It isn’t that I’ve been avoiding writing about my mother. More than my dad, this story is about her. She is the silence between the lines, the steady hand and the whispers in our ears that we were loved, that we could be anything we wanted to be.
Reading Cheryl Strayed’s books, Wild and Torch, have been difficult. I finally had to put Torch down and move on to the other, because it was too painful to contemplate the loss of a mother, any mother. Though both of her books are about the most impactful event of her life, Torch is more directly about her mother’s death, though she bills it as fiction. Wild is at least a little bit more about the author and her slow recuperation from the shambles her life became when she lost her mother. I can’t bring myself to think about losing mine. Because I would collapse. I would fall right to the ground and I don’t know if I would ever get up. I know she has always seen me as self-sufficient, as not needing her, as an adult in my own right long before the world saw me as grown. She is not correct, of course. Of course I need her, just as I have always needed her. In a world of unsurety, I was always sure that she loved me, that she was there, that she was only a reach away, an arm’s length, and later, a phone call.
I think as kids we saw her as the weak one, the one who was railroaded and the one who didn’t make decisions. I think she saw herself that way too. It took a little space from our cramped family dynamics and some time on my own before I realized just what it was she had done. All by herself, with only hindrance from the other parent most of the time. She relied on his discipline when we wouldn’t listen, but she was the one that instilled the values and the love, she was the one who listened, she was the one who cared. She was the one who sacrificed anything she might have dreamed of to care for us, all four of us. She kept us clean and fed, she made sure we had some record of school so our future wouldn’t be cut out for us, the future of a GED and a truckstop waitress job. She worked any jobs she could find, waiting tables or scooping ice cream or cleaning rooms. She begged for money from churches, waited in line at the food stamp office for hours, and forgot about shame or the privilege of her childhood. We rarely saw her cry or get upset. She went about life as if everything were fine, and so we believed it was. She was the one with the real strength, the iron will of a mother who has made her children her life. I was lucky. We met other kids on the road who were not so lucky, with both parents drunks or junkies, with dirty clothes and faces, who hadn’t been to a real school in years. We met the kids who grew up to be street people, pregnant teens, the ones who never had a chance. We had a chance, and it was created with the work-knobbed hands of my mother, with the beautiful lines on her face and the determination of her heart. I am thankful.
I have well-meaning relatives who have tried to reunite me with my father, with terrible results. “If we just get them together, all those years will melt away and everything will be fine,” I imagine them thinking. Do they have any idea? Of course they don’t. I can never have any respect for a man who would abuse a woman, any woman, but most especially the woman who is my mother. It would be hard to find a more well-loved person in her little mountain town, even one person who would say a bad word about her. When we settled there, the community took her in and made her one of them. They recognized her as special, as strong, as somebody important. They helped her anonymously when she needed it, they gossiped about her love life, they took her as their neighbor, though we could easily have been seen as “just those homeless people living in the campground.” I can forgive my dad for the things he did, or didn’t do, for or to me. I can’t forgive him the wrongs he paid my momma.