Some people will know that I have recently been dealing with a family crisis. A week before Mother’s Day, 2015, my mother took an overdose of phenobarbital. I went to Alaska expecting to plan a funeral for her. However, after 5 days of being unconscious, she woke up. We’re dealing with the after effects now–the after effects of her untreated bipolar disorder, and her growing memory loss, her inability to care for herself, but her refusal to accept help. This is an essay I wrote about her many years ago. (forgive the formatting, which is very difficult to get right on WordPress–it keeps taking out my paragraph breaks!)
In the Hall of Mirrors: On Looking into my Mother’s Life
originally published in Under the Sun in 1998
The phone call comes as I prepare for bed. I reach for the phone, shrug, let the recorder answer for me. I am avoiding my mother’s phone calls. Usually, I turn the volume down on the answering machine so guilt won’t tug my hand to the phone, but this time I forgot, and my own bland, business-like message drifts across the room: Hi, this is Lisa. I can’t come to the phone right now… At first the caller’s words make no sense–only the voice registers, triggering emotion. My mother’s voice begins in the style I’ve grown so familiar with over the past few years–breathy and choking, sputtering and starting again like a faulty engine as she gasps back tears, accompanied by an underlying slur from drinking or drugs. I don’t hear the words; I only feel relief–and guilt–about not answering the phone. Then a few sharp words surface in the river of language: three hundred dollars bail. My mother has been arrested. I pick up the phone.
* * *
When did the thread of my mother’s life first snap? I’ve become obsessed with finding this moment–as if there was a place I could point to and say “aha, this is where it all began.” As if, I suppose, the discovery of such a moment would help me untangle the painful knots of my mother’s life today.
Perhaps my obsession stems from the question each friend or counselor asks: when did it begin? Sometimes they mean the depression, sometimes the suicide attempts, more recently the drinking. But they all ask when, as if one incident will focus a clear light on everything else. My mother’s friends–those she has left–pinpoint her descent on recent events.
“She was ok,” one friend says, “until her boyfriend left her.”
Another friend demurs. It wasn’t the last lover leaving that started the downward spiral. This started the moment she married Larry, her now estranged husband who mistreated her.
When did it all begin, I wonder. The last time she seriously attempted suicide, eight years ago, when she had her stomach pumped after an overdose, and her doctors deferred to me and suggested I have her committed? Or did it begin earlier than that? I am her daughter and her only remaining family and all my years have been shadowed by my mother’s pain.
So many stories come to me; I push them away, but these unwanted visitors from the past are rude and determined–they will be heard.
* * *
When I was five, my mother drove me to a shabby motel near the California-Mexico border, where she sent me outside to play beside a drained, peeling swimming pool while she toyed with a .25 caliber pistol. What stopped her then? Who intervened? I don’t know. It’s not even my story, really. I remember the pool, and my young mother driving us to the motel in a rage of tears, but I did not know why she went to that place, and it was only years later that she told me she’d meant to kill herself then.
Maybe her life snapped apart earlier, when she was 17 and pregnant and seeking an abortion. Or was it earlier than that? Was it the moment she retells to friends and lovers, the moment when she, only four, clung to her natural mother’s legs, clutched and cried as the woman pushed her away to the orphanage where she’d spend the next year of her life?
My mother chooses that point, I think. She has created a scene from the fragments of a 45-year-old memory: her mother Helen stands at the door in a cloth coat, pushes away the little girl called Sandra. She speaks of the orphanage: of nightmares; of how she was spanked for wetting the bed, humiliated, tagged a “bad girl.” But mostly, my mother remembers Helen pushing her away, saying “I don’t want you anymore.”
I’ve seen pictures of my mother a year after that time, after she’d been reclaimed by her father–just returned from military service–and his new wife, Grace, the woman my mother considers her mother. Sandra is the perfect little daughter in those photos: blonde sausage curls and fat cheeks, wide blue eyes. Even in photos, though, she looks skittish as a rabbit.
I don’t want you anymore. These words have become etched in stone in her life. Who knows what Helen, another young mother, said when she abandoned her two daughters in an orphanage in Milwaukee? How accurate is that memory? I don’t know. But when I think of that story, think of the abandoned child who became my mother, I feel a red, searing pain inside me. I have often cried for that frightened child, just as I have cried for the woman my mother became, the woman who is always listening hard for those words again.
