“No one ever asked me if she was a good mother. I think it’s clear without being said that she wasn’t. But that didn’t stop me from loving her.” –me to my niece when she asked about her grandmother.
Some people just aren’t cut out for parenting.
Everyone has bad stories to tell about their childhood. Don’t you? Now that I’m a grandmother myself, I can look back on my own stories, my mother’s stories, my brother’s, and my children’s, and it’s pretty clear that no one knows what they’re doing as parents. The real testament to good parenting is how much effort you put into trying.
My mother left me a note when I was five years old. One night I went to bed with two parents, and the next morning I only had my dad. I was pretty angry about this for most of my young adult years, but in retrospect, it’s pretty safe to say that she made the right choice. Or at least the right choice given her state of mind. Thank heavens she hadn’t chosen to take me with her then.
Please forgive me, but I can’t stay here. I have to find myself out there, and you’ll be safe with your daddy. He loves you.
I’ll see you soon.
It’s no secret that mom left me to be with her boyfriend. I remembered Harold in little bits and pieces from before she left – but I had no idea that they’d been seeing each other basically my whole life. Years later when I was a teenager, I’d finally get to know the man who stole her heart, but until then I only knew one way of life: to be raised by my dad who was gentle, compassionate, and absolutely the best father that had ever blessed this planet.
I saw her every so often. She didn’t completely disappear though she may as well have. I don’t remember her being affectionate with me. She didn’t kiss my boo-boos when I fell down, and she didn’t cuddle me to sleep at night. I couldn’t understand it at the time, but my mother’s abandonment was probably the best thing that she could have done for me. The only thing I never really got over, though, was that when mom left, so did my Aunt Rachel.
Rachel wasn’t really my aunt, but none of my youngest childhood memories are without her. She tried to stick around some after mom left, but she was always tearful. She’d hold me, and we’d cry, and then she’d leave. Pretty soon Rachel’s visits happened less and less often. Dad said Rachel had to spend time with her family, which she’d finally reconnected with after years of looking. But didn’t Rachel know that I was her family, too?
The last time I saw Rachel was when I graduated from high school. She brought me flowers and I asked her if we could go to lunch some time. She hugged me and said yes and gave me her phone number, but even though I called and left messages, she never got back to me. I know it’s been years but I still miss her. She was the real mother figure I lost when mom left.
Looking back now, I understand. It must have been really hard for her to keep on with the family that reminded her so much of the betrayal she experienced from her best friend. Every time she showed up, it was like a slap in the face again that my mom had shown such little regard for her feelings.
Dad appreciated Rachel and made an effort to show her that she was welcome. I overheard them talking in the midnight hours over the weeks following mom’s leaving. Rachel totally had it wrong about Harold. She thought he loved her. But I guess that was all part of the façade mom and him used to keep folks in the dark about their affair. As a child you take in the words more like a old person’s story – emotionally understanding what that means is next to impossible when you’ve never been in love, or been in a committed relationship with someone.
Mom showed up on the doorstep one day. Dark half moons drooped from her eyes and her belly was enormous. I remember being appalled as bubbles of snot dripped from her nose – like she didn’t have any more fight in her. Dad sent me to the neighbors so that he and mom could talk.
By the time dark came, dad had called and asked if Mr. and Mrs. Ellis would keep me over night. I’d never spent the night there before, and it was strange being in a house laid out the same way my house was – but different. The sheets were stiff and the house smelled like lemons, but the sounds in the dark outside were the same. I had a hard time falling asleep that night and had to keep reminding myself to think about the Chinese chess we’d played earlier in the evening. I tried really hard not to worry about why mom was home and I was not.
My dad came to get me after breakfast. He thanked Mr. and Mrs. Ellis and nodded to me to do the same. I shook their hands and said, “I really liked it here.” I slipped my hand into his and we walked the long way home – walking on the sidewalks instead of cutting across the grass like normal.
