She Must Have Known

I never wanted summer camp to end. I loved the strict routine, the grits in the morning, daily chapel, learning how to build fires and shoot a 22. But the summer I was eight, what I loved most about camp was my counselor, Pam.

The Carpenters played on her eight-track while I braided her hair and listened to stories about college, her boyfriend and life at home in Mississippi. I can’t remember if I told her about how things were for me back in Nashville, but I’m sure I didn’t tell her everything. It would be years before I could put my home life into words that made sense. My mother’s drinking and abusive behavior was mixed up with memories of shoplifting comics and paddlings at school. All of it reflected badly on me and I wanted, more than anything, for Pam to like me.

And somehow, for reasons that I could not understand, she did.

When my father came to pick me up on the last day of camp, he entered my cabin, with it’s dusty wooden floorboards and rows of metal bunk beds, to find me standing on my trunk, holding hard to Pam and sobbing. He peeled my arms from around her neck and led me to the station wagon, thanking Pam and clearing his throat. I rolled the car window down and held her hand while Daddy lit his cigarette and started the engine.

“Will you write me?” I hiccupped.

And she did, every other day.

Every other day I would run through the sharp brown grass and out to the mailbox at the end of our driveway, to find a letter with my name on it. They were always small letters on matching stationary, with big loopy writing and i’s dotted with stars or daisies. She wrote about her classes, memories of camp and asked me questions about my life. I sent her back drawings of my parakeet, Clyde, and jokes on bubblegum wrappers.

She couldn’t have known how much I needed her, and yet she must have known.

Those letters from Pam were exactly the kind of thing that my mother would usually take to, like a dog with a bone. Because any tender spot was fair game to her, I was smart enough to keep them private, saved in an old muddy stationary box in my closet, where I read them over and over, until my flashlight dimmed.

And every other day, a new one came.

When we moved from a small town outside Nashville back to the city, the letters came to our new apartment. They came when my mother went into rehab and they came when she came home, sober and angry. They came when the girls in my class made fun of my bad haircuts and dirty clothes and when my father married someone who scared me.

When the invitation to Pam’s wedding came, it was in a big envelope the color of vanilla soft serve. I opened it slowly, finding a smaller envelope inside that, and then an even smaller one, with a stamp on it, inside that. The invitation itself, covered with tissue paper and embossed with ink you could almost read with your fingertips, was the loveliest thing I had ever owned. Because it was too big to fit into my secret letter box, I slept with it next to my cheek.

Several weeks later, on a humid June morning, I rode my bike, speeding down the street where the neighborhood dogs ran in a pack and bit my heels, to the pay phone outside Scooter’s Market.

“Is Pam there?” I asked, breathless from the dogs, the heat and the sadness lodged in my throat like kindling.

“Who’s calling?” said an older woman on the line. Her mother? She sounded like a peach crumble.

“Maggie… from camp.” I held tightly to the metal phone cord, waiting, digging dimes and nickels from the pockets of my cut-offs.

“One moment please.”

It was Pam’s wedding day. Now I can imagine her, getting dressed (something borrowed, something blue…), her mother buzzing around like a bumblebee in a field of Queen Ann’s Lace, when she ducks out of a cloud of Aquanet to talk to me, a nine year old girl on a pay phone far away.

The conversation was short and mostly one-sided, since I choked on everything I wanted to say. Would she stop going to camp now? Did she know I was moving in with my Grammie for a while? Did she have the address??

Eventually, only pennies were left, and Pam needed to get to the church. I hung up, wiped my face with my t-shirt and picked up my bike from where it lay in the gravel.

“Are you alright?” The door to the market jingled and an older woman with a Tab and a pack of cigarettes came out, her face so sad it was like looking in a mirror. “You need me to call someone for you, hon?”

“No,” I said and looked away. I stood on the blazing pavement, trying to stuff the pennies back in my pockets, finally hurling them to the ground, where they bounced and scattered.

“Well, now you gotta make a wish” she said, bending to pick them up.

The tears came again as I threw myself onto my bike and took off, away from Pam and the man she loved more and the letters with stars and daisies that I knew, no matter how many wishes I made, would stop coming.

I looked back over my shoulder at the woman, who’s orange hair shone like a flare in the sunlight. “Go to hell!” I yelled, and peddled, with all my might, for the pack of dogs.

