when mom is a stranger
When I was fourteen years old, I left my mother’s house, and moved in with my father just 45 minutes away. For the move, I took a bag of clothes, a photograph of my crossing guard, my mother’s dime-store eyelash curler, and my Holly Hobbie diary from 1979. I never saw my mother again. For 25 years, that loss and its corresponding guilt kept me from connecting with my mom--even internally, even in my mind. But recently I’ve been able to write about leaving:
My mom sighed, and her eyes filled with tears. “If you go to live with him, I’ll never see you again.”
I knew that this was true. She would never come see me, and she wouldn’t call because I’d be living with my father. After I left, any connection would be up to me.
But she had always relied on me. It had been my role to retrieve her from her months of sobbing after my father left and to interrupt the hours she’d spend in the tub in the dark. When she’d whisper “It’s just too hard to be here,” I’d rush around like a dog on ice to distract her: “Let’s watch a movie, let’s make popcorn, let’s look at my new dance! I’m making it up right now!”
It had been my role to shield her from the glances at the grocery store when she talked like a 5-year-old, counting the money that didn’t add up. I’d calmly ask the clerk to take out the ice cream and the sugar cereals, and yes, I’d tell the cashier, "everything is fine." It had been my role to go back to the store when she’d drive away without my brother, when he was a toddler left screaming in the parking lot, waiting to be strapped in. It had been my role to keep my mom tethered--to me, and to everything else.
Somewhere deep and unspeakable inside me, I knew I had to get away.
My mother’s premonition, or her curse, came true. For years, I couldn’t say the words “mental illness,” couldn’t say “abandon” because I didn’t know which way the arrow pointed, couldn’t even say “mom” because she still lived beneath my skin and I was too afraid. But when a lawyer called in 2009 to tell me she had died, I could find her--outside of me. I could write her into existence because suddenly we were separate people. The death was a distinction, and a kind of intimacy.
This year, I was able to write a short book about my mom and yes, as my mother promised, this connection was up to me. In my mother’s passing, I gave myself something more valuable than the eyelash curler I stole from her. I gave myself what she could never give me: a story of her life, to keep.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cris Beam is an author and professor living in New York City. Her latest book, Mother, Stranger, was published by The Atavist. Click here to read it.
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