still have at your father, I can’t begin to tell you.” My father wanted to start over. What he didn’t realize was that part of me had died inside, too. He thought he could replace my mother, sort of like a Christmas tree. You remove it from your home after Christmas. By the next year you’ve forgotten all about it and you get another one that you like just as much. Only mothers aren’t like Christmas trees. Once you lose your mother, your heart is not into finding another one. At four years old my life was changed forever. I lost that little girl I once was.
“I became the best behaved little girl because I sensed that was all the adults around me could tolerate”, I told my mother. “When my own needs might have caused them any inconvenience or distress, I kept them to myself. I don’t ever remember mentioning you to my father, let alone grieving you. I went into a state of melancholy that others just accepted as my quiet nature.” I surprised myself with my own honesty. But I couldn’t allow Lisa to believe that her abandonment had not damaged my life. Lisa looked uneasy at my words, and I would later learn that she carried a guilt that was so unbearable, it didn’t allow her to comprehend my pain. She needed to believe that I had been okay.
When Lisa was done talking, I stared at my glass, nervously stirring the ice with my straw. I thought about her words in the silence between us. I was convinced that my mother really had loved me. I understood that it wasn’t all her fault, after all. Somehow, that was more devastating. The stranger I once called “Mommy” wasn’t “You Know Who” anymore. She was sitting across from me, breathing, talking, crying.
Our time was up, and Lisa walked me back to my car. After an awkward moment, she put her arms around me. She felt small, her grip almost frail. She was weak after all. Too weak to fight for me. Too weak to stand up to my father. But she was there, she was real. She was a real human being who had suffered a huge loss of her own.
So we parted, knowing there was no easy answer, no tidy, happy ending to our story. At least now, we could move forward, knowing what was real.