* * *
Fairbanks Correctional Center used to be on the outskirts of town, but this small sub-arctic city has grown up around the gray metal-sided building, surrounding it much like the razor-topped chain link fence which surrounds the jail itself.
I know the routine here. I’ve bailed out a lover, an ex-husband. Now my mother. At night the doors remain locked; visitors must pick up the receiver of a black telephone and wait until a disembodied voice states “Booking.” I tell the voice who I’m there for, and a few minutes later a short, good-natured man appears to begin the exchange.
“She’s charged with criminal mischief,” he says. “And she’s drunk. Larry was here to bail her out, but he’d been drinking too, so we wouldn’t let him stay.” I nod. Larry, her estranged husband…it figures. I pass money and signatures to the cheery jailer through a small slot in a bullet-proof window and wait for my mother to appear through the steel doors.
I haven’t seen her in weeks. She’s lost some of the extra pounds she’d gained in the past few years, but her face looks as soft and puffy as risen dough. Her mascara and dark blue eyeliner have run and smeared; her eyes appear bruised. I see she’s dressed up–in a low-cut blue pant suit and black patent leather high heels–and somehow this pains me so much I have to turn away. She’s permed her hair and it didn’t take well, and more than anything she looks like the desperate middle-aged women I’ve seen in local bars, eyes bright with fear. The kind of woman she said she never wanted to be.
When I hug her, I smell stale perfume, cigarettes, skin exuding alcohol.
“They beat me up,” she whispers. Then her voice raises shakily. “Two redneck bastards knocked me down and kicked me and beat me.”
She hugs me again, her face tight against my shoulder. “Oh Lisa, it was awful.”
* * *
Writing this, I am again so angry I must stop. Then my fingers continue, pounding against the keyboard as if each key was a man’s face and I am taking revenge for my mother. Imagine the scene, if you will. Picture first a rather rundown bar favored by out-of-work construction workers approaching middle age. This is Alaska, and winter, and people are drinking hard and listening to country-western music on the jukebox. Yes, it’s a redneck bar. It’s even called, appropriately enough, The Frontier.
And my mother sits at the bar, drunk, loudly mourning a man who pronounced those dreaded words: “I don’t want you anymore.” She drinks with Larry, who still refers to her as his wife, though from her talk it must be obvious to everyone in the bar that her tears are not for him.
Through her life, my mother has been strong and brave. Sometimes she is also, like all of us, childish. This night she has taken a marking pen and written a man’s name all over the ladies’ room wall. She is drunk and laughing and crying and writing that he is a great lover on the wall. The bartender enters the restroom on her break and spots drunken scrawls. She calls the police.
This is Fairbanks in mid-winter: the men at the bar, out-of-work and drunk and full of repressed anger, decide to take it out on this woman, this middle-aged woman who is not behaving according to their notions of propriety. And to complicate matters, the men at the bar know the lost lover. They know that he is Native American. And my mother is white. This matters in Fairbanks.
My mother and Larry shrug when the bartender tells them she has called the police. They laugh. They walk out the door.
A man at the end of the bar stops them. He is a big man, my mother says, and I imagine him wearing Carhart work pants, a flannel shirt and a baseball cap–Fairbanks chic. No doubt he’s been nursing Bud all evening between shots of Jack Daniels and no doubt he’s felt he’s put up with this loud-mouthed bitch enough. I’ve seen these sort of things before. He grabs her arm to stop her from leaving.
“No one’s going nowhere till the cops get here,” he says.
My mother is not always diplomatic, a trait I’ve inherited from her. Maybe she laughed. More likely she demanded “Take your goddamned hands off me.”
And he pulls her hard back into the room. Her spike heels slip on the uneven floor and then she sprawls on the ground, screaming at him, crying. She says he kicked her hard in the ribs, heavy work boots sending jolts of pain to every nerve.
At this point Larry, barely 5’5”, nearsighted, and drunk to boot, jumps in. He has pushed my mother around himself, but now he defends her honor. Another man leaves the bar and takes him on. When they break his glasses, it’s all over; he cannot see, but feels them as they break his nose, split his lip.
