At the nursing home, my 93-year-old father lays curled in his bed and looks up at me, his deep dimples parentheses around his wide toothless smile. His memory is failing and he asks the same questions over and over, like this one: Who was your mother? It’s one he’s never been able to answer.
It should have been a simple question. I’ve heard it from every teacher, doctor, and friend I’ve ever met since childhood, and until recently it’s one I’ve never been able to answer or deflect. My standard response—I don’t know—has always generated the same awkward interrogation.
“So she died?”
“I don’t know that either.”
“How can you not know?”
Always how? Always why? Always I just didn’t know.
When I was a child and this grilling persisted, I’d bow my head, red-faced. I wasn’t yet brave enough to walk away or bold enough to lie, so I stood dumbly, shrugging, looking at my velvet Mary Janes, wanting to vanish. Soon enough I’d learn how to disappear, but I hadn’t mastered it yet.
I knew little more than this: She went into labor with me on Mother’s Day and six months later took me and my four-year-old brother to Florida, leaving my father behind in Philadelphia. Three months later she called and asked him to come and get us. We saw her again a few months later when she returned for the divorce, which was finalized on Mother’s Day. When she left that time, she never looked back. We were expendable.
On every Mother’s Day for the next 54 years—every seventh of which was also my birthday—I wondered, as I did on almost every other day, what became of her and whether she was sorry she’d abandoned us. Had she gone through her days guilt-ridden and repentant, or had she rationalized her dereliction and let us slip from her heart like water? I was never sure which scenario I preferred to believe—that she was damaged or broken or that she went forward in life unscathed by her youthful indiscretions.
When people asked about her, all I could do was throw up my hands. Explaining that she’d taken off and left no forwarding address inevitably triggered the harsher question that leveled me—the one I braced for and that almost always was forthcoming: What kind of woman leaves her children? It wasn’t rhetorical. People wanted an answer I couldn’t provide.
And the unspoken query, I always suspected, was what kind of children make their mother leave? Even though my brother and I asked it ourselves—why weren’t we good enough?—we resented the inquisition, stung by the shame it rained on our mother and splashed over on us.
When your mother leaves, you can’t help but believe it was because of you. Because you were bad or wrong or unlovable. You don’t move through life with ease. You’re not confident. You imagine that others speculate about what you’d done to deserve not having a mother. You ask yourself too. If your mother doesn’t love you, who will?
I didn’t acknowledge my feelings or give them a name. I didn’t call them grief or shame or longing.
Mini-strokes have ravaged my father’s memory, yet every day in these last weeks of his life he asks about the wife he barely recalls, the young dancer who left him at 29 with two kids to raise—one of them, my brother, the son of another man with whom she’d had an affair when she was 17. When I remind my dad she left all those years ago, he’s incredulous. As he shakes his head I can see he’s still trying to fathom how a woman could leave her children.
It was a subject he wasn’t able to discuss when my brother and I were young and full of interminable longing to know who our mother was, why she left, and what happened to her. He couldn’t tell us if it had been our fault, if she thought of us, if she’d ever come back.
Looking at my father, small as a child in his nursing home bed, stirs a rare memory from early childhood: at first light each morning I’d toddle to the side of his brass bed and listen to him breathe. I’d stand on tiptoes to lift his eyelid and whisper, “Are you in there?”
I knew what I was asking: “You haven’t left us, have you?”
I was a tiny sentry, always on watch, fiercely protecting what remained mine.
Then louder: “Daddy, are you in there? Dad!”
He’d groan and wipe away the milky residue of sleep that pooled in the corners of his eyes. “I’m here, doll. I’m always here.”
My brother was more direct. He regularly flung himself at Dad, wrapped his arms around Dad’s legs and buried his face in his thighs, begging him not to leave.
Each in our own way, we feared if we weren’t vigilant, everyone would leave us, just as our mother had.
They’d married when she was 19, suffered the death of their three-day old first child together, and divorced after less than three years of marriage. I grew up knowing little about her except that she’d been the daughter of an alcoholic father and a mother with schizophrenia. She had street smarts, my father said, a keen intellect, and a loose hold on reality. A problem gambler with more enthusiasm for horseracing than childrearing, she was, he added, a good person but a neglectful mother and a habitual, if inconsistent, liar. He told me what he could remember about her, but it was never enough. I needed to know more.
After decades of yearning and fruitless searching, serendipity provided my first clue. While looking for something entirely unrelated, I found an obituary online revealing that she’d gone on to have, and raise, half a dozen other children—a welcoming brood happy to admit two more in the family.
