Cris Beam left her mother's home at age 14, driven out by a suburban household of hidden chaos.
Three years ago I got the phone call. I had always wondered about her death, how long it would take to find out about it and who would track her children down to tell them. Now I knew. Fifty-three days, and a lawyer.
I had left my mother’s house when I was 14 years old, and I never saw her again. I was 36 when I found out she was dead. In the early years of my separation from her, I tried not to think about her. For high school I moved into my father’s house, where my mother’s name had always been a bad and angry word. Then I went to college and got jobs and lovers like everyone else I knew. After the rise of the Web, I tried to spy on her from afar, but I never turned up much aside from memories that came kicking up at me like startled bats.
Ours was a family of two realities: the one we lived through and the one that had formed in my mother’s mind. She was often convinced that we were going to starve because we didn’t have enough money for food. When I was growing up, she talked endlessly about not being able to cover the mortgage on the house and how we could end up homeless and living in a box. It took me years to realize that these were fantasies. As a child, I tallied the cans in the cupboard and ticked off the days until Daddy’s check would come. But despite what my mother said, there was always enough. Sometimes we ate at the restaurant in the strip mall that smelled more like carpet than like meals or filled the car with greasy bags from Taco Bell. Still, my mother’s whispery laments were like chalk on a window: They didn’t leave a mark, but the sound stayed with me for days.
“We’re going to die in here,” she said, darting her eyes around our living room walls. “We just don’t have enough to make it.”
She always claimed to be working five jobs, though I only counted one, sometimes two. She said she was a prostitute.
When the air would become electric and I knew I should run and hide, my mother told me that her grandfather raped her every night. “Every night,” she seethed, and I was probably 10, the walls seeming to melt away. Her shoulders squared, and her eyes blazed with cruelty. “And you think you’re better than me?”
My ears folded when she said these things. The floor was stairs, and I was falling but also standing. I wouldn’t meet her gaze. My mother was no longer Mom, and I was no longer myself. She would forget these moments of madness by morning, or whenever her shoulders went back to their regular submissive hunch. She would forget partly because she said she had no memory of her childhood or that grandfather; everything between kindergarten and sixth grade for her was one black, impenetrable wall. And she would forget because she really was a different person then, split off from everything she knew.
She died of brain cancer, aggressive glioblastoma multiforme, diagnosed two years prior. Her obituary told other stories about her than the dark ones I remembered. I learned she had a great sense of direction, liked to hike alone in Yosemite, dealt poker at frat houses to pay for college, and had two surviving aunts. I already knew she loved cats and the mountains, had taught high school Spanish and math, and liked to eat hamburgers. I remember all this from my 14 years in her house. I didn’t know she considered herself a “Breck Girl,” and I had no idea what that meant. Also that she “had such a great love for everyone, and never met or knew anyone she could not forgive.” I don’t know if she forgave me.
After I left my mother, I could never explain to myself why I didn’t go back. I knew that I was terrified of her, and yet I was scared of the guilt I felt for leaving her. These opposing terrors seemed to cancel one another out, turning me into a burned-out husk of inaction.
I didn’t have a language for my mother, probably because she didn’t have a cohesive language for herself. She could snap herself into a mom I couldn’t recognize, a mom I wished I could forget. Sometimes I thought my muteness meant that nothing of significance happened, and I would doubt the fear that gripped me through adulthood. I would later learn that a telltale sign of trauma is that it doesn’t have language at all.
After she died, though, the larger memories of her came rushing back, and I wanted to find the vocabulary. I wanted to pull my mother out of the hole that occupied the center of her story and listen for a voice. I wanted to find the reason for her madness. I wanted to see if life with her was bad enough to warrant my disappearance—or hers, depending on the perspective; I wanted to tease our existence apart and see if I had a self, still standing. “If it wasn’t anything,” as William Faulkner once wrote, “what was I?”
But first I’d have to come back from the dead.
When I left my mother’s house at age 14, she quietly killed me off. She took a trip to Kansas with my brother, who was 10. One day my grandfather asked her about me.
“Cris died,” my mother told him. My brother, Andrew, panicked, but she pulled him into another room and told him to play along. I don’t know if she told the aunts and cousins and everybody else this same story. Did I die in a crash or of some disease? I never heard from anyone on her side of the family again.
Andrew followed a path similar to mine. He also moved out of our mother’s house when he was 14 and went to live with our father. Unlike me, when he was still in high school he snuck back into our old home. He wanted to retrieve some of his baby pictures, along with his old teddy bear, Charlie. He found the key to the front door in its usual hiding place; he calmed the dogs and tiptoed into the empty house. My old bedroom, he said, had been transformed into an amateur taxidermy studio for my mother’s boyfriend, with glass eyeballs and animal pelts scattered about. My brother’s bedroom hadn’t been touched. Three years of dust had accumulated on his old action figures and video games; too-small pajamas still lay crumpled in the hamper.
My brother was freaked out by the dead animals and by his former self, preserved behind our closed bedroom doors. He snatched his teddy bear and rushed downstairs, blindly grabbing a handful of photographs that my mother kept in a box in the living room.
He drove a safe distance away and then stopped and looked at the pictures. They were mostly of me: baby snaps and Christmas shots from when I was around 3 years old. There were a few of us together, when he was a baby and at Halloween when we were dressed as clowns, and none of our mom. He was too scared to return unless he knew that Mom had moved away.
The next time he went back, Andrew was in college. He drove across the Bay Bridge to look one last time at the place where we grew up. He parked outside and stared for a while. The house looked different; it had a paint job, and the shrubs were trimmed. Eventually, a woman opened the door.
“Can I help you?” she asked. Andrew told her he lived there as a child and the woman’s face went white. She asked him for his name. Andrew told her and said that he was Candy Beam’s son. The woman took a long breath. She had bought the house from Candy, she explained. “But she said both of her children were dead.”
My mother and father met in a high school chemistry class in Wichita, Kansas, or this was the story I heard. It was the year the Beatles released “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” My mom was smart and pretty and had a great figure from teaching swimming all summer long to neighborhood kids. I imagine she was a catch.
My parents both attended the University of Kansas; my mom was in a sorority. They dated all through college and then got married and had me. Fairly standard stuff, except it was the war, and everybody was busy trying to avoid going to Vietnam. My father, luckily, was stationed in Mesa, Arizona.
Many years later, my mother told me stories about these early days. She said I was born on a reservation, in an Army tent. That was a fantasy. She also told me, in one of her stranger moments, that she delivered me after riding on a camel, maybe in Arizona. The truth was this: I was born in a veteran’s hospital, a breach baby, with my father waiting right outside the door.
When the war ended, we moved to Minnesota, where my father got a job as a buyer for a department store and my mother stayed home to take care of me. These were good years, as I remember them; I can go back to the way I saw my world, to my kindergartner’s mind and words.
We lived in a white house with a red roof. In that white house, I watched my mom get fat; she was helping me read, and there was less and less room on her lap. Pushed to the edge of her knees, I was working on chapter books when my mom told me to sit next to her instead. There wasn’t room for me anymore.
