In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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It is autumn, a clear, warm November day in St. Louis, Missouri, and I, a rapidly graying man in my early forties, am standing beside my older brother on a cinder track facing a football field. It is homecoming weekend at my nephew’s school. The young man, despite his heavy equipment and the heat of the day, canters by and waves to us proudly. Without warning, the band — no more than ten pieces — begins to play the alma mater slowly, and slightly out of tune. Suddenly, I am crying, sobbing shamefully, squeezing shut my eyes and placing my nose into prayerfully clasped hands, though I am no alumnus of this school.
I have heard alma maters before, but never until this moment understood how they are written for the aging. The raggedy band continues on its dirgelike pace as I try to regain my composure. I am a Canadian now, with a university-trained intellect. Is it body, soul, or both which have launched this in-house rebellion? Stop this foolish crying, turn back to the stands, and take your seat.
My mother is seated in the shade of the balcony of her apartment in San Diego, the sun relentless in this desert-become-a-city. She stares into that cloudless blue sky. Cancer has begun its final assault upon her body. Were it I on the balcony with that diagnosis, I would be contemplating my impending death. Or running around town looking for miracle cures.
My mother, beautiful as ever, hair dyed a silvery blonde, skin white and still smooth, sits entirely self-possessed. She is a woman who does not express doubt or seek advice. Since the day she left her family, she has lived by those beliefs most natural to her — foremost amongst them, dress well and always look your best. Her second husband, a humorless man whose perfectly aligned suede slippers wait patiently for him outside the door of the bathroom, is the opposite of her first husband. He is constantly showing my mother in so many annoying ways how much he loves her.
I have spent almost thirty years waiting to ask her questions about her leaving home, letting one visit after another go by in craven silence. Even after surgery, she seemed so strong I was able to assure myself I had ample time. There are questions you do not ask from a sense of delicacy; others, from a lack of courage. Poised now to join her on the balcony, I am impelled only by the urgency and finality of the moment.
On a Friday morning, back when her hair was a volatile red, my mother served breakfast in her old housecoat — blue flowers on a white background. It always reminded me of a birthday cake. My father, placing the commuter’s kiss on her cheek, left to catch the Long Island Railroad to Penn Station. On this day, she served something sweet — pancakes, or French toast. I finished my milk. I brushed my teeth. My kiss was as unthinking as my father’s had been. Out on the front porch, I heard a scream. I rushed back inside and found my mother on the kitchen floor, propped on one elbow, weeping. I helped her to her feet. She kissed me, said she was all right, said I should go to school. It was just a slip on the floor.
That night, my father told me she had gone to Chicago for the weekend to see an old friend. I nodded, I pretended to hear, though my mind was on a football game I was to play the next day, a Saturday game with cheerleaders and marching bands. At some point during that game the field, the sky, the players, the referees, all turned green. From behind that sea of green, I could not tell the doctor the score or what teams were playing.
I spent three days under observation. When my father picked me up at the hospital, she wasn’t with him. Nor was she at home. I sat at my desk in my bedroom. My father was across the hall, lying on his bed reading The New York Times. It was October 1961. I was fifteen. I waited for my father to tell me what had happened.
Concussions are said to produce temporary states; yet now my entire life seemed to have changed.
Tonight is a night for which I have trained intensively for three months, daily workouts amongst the old Jewish men at the health club in Toronto. My body has been punished into its best condition since high school. My skin is tanned, my clothes painstakingly selected. I get my hair styled the day I board the plane for New York. I imagine that everyone will be trying to look healthy, happy, and wealthy — everyone that is, who will appear at my high school’s twentieth reunion.
I have arranged to go to the affair with an old friend, Terry. Because our last names begin with the same letter, we shared every homeroom, many other classes, and countless experiences together outside of school. He picks me up at my father’s house, forcing memories and associations to rocket out of control: the sad departure of the Giants and the Dodgers, who taught a whole generation that you can leave the people who love you; the birth of the Mets; my driver’s license; Nathan’s; Jones Beach; the spice of freedom — wonderfully illusory and never again to be tasted.
The tape playing in the car turns back the clock for one sweet second. And then I remember how much I hate this town and most of the people who will be there tonight. I remember the cliques from which I was excluded, and for whose full acceptance I would have cut my wrists.
He lowered The Times and stared over the top of his reading glasses. “I’ll tell you the truth, Kenneth, I don’t know.”
“Didn’t she go to Chicago?”
“So where is she, Dad?”
“Your mother’s left me.” That was it. Nothing more. No, he wasn’t finished. “I’ve got a detective on it.”
A detective? My father had hired a detective to trail my mother. My father would never again refer to her with any words other than “your mother.”
Back in my room, crying, I remembered how they’d battled through the years. From our beds, my brother and I would listen passively at first and then try to cover our ears, unlike my sister who often tried to get between them. The arguments would end with my mother threatening to leave. Then my father would bring two large suitcases up from the basement, as if to say, “Go ahead. See if I care.” I would hear the suitcases clump down on the landing, I would hear my mother’s tears. I saw now that my mother had simply chosen her own place and time.
My sister and brother were both away at college. Although we are close in age, we grew up as three only children. The clearest memory of my sister is of her studying, straight-backed, a corona of lamplight around her black hair, building her house of bricks. In contrast, I always felt guilty at my own idleness. Fiercely intellectual, she learned that her best protection against fear and despair was ceaseless work. My brother took refuge in athletics, joining one violent sport after another to vent his anger and avoid home. My escape was through fantasy, music, literature. My sister, my brother, and myself — a hard-working bank executive, an athletic coach, a writer. Three aging children, still wedded to the habits of childhood.
