Mother’s Day never fails to make me feel displaced. I grew up with a steady stream of input on how feminine I wasn’t, how I should be accordingly ashamed, how my mother’s enforced absence had somehow backfired, how she’d been cut from my life for my own good yet I was still shaping up to be as disappointing a woman as she was.
Most information I have about my mother, I received from my father. That information goes something to the effect of: my mother was low class, ill-educated, and a chronic liar. There were other appraisals, all unfavorable, by way of facts and figures, as if life was a numbers game and my mother had racked up all the wrong stats: the number of children she’d had (at least two before me and at least two after), the number of husbands she’d had (current count: 3-4), the number of different men who’d fathered those children (again: 3-4), and whether there was overlap between the fathers and husbands (yes and no).
So, according to my father, my mother was batting a hundred.
The last time I saw my mother, I was seven years old. I watched her leave our house (“our” including me, my brother, my father, my paternal grandmother, and two of my father’s brothers), get in her car, and drive away. It was both dramatic and anti-climactic. Dramatic because she was angry. My brother and I had, at our father’s request, recently told a judge we didn’t want to see her anymore. Anti-climactic because my parents had been divorced for at least three years before that, with my father having been awarded something close to sole custody, mainly because my mother had taken us twelve states away during their divorce proceedings without telling him.
Things I remember my father being angry about when my brother and I visited my mother before her visitation rights ended: if I came home with nail polish on my nails (usually clear polish), if I forgot a toy or clothes at my mother’s, if we talked about the food we ate there. My father didn’t want my brother and I to have separate lives when we weren’t with him. But I wound up feeling split nonetheless: the person the world expected me to be (a girl who, by proxy of being a girl, was supposed to love her mother) vs. the person I was (a girl whose mother was a stranger).
As I got older, I learned to care less, at least about my mother’s absence. I was immensely lucky to have many women who decided to look after me. Not that I got into trouble that often (I was honestly too boring for that), but all the important lessons I learned about life, the lessons that shaped the person I am—how to fail gracefully, how to find optimism in a sea of negativity, how to believe in myself despite high odds stacked against me—I learned from other people’s mothers. Andrea Davies, the mother of my closest childhood friend, Shauna, saw I had no idea how to accept my own shortcomings. She recognized I was petrified of failure. She told me it was okay to screw up. She explained that I’d live, and even if I didn’t get better, I’d someday be better at something else. (For perspective, I was nine years old. I took the fast track to Type A.) My dear friend, Sandy McClintock, who was my drama teacher in high school, once said I busted my ass to get things right, which meant I busted everyone else’s ass too. She wasn’t scolding me, rather, she was giving me permission to set the bar as high as I could reach it, while also reminding me I had to reach out to pull everybody else up with me. My all-but-adopted mother (and former boss), Dana DeVito, who never made me feel bad about not talking to my parents, told me it’s okay to be angry, as long as anger isn’t my whole life.
These women are my mothers. These women are my fathers. They taught me how to grow beyond the rotted soil I was planted in. They taught me I could, in fact, find new soil without sawing off my roots.
Despite the slew of reasons (some I’ve mentioned elsewhere) that I don’t talk to my father, I’m grateful that he’s mostly left me alone since I left his house.* My mother, on the other hand, found me online and emailed me several years ago to ask me to be in touch, to tell me she loved me, to basically remind me she existed.
Of the two of us, my brother remembers more of her than I do. Of the two of us, my brother had always wanted her in his life. So I told him: here’s her contact info. I don’t want any part of it. I tried, though I’m pretty sure I failed, to properly explain why I didn’t and don’t want to know her.
Bloodlines aren’t contractual. They’re borne of circumstance. Given enough time and pressure, they erode. I don’t discount the hard work that so many people put in to maintain regular contact with their families. Families are complicated systems. I know the mettle they require. But for me, what matters more than blood is the respect shown by strangers (literal strangers) who went out of their way to make me feel less alone, to make me feel less forgotten, who know me and make me feel worthy of guidance regardless of their expectations for me, regardless of how we’re related.
* That said, he called the police the day I moved out and told them I’d robbed him when I moved. I told the police everything I took was mine. They said I had to ask for a list of stolen goods, and if I had anything on the list, I’d have to return it. When asked for a list of what I’d stolen, my father didn’t respond, a fact I bring up because of his regular insistence that my mother was a liar. Between the two of them, it’s no wonder I wound up a fiction writer.