My Mother, Myself: coffee with a stranger

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.


19 thoughts on “My Mother, Myself: coffee with a stranger

  1. I am so sorry you have lost so much. Often I have told myself that maybe when this life in this form is over for me and my daughter one day, that we will get to spend some joy together. Of course, I don’t pretend to know how or what exists in any future, but… I can understand your mom being paralyzed — sometimes such fear and horror makes us numb, or worse. I hope you get to speak to some colleges. Since alienated kids are much more likely to drop out of high school and college, schools should be interested.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Today I read most of your memoir that you have posted so far. I was surprised to find some points in common. A town. (I didn’t live there but my brother-in-law and his wife did. They went through a bitter divorce.) A state. (I did live in the same state.) I think you are a similar age to my daughter. You may have gone to school with her cousins. (But I do not know if they encountered PAS. The divorce was bitter enough but I just don’t know.)
      I went through a bitter divorce too. However, I don’t know whether PAS was a factor in why my daughter estranged me. I have read about it. I sent my ex and my daughter a book on it once upon a time. I know that my daughter rejects it as a reason for her estrangement.
      In reading your memoir, I wondered about some things. Like whether it is possible that your father threatened your mother’s life if she tried to take you from the house? If he did, he would likely think of it as a means of protecting you, even though you didn’t need to be “protected” from her. In reading your description, he sounds like a very scary man when he is angered.
      I also wondered if your mother had convinced herself that it was best that she remove herself from the picture. That it was the best thing she could do for you. I don’t know.
      I am reminded of what I was thinking when I left my daughter’s father. He had the large stable family. I had the crazy alcoholic relatives that could not be relied on for anything.
      My daughter was college age at the time. I had little money. I trusted my ex to be a good father. So I allowed her to stay in the house we had called home and continue her last year in high school rather than me try to remove him. I was the one who left and moved into a tiny apartment. I thought I was doing the best thing for us all. But it was not long before my daughter was acting anxious at the prospect of him and I being in the same place with her there too. I became the one on the outs. I believe that my good intentions put me on the track to being seen as the “bad guy”. Although I knew there was no way that I would have gotten him to leave the house. It was either we all stay in the house or one of us would have to leave and it would have to be me.
      I am sad that your mother hasn’t responded to your most recent attempts to get in touch with her. People can be so complicated. I can speculate but that’s not worth much. There can be so many reasons.
      I hope that your writing and sharing brings you good things like peace and possibly positive feelings of helping others while you go through healing too.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. So interesting to hear from you. Thank you for visiting and writing. I am not sure which town you are referring to- I did remove the name of a town but at one time I did have the name of the town my family was living in, so I am pretty sure you must have read my blog while that was still up. I have changed all names that appear in this blog, but if I suppose if I hear your last name there’s a chance I may recognize it. I do not believe my father threatened my mother’s life BUT I do believed she feared him. And you are very right about two things you mentioned: My father (even to this day) will say he was ‘protecting us from having to live with our mother and her ‘bad lifestyle’. (she had an affair as an attempt to escape the marriage). AND he was able to convince my mother that we were better off without her. Her self esteem had been eroded and then was at an all time low when he discovered her affair. We lived in the upstairs apartment of our paternal grandparents house and therefore my mother did not have the option of ‘kicking my father out’. I am so sorry you have been estranged from your daughter. It seems to me her father had a lot to do with this, and I hope someday she is able to ‘recognize your love for her again’. Don’t stop trying and don’t lose hope! It is a very powerful ‘spell’ to be under- when one parent is alienating you from the other. It really causes the child to deny the love of their estranged parent. It is a brainwashing of sorts.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Lastly, yes I absolutely have found peace in writing and speaking and helping others going through alienation. I believe it is part of the purpose of the whole tragedy and I am grateful to have the courage and passion and ability to share the gift of experience however I can.


      1. In looking at your earlier posts again, I see that the town that is mentioned is one where a wedding occurred. Last week I was reading your earlier posts for the first time and I think that my brain just connected dots that are not connected at all. So I probably jumped to a conclusion too quickly.
        Thank you for wishing that my daughter would recognize my love for her. Unfortunately the estrangement is a very long one and my daughter went out of her way to do things to hurt me. The kind of things that she did were equivalent to what a vandal would do and some of them were done surreptitiously. The commission of those acts is incomprehensible to me. It is as though she is someone entirely different than the girl and woman that I knew. I couldn’t fathom her deliberately hurting me which is what she did. I would only be able to forgive those acts if she apologized and gave me some kind of explanation.
        I don’t think she will ever try to make things right. I don’t expect her to be the person that I thought I knew. So I have no hope for the estrangement ending. I don’t believe that I would be able to trust her again and I don’t believe that she regrets her actions. It is possible that she has no clue exactly how much her actions hurt but in order for her to know, she would have to make a change that I don’t think is possible.
        Not everyone has a situation like this. Unfortunately though, I am not alone in having experienced this.


