Monday, January 16, 2012

Too Early, Too Late

Well, I'd been thinking about her anyway, as I lay in bed worrying about whatever my heart was currently doing.  Or not doing.  She allegedly has heart problems too, and these things can be hereditary, I've been told.

Then the cats decided they were dying of malnutrition, and that I had less than fifty seconds to get up and put my opposable thumbs to productive use, by filling their bowls with yummy things to eat.  Or face kitty carcasses.  And while I was in the bathroom throwing on some clothes, I noticed the light of the half moon, streaming across the tile floor.  The maternal moon, now halfway to its darkest monthly phase, but still bright enough to make shadows in my house.

So.  It's far too early for me to be up -- my circadian rhythms want me to stay in bed until at least 10 am every day, it seems -- but this is on my mind.  So, here goes...

This adventure started when I misplaced my old address book -- the one with the blue vinyl cover, and the grey pages.  I usually keep it in a particular place, on the top shelf of a cluttered book case, but for some unknown reason, I'd apparently moved it, and was semi-crazy to locate it, even though most of the information in the book was long since out of date.  People have relocated, people have died, the usual.

But this address book was the only place where I had any kind of contact information for my mother.  According to informed sources (a sister I see every seventeen years or so), Constance Cora Hebbard Zimmerman Bihm Hayes was living in Concord CA.  Oh, and here's the phone number.  And even though, at the time the address book went missing, I hadn't seen or heard from C. C. H. Z. B. H. for forty years, it still seemed important for me to have that dreadful information.  Which, even in the address book, I kept hidden, under a yellow post-it note, that covered her place on the grey page.

Then the lost blue book resurfaced, miraculously enough, down in the heaving disarray (in which, nevertheless, I can still generally find things) that constitutes my basement work area.  That particular blue!  That worn vinyl!  Eureka (without the water)!

So I brought the long-lost address book back upstairs, and kept it in more or less plain sight (meaning it might only be covered by one week's worth of newspapers) on my half of the kitchen table.  And once or twice, right after its resurfacing, I checked, on the 'H' page, under the yellow post-it note, to see if the name and numbers were still there.  Which they were.

And then I noticed that, for no discernible reason, I was really, really angry.  Angry, specifically, about the address book.

So, as one does at this point in human history, I talked about it with my then-psychiatrist.  Who would just sit there behind his desk, flexing his fingers and insisting that I talk to him for at least half an hour, before he would write my newest prescription for the ineffective antidepressant I was then taking.  I felt like a seal who had discovered how to use his vocal chords, instead of balancing a beach ball on his nose.  Why twirl a plastic sphere in new and wonderful ways, when I could tell the doctor about the address book, and wonder about the accompanying anger?  'Do you think... do you think I should... contact... her?' I asked.

'Well, she is your mother', he said.  Whatever that was supposed to mean.  In some ways, he might as well have said, 'Well, Mount Rushmore is in South Dakota.'

But, as I have sometimes done, I took hold of that anger, like a hot rope, and pulled myself along by it. And by the time I got home, the rope was near its kindling point.  I got the address book out from under the newspapers (hmm, haven't finished that crossword puzzle yet...), got the phone, found a reasonably comfortable chair, and leafed through to the 'H' section once again.  Under the post-it.  Dialed the number...

A cheery male voice, with a distinct Australian accent, answered.  And had no idea who I was talking about -- nobody by that name here, mate.  (I could practically smell the shrimp and the Fosters)

So I had no recourse, but to call my sister.  We barely know each other, she having been the best one, the one my mother picked as her prize offspring, to tuck into the lifeboat with her as the family foundered and sank.  The girl who grew up in Paris and Morocco while her brothers were being beaten in an institution.  And even though none of this was her choice, I have to admit a resentment that still flashes through me, unbidden, like a brush fire, whenever she and I have to communicate.

But because she's the only living contact I have with our mother, every ten years or so, on the thinnest of pretexts, I'll dig out my sister's number (in the blue book, of course), call her up, and after a few minutes of trying to avoid the real reason for the conversation, I'll sheepishly ask...  'Is our mother still alive?'