They confirmed that for 50 years, while my mother was a mystery to me, I was a skeleton in her cupboard. In time I’d learn that just as she removed herself from our lives, she wiped the slate clean of all traces of my brother and me and her marriage to my father. She erased us as if we were nothing more than words on a blackboard, insignificant as chalk dust. Maybe she simply started over and let her old life fade away, let us fade away. Or maybe she tucked us like memento in a cigar box that she’d keep on a top shelf in her closet, underneath a pile of old sweaters. Maybe she carried us in her heart like thorns. Maybe we were a quiet pain to which she grew accustomed, like a tiny stone in her shoe. Maybe she buried her memories deep down only to have them rise back up and bring her to her knees.
I wonder when we became a secret, when she fully left us behind. Had she intended never to come back, to cut ties completely? Or did she wait too long and find that the moment was gone, that the window of opportunity to remain our mother had closed? There must have been a turning point—a particular moment when she identified herself as mother of two followed by a moment when she didn’t.
As soon as I found the obituary, which listed the names of my new siblings, I tracked down the eldest and we began a correspondence that left us both breathless and bewildered. She’d been very close to her mother—our mother—and was still grieving her death. She was thrilled to have a new sister and brother, but our existence—our very embodiment of this secret that had been kept from her—caused the aching realization that she’d never truly known her mother. From that point on, she had to wonder whether anything her mother told her, even the smallest of things, had been true.
I told my new brothers and sisters what little I knew about their mother as a young woman, and they described the older mother they’d loved despite her parenting failures. They told me about the drinking, the men who’d hurt her, and the times when they were young that she’d left them too, if only temporarily. But it still wasn’t enough. So I researched her obsessively. I wrote hundreds of letters, made countless calls, requested innumerable documents. Again, serendipity lent a hand.
On a genealogy website, a fellow researcher turned out to be my mother’s first cousin. Although they they’d never met, he knew a great deal about the family. He shared letters my mother had written to his father, letters filled with information no one else knew, including the fact that my grandmother spent years in mental institutions, one a notorious snake pit asylum. They also revealed that when my grandfather died my grandmother didn’t believe he was dead and refused to claim his body, so he became medical school cadaver. The location of his remains are unknown, while my grandmother’s rest in a pauper’s grave.
I tracked down my grandmother’s 80-page psychiatric hospital medical record, which proved to be a trove of family history, and I discovered another of my mother’s first cousins, whose family took my mother in after she’d been incarcerated in a home for wayward girls during one of my grandmother’s hospitalizations. She wrote to me about my mother’s traumatic childhood—the way she’d come home to find her parents passed out drunk, her mother’s paranoid rages, her loneliness.
To survive this life, my mother learned early to erase and dissemble, to reinvent herself again and again. Children of people with schizophrenia often use concealment to avoid feelings of stigma and embarrassment. They have to put a brave face on for the world and keep their home lives and their outside lives compartmentalized. They rely on lies to paint over their shame.
She could lie easily, my father told me, but didn’t always lie, so one could never be sure what was true and what wasn’t. But he had no idea of the extent of her fabrications. She’d led him to believe I was his child. I wasn’t. A DNA test showed we’re not linked genetically. Further, I discovered that the man my eldest sister believed to be her father wasn’t. And in time, I’d learn that another sister had a mystery father.
I wonder what it cost her to keep us under wraps—to shed us like a skin, slough off the memories, and rearrange the facts. How many lies were needed to camouflage all her secrets? How much family had she had to leave behind? Had she severed ties with everyone who knew her, who’d known us, and then covered her tracks and gone forward with a new persona and a cover story?
It’s not easy to put on a new face for strangers, to paint over your history, scrape away your failings and regrets. It takes practice. Once you start keeping secrets, there’s no turning back. You have to pay attention to detail and remember what you tell people so you don’t trip yourself up. You have to be resolute, even when someone tender enough to consider loving you tries to pry open your heart and pluck your deepest secrets. Did she run from everyone who wanted to love her that much?
If I were to keep searching, what additional information might emerge? What new secrets would come to light, and would they matter? For all that I’ve already learned, I have no idea who my mother really was, and I don’t believe anyone who was in her life ever really knew her. My father knew one version, her lovers another. Her second husband knew one iteration and her younger children still another. Was there a true version?
Maybe in some way I knew her best. I’ve learned more about her across the span of her life than anyone has. But no matter how I try to excavate her lies and untangle her deceptions, I’ll never know who my mother was. I’ll never know if she thought of us, if she were sorry. But she needn’t have been. This unmothered woman-child could never have been capable of mothering me. I feel only tenderness for her. I marvel that she survived at all.