Well, it's 'that day' again. And, as these things go, this one hasn't been as bad as others in the past.
For one thing, she's no longer some dream figure, hovering out in the San Francisco area. I've seen her, at the door of her dilapidated double-wide trailer that faces onto a two-lane road outside a tiny town in rural Delaware. Her bath robe -- a blue one this time, instead of the pink one she wore, all those years ago -- was filthy, smeared with brown steaks down the lapels. She refused to look me in the eye. She later told my sister that 'he'd changed so much'. Forty years will do that to a person.
She also told her husband, finally, that yes, she had had other children besides the daughter he knew about -- that she'd disowned me because I 'turned out to be gay'. She also admitted that she'd 'had some other sons', much the way one might admit to having gone to a fast-food restaurant from time to time. That casual, that unimportant.
So it can't be a great wonder that, even as a very little boy, I wasn't sure of her love. She did tend to me when I was sick, I can't deny that. But otherwise, there was, I think, always a sense that she was about to disappear -- there was an air she had, as she ran the wet laundry through the hand wringer in the basement at 222 South Jackson St., in Belleville IL, before taking another basket of flattened garments out to hang in the back yard, an air that this was all only temporary. I think I sensed the sort of tension one might feel, watching an escape artist, underwater, struggling to free herself of her bonds, finally to pop to the surface for a breath of fresh free air, and run away.
And then, poof -- she did. She disappeared. The treachery she'd promised, she delivered. "I'm going to take one of you with me," she'd said, over and over. And she did. My brothers and I were dropped off at an institution, where women pinched and beat and sexually abused us. And when my father remarried, we heard about her from other cruel women. "She never loved you," they would tell us. "She only wanted a girl," they would say. "She never wanted you in the first place," they would tell me and my brothers -- this, in spite of the fact that none of these women had ever been in the same state at the same time at any time in their lives, let alone met and talked about their preferences in children.
I saw her again, in 1969, thirteen years after the divorce. She and my sister were living in a little trailer, in a little suburb outside of Philadelphia. On my ride to meet them, on the train and the bus, I was certain that she was there, watching me, deciding whether or not I looked like the sort of son she'd want to own. When I saw her, coming out of the pet store that was our rendez-vous, I recognized her instantly, we look so much alike. And my sister too, I recognized, because she looked so much like my father. How ironic, I thought, that each should have taken the child that looked the most like the divorced spouse.
We walked to the trailer -- she, much shorter than me, my sister trailing behind us -- where there was a simple dinner, and of course, awkward conversation. Did I even mention the orphanage? I don't remember. I do remember that, because the trailer was warm, I took off my necktie, folded it, and lay it on a little end table beside my chair. At one point, while my sister was telling me some high-school tale, I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a hand slyly reaching across the little table, to the folded necktie, and flipping the end up, to check the label.
I went out to the little suburb two more times. On the last visit, as I was leaving, I was given a slim little gold-plated pocket watch. "You know I love you," she said, and then shut the door. I had a bus to catch, so I didn't have the time to ask just what that meant.
The watch was a piece of crap she probably stole from the jewelry counter where she worked as a sales clerk. When I tried to reach her again, after I'd returned to college the next spring, there was no response. When I called her parents two years later, to tell them that I'd gotten through school, and had a BS, they said she'd remarried and moved to California, and they didn't know how to get in touch with her. I ran across town, in search of my best friend on earth. I ended up at the door of other friends we had in common, and I broke down in front of them. Heaving sobs, incoherent. Unable to breathe, except to force out more tears. These men brought me into their apartment, and let me cry for a while.
"You can always find her," they said, meaning well. "She's probably just as afraid of rejection as you are," they said, putting to use their Psych 101 class. I think it was then that, finally, I was able to say something that made sense.
"I don't need a mother now," I said, emphatically. "I need to have had a mother."
(The word, as you can see, is laden for me. As it is, I'm sure, for my brothers, none of whom has laid eyes on this woman since 1956)
And it puzzles me, that the older I get, the more deeply I feel this retroactive wound of not having been cared for, not having been cared about, not having been acknowledged (after the divorce, my sister was strenuously told that those boys she remembered playing with weren't her brothers -- they were just boys from the neighborhood. Until she believed it), of not having been valued. And I have to say that, no matter what sort of accolade I might stumblingly allow myself to earn, no matter what accomplishment I might back into unawares, no matter what credentials I might have earned while disparaging the very effort involved -- none of these things seems to have any appreciable impact, in terms of balancing the great void of not-having-been-loved that is, it seems, the center of my being. No praise, no kiss, no dollar amount, no number of column inches, does anything but tumble over the edge, into the abyss. As I get older, my external defenses and interests and diversions shrink and pale and thin out, and the abyss, by comparison, seems to expand. Intellectually, I know that I am unimaginably fortunate; the abyss, unfortunately, is a cold, implacable place that eats up rationality just as easily as it swallows degrees and exhibition credits.
So. I've decided that, given my bent for things grammatical (I don't need a mother; I need to have had a mother), next year I'm going to think of the second Sunday in May as 'Happy Mothers' Day. And leave it at that.
© 2012 Walter Zimmerman