She said there was a brother growing in there, like a doll but better, because I would be able to teach him things. My mom cooked dinners with macaroni and meat then. She didn’t have a job, so she vacuumed. When it was raining we went to the Piggly Wiggly for shopping, and she wasn’t tired very often so we also played Old Maid. I liked making Valentines, but that was only once a year, so I made coloring books for the starving children in China when I wouldn’t finish my dinner. My mom made me a Valentine with lace on it the year she got pregnant, but she wrote in cursive, so “I love you” looked like “I love yow,” and I thought a lot about how words could be more than one thing, depending on how you wrote them.
I went to the neighbors’ house on the night my dad drove my mom to the hospital. The lady was named Robin, and the man looked like Jesus, and we watched Benji movies together under a quilt that smelled like dogs. My mom didn’t come home for three days because she was bleeding, but my dad said that was OK because I had a brother who was also at the hospital. Since I didn’t have a mom anymore, my dad gave me a game called Operation: With tiny tweezers, you removed the organs from a fat man. The man looked very alarmed, and his nose buzzed if you made a mistake, but he didn’t bleed.
My mom would later talk about the incredible sacrifice of labor. A little while after my brother was born, she told me she had lost so much blood birthing us that the doctors thought she would die. We almost killed her, she said, but she loved us too much to let go. (My father, who was present at both births, claims today that these stories were patently untrue.)
One day a year or so after his difficult birth, when my brother was a toddler, my dad told me we were moving to California. My mom didn’t cry, not at first.
My brother was walking by then, except he walked with his feet pointing in, not out, so he wore a brace at night, which looked like baby shoes nailed to a metal bar. California was too far to walk to; we would drive in the silver car, and later, Archie the cat would fly in a plane.
I began writing a book about it, adding more every day. I had read about Chinatown, where the money had holes, and also about the Golden Gate Bridge, which was red. I knew about the curvy streets and giant hills. So I wrote chapters about each neighborhood where we might live. I wrote in pencil and traced the letters over in pen. The book was long, the longest thing I had ever made.
I sat on our yellow couch for a surprise revelation one night after dinner, with my book tucked up under my T-shirt. I made my dad sit down on one side of me, my mom on the other. They cuddled in close. I pulled the book out and held it up for them to see the cover. “San Francisco,” it said. “A Book by Cristie Beam.” I turned the page and read.
I started with the 1906 earthquake, because that was exciting. I felt my mom start to get small beside me and my dad sit up straighter. My mom started sobbing and ran from the room.
“Why are you crying?” I asked her. She was sitting on the bed.
“Because you want to go to California like Daddy.”
I knew then that she would make me choose between them.
My family’s breakdown began when we arrived in California, in the spring of 1979. We had driven from a fading white winter into a sunshine suburb where kids wore flip-flops and terrycloth shorts and girls my age had hair like horses’ manes. The town was called Concord, and it was the last stop on the commuter train from San Francisco, a place of tract houses and scrubby front lawns and the hard racial tensions of the working and middle classes entwined together. About 100,000 people lived there, mostly white and Latino; a few years later, a young black man was lynched at the train station.
We pulled up in front of a tract house painted a dusty sage green. The moving van’s doors yawned open, and our entire Minnesota life poured out. I quietly found my books while my dad bought navy blue loveseats and shiny end tables for the living room. My mom bought a porch swing that reminded her of her childhood in Kansas and swung alone in the backyard.
I started first grade, and I was surprised to discover that my new school didn’t have hallways, because California doesn’t have weather, not like Minnesota. School was easy, and my teacher was boring, but I liked my crossing guard; she remembered my cat’s name and asked me lots of questions. When I got home, my mom was usually ironing and watching her soap operas, and my brother was bouncing around in his baby chair. I would go into my room to put on my play apron and practice being a secretary.
Before California my dad came home for dinner, but once we moved we waited. My brother would eat, but my mom and I watched M*A*S*H while our food slowly dried out in the oven. I tried to snuggle in close to where my mom smelled the best, but she was distracted and didn’t hug back. It was about four months after we’d moved that my mom started her muttering.
“He’s with her,” she’d say, staring hard at the television.
I didn’t know who “she” was. I stared away from my mother, at the white telephone that hung from the wall: I was willing my dad to call.
In my Holly Hobby diary I was a diligent recorder of daily minutiae; every dated page is filled. But in the way of 7-year-olds, I was less careful about my narrative links. I often wrote things like “I made a circus. Mommy hit me.” The line “Mommy hit me” is followed the next day by “I hit Kim.” Poor Kim, a childhood friend, is a running character in the diary, and she unknowingly bore the blunt end of my mother’s instability. There were lines like “Mommy hit me” or “Mommy pulled my hair” or “Mommy diddent love me today” a lot that year, but the funny thing is, I don’t remember any real physical violence. I remember her muttering about my dad and drifting away, deeper into her television and her migraine headaches. The sentences about my father were about absence, especially as the year progressed: “Daddy left for work at five p.m.” or “Daddy diddent come home tonight.”
Some months later, when I was 8 years old, my father moved out.
After that, my mother fragmented. I used to blame my father more, suspecting that his leaving was what snapped the delicate thread between her head and her heart. Later I would come to believe that my father only strummed the string that had really broken long before, launching her back into a madness she had tried so long to block.
After my father left, men streamed in and out of our house. There was the carpenter, who had a retarded son I was supposed to play with and one day flashed me from his bathrobe. There was the man who fixed toilets and swore. There was that dancing guy, and the man with the gun rack on his truck, and the one who sat on the edge of the chair staring when I played the piano.
Maybe my mom really was a prostitute. She said she was. She claimed to work on Wednesday nights from a bar near the BART station. That was her shift. This she told me calmly when she said she was already working five jobs and couldn’t possibly work any harder, right before she shuffled upstairs with one of her migraines.
The memories of my mother’s prostitution are among my most confusing recollections. They clash wildly with the persona my mother presented most of the time, to most people. Usually my mother was shy, with the voice and demeanor of a nervous young girl. She wore fuzzy sweaters and tennis shoes, her hair clipped back in barrettes, and she got me to pay the men in the gas station or to ask the neighbors for butter. Her eyes easily filled when confronted with strangers, especially in those early years: She was skittish, with an overlay of sweetness.
But then, at night, the men would come, between the regulars. I would hear them clomping up the stairs, and I would hear her, too, in the room across the hall. The sound of sex, the smell, seemed to be everywhere. When she was in her room, she sounded like she was being tortured, and also defiant, like a person I didn’t know. Sometimes I’d see them in the morning: dark-haired, mustachioed, ’70s men, buckling their Sansabelt pants or lacing up their work boots before they shut the door. My mom would shuffle down later in a rose-colored nightie, her breasts low and heavy, making instant coffee in the microwave. She didn’t talk about the men, didn’t introduce us, and mostly they didn’t say anything to my brother or me, either. We just ate our cereal and left for school.
In an unusual moment of protectiveness when I was 9, my mom bought me a deadbolt for my bedroom door and told me to use it.