I thought he’d tell me what was going on, but he kept telling me, “Just wait, we’ll tell you in a minute.” He looked tired, like he didn’t sleep at all. When we got in through the kitchen, I smelled burnt coffee. Dad asked me to take a seat and started rinsing out the coffee canister. If he was making another pot, I could tell that today was going to be a long day for him.
Mom was asleep on the couch.
“Toni, wake up,” he said.
She sighed with her eyes closed and stretched. Then she sat up and scrunched over in pain. Was she sick?
“Seliah, we have some big news, baby.” I liked it when dad called me ‘baby.’ I was his only baby and he made sure to tell me how much he loved me when he tucked me in at night.
And that’s it. They told me mom was going to stay with us again. We were a family, reunited. Wasn’t that happy? I couldn’t help but feel a little skeptical. And I thought it was a little strange that suddenly, again, there was a mom.
Oh, and apparently with a mom comes another new baby.
Lamar Keith was a handsome infant. I liked how he changed a lot and really fast. One minute he was really fragile and then just the next day, he was lifting his head up on his own. And along with a new baby, we were going to go to Germany to meet mom’s family for the first time.
I was up for the adventure, even though it was a little weird, too.
Mom did a lot of crying and sleeping – about as much as Lamar Keith did. But since Lamar Keith was a baby, we did a lot more helping to take care of him. Mom didn’t need help with going to the bathroom or anything, so mostly we just let her be by herself. Dad said she was going through a tough time and that we’d all get through it together, as a family. And he told me to remember to use my manners while in Germany. That was really important to him.
Germany, the adventure.
The exciting parts: airplanes, my cousin Lily, and pear ice cream. The hard parts: my grandparents didn’t speak English and sometimes it was hard to understand Tante Sonja because she didn’t speak real good English, either. Tante means aunt, in case you didn’t know.
Lily was really fun to play with. She was eleven to my seven years, but she was really nice and they taught her English in school so she acted as my Master Translator the whole time we were there. I liked that she lived near a park with a creek that flowed down the side so we got to do a lot of tadpole hunting and pretending to hunt for fish in the water.
Mom’s parents were nice people. They seemed a little irritated with Mom, but who wasn’t really, at that time? Dad was patient and he quietly defended Mom when she looked like she didn’t have any fight left in her.
And who am I kidding, really? She didn’t have a fight left in her for most of those times I was getting to know her again.
The grown ups liked to get really quiet when Lily or I would come in the room. Not like I could’ve understood what they were saying, anyway. Only a quarter of the conversation was in English. I could tell, though, when Mom’s Pops spoke sternly to Mom. Just like Dad would talk to me if I ever did anything naughty. Grandma liked to hold Lamar Kevin. She’d make bird noises at him when everyone else was sounding heated.
I tried to talk to Dad some about what everyone was all worked up about. What made the least sense to me was – why did THEY all think they should be irritated? I mean, I was the only one who was really having to change everything to make room for Mom. And the baby. Don’t get me wrong, Lamar Kevin was a doll. I just loved how it felt to be a mommy, too. But really – Mom’s parents didn’t even live in the same country as us.
Dad said that grown ups often have lots of conversations they must talk about that kids don’t understand and sometimes even grown ups don’t keep their cool like they’re supposed to.
Lily and Tante Sonja said Mom had a sickness but it wasn’t contagious. Which is great news because I definitely didn’t need to be catching anything that made me lay around on the couch all day long like a zombie. Dad and me would hang out with Lamar Kevin and Mom’s family for a few weeks and then we’d go back home so Mom could be a zombie in private.
After we got back home from Germany, things slowly turned into something normal. At least when mom wasn’t having a fit. It was like she had two settings: Frankenstein and rattlesnake. Basically, I did a lot of what I’d done before. As I got bigger, I could take on bigger things. Like cooking and doing the wash and keeping the house clean. Only problem was that sometimes school got in the way of making sure all those plates stayed spinning. I did what I could. I was just a kid, anyway.