High Sierra Static

I am folding laundry while my eleven year old perfects his front flip on the bed beside me. “Hey, dude, can you knock it off, I’m trying to fold here.”My phone rings and it’s my sister, Cinda. Her voice is tired. “So, Mama fell and broke her hip. She’s ok. Sort of. Who knows where they got my number— I’m sure she didn’t give it to them.

“Uh-Oh,” I say.

It’s an admittedly lame response to hearing the first real news of my mother in many years. But my emotions are on lock-down, at least where Mama is concerned, and reaching those feelings is like trying to ice-fish with a Q-tip. I know they are there, under layers of frost and years of running, but there’s just no way in.

“Her case worker called. Apparently she won’t be able to live by herself anymore, so they’ve moved her to a little place in Reno.”

Growing up, our mother’s mental illness and alcoholism meant car rides to school with her drunk at the wheel or learning how to walk in high heels on the icy stairs outside our apartment at midnight (a skill she decided should not wait until morning). Our father, in case you’re wondering, willing to take us to James Bond movies on occasional Sundays and pay for summer camp, was hard pressed to provide a home, and in those days, no one thought to argue. She was all we had, until finally, in the summer of 1978, the same summer my sisters left for college, she packed her car with clothes and the sculpting tools she cherished, and disappeared for good.

So, thirty-five years later, I listen as Cinda tells me that Mama will not be going back to her government subsidized apartment in California, and that someone will need to clear out all her belongings within the next two weeks. I wait for her, as usual, to say she will book a flight and do it herself. This perk of being the baby, even at forty-eight and the mother of two, is one that I’ve come to expect and fully enjoy. But she stays silent.

“I guess…I can go?” I am as surprised as she is to hear me say this and, at that moment, my son lands a perfect back flip, right onto the folded shirts. As any mother of young children will tell you, four days alone is dream come true, and if my dream has to come wrapped in a cloak of family disfunction, then so be it.

“I could use some time to myself,” I say to friends who reach out. “And anyway, it’s easier for me to do it. I’m not emotionally connected to her at all.”

Over the past three decades, both my sisters have spoken to our mother a handful of times, but I, claiming to have no feelings for the woman who abandoned me to live alone just before starting the eighth grade, never felt the need. Needing my mother was, quite simply, not on the menu.

So I rent a car and pack boxes, garbage bags, rubber gloves and cleaning supplies. Ever the optimist, I also pack books, wine, my journal (freedom to write in peace is but a distant memory) and running shoes. I will do this and maybe have a little time left over to enjoy the Sierra mountains. Like any busy mom, I’m a boss at multi-tasking.

After driving ten hours to Mama’s small apartment in Quincy California, I am met by Bill, the building manager, who hands me the key. The group gathered behind him looks like a casting call for “Dog the Bounty Hunter”.

“If you get rid of any of that in there that’s hers, I could come take a look!”

“We did talk, me and her, about me taking that desk, what she don’t need.”

“I know people steered clear of her, but me and your mom got along good.”

Moments later, I am inside the apartment that has been my mother’s home for twenty plus years. The walls are covered in her charcoal drawings. Across the room from the dusty television, an old plaid couch is piled with magazines, pill bottles and plastic tubes. “No tears?” Bill says, with eyes so kind I almost wish I could cry, just for his sake. “No I’m fine.” I reassure him.

Her sculptures are everywhere. Animals and women, some broken or with drawings taped to them, clearly works in progress that she hoped one day to complete. From what Bill (who seems to be both manager and de facto care-giver to the residents here) says, she’s been in no shape to work for years, but here they are, waiting. “Careful who you let come in here.” he says softly, before closing the door behind him. ”Not all these people knew your mother.”

By day three of packing, hauling and sorting I am physically and mentally exhausted. In all her belongings there isn’t one photo or mention of me or my sisters, but I find this oddly comforting. I always joke that I was raised by wolves. I picture my own photo albums at home and imagine how a stranger looking through them, seeing no pictures of a mother or father, might assume I am an orphan, or maybe, instead of being born, simply crashed to earth like a tiny meteor. If Mama has erased me, well then at least I did the same to her, I think, filling yet another garbage bag and throwing it hard into the dumpster.

It is early morning, hours before I am finally ready to head home, when my phone rings. This time it is my other sister, Emily. They are twins, and have always handled family business by tag teaming, which used to make me jealous. “Ready for this?,” she says through the High Sierra static, explaining that my mother needs to sign papers, in front of a notary, that give me and my sisters access to her medical records and doctors. “In person, if you can—” and the call is dropped.