I was scared of the lock, actually. I was scared there would be a fire and nobody would be able to break down the door and save me. But when I asked my mom why I had to shut the bolt at night, she wouldn’t explain.
And in this way, I was less afraid of the men than I was of my mom. I don’t know if she was exchanging sex for money or just exchanging a lot of sex. What I do know is that talking about the men could make her split into her “bad mom” self, the one she wouldn’t remember. Or maybe it was the other way around: When my mom was normal, she was quiet and shy and good; when she split, she was a whore.
All of my mother’s personality splits revolved around sex—usually violent, screaming outbursts about violent, terrifying encounters. Maybe, with all those men, she was acting out those images, reliving her childhood and the grandfather who, she claimed, had raped her. Maybe these “other jobs” were a way to take back control. Or else she was just lying about being a prostitute. And maybe that would be worse. I was only 9 or 10. The way she talked about it was what scared me most of all.
“Why do you think you’re better than me?” she once shouted, apropos of nothing. When my mother shouted and accused, I knew she had changed; when she was her normal self, guilt was her weapon, not rage. This particular day she was holding a plate; I thought she was going to throw it at me. “You’re not a whore—you’ve never had to be a whore!”
My mother laughed, and this is how she was when she shifted: She stood up straighter, her shoulders went back; she seemed taller, electric, charged. Her grin was tighter, her eyes brighter; even her hair seemed to rise. She wielded the plate in the air. “I have to be a whore to put food in your body! And you think you’re too good for me. You think you’re better than everybody!” She leaned in, the spit from her screaming landing on my cheeks. “How do you think I paid for my college? I was a whore! A whore! I’ve always been a whore!”
Beyond her hulking form I saw my toddler brother hiding behind the couch. I calculated the timing. Could I duck beneath her arm, grab my brother, carry him up the stairs, and lock him in my room with me without her catching us? Impossible. My mom was big, but she could be fast.
She gave me an opportunity to save my brother when she stomped into the kitchen and broke the plate in the sink: I grabbed him and made it to my room. I knew if we waited, this bad mom would go away, and I wished hard on all my stuffed animals for her to go driving, because good mom would come back from those drives, normal and tired and knowing nothing at all about the terrible things she’d said.
I didn’t know it then, but there was a diagnosis that was popular at the time that my mother seemed to conform to: multiple personality disorder, mocked and demonized after Hollywood’s Sybil. Thirty years later, the diagnosis would still be controversial, and I would still be embarrassed and afraid to stick my mom with such a label. Like prostitution, the very idea is salacious and sensationalized, rarely capturing the lived experience of those with the condition. It’s now called dissociative identity disorder (DID), and people who suffer from it have disrupted identities and can’t recall significant personal information. Almost always they’ve been deeply traumatized in childhood, often through repeated and prolonged sexual abuse. People with DID have two or more distinct personality states.
But I knew little about mental illness when I was 10.
When I turned 11, the men stopped coming around, and my mom stopped talking about her five jobs. She seemed to get a little better, likely because she had settled with a boyfriend named Ron, who was a firefighter. My mother always wanted a protector.
It was during a time when she seemed saner that I decided to throw a birthday party for my mother. I was 11, and I wanted to show my mom that I loved her; I thought I had the power to keep the good mom going strong—that, like the moon, I could control her tides. Of course, I was a child; of course, I was wrong.
Birthdays so far had been memorable in a good way. At one Miss America–themed party, I invited several girls over to dress up, pageant style, and walk the runway across our living room floor. My mom took our pictures with the Polaroid, and we made frames out of cardboard, adorning each with phrases like “Number One!” and “Winner!” At another birthday party, my mom created a scavenger hunt, and we ran around looking for sparkly rocks or asking neighbors for a slice of cheese. When I had a sleepover in fifth grade, we all tried to make Shelly wet her sleeping bag after she fell asleep by rubbing ice on the inside of her arm, and my mom prepared scrambled eggs and cinnamon toast for everybody in the morning. She was intensely shy and repeatedly told us that “you shouldn’t stick your head above the crowd, or someone could chop it off.” But on our birthdays she allowed us to be special. For one day, my brother and I could wear the paper crown from Burger King and be the center of attention.
All of these parties required forethought, and kindness, so these memories are the most painful and awkward to revive. They’re like the gels they slide over the lights at a theater, suddenly casting everything in a reddish or greenish tone. If my mom was so achingly normal on my birthday, so generous, so present, what did that say about the ghost who faded away most nights? The spliced-in mom who threw plates and slapped and screamed? Or the mom who was like a baby, crying when my dad came to pick us up and take us away from her?
But it was at the birthday party for my mother that I threw myself that the isolated version of her reemerged, with full force.
I planned the party in cahoots with her boyfriend Ron. He wore polyester pants and zip-up ankle boots and advised me to put rubbing alcohol on a sunburn, which stung like hell. He and my mom drank pink wine from the box that perched on the top shelf of our refrigerator and listened to Barbra Streisand albums while filling in crosswords. My mom could complete the puzzles faster by herself, but she liked to coo in admiration when Ron held the pencil.
I asked Ron to pretend to take my mom to dinner and then to turn the car around 20 minutes later so everybody could jump out and yell “Surprise!” The only sticking point in the fantasy was who “everybody” was. My mother had no friends, so I didn’t know whom to invite. I called my friend Heather’s mom, a lady named Lucile, who had known my mom back when my parents were married. And I called my mom’s job, a place I knew as a boring room by the freeway where she worked with a chain smoker named Elaine doing “the books.” Elaine and Lucile said they’d come, but that made only two guests.
Should I ask some of the men to the party? I didn’t have their phone numbers, so I started inviting the neighbors. I went door to door, explaining that her birthday was coming up and would they please come to a party and hide in our closets and jump out and yell “Surprise!” These people, dragged away from their sitcoms and their Swanson dinners, looked bewildered: They didn’t know her. But wasn’t I the kid who was always trying to force their kids to act in plays I had made up? Yes, yes, I grinned. I told them to come over at seven; there would be cake.
I canvassed several blocks, but in the end maybe six people showed, plus Lucile and Elaine from work. They still wore the same confused expressions as they buzzed the doorbell, and I pushed them into closets or down below the couch. I was shaking with excitement as I turned out the lights and watched at the front window for Ron’s headlights to appear in the driveway; I had to shush someone’s whispered “What the hell are we doing here?” lest he blow the surprise.
Finally the car pulled up. I heard my mother giggling to Ron about his forgetfulness and having to come back home so soon as the door handle turned. I flicked on the lights, and all the strangers, on cue, leaped up and shouted.
She was framed in the doorway and reached backward for Ron’s arm. Her mouth opened and closed like a fish. I had forgotten that the confetti I had made from construction paper was still stuffed in my hand, so I threw it, in a sweaty clump, at her face. She batted it away. Slowly, the neighbors came forward.
“I’m Donna,” a woman said, extending her hand. “Happy birthday.”
My mom looked like she was going to cry, and I realized, like a sudden kick to the throat, what a terrible mistake I had made. This was worse than sticking your head above the crowd. It was assembling a crowd for her beheading.