      2. It is true that not all parents are able to reconnect with their children. My sister is in middle age and has no intention of ever reaching out to our mother. She is firmly in my “our father’s camp”. I am sorry to hear of your daughter’s unacceptable behavior. I hope you are taking good care of yourself in order to heal from this terrible disconnection.


      3. Both my stepdad & my X are working against me (& against my mom), but I have hope — esp. with victims brave enough to speak out and shed light on this unnecessary & unacceptable domestic terrorism. Praying for you & your mom.


  2. My children are being alienated from me…it’s not just the abusive father that is doing this but also an unjust family court order is enabling the alienation to continue. My kids don’t remember the names of the cousins they once were close to, and at family gatherings, shy away. My kids forgot how to sing or pray in church, and their father is teaching them psycho religious beliefs based on his own personality disorder. He says stuff like “If ‘god” wanted you to have that, he would give it to you, and if you don’t have it, you don’t deserve it.” My kids don’t connect to or relate to their culture or family traditions. And they don’t like some of the foods that are common to our family. I fear that my kids are slipping further and further away….

    Are there any tips you could offer that would help a child being alienated, and what the parent can do–even from afar. And what kinds of things should be avoid?



    1. Thanks for writing. I’m so sorry you are going through this terribly difficult situation. I encourage you to go to Richard Warshaks website on Parent Alienation. Also, do not give up any of your rights (for visiting/custody/etc). From what I read from other parents, it is very difficult to get the right professional help in order to intervene. Stay strong and calm (easier said than done, I know).


    2. I just read all the comments on this blog and it is like hearing my own story over and over again. I have read everything I could get my hands on including Richard Warshaks book, I even ordered the CD called Pluto Come Back? or something like that. I have read a dozen books on brainwashing, and I have shared the insights I have learned with my daughters when I have had contact with them. So far almost everything I have done has made things worse. Mark Twain said it is easier to trick people than to convince them that they have been tricked and when domestic violence is involved times that by 1000.

      My kids were teenagers when I showed them the Pluto movie so they were too old but it would have really have helped when they were younger, I think.

      My kids became very belligerent towards me when they went to live with their dad, to attend better schools, and as time went on they visited home less and less and became more and more abusive toward me and their little sister.

      I made the decision to slap my 17 yearold if she ever disrespected me in public again, and boy did that backfire. She went off on me at the mall on Sat. night after a movie, in front of hundreds of people as she often did then, screaming I was a f’n crazy bitch, something she had seen her father call me before. And in one terrible moment I took the advice of so many well meaning friends and slapped her across the face. She lunged at me and nearly killed me. If my husband hadn’t been there to pull her off me, I think she would have.

      She contacted my current husbands ex wife and daughter told them she had been attacked and beaten by myself and my husband and encouraged them cut off contact with us, which they did. She then contacted my husbands parents and tried to convince them to get CPS to take my then 9 year old daughter.

      So I can tell you DON’T HIT THEM, I had never spanked my kids and I thought I was remedying the errors of my gentle parenting style, because I didn’t yet know about PAS or Domestic Violence syndrome. It turns out that she was being abused by her father and never told anyone but took it out on me instead.

      I do see my daughters once in a while but I can tell that they want to hurt me emotionally and physically every chance they get, they are sadistic towards me. I still get screamed at in public and occasionally shoved, my oldest daughter hit her brakes on the highway and came to a complete stop just to terrorize me. I don’t say anything or fight back in anyway anymore, I won’t drive with them because their hatred could cause and accident.

      Does anyone have any insight into the sadism, the incredible motivation they have to hurt me? It is now spilling over to my husband and their little sister.


      1. As long as they are in the care of your exhuband, if he is alienating them from you, they will not be able to fully absorb the truth and the information you give them. You need some help to remove the pathology of the situation. I will be posting an article today that includes links to Dr. Childress’s very valuable information. Please read.


      2. You are right about that, I had no contact at all with them and then their dad moved away a year and a half ago and they started talking to me again.
        But the hate is still there.
        and it’s really not much of a relationship,


  3. Please everyone read the new book FOUNDATIONS by CA Childress. It will help you with all your needs concerning getting your children back. It’s too late for me. My daughter is now 25 and I have not seen her in over 16 years. I never even heard of this alienation stuff till recently and by the way it’s not called that. Not legally! He has a website and blogs. Best information I have seen. READ!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Congratulations on the Huffington post!!! Thats fantastic, your writing deserves to be recognized! Dr. Chilress’s stuff really works, it was his essay called jujitsu parenting that even got me back into my kids life, I studied it and it really worked. We are on speaking terms but they are still really cruel, I didn’t know he had a book. I need to read it.

        Liked by 1 person

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