Damn mountains. I grapple with the possibilities. I could ask the people at her board and care to handle this, but they had made it clear already that taking Mama out was problematic and unsafe, due to her “acting out.” Reno is only a few hours away from Quincy and no one has actually seen this place where the social worker placed her. I roll my eyes. Maybe it’s the altitude, but I can’t for the life of me see a way out of this without revealing myself to be, as my boys are fond of saying, a total wuss.

I text my husband: Hey baby. Gonna be a day late getting back. Kiss the kids. Remember Chester’s game.

The six bed board and care where Mama lives is located on a treeless cul-de-sac on the outskirts of Reno. I follow the calm voice of the GPS, aware that she seems to be handling this much better than I am. “Who can I get to do this for me?” I say out loud to the carload of terra-cotta figures I had carefully packed in pillow cases and towels. Sweating, I think about the unopened wine on the floor of the backseat, but digging out a bottle and opening it on the curb with my son’s Swiss army knife makes me feel more like my mother’s daughter than I care to admit.

I ring the doorbell and wait, reading the handwritten notes taped to the doorframe: Please don’t visit if you have a fever or flu symptoms. If you think you may be ill at all, please wear a mask or come back another time. No smoking. No cats. Just as I’m fairly certain I feel those pesky flu symptoms coming on, a short man appears behind the screen door. “Evalyn, someone here to see you!” he calls.

She is wearing lipstick, her shoulder length hair pinned back with a silver barrette. She is so thin and small that my first instinct is to pick her up and hold her. I am completely unprepared for this, the cracking of ice beneath my feet. Plastic tubing reaches from her nose to a tank of oxygen that rolls behind her. I could use a little of that myself, I think. I consider hugging her, but it is horribly awkward, and neither of us knows how. The man who has answered the door says his name is Cody and goes to gather the few suit cases of Evalyn’s from the car. Clothes I packed for the cooler weather and simple art supplies.

“Well, my hands don’t work” she declares, when I pull out the drawing pad. “But I’ve had ideas. You get ideas here.” I’ll bet you do, I think, noticing a Phillipino program blaring from one television, CNN from another.

“I have to get to the goddamn dentist, people!” She has become completely convinced that her teeth are loose and falling out, like, right now, and makes her way to the bathroom, in pretty good time. “Evalyn, your teeth are fine,” Cody says, smiling. “You saw the dentist last week, remember? He put a crown on that one that hurt you.” “Oh, right.” She calms at once and sits down between us. “He was a good looking one, that dentist. Remember that? Divine!” Cody laughs, adjusting the tubes.

I have never seen my mother so willing to be soothed. Little tantrums like this were an everyday occurrence when I lived with her, especially when she wasn’t drinking. But instead of passing quickly, they would gather intensity for hours sometimes, ending with her crouching in a corner in tears, driving away (for how long we never knew) or worse.

A few excruciating hours later the notary arrives, and she ushers my mother through the stack of papers, several of which Evalyn tosses aside. “God almighty, I’m not that old!” she says, truly angry. But most get signed with her shaky hand, and that will have to be enough, for today. I can’t wait to get on the road and back to my life and I check my watch again.

Then, the notary (a woman I decide is just a little too pushy for her own good), pushes the stack of papers over to me and hands me a pen. Apparently, there is an empty space that needs filling and, while I’m aware that this suggests a level of responsibility and connection that I haven’t come close to making peace with, I’m also aware that I’m doing this not only for Mama, but also for my sisters. Our mother was a wild card who hated the sight of us so, eager to please, I learned to become invisible, while Cinda and Emily took the bullets for me. After coming this far, I know I am strong enough to take one for them.

She’s right about one thing, you get ideas here.

As I go through the papers, signing my name next to hers, I wonder if my mother knows that she saved me, when she disappeared that early summer weekend so long ago? Was it her way of giving me a chance, however slim, of having a normal life? Or did my mother, like a therapist had suggested when I was in my twenties, just not think of me very much at all?

I watch her amble once again to the bathroom and peer nervously into her mouth. It is clear to me now that I will never know the answer; the truth is that either of those scenarios could be true and probably is. The mother who once held me after a nightmare, whispering “bless her heart…bless her heart” over and over is the same mother who, accusing me of being a selfish brat, set loose my pet rabbit during the night. And the little girl who stayed locked in her room, hoping to be forgotten, is also now a mother with a temper, who sometimes reaches for the wine too early and struggles to hold a space for her own creative life. I won’t leave just yet, I decide. Instead, I reach for her hand, cool and papery in mine.

“This way, Mama.”