“Why would you do this to me?” my mom whispered as I pulled out the cake Ron had bought from the grocery store. Everybody sang “Happy Birthday,” but it was awkward when some people didn’t remember her name. A few neighbors had brought presents like stationery or jars of peanuts wrapped in tissue, but it was clear my mom wouldn’t open them, since she kept saying “Thank you for coming!” after her first nibbles at the frosting.
She was swaying strangely in her beige flats. I tried to make grown-up party talk like I’d seen on TV, but nobody was interested in me, and I was distracted by my mom’s voice, which was that of a little girl, with too much breath and fear and pitch. I didn’t want anyone to see her like this; she usually stayed indoors when she was her tiniest self; the voice was a precursor to one of her marathon migraines. I had forgotten about getting anything to drink, so there was only the pink wine, and people drank tap water out of our mugs and the walls were getting too close and almost sweaty and the people seemed to want to leave but I couldn’t go home with them.
In the morning my mother thanked me for the party; she had spent the night getting soothed by Ron, and I had spent it counting and recounting my stuffed animals, touching their noses and tapping their heads in my special code, so I could face my mom again.
When I left my mother’s house at 14, I took only four things: a big bag of clothes, her dime-store eyelash curler, a photograph of my crossing guard, and my Holly Hobby diary from 1979. I had only wanted to grab quick and unnoticeable things from the house.
A judge had informed my father that kids could shift custody arrangements on their own as soon as they turned 14. This had always been my plan, to get away. I wanted it, but I also feared it, feared what it would do to my mother. Over Christmas break, at my father’s apartment, I secretly applied to private schools in San Francisco. The timing slipped up beneath me like a sheet of ice. And then I had to tell my mother.
I chose a moment when her back was to me, her arms full of laundry, as she was climbing the stairs.
“Mom?” I said, looking up at her wide back. I held the banister for support. “I applied to some high schools in San Francisco.”
She stopped. She didn’t put the laundry down.
Slowly, my mom climbed the rest of the stairs and disappeared into her room. She emerged a few seconds later, breathing heavily. “It’s your decision,” she said.
I started to climb up to her, but she motioned me to stop. “Your father can give you things I can’t. I knew you’d choose him one day.”
“It’s not about Dad,” I protested. “It’s about the school. There are some really good schools!”
My mom sighed, and her eyes filled with tears. “If you go to live with him, I’ll never see you again.”
I knew this was true. She would never come see me, and she wouldn’t call because I’d be living with my father. After I left, any connection would be up to me.
Because she had always relied on me. It had been my role to retrieve her from her months of sobbing after my father left and to interrupt the hours she’d spend in the tub in the dark. When she’d whisper “It’s just too hard to be here,” I’d rush around like a dog on ice to distract her: “Let’s watch a movie, let’s make popcorn, let’s look at my new dance! I’m making it up right now!”
It had been my role to shield her from the glances at the grocery store when she talked like a 5-year-old, counting the money that didn’t add up. I’d calmly ask the clerk to take out the ice cream and the sugar cereals, and yes, I’d tell the cashier, everything is fine. It had been my role to shake her to go back to the store when she’d drive away without my brother, when he was a toddler left screaming in the parking lot, waiting to be strapped in. It had been my role to keep my mom tethered—to me and to everything else. Somewhere deep and unspeakable inside me, I knew I had to get away.
It was after that that I got sick. My fever spiked to 102, then 103, and the pains in my belly were unbearable. My mom drove me to the hospital, and it was strange because it was called Children’s Hospital, and I hadn’t felt like a child for years. There was a kind nurse who stroked my head and called me poor baby, and then there was a needle in my arm and a doctor and a mask on my face, and I was being sped down a hallway on a gurney.
The doctor thought my appendix had ruptured, which was the reason for the rush. When they cut me open, though, they found nothing wrong at all. Later, the surgical reports from the hospital indicated that the operation lasted four hours, and they removed a perfectly healthy appendix and discovered some light endometriosis around my uterus. (They cut over to my right ovary, which was healthy and fine, and discovered only “streak tissue” where my left ovary should be: a birth defect, apparently, a missing piece.)
I think now that my body was merely marking another kind of pain. When I got better, I packed a suitcase. I layered my clothes and the diary, her eyelash curler, and the photo of the crossing guard. I then waited for the right moment. It arrived when one of my mother’s old boyfriends came by to fix something under the sink. He was a burly, sweaty kind of guy with a truck full of tools. I asked if he could drive me to San Francisco.
We lobbed my heavy bag into the back of his truck with all the hammers and old toilets. I didn’t know then that I would write about this day some 25 years later from a bright apartment in New York City and still be looking for the mom who watched me from the window. I didn’t know then that her premonition, or her curse, would come true.
What I did know, as my mother’s errant boyfriend and I pulled up in front of my dad’s apartment building, country music blaring from the truck’s windows, was that I wanted some kind of ceremony to make sense of leaving her. I knew, somewhere in my stitched-together gut, that I had just made a choice that would haunt me forever—I had chosen to amputate my mom, and without my lifeblood she would be too sick to love me again.
I had severed myself from myself. I had a sudden and strange fantasy of balloons and banners inside my father’s apartment: a welcome-home party. Something to show me the war had been worth it.
Over the next four years, the pains came at night, when the lowing of the foghorns would fold me to sleep. Then I would dream myself back into my old green house. In the dreams, my mother wouldn’t be there. I was alone and terrified. Somebody or something was coming to kill me, and I was afraid I was already dead, because I couldn’t move: My whole sleep self was a phantom limb, locked into the person I had left behind.
Throughout my twenties, I wrote to my mom every four years or so, just to prove that I could. Every time I wrote, a card or a letter would arrive a few weeks later. “I can tell every word was written with the intention to hurt me,” she wrote more than once. When she replied around the time of my birthday, she sent me a card with a clown and balloons meant for a 3-year-old. Twice she misspelled my name. When I sent her a letter to tell her I had graduated from college, she sent me a note on scrap paper saying only “Congratulations. I wish you the best.” The longest letter she wrote was in response to a query I had sent her, asking her to explain what she thought had happened between us and what had transpired in her life to make us so distant and estranged.
She wrote back about her cats and dogs, and about the ghosts who lived in her house—she told me not to worry, as the ghosts were friendly and her yard was pretty. Aside from the graduation note, she always signed off with a warning: I had chosen to leave her, she said, and there was nothing she could do to change that.
After each letter, I simply shut off the mom switch I had briefly toggled on. I didn’t think about her, didn’t talk about her, forced her image back down each time something—a song on the radio, a certain shade of yellow—would sweep me back to childhood, and my blood would seem to rush in reverse. Aside from the spontaneous letters, I did everything I could to forget.