I couldn’t figure out if I liked Frankenmom better or snakemom better. I mean, when she was snakemom, at least she was trying to pretend like she had something to do, even if it meant Lamar Kevin or I was the brunt of her tantrum. Dad said she had a different sickness now: depression. What the sickness was before, I couldn’t tell, though I did notice that mom’s face started looking less swollen and her arms started looking a lot less like toothpicks and more like real arms.
Dad used to tell me I was very grown up for my age. I guess that’s what happens sometimes. He used to say, “Seliah, you were parenting your brother before you had outgrown being a child yourself!” Which is true. I guess I thought that you just have to get things done if they need to be done.
Things between mom and me were a bit stunted even a few years after she came back home. Maybe they were always stunted. Ultimately, I was pretty aware that she needed to grow up, too, and until she did she was in no position to do any mothering. So in a way through those next seven years, we grew up together. Eventually she started making little efforts here and there. Like figuring out the kitchen. When she didn’t know where something was kept, she asked me and I showed her. When she finally realized that maybe she should care when my toddler brother ate, she would ask me for help. Usually I was already on it, but sometimes her concerns helped some.
As I saw it, Mom and me were mostly equals. She was an adult, but I hadn’t ditched the family, so I figured we were even. Though maybe not quite perfectly even because when she tried to argue with dad about what to do with the money, I’d take Dad’s side because he really did know what was best for the family.
I think I was ten the first time I saw Dad really angry. Which is a pretty good stretch since I’d see him be a lot of things in that time – just never steaming mad. I came home from school and Dad came home from an office meeting and Lamar Kevin was home by himself making a hot sandwich. I guess it turns out Mom was locked in her bathroom but Dad didn’t figure that out until he couldn’t get in there after hollering and searching for Mom all over the inside and outside of the house. Lamar Kevin said he didn’t know where Mom was, and it wasn’t really a real lie because he was only three.
Dad tried explaining very loudly to Mom that Children Cannot Be Left Unattended and I really wasn’t sure if Dad was madder because Lamar Kevin had gotten jam all over the chairs and counters and floor or if it was because he was using the oven so young.
Either way, Dad’s face went dark and he wasn’t normally a yelling sort of guy and though I’d seen him cry before, this was a different, furious sort of tears. I tried to be mad at Mom, too, but it’s sort of hard to be mad at someone who’s got nothing but sadness in their heart. Still, I did a pretty good job of reminding her every morning before I got on the bus to make sure Lamar Kevin didn’t end up trying to cook alone again.
Mom and I sort of began to grow a friendship between us as I went through puberty. It’s like a light turned on in her head when she recognized all of the hormonal turmoil I was experiencing. She started our friendship out by asking me questions about how I was feeling about the kids in my class, and so I told her. I didn’t feel like I needed to be guarded towards her – it’s not like she’d tell anyone and this was really the first thing she showed an interest in about me. So I spilled.
It was like someone had finally put the right amount of change in her and now she’d work like a normal mom again. Of course, she wasn’t a normal mom, but she was really curious about what it was like for me to be in junior high and even though I was pretty wary of her advice at first, it did seem like she had a pretty good knowledge of how relationships worked – even if she sucked at managing her own.
Another thing Mom started doing around that time was playing the piano again. Really I didn’t know she was that good with music since she never really played anything when I was around. She really hadn’t been known for doing much of anything.
But as she became stronger, so did her confidence in playing in front of us.
Mom didn’t have a lot of friends, but I did. Sometimes I’d try to cajole her into getting out and meeting some new people besides me and the kids my age, but she’d snap at me to mind my business and get very quiet after. It was like she was missing the confidence that would allow her to be a whole person. Looking back now, I know it was probably her way of avoiding the temptation of leaving again. She did a pretty good job of it for a long time.
Note to Self: Listen to this when you’re channeling Toni’s passion for Harold: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t0imaSCnSuA