And my mother cowers on the floor of this dirty bar. My 47-year-old mother, dressed in her good blue pant suit and now only wearing one of her favorite black dress shoes. Her purse has flown to another corner of the bar, leaking tissues and scraps of paper, lipstick and car keys. My mother cowers on the floor, crying, and two middle-aged men kick her, hit her.
You can guess the rest. The police enter the fray and separate all participants, thanking the men at the bar for “restraining” the criminal. My mother is arrested; her husband is warned from interfering, and the police, who handcuff my mother with distaste (“nothing worse than a drunk old woman”) take her away.
I pieced this together, yes, from my mother’s story and from Larry’s incoherent ramblings and from a sketchy police report. But I am sure it is not far from the truth. A few people, those who have not seen such things in this town–or anyplace–tend to disbelieve. Surely she did something to start this? Yes. She got drunk and penned graffiti on a wall.
* * *
As we walk across the snow-filled parking lot of the Fairbanks jail, my mother tells my husband and me that we must pick up her car at The Frontier. She claims she is sober enough to drive, but we decide that Steve will drive her home and I will follow in her car. I stick to this plan stubbornly as we drive through the nearly deserted streets. They must drop me off and go on; I will follow. I tell my mother it is because I am afraid she will cause a scene at the bar, but that is not the real reason.
The real reason makes my hands shake and my heart pound. The real reason is a hard kernel of anger and hatred lodging in my throat. I try to swallow it down, but it sticks there, gritty and burning. I understand people who kill. I understand the gunman who sprays a bar with a bullets, taking everyone out. I have transformed into a Kali-like figure of rage. I want to devour these men and spit their bones out on the dirty snow. I want to beat these men; I want my fists to fly at their faces like bone-shattering stones. I am glad I don’t own a gun.
My plan is simple. I will go into the bar, and tell the bartender who I am. I know how to look respectable. I will hide my fangs behind a tight, business-like smile. I will demand to know what happened. In the few minutes it takes to drive to the bar, I have imagined the scene. I will know the men immediately by their fat, self-satisfied faces. I will inform them I am pressing charges–never mind that neither my mother nor I have the money for an attorney. I will spit at their feet, beat them senseless with words. And all the time, my hands will clench at my sides–clench tight so I’m not tempted to use them.
Of course I am aware of the danger. I am a woman, and a dark-skinned woman at that. Probably I will not intimidate them. They will think I am Alaskan Native, call me Indian bitch and laugh. I will scream at them, and maybe, if I my temper ranges too far ahead of my mind, I will throw a bottle at them. Perhaps they will try to hit me. I wonder if my bearing and arrogance will intimidate them and they will not dare to hit me for fear of real trouble. I count on this. Still, I want to draw all my mother’s victimization to me like a magnet. I want to be the avenging angel; I want the roles reversed. I will be the mother tiger defending her cub; I will make these men pay.
Steve, however, has other ideas. As I sit next to him in the car, frozen with rage, he must sense something. He knows me better than I think, knows that silence betokens great emotion. When we get to the bar, he parks behind my mother’s car and waits as I start it. I wave him on, and he drives a little ways ahead, but refuses to go on without me. My shaky hands grip the wheel tightly and I scream “Just fucking go!” but he doesn’t. I want to go in the bar. I want to start something. Finally, my rage begins to ebb, and defeated, I follow him to my mother’s house.
* * *
That is one story. The noble one, perhaps. Or the one people can understand. Here is another. I am 22. Just beginning a relationship with a man I will later marry, and still later divorce. I am an undergraduate, sitting in my toughest class, a course in Romantic poetry. The professor is nicknamed Dr. Doom, and I am completely intimidated. I have also not heard from my mother for over a week and am worried. She has been depressed lately because a man she loves broke up with her, and she talks crazy, according to another one of her caretaker friends. I am 22. I am trying to begin my own life, living on my own for the first time. I am afraid of my mother and her depressions.
The professor walks into class, and terrifyingly, his gaze–suddenly sympathetic–focuses on me.
“Lisa, could you step outside for a moment,” he asks.