Madness has no logic, and it has terrible timing. One morning, after I decided at age 30 to have a baby, I cracked. I couldn’t leave the bathroom floor. I clung to the toilet and scraped my fingernails against the floor tiles. I leaned my head against the cool porcelain of the bathtub for relief. I was flooded with the smells from my childhood, of frozen Salisbury steak bubbling in the microwave and cut grass from outside. I was terrified that if I left the bathroom, my California hometown, Concord, would be right out the door. I could smell it that clearly. And yet I knew this was crazy. I was terrified I was going crazy.
I didn’t resist a hospital rescue. I knew I was unraveling.
A doctor gave me medicine right away. And then, after I waited for a while in a small room, a tall woman with blond hair walked in. She sat in a chair in front of me and met my eyes. She took my hands.
“Why?” I asked, and started to sob. The therapist’s grip was steady. “Why?” I cried harder, gasping. “Why did my mother molest me?”
It was the first time I’d said it out loud.
After my psychic break, I spent a year in Los Angeles in the lower swells of a serious, occasionally suicidal, anxious depression. This yearlong darkness was much more than fallout from articulating a singular abuse. It came from arousing the suspicion of it and wishing my agonies could coalesce around a moment, then finding that they could not.
As a child I was pliant with my mother, skinless for years, and then I left. In my depression, I realized I’d left a still soft self behind, with her. For a long time, I didn’t have language for what had happened in her house.
She had moved away from my childhood home, but her phone number was easy to find. I called her for the second time in a decade.
Mom sounded exactly the same. She was breathy, girlish, distracted. “Where are you?” she said. “Oh, if you were right outside my door, I would give you a hug.”
I told her I was 500 miles away, living in Los Angeles.
“Oh Crissie,” she said, using my childhood name. “I remember what your head smelled like when you were a baby. You smelled so good. So good.”
I knew this was a strange thing to say. I knew it right then.
“I’m 30 now,” I said.
“That’s so hard to believe,” my mom answered, and she laughed. “Because I’m only 25!”
I told my mom I had gone through a depression, sparked by my decision to have a baby, although I hadn’t gone through with it. I asked about the genetic links to depression in our family, but despite her months of sleeping in the daytime, bathing in the dark, and ceaseless tears, she didn’t know of any. You should be happy, she said. What on earth was there to be sad about?
“Well, you,” I told her. “I don’t have a relationship with you.”
My mom was quiet for a minute. “That was your decision,” she said, her voice flat. “You’re the one who wouldn’t have anything to do with me. There was nothing I could do about that.”
My mother made me dead before my time, but it was she who was the ghost. I wanted to confront her with the things she’d done. I wanted to ask questions, and I wanted her to forgive me for leaving when I was young and scared, so I could have the chance to forgive her, too. I wanted her to change that old song on the radio that she insisted was our story—the story that left her jilted by a lover. Because, really, I was her child, and I couldn’t have left her if I tried.
She had checkmated us both. In her eyes, I was still the person who moved to my father’s apartment at 14; she was powerless against my father, and she was powerless against me. I had moved on some, and I couldn’t be that girl again—the girl with no edges, the girl who blotted her mother’s madness and still went to school and smiled and swallowed it down. I also couldn’t be my mother’s monster. I couldn’t be the one without the love inside to come back.
But these thoughts would only come long after I hung up the phone. Right then a familiar guilt had coated my throat, and I was silent. So my mom asked after my brother. Unlike me, he hadn’t contacted her even once after he moved away. I gave her the briefest of reports, and she said she was happy because he sounded happy.
Everything was so “happy,” I wondered if she was on some drug; I had always sort of wished I could attribute her behavior to an external substance. At this point in our phone call, I was starting to feel robotic, so it was surprisingly easy to ask her if she’d ever been addicted to anything. She sounded shocked.
“No!” she squealed. “Not even cigarettes. I haven’t had any problems ever. Knock wood. But you, with trying to have this baby…” She paused.
“What?” I asked.
“Well, the doctors said you’d probably never be able to have children.”
She was referring to the surgery when I was 14, when the doctors found nothing wrong.
“I don’t know how much you remember about that surgery,” my mom continued, “but it was very serious. The doctors had to remove one of your ovaries, and all of your female parts were inflamed and infected. They said you probably wouldn’t be able to have babies from all of the scar tissue.”
And there we were. Her trauma had seeped out again and foisted itself on me. But this time I knew the story wasn’t true. I had a medical report. And this time I could see the lie casting its glance back onto all her other stories—the desert birth, her almost starving, the daughter she claimed had stopped loving her. Nothing about my mother was solid but this: She had created her loss through my image, and I would careen forever if I couldn’t let her go.
I lay on the grass outside my Los Angeles apartment for a long time after that talk and looked at the stars. I wouldn’t call her again.
I did remember her, though.
She was soft. She had that dark hair she pinned back with barrettes, and blue eyes. She had a toothy smile and a full lower lip; she wore gray eye shadow and coral-colored lipstick. She liked sweet perfumes, rose and gardenia, and she dressed in jeans and pink cable-knit sweaters. She was tall to me, about five foot eight, with wide hips and a fleshy stomach and breasts. I loved her hands most of all: they were narrow, with tapered fingers and veins that pulsed thickly beneath the pale skin, and they smelled like Nivea cream and instant coffee.
I didn’t want to remember.
When I found out that my mother was dead, I was enraged. Not because she was gone—for that I felt a slight uptick of relief. I was angry because nobody had told me earlier. I hadn’t known she was sick, hadn’t known there was a funeral, hadn’t been able to say good-bye. I had never known how to talk to my mother, but I wanted to say good-bye.
A lawyer had found my brother first to broach the news, and my brother had called me. This lawyer wanted us to sign some papers, but I called him directly to ask why no one in her family—in my family—had reached out to us.
The lawyer turned out to be a friend of my mother’s. She had done his bookkeeping for years. He told me that the family didn’t know how to find us, his tone cool and professional. This, I said, was impossible. I am an author and a professor at three universities; a Google search of my name yields plenty of hits. For $1.95, you can see my last seven addresses and get a criminal background check thrown in for free. My brother has a Web site with an address and phone number on it. After all, the lawyer himself tracked us down.
The lawyer then said that my mother had written us letters to tell us she was dying and we didn’t write her back.
“Oh,” I said, stunned. “She wrote to us?”
I didn’t tell him that the few letters she had sent me over the years had been in direct response to mine, that she’d never mustered the courage to make contact on her own.
“The family didn’t think you cared,” the lawyer continued. “You didn’t write back to her letters, so why would you go to her funeral?”
“But I never got a letter,” I protested, sounding every bit the 5-year-old I felt like inside.
The lawyer knew her husband, Clem, and her sister. “Well, honestly, I think Clem and Phyllis thought you had already caused your mother enough grief in her life, why should you be allowed to cause any more?” he said.
In my mother’s will, I discovered, she had left the house for Clem to maintain his “health and standard of living.” After he passes, half the sale of the house will be distributed to her relatives: Mom’s sister and her sister’s two children are to receive a quarter, and my brother and I will collect an eighth apiece. In 20 years, I may get a hundred bucks out of the deal. The only other things she had to give away were two diamond rings. These she bequeathed to my cousin Kathy.