This time, however, perhaps impelled by this mysterious anger, I got right to the point, and asked where our mother actually was.  Had she moved to another picturesque village in California?  Or was she perhaps being held hostage, tied up and gagged in a broom closet, within smelling distance of an Australian barbecue in a little town outside of San Francisco?  'Oh, she and her husband moved back east years ago,' my sister perkily told me.  'They live in Delaware now.  Let me get her address and phone number.'

Delaware?  Far too close.

So, I did the usual MapQuest routine, locating the town and the street.  Then, I called the phone number.  Which was out of service.  No matter how many times I dialed.  Out of service.

I called the Delaware branch of the phone company.   Whether it was logical or not, I'd decided that, if the phone wasn't working because of a past-due bill, and the balance was less than $500, I would pay it myself, just so I could call this phantom woman inside whose body I had originally taken shape.  But no, I was told, this wasn't an issue of money owed; this was a business line that had been disconnected at the user's request.  I might as well have left the blue address book in the basement, I thought.

Then I went back to the MapQuest research, and printed out their directions, for getting to Simply Nowhere Delaware, just north of Dover.  And I put the directions in one of my drawing pads.  And made sure I took this drawing pad with me, on my next trip to Philadelphia.  Which was slated for the next week, for an early brunch with my former university teaching colleagues. 

I'd kind of expected a surprise party, with lots of students bursting out to say how sorry they were that I wasn't their professor any more, but instead it was just a small party.  There was a baby girl there, who wanted to feed me pineapple.  And chat.  So we did.  And we ate.  And drank tea.  I had a little more pineapple, to keep Olivia content.  All the while, wondering -- when I leave in just about an hour, and drive across the Ben Franklin Bridge, will I turn north, for home, or will I turn south, for...?

Gripping the anger, I turned south.

It was almost impossible, as I drove, not to imagine what was about to happen -- how it was all going to play out.  When I was at my clearest, I halted the fantasy, and reminded myself to concentrate on the driving, because I actually had no idea what I might be facing.  And immediately, in spite of my best intentions, a new fantasy, fuller and more colorful than the last, would spring up.  Well, there weren't that many turns to make, at that point in the trip, so daydreaming was almost inevitable, wasn't it?

The central pivot for these fantasies was a silly, sick falsehood that, according to my sister, lay at the very center of my mother's life with her much younger husband.  'He doesn't know how old she is,' my sister would say, conspiratorially, 'and he doesn't know that she has any other children besides me.'  A little involuntary twinge.  "In fact,' my sister would continue, with just a bit too much delight for my taste, 'when they first met, she told him that I wasn't her daughter, but her niece, so she could pass herself off as a little younger than she really was.'  Apparently, it was of central importance to maintain this charade -- though for whose benefit, I wasn't sure.

So, in spite of myself, I patched together this scenario:  I'll get there, and introduce myself as a friend of her daughter, who hasn't heard any news for a while, and I've volunteered to stop by and check on my friend's mother, in the friendliest possible way.  And I'll be asked in, and we'll sit in the living room while water heats for tea, and she will be looking at me with a kind of curious half-recognition, and I will enjoy the subterfuge...  Until...  And maybe some tea will be spilled.

Real life is much more interesting than I can ever imagine.

For one thing, the MapQuest directions were completely and flawlessly accurate.  Instead being actually directed to Biloxi Mississippi, via Anchorage, I kept finding myself turning left, onto exactly the correct small road, off the exactly correct slightly larger road, at exactly the correct mileage.  And I was getting deeper and deeper into rural Delaware, where street lights are a day dream, and there are lots of mobile homes that have never been anywhere.  Two more turns.  Even though it was only mid-September, most of the trees were already bare.  One more turn.  Which side of the street had the odd numbers?  I'd entered the land of roadside mailboxes, most of them weathered and blank.

Then, I was there.  Going a little too fast, around a curve, I passed it, then had to turn around and go b back.  The right number on the mail box.  A pebble-covered driveway, sprouting grass around the two parked vehicles that looked as though they'd been abandoned years ago.  A sad-looking mash-up of two trailers, side by side, with a shallow tacked-on front bay window giving a cartoonish nod to actual architecture.  I  pulled off the road, and sat for a minute, before getting out of the car and walking to the front door. 

