Even worse than the absence of a mother during my formative years, was knowing that she was not to be mentioned in our house. My great-grandmother never told me anything about my mother. For a long time, until I began grade school, I called her “mama” and thought she was my mother. But once I started school, of course, I realized that mothers were much younger.
I would find the photo of the dark-eyed girl in an outside shed in the trunk. I would run my hands through all the photos stacked in there in the darkness, and somehow I always stopped at this one. I would take it inside and ask who this little girl was. Silence met me.
“But who is this little girl?” I prodded, when I didn’t get answers. I just knew, somehow, that this photo, amidst all the others in that big steel trunk, was the face of someone important to me.
I know she did some bad things. I think she was mentally ill and back then they simply didn’t understand. She was a child born of rape. That further isolated her. But that wasn’t her fault. How could anyone blame a child for how they were created, I would later wonder?
But those were different times. My grandmother was very childlike, and someone had taken advantage. So my mother was considered illegitimate and both were hidden from view. They brought shame to the family, and I’m sure that guilt molded them into who they became. Or perhaps, more importantly, who they didn’t get the chance to become.
My mother spent her childhood in my great-grandmother’s house likely knowing she wasn’t wanted. That every time they looked at her, they saw this man taking advantage of her child-like mother. She was the result of that crime. And her mother would never take her and leave home and create a real family.
So I hated her too. It was expected. She was bad, evil. So I accepted that to be truth. When she came to visit that one time when I was about three, I was afraid of her. I was taught to be afraid of my own mother, because she epitomized all that was bad in our little ramshackle house.
I wonder what kind of person she might have become had she been nurtured and loved? I wonder if she might have grown up to be my mother? Instead of the young girl who took to the highway when she was a teenager. And consequently was picked up by a trucker who happened along (who I was told was my father) going down the highway. How she must have wanted to escape her life!
I wonder if she might have made different choices had she been helped and educated. But, once again, back in the forties and fifties, things were much different than they are today. It makes me sad to think of all the wasted lives, the abandoned children. Because you were either labeled good or bad and what was in between didn’t exist.
She married my father and had my sister. Then a couple of years later I was born. Why I was left behind is still a mystery, probably one I will never have an answer to. Then my brother was born, and they took him along with them on their perilous journey. I use to admire my siblings, thinking them to be the chosen ones. But after one occasion, when I met them in my early twenties, I realized quickly that I was the lucky one, as unfortunate as that sounds. They saw far more than I did at a very young age. My father committed theft or some other crime and went to prison for awhile. My mother was left alone with children she had no idea how to care for. And she apparently was a magnet to men who sensed her childlike ways in the shape of a woman and took advantage. Just as they had with her own mother.
As I tell this, I am giving you jagged pieces of a puzzle. The only pieces in my possession. In the only way I have to put my heritage together.
My brother and sister were taken from her because they were eating from trash cans, and she was considered negligent. They became part of the system and were adopted to separate families. I heard two more daughters were born to her. I think they must have been taken early. And adopted. Perhaps they were the lucky ones. Then my father was let out of prison, and soon thereafter, had a car accident and a stroke and died. So she took up with another man and had my youngest half-brother, who would later become part of the system himself. Six children in all.
When this boy, Billy, was in his teens, I received a phone call from social services. He needed a bone marrow transplant or would die, they said. I was the only family member they could locate. Would I come let them test me, even though we were only related through my mother? And so I did. And I was not a match. I visited him in the hospital. I don’t know if he survived. But I remember asking him: “Do you know where your mother is?” It took a lot for me to utter those words, and I would not say “our” mother. He told me he thought she was living in the back of a camper somewhere. That’s the last I heard, back in 1990.
I wasn’t going to write again about this. But a woman, someone I’ve never heard from, emailed me and asked me to keep telling about it. “Keep it up,” she wrote. “You are literally meeting other people’s emotional needs as you heal yourself.” And so on this morning I sat down and let the story begin again.
It is a short story. For I have few facts, and those are sketchy. But I do know this. Years ago, when someone asked what I would do if she were to find me and come to my door, I replied indignantly, “Why, I would turn her away. I’m not the Red Cross.”
But we are more than the sum of our parts. And I know, today anyway, that my answer would be far different. I would say to her: “If you need help, I’d like to help you.”