After I got off the phone with the lawyer, I decided to take the risk and track down Clem. I had never met him. I discovered that he lived in a house he had shared with Mom for 18 years in Benicia, a town 11 miles from where I grew up. I saw a picture of it on Google Maps: It was a one-story clapboard house, painted blue with white trim. Clem was 72, but when he answered the phone he sounded younger. Your mother, he said, was the nicest person he had ever known.
“Your mother loved you,” Clem said. “She cried over you all the time. She never understood why you never came and saw her. Birthdays especially.”
Clem confirmed the letters she supposedly wrote when she was sick, though he never saw them. He said she cried when she didn’t hear back from us. He said he didn’t know how to find us for the funeral. In fact, he said, “I didn’t know if you was even alive.”
There must have been 150 people at the funeral, he told me. Everyone loved her.
I remembered the birthday party I had tried to throw for her when I was a kid, and I remembered her intense fear of strangers. I realized Clem had an entirely different understanding of my mom, one based on the sweet self she also showed me sometimes. Then I asked him if he thought my mother was afraid to contact us and if this was why we didn’t get the letters. This stumped him for a moment, but then he went back to a familiar refrain.
I had done a real bad thing, leaving her like that, he said, but she was never angry—just the rest of the family was, for treating her so bad.
I remembered the way my mother had told her family that I was dead and wondered if they ever believed it. I thought how strange it was to be a ghost: solid enough for everyone’s projections to land and stick but too ephemeral to fight back. I also felt that Clem didn’t like talking to me.
She was the smartest person in town, he said. I sensed he was trying to get off the phone. “You really missed a lot not knowing your mother.”
I asked him if she was afraid of dying.
“No, because she’d already died twice before,” he said. “With you and your brother, giving birth. She died both times, in childbirth, but then she came back.”
Clem told me someone was waiting for him at the store. But I wanted to hear more.
What about our report cards and stories and drawings and photographs from when we were kids, I asked him. I had been an avid journaler as a child, and my brother drew tons of pictures back then. My mother kept all of these things in boxes labeled with dates. When I left her house, I took only the diary and the eyelash curler and the picture of my crossing guard. I didn’t have school photos or birthday pictures. There was nothing to prove our childhoods with our mother, only the scattering of pictures of the visits with our dad that marked us growing up.
“No, no, we threw all of that stuff away,” Clem said. His voice was rushed. “She didn’t want it anymore.”
The depth of this loss stopped me cold. “Um, could I have a picture of her, something of hers?”
“The only pictures I got are the pictures of her and me, and they’re up on the wall.”
“Could I get a copy of that picture, just to see what she looks like?”
“No,” Clem answered, his voice firm. “I don’t got nothing.” He hung up the phone.
A week after I got the news of my mother’s death, I called my aunt Phyllis, her only sister. Clem had told me she had remarried and was living in a retirement community in Texas, just enough information for me to find her phone number. Despite Clem’s promise of the family’s anger, Phyl spoke with me for an hour and a half.
“Your mom loved you kids so much,” Phyl told me. “She loved you more than she loved herself.”
Phyl told me mom tried to reach me many times. My aunt was 73, but she too sounded younger, the Kansas accent flattening her tones. Your mother even went to your dad’s house in San Francisco to try to see you, she said. She said someone who worked for him answered the door (my mother thought it was a butler or a maid) and told my mom to never set foot in the vicinity again. Of course, this was a fantasy: my father lording over a batch of servants. Supposedly my mom called repeatedly. Phyl’s assurance made me doubt myself. Had she ever really called me? Why hadn’t I answered the phone? She went to your high school graduation, Phyl said. “You looked right at her,” she claimed. “But you wouldn’t speak to her, so she left.”
This story, at least, I had heard. When I was set to graduate from high school, I sent an invitation to my mother but didn’t receive a reply. I gave a speech, but there were hundreds in the audience, and the lights were in my eyes. My brother said later that he saw her there, phantom-like, hovering in the back. When I went to look for her, she was already gone.
My aunt said my mom wanted us to have the things my father could provide—private school, those imaginary butlers and maids—that she herself could not. And then she wanted us to make our own decisions about him. She never wanted us to hate our father the way she did.
Phyllis remembered the trip my mom and brother and I made to Kansas more than a year after the divorce. My mom hadn’t told anyone the news for many months, so it wasn’t surprising that she hadn’t spoken about her fantasies of suicide, her fears of starvation, or the way she would crack up at night. Nevertheless, my aunt said my mom was in a state of shock during the visit, withdrawn and barely speaking. I wish someone had known to help her more.
Later, Phyllis sent me a few things from my mother: two tiny paintings my mom had liked and probably picked up from the weekend garage sales she used to troll, as well as a few pictures of her in college, looking surprisingly young and pretty. She didn’t have pictures of me or my brother, save for some silhouettes she rescued from my mom’s attic. I remember these silhouettes: We had them made during a trip to Disneyland, and I find it somehow fitting that this final keepsake is but an outline.
After I got off the phone with Phyllis, I decided to call Kathy, the cousin to whom my mother was closest.
Kathy, too, told me how much my mom loved me, and said she used to have pictures of my brother and me all over the walls in her house. She said my mother told her that she had tried to be in touch with me but that I “wanted nothing to do with her.”
I think about the reasons a mother would need to believe her children betrayed her. The simplest answer is the sympathy such a story garnered, the wall of warm bodies it built around her, soothing her. Maybe she just couldn’t endure the idea that she had caused pain; there simply wasn’t room in her psyche to stand up and be accountable, as she’d been curled up in a little ball, ready for blows, for so long. And perhaps my mother needed a betrayer because she had been betrayed. Maybe the pictures on her walls weren’t really of us but of herself, the little girl she couldn’t remember. Somebody had betrayed that child. She lived through a horror that she couldn’t name because she couldn’t remember it. But she knew that she felt it, so it had to have been real. My brother and I were the people she remembered, and we had loved her and left her behind. We were the requisite beasts.
Kathy wondered out loud whether her brain cancer had been around much earlier than anybody knew, whether maybe cancer kept her from living in reality sometimes and she just learned to hide it.
Kathy described the day of my mother’s diagnosis. My mom had been to her local gym, but after her workout she just sat in a chair staring into space. The gym was closing, and an employee urged her to go home. She didn’t respond. The employee tried again; she seemed catatonic. Finally, my mother got up and walked away.
According to Kathy, Clem found her later, at home and in bed. When he walked into the bedroom, my mother started yelling: “Who are you? Get out of my house!” Clem ran for the neighbors, and she yelled at them, too. They called an ambulance, and at the hospital doctors ran scans and discovered the tumor. She later told Kathy that she didn’t remember a thing; she had no idea how she even drove home from the gym.
This, I told Kathy, sounded exactly like the alternate personality I knew from my childhood. Her spaciness. Her yelling nonsensical, dangerous things and then forgetting that she had screamed at all. My mom could snap into another self, and she did. And whether the tumor caused it or was merely a parallel discovery, nobody will ever know.