There was no door bell, just a glass-fronted storm door.  I could have sent a letter, I thought.  Instead, I knocked, tentatively at first, and then harder and louder.  There was no response.

Well, I reasoned with myself, heading back to the car, it is a Sunday.  Maybe... they've gone to church?  A very late afternoon service?  Maybe they're at bingo?  I couldn't tell if I was relieved, or angrier than ever.  I was about to get back into the car, when I noticed a man sitting on the porch next door, and a woman standing behind him, talking on the phone.  I wondered...

I introduced myself with my practiced falsehood, about being a friend of their next-door neighbor's daughter, and then asked if these kind people knew when the folks next door might be in.  'Oh, they're home,' the man said.  'That's his van right there', indicating the dull brown vehicle I'd assumed was out of commission.  It looked like a dirty ash tray turned inside out.  'And see in back there, the window on the side?' he went on.  'You can see the screen saver running on his computer.  That other window, with the blue, is their bedroom.  Oh, they're home all right.  You just have to knock real loud.'

I walked back across the neighbor's lawn, and waded into the uncut grass next to the computer window.  I pounded on it.  I went to the window with a blue bed sheet pinned up inside.  I pounded on it.  I walked around the back of the trailer hybrid, found another window, and I pounded on it.  There was a sodden particle-board door in one wall.  I didn't pound on that, because it looked like it might cave in.

I banged on the big side window, where inside I could see a big color TV, tuned to a game show.  There was a cats on top of it.  I continued back to the front, and pounded on that skinny bay window.  The lights were on in there now, and I could see that it was the kitchen, with cats walking about on the table and the stove.  I completed my orbit at the front door, and pounding harder than ever at the glass.


The inside front door opened part way, and a skinny, grey-haired man with a Civil War style goatee appeared.  He pushed open the glass storm door, releasing a powerful stench of cigarette smoke and cat urine.  'Yeah?' he asked.

He looked so much like my youngest brother Lee, the one who is dead of lung cancer.  The one whose life was so terribly shattered, almost from the beginning.  The one who is the fraternal twin of the sister I resent.  What a strange coincidence, I thought.

I launched right into my enabling semi-falsehood, pouring on the charm.  Glad I'd worn a nice shirt and a smart tie.  'Friend of her daughter, hasn't heard, just wanted to check, yada yada.'  He stood there in the doorway, uninvitingly.  'Well,' he said, when I'd finished my explanation for attacking his house with my bare fists, 'my wife is fine, and I'll make sure she gets in touch with her daughter.  Thanks.'  And he made to shut the door.


'Wait a minute,' I said.  'My name is Walter William Zimmerman III.  I know you're not supposed to know this, but your wife gave birth to me on October 16th, 1946, at 3:40 in the afternoon, in Saint Margaret's Hospital, in Montgomery Alabama.  She also had three other children.  I don't want anything from her -- I just want to look at her.'

He didn't really seem all that surprised.  He even smiled a little bit, and said that he had known all along that the woman who'd passed herself off as 35, when they'd married, was actually twenty years older than that.  'We can't have guests right now,' he said, which was something of an understatement.  'Let me see.'

He closed the door.  I turned around on the cement block front stoop, and waited.  I looked at more barren trees, across the road, and at the cloud cover.  It looked like it might rain soon.  There was a little light behind the lower edges of grey, where the sun was getting ready to set.  Then the doors opened behind me again, and the man ushered my mother to the threshold.

Her face is still unlined, even at 84.  Her hair is thin and frizzy and white, and stands straight out from her pale pink scalp.  She's wearing an old blue terrycloth bathrobe, with smears of brown down the lapels.  On her feet, a pair of cheap slippers made of polar fleece.   The stench of smoke and urine continue to belch out from behind her.  She steadfastly looks past me, just over my right shoulder, as if she's expecting rain too.  And the first thing I ask, is if I can give her a kiss.

She is your mother, after all.