My mouth goes dry as I step outside. I’ve failed the class. But how could I if it’s only mid-semester?
He pats my arm gently. “Your mother is in the hospital. I just got a message. I think you better go.”
Details, so many details. My memory clings to them, as if they have a significance I may one day discover. The attempted suicide is angry at those who foiled her plans, turns to the wall in her hospital bed and demands we let her die. Her stomach has been pumped and her throat is raw from it, she says. A friend is with her, a friend that will disappear soon after this into her own nightmare of depression and madness.
And I am 22, and frightened, and there is no other family, no one else to make decisions. My mother wants to die. And I am suddenly angry, angry at my interrupted classes, at my interrupted relationship–worried that the well-meaning young man who stands by me now will be frightened off. I find myself screaming at my mother.
“Why are you doing this to me?” I scream. And later, as I dissolve into tears as a nurse leads me out, “Why do you want to hurt me?”
There is only one psychiatrist in the entire town. He is too busy and distracted to have much time for me.
“She’ll probably try it again,” he says. “Take all the drugs out of the house. Someone will need to stay with her.”
And as if suddenly remembering this is Alaska, where virtually every house contains at least one gun, he adds “Oh, and get rid of the guns if there are any. And large knives.”
My mother’s general practitioner interrupts. “Women rarely kill themselves with guns. I’m also inclined to think this was just a cry for help.”
The other doctor shrugs, looks at his watch. “I suppose you’d know better than me; I only just met her this afternoon.”
I am hysterical again. “I can’t do this! I can’t take care of her. I’m in school. I don’t know what to do. Help me.”
My mother’s doctor is a business-like woman, not given to shows of emotion. I don’t believe she is being callous, only offering possibilities.
“You have to understand she may very well kill herself. There is nothing you can do about that. Unless you want to have her committed,” she adds.
But my mother has already told me a committal would kill her; she says she will never speak to me again if I do it. She tells me that if I love her, I will let her die, and that only a bad daughter would put her own mother in a mental hospital. Guilt catches me in a relentless tide. I agree to take care of her.
On the way out of the hospital I run into my mother’s lover, the man who triggered all this. Barely a year later, my mother will marry Larry, this man’s nephew, but now none of that is known.
“She’s crazy; it’s not my fault,” he says. Perhaps he is right, but he has another woman with him and I hate him.
“If she dies I will find you and kill you,” I say, and I lunge at him, but my boyfriend grabs me and drags me away.
* * *
In my obsessive search for the moment in which my mother’s life began to unravel, I often return to this moment. But now I think that this was not the moment I search for, though it is an important moment in my life. This when our roles reversed, and I became the caretaker, the strong one, the responsible mother figure, and my mother became a child–frightened, vulnerable and self-absorbed.
I fled Alaska to escape my mother. On the surface of things, I went to Arizona to go to graduate school, but I knew I wanted to get away from her. I couldn’t stand it anymore, the late night telephone calls in which she sobbed and railed over her new husband’s latest inequities. Larry was never a model husband; often unfaithful and almost always too drunk or drugged to be coherent. I was married myself by then, and her calls depressed me for days, straining my own marriage. So I went away, though the calls continued, now long distance.
She always called late at night, and it seemed to me I could hear through the phones lines the great oppressive weight of Alaska in the wintertime, the sifting snow and the darkness that lasts 20 hours in December. Air conditioning humming in our small apartment, I would lie in bed next to my husband as she cried over the phone.
“I can’t take it, anymore. I want the void. I’ll just go off in the truck someday and no one will stop me. No one will find me. No one cares about me, anyway.”
I wish I could tell you that I listened and told her I loved her. I did not. I had already tried that. And my love has always been mixed with rage, as if fierceness was proof of devotion. Now I yelled at her, told her she was doing this to hurt me. I didn’t sound sympathetic. I wasn’t. I told her she was a coward. And her answer was always the same, sure to trigger guilt in me: I know, darling. I don’t mean to hurt you. I know I shouldn’t burden you with my problems. See, I’m even worthless to you. And always I gave in, apologized, accepted the late night collect calls, mothered her. Always I feared a different call, an unfamiliar voice telling me she was dead.
