My mother has lived a life of abandonment with abandon. When she was a very small child, the youngest of four, her father walked out to marry another woman and bestow her with another lost little girl. His children have been exclusively female, which I always took to be a kind of poetic justice for the particularly male sorrows he inflicted upon my family. We are a strong bunch of independent women for the most part. But being raised by one sole matriarch has had an effect in that there is something to be said for a complete household with two parent figures to share the responsibility, the fear. All this was exacerbated by extreme poverty in the 1960s. Granny Pauline did the best she could with what little they had, which wasn’t much even by poor standards. In the morning, each of the four would be given a slice of bread to eat for lunch. My mother used to smash hers up into a ball and sprinkle salt on top before shoving it into her pocket for later, an action I echo (minus the pocket) every time I’m given a dinner roll. Bread just tastes better smashed sometimes.
Granny took up with the Peace Corps and went off to Africa as soon as my mother was 18, leaving her in New Mexico and newly graduated. Mommy had a J-O-B at Sonic as a waitress on roller skates, and saved up enough money to buy a bus ticket back to Maryland, and the home where she grew up. I can imagine her there, Baby Jane on the hot, dusty Las Cruces bus platform, waiting and wondering what would happen to her next. Not a victim of her circumstances, but a young woman determined to make her own way. The future doesn’t always present itself in a linear fashion. My mother’s dreams that day were probably worlds different than the dreams she would come to have – after mistakes, after me.
Upon the subsequent meeting, marriage, and divorce of my own father, my mother changed entirely. What happens when the youngest baby of four has a shotgun wedding and a baby all her own? She grows up fast. Mommy had always lived faster and harder than my careful father ever did, which was one of the things that led to their eventual demise as a couple. She loved to drink, party, and play the social butterfly – sometimes she loved it too much. But they were both stubborn, both prideful, and both madly in love with the product of their union. Those early years were not without their rough patches, as is to be expected from two people raising a child who do not belong together, but most of the days were happy. That is, until the Great Move. By this point, we were all living in Tennessee where I was born, and Mommy took it upon herself to transplant the two of us up to Michigan a year after my father had gone there for work. I still saw him one weekend out of every month, but every time he left again I was heartbroken, miserable, and lonely for days. My mother knew that I needed to be close to him. She made an admirable, excruciating, selfless decision that she has paid for in what-ifs every day since. A year later, she went back South and I made the choice to stay with my father. Giving a nine-year-old the responsibility to make that weighty decision on her own was just one sign of how differently my mother probably thought everything would turn out.
We went through a period of time, from when I was thirteen to about fifteen, where we barely spoke. Money was tight from moving twice in one year, and Mommy didn’t have the extra funds necessary for plane tickets to come see me. As a selfish teenager, the last thing I wanted to do with my school breaks was get in a car for eight hours and ride to see her. I had friends to focus on, a tenuous social life that depended on my being there for it. When we saw each other, our togetherness was fraught with chasms of reckless blame and long-buried guilt. We had abandoned one another. In the cold north of Michigan, I had crafted a new home and a new life. I had fought hard to win recognition and companionship in the difficult landscape of middle school. My father had taken a job in yet another state as soon as I had become settled in his new home, and I had been left alone, to the devices of a stepmother who didn’t understand me. She had no children of her own whose love she could draw upon to emulate with me. I emerged anew, tougher. No longer the sweet innocent child my mother remembered from her rearview mirror, squinting in the summer sunlight. She could recognize herself in me anymore. Spending every day alone with my stepmother shaped so much of who I became in those formative years. If I spent any long amount of time around my own mother, life at my father’s would be hell for weeks. At that age, it was impossible to be fully self-aware of the unconscious effects my mother’s presence had on me. My stepmother would take offense at the slightest action. If I forgot to make my bed one morning, or was simply too lazy, I was surely just being spiteful because she wasn’t my real mother. I was only trying to cling on for dear life as changing winds battered my whole concept of family. My mother chose her own happiness in moving back South, and so we grew apart.
This was never a choice that could have been made less difficult. It was never a cut-and-dry obvious decision with one right answer and one evil answer. Certain circumstances make it easy to see that way, and to lay blame accordingly, but I can’t say that if I had been in the same position I would have done a thing differently. It’s a fine line to walk between happiness of self-preservation or martyrdom. Mommy spent a year being the martyr, and I don’t fault her now for looking after herself and her happiness.
It was a long time before I began to understand the impact my absence would have on her life. Growing up, I used to think that a parent’s job was to take care of their children. In my young eyes, my parents were humanity perfected – never making a single mistake or selfish action. Looking back, I’m not sure exactly when that perfect picture shattered and I came to the realization that parents are only human. They need and feel and break. I never imagined that at such a young age, I had played a crucial part in taking care of my mother. With me around, she had a sense of responsibility. Her days revolved around working hard and playing with me. We were silly, happy, and enough for one another. Sure, a rotating cast of men she used to date passed through our home, but we knew it was always us who mattered most. Mommy made sure I did well in school, ate all of my dinner, and didn’t watch too much TV. We used to play board games together on the living room floor, cracking raw nuts from the bowl on the side of the table and tossing them up before catching them in our mouths. We watched movies from the pull-out couch and sang at the top of our lungs in the car. Not having much in the way of material possessions forced us to be at home and entertained with one another, and that’s something I’m reminded of each time I go home to stay with her now. But without me to look after and take care of, her life lost structure. Suddenly, there were empty hours in the day where she would normally be fixing dinner or dropping me off at dance rehearsal. How she filled them, with a rekindled passion for wine and beer and parties, may become the next bridge we cross together.
My mother can now be comfortably described as “mom-sized.” This is a term I coined and take to mean not so skinny like the vegan, SoulCycling New York moms, but also not so fat as to be described as obese. She may have thyroid failure and carry extra weight around her hips and thighs – the product of her nightly drinking habit—but she is strong and can run farther than me without getting winded. She is no longer a fit vessel for childbirth, not a lithe sex object like in the old bikini picture she keeps tucked away in a forgotten drawer at her desk. At 46, she is now likely in the second half of her life, and her figure remains as womanly and beautiful as it was the day she left New Mexico at eighteen. Her eyes are clear and blue, framed by tattooed eyeliner (my mother is, among other things, a badass) and skin soft from years of diligent lotioning. When she kisses my cheek and tells me she loves me, the scent of her Dr. Pepper lip balm lingers long after I’ve crossed the security barrier in the airport and boarded a plane to elsewhere.
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