I kiss her left cheek, trying not to breathe in at the same time.  I ask her for the only information she can usefully provide for me -- her mother's maiden name.  My mother looks startled for a moment, as though she's just gotten a little static electric shock, and then blurts out 'Cunningham.  Rachel Cunningham.' Which constitutes the only and total conversational event I've had with my mother in forty years.

Then she goes back to investigating rural Delaware's southern horizon.  There's just the faintest trace of a secret smile about her lips.  I talk a bit with her husband, who now provides me with a new phone number, and a working email address, and the promise to be in touch with my sister right away.  He confides that his wife has some mild dementia, and is sometimes incontinent.  The living topic of our cursory conversation might as well be an old female Buddha, unaffected by what's unfolding around her.  Then, with a touching gentleness, my mother's husband guides her back into whatever it is they live in, and shuts the door.

So much for a cup of tea, and a subtle surprise.

I got back in my car and sat there for a while, my eyes closed and my head on the steering wheel.  Feeling filthy.  Trying to breathe.  Where was the anger?  What would I hold onto now?

Then I got out of the car and walked back over to the neighbor's porch again.  I told them who I really am, that I hadn't seen or spoken to my mother in forty years, and then we chatted a bit --  how they'd tried to help my mother out, with an extra pie at Thanksgiving, or the offer to mow the lawn, but that all their efforts had been rebuffed.  'Let us give you our phone number though,' the wife suggested, 'so if you need to check on her, maybe we can help.  Being next door.'  She wrote their last name and phone number on a piece of paper, and I wondered at the world -- a mother who can't look her firstborn in the eye; a stranger who reaches out with an open hand.

The drive home seemed to take a million years.  I don't clearly remember what I thought about, but I'm sure I went through most of the available emotions, at least twice.  I don't recall crying -- I think I've been beyond that, with regard to my mother, for quite some time.  Mostly, I broiled myself internally, for having waited so long, to make contact with her -- having hoped all along that it would be her calling me, for once.  Her caring about me, maybe. 

Instead, there was that secret smile, and the looking past me, over my shoulder.  The lies.  (I was later told, by the man with the Civil War goatee, that my mother had finally admitted to him that, because I 'turned out to be gay', she'd disowned me.  And that, oh yes, she'd had 'some other sons')  I'm embarrassed that, after all these years, these things still rankle.  Or that I still try to make some sense of it all.  Talking about my mother, with a friend of long standing, I confessed that as a child, I had idolized her, possibly to the point of a worship that must have made Jesus jealous, and maybe that was why...  Others have suggested, not unreasonably, that the woman is simply insane.  But somehow that doesn't make much difference -- as finding out that the driver of the car that ran over your legs, and crushed them beyond repair, either had a sudden dizzy spell, or wasn't really aiming directly at you at all, but had another victim in mind.  Whatever the underlying cause, you'll still never waltz again.   

It's been just over two years now, since I stood there on the cinder blocks, waiting for the glass storm door to open.  I still resist calling my sister.  I still resent feeling I have to go the roundabout way, to find out if the woman who gave birth to me is still alive or not.  I supposed I could try that new phone number, but what is there, really, to say?  Who would I reach, no matter which of them picked up the phone? 

I'm far, far past needing a mother currently, and have been for quite some time.  Where the problem lies, for me, is in the world of verb tenses; I should have had a mother, in something like the sense that most people seem to experience.  I know that actual parents can be a real pain in the butt, and then they live longer than you expect, and develop complicated diseases, and drain your retirement account while you try to take care of them -- unless, of course, you take the impossible/easy way out, and ship them off to some warehouse for the geriatric set.  All these problems, with regard to my mother, I will not face.  Which is, I suppose, some slender compensation for... whatever.

After my long drive home that night (I got lost, but then realized that, Delaware being so narrow, I only had to head north in order to escape), after I finally parked the car in the driveway, I went into the house and immediately took a long hot shower, and brushed my teeth ferociously, to scrub away a deep feeling of intense pollution.  The following Christmas, I thought about mail ordering a clean pink bathrobe, a woman's size petite, and having it shipped anonymously to a certain double-wide trailer with a shallow bay window in front, and a cigarette-butt-colored van in the overgrown driveway.  

Then I decided not to.

©  2012    Walter Zimmerman

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