Can you see how the record skips and repeats? I think again of that photo of my mother, and the child becomes me: dark, with the same large, skittish eyes–afraid of the mother who threatens to abandon her. At 19 I vowed never to have children, I’ve kept that vow. I’m scared; I don’t want to continue this dark chain of maternity and abandonment. Yet my mother replays the scenario again and again in her life. And in mine.
* * *
So we circle back to the night I bailed her out of jail. The situation is much the same as eight years ago, though this time she is in jail, not the hospital. Again, a man has left her, and again she says a woman alone is too worthless to live. Again, I am taking care of her.
Back at her house, my mother lies on the floor, but she cannot stop moving. I realize she has taken some sort of drug; her body twitches involuntarily and she writhes on the floor like a headless snake and moans. She is no longer angry; the record has skipped back and she wanders through her private labyrinth of abandonment.
“I loved him and he treated me like shit,” she chokes, returning again to her last betrayal. “Why? Why do they all treat me like a piece of shit? I’m so worthless.”
My anger rises again. Perhaps because of my mother, I have never let a man do this to me. This is also destructive; sometimes I second-guess, wrongly, and leave a man who loved me before he can hurt me. But, I think, I keep my pride.
“They treat you like shit because you let them,” I say.
She doesn’t hear me. She shivers on the floor, cowering at me feet like a dog. She sobs. I hate her. She tells me she’s been thrown out of three bars this week for being too drunk. She seems proud of her humiliation. She tells me that earlier in the week she was robbed by a prostitute in a downtown dive called The Cabaret. My mother had given the woman $100 for Xanax, a tranquilizer which is my mother’s drug of choice. The woman and the money disappeared, of course. The $100 was all the money she had–my mother is unemployed and deeply in debt, on the verge of losing a house she has paid on for fifteen years.
Her story skips forward. She took 18 Xanax, she claims, and drank a bottle of vodka. I am not sure when this happened, or where she got the drugs, though I suspect Larry, the master hypochondriac who has wheedled downers out of every doctor in town; I also am suspicious of the quantities involved.
“But it didn’t work,” she sobs. “I’m still here. I tried to go, but it didn’t work and I’m still here.”
* * *
I don’t understand how all this happened. My mother was strong once. I was born when she was 17, after a an earlier miscarriage. Years ago, during one of our truces, she told me about her short-lived marriage to my father, a young Mexican-American janitor with revolutionary tendencies who later became a member of the American Communist Party. They spent a weekend together in Tijuana and she got pregnant. They married, and her parents refused to speak to the daughter who had run away and married a Mexican. It was only after my father was gone that they reconciled.
My mother says she felt only relief when she miscarried. But then she was pregnant again, and already thinking her marriage a mistake. Or was she not yet married? My mother’s stories change, and I don’t know much about my father, so there is no way to corroborate the tale. But I do know she went for an abortion.
Remember this was 1961, long before Roe vs. Wade. My mother got tips from friends and found herself in a frame house in East L.A. The Mexican woman who answered the door had no English, but my mother says she looked kindly enough, a gray-haired grandmother type. She ushered my mother into the kitchen, to a sheet shrouded table and a pot of hot water. And a coat hanger.
When I’ve told this story before, listeners have doubted it. It’s too much of a stereotype, they insist. My mother swears it’s true, and I believe her. Anyway, what happened next seems too odd to be made up; it has the pathos and the details that give stories the ring of truth.
Of course she left. She was frightened and she left. But she was still 17 and pregnant, and intelligent enough to understand her own future might be sacrificed for the child she carried. She was not in love. She wanted to go to college. She wanted a life.
So she found another friend, a woman who told her of a man, a real doctor she swore, who would do it, though he didn’t do abortions in his office–too risky. The friend had been to him, and been ok. It could be taken care of. For a price.
The price was $500. A fortune for a 17-year-old girl who worked days as a waitress and went to night school. So she had her married sister co-sign on a bank loan for a car.
The abortionist worked out of a warehouse in Long Beach. My mother told me how she took a cab there one night. She was four months pregnant. Two men met her at the door and took her money before they let her in. The warehouse crouched over her, enormous and badly lit, except for the corner in which the man worked. She felt reassured, she said, by the authentic examination table with stirrups. She was less reassured by what looked like straps to hold patients down. Surgical instruments lay scattered on a tray; up close she could see they were not clean. Rusty splotches of dried blood bloomed everywhere.