They called during the week, but neither conversation shed any light on my mother’s disappearance. Puzzlement and concern were in my siblings’ voices, but we had never learned to talk to each other. Still, it was some comfort to know that they knew.
I returned to school. Somehow, I tried to lead a normal existence. Divorce was still illegal in New York; the worst marriages often stayed together. I boarded the school bus with great anxiety. No one appeared to know anything, not even my next-door neighbor, who had boarded the bus with me. At school, everything seemed the same, better than the same. By Friday, people who never had much time for me were suddenly starting up conversations, and even some girls were paying attention.
The last year and a half at high school, while not the best of times, was better than the ostracism I had previously endured. However, the fact that my more popular classmates merely talked to me was no longer enough. I never gained admittance to their inner circle. Despite the fact that my mother’s absence from home had freed me from the constant tension of bickering, I blamed her for having messed up my life, for everything that I should have been but wasn’t.
Three months after she left, I received a letter. My mother’s handwriting was on the envelope. I was not resentful but thankful, so thankful.
After many unpleasant years of life with your father, I met another man whom I have come to love very much and who loves me. I obtained a divorce in Mexico and have remarried. As you can see by the postmark, I now live in Houston. I know I have not been a real mother to you for some time, but I would like the opportunity to start again. Let us know if you would like to visit and we will be happy to make the necessary arrangements.
I moved quickly from thankfulness to outrage.
My sister was the first to visit. She assured me that Mother was very happy, but I took no comfort in her words. I felt an even greater distance than before from my sister, for whom these visits seemed significant. In my view, Mother had to pay for both her inconsiderateness and her misdeed. I arranged a brief visit but made it clear that she had lost her right to act as a mother, fitting retribution after all. Whatever need for a mother that drove my sister did not drive me.
I go out on the porch. A wind has made the afternoon cooler and more comfortable.
“God, it’s nice out here.” I begin.
“I love it,” she says. “I love life. I often think how healthy I am but for this illness. I’ve felt no pain and discomfort except for the operations and the treatments. Sometimes it’s hard to believe I really have cancer.”
“It must be hard.” How feeble! Is that all I can say? “Mom, you mind if we talk? There’s something I’ve been wanting to ask you for a long time.”
“Yes? Why don’t you sit down?”
Her strength of mind is simultaneously comforting and disconcerting. Where is the vulnerability one would expect in a dying person? I sit across from her but she motions for me to move next to her. “When you left home — and really I wouldn’t be surprised if you couldn’t remember this; it was twenty-five years —”
“I remember. Of course I remember.” She remembers everything, even the way I used to scratch my back on the door post.
“Why didn’t you leave any of us a note? Why didn’t you leave me a note?”
“Yes, I might have done that. It seems obvious now. But at the time, it didn’t. I’d been trapped so long, I had to get away as quickly . . . as possible.”
“Quickly and cleanly.”
“All right, but I did wait until you kids were grown up.” She puts a hand on my arm. “Why haven’t you told me this before?”
“Here I was, fifteen years old, and one day my mother disappears.”
“I’m sorry. If it does any good to say it, I’m sorry.” And what else can she say to her aging child? That he might have enjoyed more of her lightness and grace and humor and strength if he’d allowed himself to be less angry and resentful?
Why have I come to this reunion? Simply because something inside me needs all of them to know how successful I am. Every conversation is meant to dazzle, is twisted, turned, and falsified in order to shine a bright light on the teller. It is an evening of double monologues in which one feels no joy but only a cruel glee in having left others behind. After a full two hours of boasting, I am sated. My mouth hurts. Finally, I grab some food from what’s left of the buffet and sit with Terry.
“You certainly seem to be enjoying yourself tonight.”
“I just wanted to show those people that I’m not as stupid as they thought I was.”
Terry smiles, savoring the irony. “You wanted to show how much better you are than them.”
“I did. I guess I never got over hating them because of the way they excluded me. It’s hard to outgrow that kind of thing.”
He nods. There is something in that statement which is true for him as well.
“You remember junior year?” I ask. “You have no idea what a time that was for me. I guess no one but you even knew that my mother had left home.”
He smiles. “Do you really think for a minute that your neighbor was about to let such gossip escape him?”
It is a Swedish meatball that crash-lands along with my fork. The mild social flowering which occurred at the end of high school was something more than my resentful mind could understand. Knowing my pain, those I hated had treated me with more kindness than I deserved.
As the alma mater draws to a close, I sneak a look at my brother. He is moved by something as well. Perhaps it is the pride he feels in his fine son. I take an enormous breath.
Mother, country, family, reunion, homecoming — all the trappings of sentiment. I know it is not proper to give in to such feelings, especially in our era. But what if, for a moment, standing in the city where the great rivers meet, I just let go and allow them to lead me back to that true self which has stood beside me, ignored for all these years? I would say, “I miss you. Home, family, friends, I miss you.”
The major chords of the music, strong, deep, and sorrowful, sweep through me, singing of the people and the land that will never again be the same for me.
Joining hands with my brother and sister over my mother’s deathbed, I see her face, like her hair, silvery pale as the moon, as the winged-god Mercury or Lady Liberty herself. What Who’s Who does she appear in? What was on the list of major accomplishments in her life? How had she tried to impress others, except as one who had the courage to live as she saw fit? If I had allowed myself to feel then as I do now, I would have said for her to hear, “Mother, I love you.”