If I wasn’t going to get confirmation of my mom’s mental illness, from Clem or Phyl or anyone else, I wanted proof of how it might have begun. I wanted the truth about the grandfather. And I got that truth when I spoke with one woman who knew my mom when she was young. This person unfurled her story like a balled-up blanket, and suddenly it was all before me.
My mother had been severely abused.
In 1953, she said, my maternal great-grandfather began molesting my then 5-year-old mother. The assaults went on for years. This person knew because she had grown up around the grandfather and he had raped her, too.
She had never told another soul about her own abuse, this person on the phone, and she sounded relieved to have it out. She made some excuses for James Falkner, said he had once owned a granary in the small town of Belvue, Kansas, and had been one of the richest men in town. But then the Depression hit and he lost it all. Maybe this is why he abused young girls, she reasoned; maybe it was repression, frustration, or rage. And then she asked me not to reveal her identity. James Falkner had long been dead, but she had her own family to protect.
This person was in touch with my mom in the last years of her life, when, she said, my mom finally started to remember.
“Your mother, she carried a lot of pain,” the woman said. “She didn’t remember the abuse until a few years ago, just before she got the brain tumor. But then she started having nightmares.”
She said my mother called her when the nightmares began; she was having night flashes of someone, a man, coming to her at night and assaulting her, but at first she didn’t know who it was.
“I didn’t want her to think it was her father, because it wasn’t,” she said. “The grandfather moved in with the family when your mother was about 5. Your mom thought her mother knew it was happening, and it happened all the time. For years.”
I cried when I got off the phone, with sadness for my mom but mostly with relief. The singular darkness lifted from her and landed on a person I had never known but had heard about in snatches of her madness. My mother’s grandfather stories were sequestered away in the part of her brain that lashed and screamed and called me a whore, the same part of her brain that marched her up the stairs and into my bed on a night I wish I could forget. Language fails to reach the experience, the twinned despondence and terror of molest, but I remember it like I remember her words he raped me every night. And when I learned it was true—that my memory of her blocked memory was solid and valid and real—I felt a thin kind of hope. At the end of her life, it seemed, a light had cracked through the blockage; there was a bridge. The mom everyone said was so nice, the mom who “loved everybody, forgave everybody,” was beginning to remember the unforgivable grandfather. And maybe, at the end of her life, there could have been a bridge to me.
I remembered the story of the grandfather that my mother told me. Even when I was a kid, I felt he was part of the mystery, and sometimes when I was brave I would tiptoe into asking her about him.
“I don’t remember anything about my childhood,” she would say. “From about six through sixth grade, it’s all black. I remember dressing up as someone called Mrs. Jones when I was really little, but maybe that’s because there was a picture.”
“And your grandfather?” I asked her.
“I don’t remember him, either,” she said. “There are the stories about him burying his eyeglasses in the garden, but you already know those.”
I’d been afraid, all these years, to diagnose my mother with a mental illness, especially because the disease I thought she had had been so stigmatized. In the nineties, a scandal erupted around recovered memories; experts and laypeople were suddenly claiming that experiences like hers were impossible. The fashion turned, and people suddenly were supposed to never be able to forget serious abuse: The therapists suggested stories and foisted memories on their impressionable patients.
My mother, of course, never went to therapy. In fact, she hated the very idea of psychiatry; I remember her telling me once that there was likely a reason she didn’t remember her childhood, and she didn’t want anybody digging into what she had effectively suppressed.
But if people didn’t believe in the memory blocking, then you can’t have dissociative identity disorder, or multiple personalities, because it is the repression of memories that causes the self to split. And some people don’t believe DID even exists. This is why, despite my mother hitting all of its hallmark signs, I’d been scared to label her that way.
I decided to call up one of the most respected figures in the joint fields of psychiatry and trauma, Judith Herman, who wrote the groundbreaking book Trauma and Recovery. Herman believes DID is real. “DID is controversial among academics who don’t know anything about psychiatry, but within psychiatry it’s a well-established diagnosis. It’s a controversy that lives on quite irrespective of actual clinical experience or research experience,” she told me. She noted that several new books had been published in the past year about treatment of DID, and that seminal research conducted in the eighties by Frank Putnam had been replicated many times. This research showed that about 95 percent of people with multiple personalities experienced significant trauma in childhood and that incest was among the most common forms of that trauma. “DID is almost always related to very severe, early-onset, prolonged, repeated child abuse.”
Then I talked about DID with my partner, Lo Charlap. Lo teaches psychopathology and trauma at New York University, and she thinks the memory debate may be rooted in a problem with language. Basically, the people who study memory and say that repressed memories don’t exist, and the people who study psychology and say they do, may both be right. It’s common, Lo says, for a person to not be able to talk about her abuse for many years after it happened. “If you don’t have words for an experience, you can’t make it a memory,” she says, “because we communicate memory through words.” But that doesn’t mean people like my mother have no recollection at all. “It’s more of an unsymbolized sense or a diffuse knowing. If your mom didn’t have any knowledge of what happened to her at all, she wouldn’t have been living in response to it all the time.”
In other words, a “recovered memory” can be this: After therapy or years of a safe and protected life, a person can suddenly give language to what was once only sensory terror. That’s what happened with my mom.
My mother also, in her way, remembered her abuse all her life; she remembered it enough to know that she couldn’t think about her childhood. Possibly she remembered it in her migraines and her frightened and depressed ways and, alternately, in her prostitution. This, too, is a kind of remembering.
She said her grandfather died when she was in seventh grade, and that’s when her memory came back. And there was most certainly no connection. She loved the phrase “most certainly.” She tried to kill herself shortly after her grandfather died, and she spent some time in a hospital. This she remembered and my aunt verified. Her parents told her that her suicide attempt was because her schoolwork was too hard, and she believed them.
I still don’t know what makes a person crazy. Was it when her grandfather raped her or when she knew her mother was in the bedroom next door pretending not to hear? I don’t know if it makes a person crazy to remember and to forget at the same time.
I don’t know if it makes a person crazy to leave her mother’s house or to never go home again.
Writing my way through to my mother sometimes feels like a Faulkner story: There’s no linear narrative to keep me steady. Just like his character Caddy Compson in The Sound and the Fury, my mom didn’t have a voice; she was a gaping hole at the center of her story. William Faulkner considered The Sound and the Fury his favorite work but also his biggest failure: He could never get her right.
And then there are the buried memories and the incest: These, too, have felt like Faulkner.
And, in fact, they are.
While I was looking for the mother I had lost, I discovered by accident that the Faulknerian feel of my family was no coincidence: The great Southern novelist Faulkner was my maternal great-uncle several generations back. (I was the first person in my immediate family to discover this.)
My mother’s mother was a Falkner, without the u. I remember her from childhood and our family trips to Kansas: a stern, plain woman who kept tiny ceramic animals in a glass terrarium in her kitchen.
It was easy to work backward along the Falkner line, as I had some stories and the author’s historians and enthusiasts cleared the genealogical path. I easily found that her maternal grandfather, another Falkner, lived with the family until Mom was a young teenager, and this I could verify with address records and death indexes.