I remember my mother telling me this story. It was summer, and I had just bought dinner for us both at one of Fairbanks’ better restaurants; I’d had prawns and she’d chosen broiled chicken. I was outraged by the story, and I still am. I was glad she trusted me enough to tell me the story. But it was an odd moment for me. I am the child my mother decided not to abort.
She left the warehouse, too frightened to allow the doctor in his dirty smock–if he even was a doctor–to touch her. Of course she did not get her money back. She paid it off, $5 or $10 at a time, while she took care of her baby. This is another moment I return to. Some would say I should be grateful my mother did not abort me, but grateful is hardly the correct word. It is much more complex than that. I cannot even imagine myself not existing; who could? It seems pointless to dwell on that possibility. I can, however, imagine my mother, 17 and pregnant and scared. And I can return to this moment, wondering if it was when it her life turned.
* * *
You must understand that my mother’s life was not always like this. Or it was and it wasn’t. When I was younger, the moments of what I think of as insanity came fewer and farther between. Or so I thought. There was the time she tried to kill herself when I was five. Then four years later, she took me on a driving trip through Utah to get over another love disaster. I don’t know what her intentions were that time; perhaps she simply didn’t feel well. But in the wide flats near Salt Lake City she pulled the car over and gave me a $100 bill and told me she might not “make it,” and that I should find someone to take me back to L.A. if “anything happened” to her.
I thought those were the only times. But recently, as I rummaged through my mother’s old papers searching for a copy of my birth certificate, I found something odd. The water-stained paper I held in my hand was old, an ambulance report dated July 19, 1969. The date meant nothing to me. How old was I? Eight? 1969. The year my grandmother died, the year I moved from my maternal grandparents’ house into my mother’s house. For the first time.
I don’t know where I was that day. I’ve lost that memory. But I know what the paper tells me: that near 10 p.m. an ambulance was sent to a rented house in Redondo Beach, California. The paramedics found Sandra Chavez, 28, “incoherent and lying on a couch in the front room. The patient’s pupils were very small and did not react to light. Patient’s father stated that the patient had taken an overdose of pills.”
Where was I that night? What triggered this attempt? And how did my grandfather know about the overdose? She must have called him and told him what she’d done; my mother has always been careful to leave a bread crumb trail for her would-be rescuers, and because of this, her flirtations with death are always dramatic as a rebirth: She returns to the world in a flurry of stomach pumps, tears and hysteria.
* * *
My mother told me recently that it is hard to hang onto her life.
“When you were younger, you needed me,” she said. “Even if I was depressed, I knew I had to go on for you. I couldn’t leave you; there was no one else. But now, you’re grown up. I have no reason to go on, no family, no job, nothing driving me.”
Of course, her vision of the past is not to be relied on–she leaves out some crucial events. But I, too, used to view the past differently; I used to think of my mother as a strong woman.
And she was often strong, especially in her thirties, when she packed up car, daughter and dog and traded a secure job in southern California for the uncertainties of Alaska. There, the skilled secretary worked anywhere she could and often at more than one place: Dairy Queen, sleazy bars, truck-stops. At 30, she took a step into the unknown.
I owe a lot of myself to my mother. My mother taught me to be strong, and she taught me to be angry. Strength and anger–a knot I’m still struggling to untie.
My mother’s anger is sharp-tongued, sometimes foul-mouthed.
“I don’t take shit from people,” she used to say, and then, in her strong years, she didn’t.
Or perhaps she never said that. Perhaps those are my words, words I learned from her actions, or from the other women I knew growing up in Alaska, my mother’s friends: secretaries and cocktail waitresses and ex-call girls, all those women–and men too–who gathered in Alaska hoping to make money on the pipeline.
But surely my mother exuded that aura in those days. When I was threatened with corporal punishment in junior high–oddly enough for poor attendance–my mother descended upon the principal with a hailstorm of choice words, convincing him to leave me unpunished. My mother’s anger surrounded me like and inviolable cloak.
