By Dana Laquidara
I am standing inside our home with my sister and our young mother. I am four years old. We are wearing our winter coats, and my mother has her hand on the front doorknob. She turns to face my father who is demanding to know where she is taking us.
You see, my mother has begun an affair with a man she believes will help her get away from my father. This is where she is headed that night, standing by the front door with my sister and me in tow. She is leaving my father. This night she plans to escape from her marriage.
But my father intercepts her at the front door. And later that night while my sister and I sleep, he throws our mother out of the house. There is snow on the ground. She isn’t wearing shoes or a coat and she has a broken wrist, a consequence of their violent fight. When my sister and I awake the next morning, our mother no longer lives with us
She moves into an apartment alone, and my sister and I visit her on Sundays. These visits are quiet. She is not the same mother who used to take us sledding and read books to us. She is sad and broken. Defeated. We love her fiercely though, and when she returns us to our father after each visit, we cry and cling to her in the driveway. It’s a terrible scene and as our father is peeling us off of her, he says, “See what you are putting them through? They are better off without you. If you love them, then let them go.” He says this week after week until she believes him. And she lets us go.
The following year my father remarries and we are told to call his new wife “Mom.” He wants to clean the slate and move on as if divorce, and my mother, never touched our lives. He wants to believe he has put everything back in order, and no one tells him otherwise.
His new wife happens to be a brunette like my sister, with short, straight hair. My father has dark hair as well. My own hair is lighter, like my mother’s, long and curly. I’ve become the best behaved little girl, but my hair is still unruly and this causes a problem for our family.
One Saturday, we are out doing errands together and a stranger, noticing me with my dark-haired family members, asks, “Where you get your hair?”
I feel scared by this question. I don’t know how to answer. I know I can’t mention my real mother, because she’s been erased from my life. We never mention her. So I stand there, speechless, and my stepmother says, “Oh, it runs in the family. She has an aunt with the same hair.”
I want to disappear. I feel shame that my very existence, the sight of me, could blow the family secret. I sensed that was the worst thing I could do. Shortly afterwards, my stepmother brings me to get my hair cut short. “It was too much trouble to take care of” is the reason she gives to the hairdresser.
The day I turn five, my mother dares to show up at our home with a birthday gift for me. She has her hair pulled back into a ponytail. I don’t remember if I look at her face. I want her there but I feel anxious, too. I’m not supposed to want her there. I’m not supposed to love her anymore. My father paces, his jaw clenched. His anger is palpable. My mother comments on my haircut. Then she gives me the gift and I open it.
I’m playing with the new toy when I hear my sister say, “We don’t need you to come here. We have a new mother now.” She is only six years old, but she is angry and her words carry power. She has been influenced by our father, has absorbed his rage, and now our mother is the enemy and takes her words to heart. I know then that our mother won’t be back.
Eventually we move three towns away. Years go by with no mention of my mother except for sometimes at night in our bedroom, when my sister and I whisper about the past. We call our mother You-Know-Who because we don’t dare speak her name. She has become a mystery that we are trying to solve by sharing the memories that we have of her. My sister always mentions the affair, and there is disgust in her voice. This makes my heart heavy. Somehow I know my mother is not bad, but how can I defend her?
Finally, when I am thirteen, my father initiates a conversation about our mother. He says only that the divorce was between the two of them and that she loved us. I know she did, I remember. His words leave me with so many questions, but I’m afraid to ask any of them. My father has built an impenetrable wall between himself and this topic so instead of speaking, I shake. At the end of the talk, he is satisfied. He has done his fatherly duty, there are no questions and we all go out to lunch. I feel my spirit sink. I hate myself for being such a coward.
Behind his back, my sister and I do our own searching. We call our maternal grandmother from a pay phone. Through tears, she tells us our mother has remarried, then divorced again and has two children. She lives in the town she grew up in, in our grandparents’ old house.
When my sister gets her driver’s license, she decides that we are going to go see our mother, and we do. We don’t tell our father. We just sneak away and arrive at our mother’s doorstep, ten years since we had seen her last. I am fifteen now and still feel very much under my father’s control. It terrifies me that we are doing this.
Her two little boys come to the door, and then they run to go get their mother. Our mother. She is petite like me, her hair just as I’d remembered. She is wearing brown pants and a white blouse. It is so ordinary, this outfit, it makes me think of a Sears catalogue. She cries and hugs us. She tells us that she has always hoped we would come and find her. There were cards and letters she sent, she says, things we had never received.
My sister is still angry at her and she has questions. “Why did you have an affair?” she asks. “Why did you leave? Why didn’t you come find us?” Our mother tries explaining, as gently as she can, that she did not feel in control of the situation. She regrets giving us up, she says, more we can ever know. I am numb. Mute. She is not You-Know-Who anymore. She is real again and I am not ready for this. We leave our mother’s home that night and several more years go by before I see her again.I have tucked her back into the past, into the far corners of my mind.
Finally, when I am 23, we meet again, just the two of us, at a coffee shop half way between our separate lives. I want to take in every detail of her appearance. Bluish gray eyes. Copper colored lipstick that looks good against her fair skin. Here we are, two women with similar features, and yet we are strangers. This time, though, I am ready to hear her story. I need to hear her story.
“I thought of you girls every day,” she says. “I wondered how you were, if you were healthy, if you liked school. I used to drive by your house and park in front, hoping to see you outside. Once I did see you,” she continues. “You were on your bike with the training wheels in the driveway. I wanted to go to you, but I didn’t dare.”
I think back to a photograph we have at home. In it I’m standing by my bike and wearing pink terry cloth shorts with a matching top. Was that the day my mother was there?
I tell her of the void in my life as I grew up without her—the loneliness, the confusion and shame. She averts her eyes, as if she can’t stand to know how much pain her absence caused me.
Finally, after this visit, I grieve. Through my grief I heal and I write. I face the truth. I am telling the truth now. I have a mother. Her name is Jana. On a snowy winter night, she was thrown out of my life. She was afraid. She was flawed. But she did love me. And I loved her. And there is no shame in that.
Author’s Note: During my early attempts at reconciling with my mother, even in adulthood, I lived in fear of my father finding out. This, along with my mother’s pain, sabotaged our efforts. It was not until recently that I fully understood parent alienation syndrome, and mine is surely an extreme case. I have been given the remarkable gift of mothering three daughters, all nearly grown, but due to the unresolved trauma and distance, I have had to let my own mother go in peace. I still have a difficult time talking to my father about the past, but I’ve learned to seek my own validation through writing. Sometimes kids grow up to be truth seekers and writers, and they tell the story. Somehow, I always knew I would.
Dana Laquidara lives in Massachusetts with her family. A version of this story took first place at the Moth StorySLAM in Boston this year. She is working on a memoir with the same title.