In all of Faulkner’s stories, the once grand Southern dame is hobbled; her wig is askew and her slip is showing; she’s haughty and confused toward the blacks who live in cabins on her crumbling property, and her shame has soured her speech. This is partly because the famous Colonel’s son—Faulkner’s grandfather, who features heavily in his fiction—was a rascal and a drunk; he sold his father’s railroads to fund his years of alcoholism. His son, Faulkner’s father, was forever trying to restore the lost fortune and prestige. In Faulkner’s lineage, there was great promise and a fall from grace. In mine there was only the fall. And for William Faulkner, race was a sharp, particular pain embedded in the Southern side: foreign, to be sure, but also familiar, because the Faulkners had black slaves. In my family line, the racism was more intimate and the hate more precise, because the Faulkners had black spouses.
I wonder at the racism that Faulkner himself writes so much about, about swallowing a public rage and shame and then passing it privately on.
My story catches another reflective gleam of Faulkner, as incest, real or fabricated, is a major theme in his work. I don’t know what really happened in Faulkner’s life or how far back along our joint tree the abuse coils and springs, but I do know that the author thought about it a lot. Caddy Compson’s brother only imagines the incest in The Sound and The Fury, but he also shows that even fabrications have the power to drive one to mania.
After all, when I was 9 years old my mother gave me a lock for my bedroom door and told me to use it, forcing me to imagine my way into the demons only she could see. Around the same time, she yelled out the story about her grandfather raping her. Back then I couldn’t confirm the story, and later she forgot she had even told me about it.
I learned then that there wasn’t much distance between a myth and its validation.
I hadn’t seen my brother for almost a year before we learned our mother had died. After all, estrangement runs in our family. But after we discovered our mother had passed away, he invited me to his apartment in Brooklyn. Despite my misgivings, I went.
For two years before our mother’s death, I’d been trying to connect with my brother, unsuccessfully. He’d been very angry with me, he said. One of the problems was that he felt I didn’t respect his boundaries. I had mothered him as a child, he said. Now I had to let him grow up. One of the problems was that I talked about our mother to him after my breakdown at 30, when I was looking for validation of my memories, and he didn’t like talking about her. I had invaded his psyche, so he shut down. Still, we agreed then on the big pieces of our history, on the way she acted and the way she cut us out. But he was done with Mom, he said then. He didn’t think about her anymore.
Mom’s death changed things. We decided we’d spend some time together, mourning in our own way. I met my brother on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, two blocks from his apartment. We walked to the river. As we walked, we talked about our work, looked at the Canadian geese pecking at snow behind a wire fence. He’d taken a few days off from his job as a designer at an advertising agency, though he felt strange, like I did, telling people why. The standard gush of compassion felt unwarranted, undeserved: We weren’t like other people with dead mothers, and no, we weren’t leaving town for the funeral.
We went back to his apartment: It was filled with his wooden carvings and paintings and stringed instruments of all types. My brother is an artist and musician. Ever since he was a young child, his imagination was wild and bright; he’s since parlayed that into a successful career. Andrew made tea. His cat, Mothra, was in heat and gurgling on the floor. She tried to hump his dog.
We tried to talk about Mom again as we sat in his place, but we didn’t know how. I played with the rim of my teacup and watched the animals, and my brother posited a theory. “I think Candy had a lot of pain in her life, especially in utero,” he said, and then paused, getting me to meet his eyes. “I think she wasn’t wanted when Gwen”—our grandmother—“got pregnant with her. In fact, she was hated.”
My brother, like me, was looking for answers. He was looking for a singular reason, a starting place for her strangeness, a wounding that preceded and absolved us. I told him how sad I felt that we didn’t say good-bye, that nothing had been resolved.
“It is sad,” he continued. “But I think for Mom it’s all OK now. All of this doesn’t matter anymore.”
I felt suddenly, utterly alone. I picked up the cat, but I didn’t have what she needed either: She clawed her way out of my arms to look for the dog.
While my brother and I agreed on our past, we couldn’t find the same present. Andrew felt a kind of spiritual connection to our mother in her passing, while I couldn’t feel her at all. “I believe Mom still loves Dad,” he said. “And he—he still loves her.”
I flashed to a childhood memory: our father dropping us off after a weekend visit. We would return home to find our mother hiding behind her bed, crying and refusing to come out, until she was sure he had driven several miles away.
There was no love between them, as far as I could remember.
“Are you sure that’s not a wish?” I asked him.
My brother didn’t think so; now he wanted peace, whereas I still wanted answers. He could say good-bye. After our talk, my brother remembered my mom’s fondness for the Mamas and the Papas, so he played a rendition of “Dream a Little Dream of Me” on his ukulele for my mother and recorded it. It’s a very sweet version, high-pitched and twangy. I cried as I listened to it, for the yearning and the gentleness. It’s this softness I love in my brother, and he seemed especially so right then, longing for a mom and dad to love each other.
With her death, my brother could close his chapter on our mom. But not me. I still reread her letters. I can’t help it. It’s as if I’m waiting for her voice to rise from the page. Right now the letters are in a folder in a bag in a cabinet in my therapist’s locked office. I open them, one at a time, with my therapist, so I don’t have to be alone. But I am still so alone when I look at her. It’s the only way to be. And I still look for more clues. Several months ago, I called the hospital where my mother was treated for her final illness and was told that I could access her records, but first I’d have to fill out forms proving my relationship as her daughter. The medical secretary warned me that if we were talking about a brain tumor, this could number in the hundreds of pages, and I would have to pay.
I didn’t write in for the records. Maybe it was because I was afraid to look. But also maybe it was because there was nothing more to find. Even if I discovered the tumor was located in the temporal lobe, which is associated with psychosis, or in the frontal lobe, linked to depression, where would I be? Maybe I could understand more of her medical history, but nothing would clear my psychic inheritance or give me back a good-bye.
I also realized that, in the end, I don’t want the records. I didn’t want her stack of sickness and death to overcome the few small things I have from her life.
As I sat with Andrew, I thought about the six letters I have from my mom and the eyelash curler I stole from her 25 years ago, sitting next to a huge pile of paper chronicling the months of my mother’s dying. I thought about the boxes of photos, report cards, and diaries that Clem threw away. I wished I had taken the photographs of her, and of me as a kid. I wished I had my school reports, the stories I wrote, my drawings, my letters, my baby pictures, my grades: anything to teach me who I am. Could there ever be a proper memorial for such a loss?
Perhaps the memorial is this search, which will probably last, in some form, forever. Still, I think, as I write from my bright apartment with my partner Lo and our dogs and our books scattered about, that the voice I found was my own.
Andrew and I still couldn’t talk to one another very well after our one meeting at his apartment. Even dead, our mother stifled us. We remained estranged.
Two years after her death, my brother and I decided to go to a therapist to help us break the thick silence. We met with a woman who wore weird harem-style pants that she paired with suit vests and cowboy boots. We tried. In a room together, I saw that I still wanted to go back and my brother wanted to move forward. But at least we were talking again. We had left and lost our mother. But we had not entirely lost each other.