Even during the thunder storm of my adolescence, and through all my blazing battles with her, I knew my mother was always my protector. When I was 14, my mother intervened in my unpleasant “romance” with a man of 23 or 24. The intended seduction ended in my fearful tears and my mother’s intervention–she literally chased the man out of the house. “I wanted to kill him,” she said later, voice still fierce with the recollection.
Yet my mother’s anger was not always righteous. How many times were her rages ineffective or misguided? We might laugh at the memories now, shake our heads and say “you really told them!”, but behind the laughter is my nagging awareness that the anger was misplaced. Yelling at the electric company representative didn’t pay the bill, screaming into the phone at the collection agencies didn’t make them go away.
My mother taught me to be angry, but not what to do with that anger; most likely she didn’t know herself. Caught in the double bind of womanhood and lack of money, she had no recourse but angry words, and like many other working class people, she was the perpetual angry victim: we’re going to lose anyway, but we won’t go down quietly. “I don’t take any shit,” whether she said it or not, was acted out: telling off the sexist boss, battling the electric company, doggedly fighting, inevitably losing.
I analyze her motives endlessly, which I’m sure she never did. I retreat into my privilege–my education–and ponder the things I learned from her, but I’m sure my mother just saw these as things that had to be done. She talks of her days working as a laborer on the Alaska pipeline, not as what it seems to me, as an act of defiant bravery, a storming of the gates of sexism, but as what it was for her: an act of survival. No, let me be honest and use her terms–a lucky chance. She shrugs when she talks about. “I wanted that job. You needed braces, and then there would be college. And I always wanted to own my own house. I could make a lot of money with that job.”
She got used to, she said, the verbal abuse, the daily epitaphs of “bitch” and “cunt.” She got used to the isolation, the insular camp in the great frozen plain of the North Slope. She got used to the work, seven days a week, 12 hours a day, and she got used to the weather–cold and colder still. And she bore the abuse, defended herself with obscenities of her own.
Part of my mother’s job was to clean the bus that took her group of laborers from the camp to work site. Once someone spread human excrement on the bus seats, and she cleaned it, she told me, silently. Her job with that company ended soon after that.
As she boarded the bus to return to camp, a young man tripped her. She tried to catch her balance, but he pushed her to the floor. “Ugly cunt,” he said. “Taking a man’s job.”
She looked up from the floor–the men already on the bus were silent; they looked away. Her foreman, who had been boarding the bus just behind her, had stepped off as soon as he saw what was happening; he’d later say he hadn’t seen anything. The young man kicked her a few times. As she would again many years later, my mother screamed up from the floor.
She told me this story at least ten years later, yet her eyes still shone with tears. “I wasn’t really hurt,” she said “because I had so many clothes on–my padded coveralls and my parka. But I was so humiliated. I cried. And no one helped me.”
It seems amazing to me that no one helped her, but my mother insisted on this point. Before this, some men had been her protectors, had intervened in the verbal attacks, but these men were not on the bus. Yet this story is old, was old when I heard it first, and our minds tend to play tricks on us, to remember only certain details. And a story, often told, changes, until it becomes a tune played from memory, our own embellishments now an integral part of the theme. The stories we tell from memory reflect how we felt at the moment, and that feeling, more than the dumb tyranny of fact, is what shapes our lives. The man meant to humiliate her, and years later, humiliation is the dominate note of the story.
My mother filed a suit against the company; she was laid off soon after that. I imagine it was hard to get a sex discrimination suit going in those days, in the 70’s, against a big oil consortium. The witnesses denied seeing anything. The company boss told her she’d never work for them again; he kept his promise.
“Why didn’t you keep up the suit?” I asked recently.
Perhaps she no longer remembers. She pauses, thinking back.
“Well, it was me against them. They all lied; who’d believe me? Anyway, they told me I’d never work for them again, and I needed to.”
“But you never did anyway.”
“I know,” she laughs now, shakes her head. “Isn’t that just the way it is?”
* * *
The more I recall, the stranger this story becomes–a hall of mirrors that twists and turns and leads me back to the same point, this time reflected back in some distorted fashion. My mother, on the floor, kicked by middle-aged men in a bar. This I see as a a symbol of her victimization–her life falling apart. My mother, on the floor of a bus, years earlier; this I see as a story of her strength, her ability to survive. And why do these incidents repeat, like invented symbols in a made-up story? I am a writer; perhaps I try too hard to find meaning where none exists. I struggle to decode my mother’s life; I look for pattern where there is only randomness, a handful of fragments which refuse to become the neat mosaic I long to see.
Two years later, I sit in a bland conference room in the Peace Corps office in Warsaw. I haven’t heard from my mother regularly since I came to Poland, but today she is much on my mind.
This Saturday morning I sip coffee and confront my fears. I am talking about suicide with two friends. Sarah has attempted suicide in the past; Nancy has recently lost her son to it.
In a way, Nancy is the easiest to listen to. Her circumstances are far more tragic than my own; her son is gone. But I understand her feelings: her love and her anger and her guilt. I offer what small comfort my listening and sympathy can bring.
Sarah begins to talk, and I find myself closing up, afraid to listen. I grip my cup angrily as she discusses her feelings of isolation, as she talks about how her family didn’t understand or reach out to her, but I keep quiet, recognizing my anger as fear. Did my mother feel this way? Was I unreachable? Guilt, again.
Both Nancy and Sarah see suicide as a choice an individual makes, not as the manipulative and cowardly act I have always viewed it as. I realize I have never really examined my own feelings, that I have kept my mind averted from the act by being angry. Anger is a veil I have chosen to look through, too afraid to gaze unflinchingly on the subject.
“What if your pain is so great there is nothing else to do but end the pain?” Nancy asks, and I wonder. All these years I have taken my mother’s pain personally, and judged it against my own standards. I only looked at her depressions in the context of how they affected me. As Nancy struggles with her loss, and Sarah works through her own past, I realize it is time to forgive my mother for pain she never meant to inflict.
This has always been my story, as much as hers. I think of Nancy. She has lost her son; I only fear losing my mother. She wishes for more time; I have it. Finally, the anger begins to slip away. I am lucky. My mother is alive.
True stories have no real finishing point–even our memories are assigned endings to suit our purpose in the telling. Reality goes on and on, messy, boring us with details and repetition. When I consider my mother’s life, I see finally that the thing that ties it together with mine is love and anger. Anger is a tool she taught me to use, then handed over, and I wish I had not learned to use it against her.
Obsessively, I sort through the shards of memory, trying to form a pleasing pattern. So many pieces are sharp–they prick, draw blood. Time passes, and I discover more fragments, detritus documenting a lifetime littered with pain. Details that reshape the story yet again. One day I open an old copy of a French grammar book–my mother’s–and a piece of paper flutters out. A hospital pass, for Sandra to move from one floor to another for therapy. Chicago, 1957. My mother would have been 12. Days later I call her, tell what I have found.
The line is silent for a moment, then she explains. “I drank some sort of arsenate. Mixed with strawberry milk. It tasted bad; I didn’t get to much down. Now I don’t even remember why I did it.”
She pauses. “It was the second time I tried. The first time I was eight.”
I put the phone down. Look at the paper in my hand: a splinter of glass, a sliver of a shattered mirror that reflects a truth I don’t want to see–my mother’s long battle with mental illness. A battle I cannot fight for her.
But there is more than pain. This pieced together mirror of memory reflects other things too: how my mother saved her tips from waitressing and bought me a much coveted pair of snowshoes when I was 14; how she worked two and three jobs to send me to a private school for a year. How much she sacrificed. How much she loved me.
Perhaps I have seen her life in the wrong light. Maybe her final strength lies in her will to live after all. I think of her now, a little overweight, aging and afraid of it, with only part-time work and no hope for anything better. She struggles to pay her bills every month and always fails, but somehow she manages to hold onto the house. She cannot afford the wonder cures of the mental health industry, so she must fight on, alone. Her life has never been easy, and yet she survives.
I think of her often, with love and not a little worry, but finally without anger. I can picture her, moving slowly from room to empty room, talking to her dog, perhaps watching t.v. Tonight, mother, I hope your ghosts are silent. I know they pursue us both: relentless shadows refusing rest.