By Lisa Alber
I spent last week in Chicago and Lansing, MI, with my two younger sisters. We re-connected with relatives on both sides of the family: Mom’s side in Lansing and Dad’s side in Chicago. My dad passed away in 2001. My mom, last year. One of my maternal cousins, K, had found a five-year journal that Mom kept for one year, 1946. She was 14/15 years old, and she went to the movies every chance she could. She read a lot, sucked at algebra, excelled in English, went to mass and confession, loved horses, and enjoyed scrapbooking.
Except for mass and confession, that could be a description of me at that age. I got to thinking about how much she and I could have bonded. Why didn’t Mom mention her love of horses? Why didn’t she commiserate with me over my math woes? Why didn’t she take an interest in my scrapbooks?
Were we too much alike? I also recently learned that she had curly hair, which I inherited. She told me once that she never liked my hair.
Over in Chicago with my dad’s side, my one remaining aunt, J, mentioned that she’d felt sorry for us girls. She said, and I quote, “Your mom was never meant to be a parent.”
I loved her honesty, and I felt oddly relieved that she validated what I’d always intuited. I grew up with my basic hierarchy of needs met—shelter, food, water—and that was about it. Years ago, a therapist called it “benign neglect.” I was pretty feral considering our suburban lifestyle. I remember crusty, oozing, painful sores behind my ears because I was so dirty.
Aunty J recalled one of our rare family visits to Chicago, and how my parents dumped us at her house for the week and left without saying goodbye. We didn’t notice because for years they’d been handing us off to overnighter child-care minders while they larked off for long weekends in Carmel, CA, or wherever.
Aunty J also said my mom teased her mercilessly about how much she did for her kids. For example, baking cakes. To this day, I remember how amazed I was by her cake-frosting prowess. It was like I’d never seen a cake being frosted. “Wow, you’re so good at that!” She responded with something slightly grumpy, like, of course she was, no duh.
It didn’t occur to me to tell her that I didn’t know a frosted cake could look so tidy and yummy because Mom didn’t do cakes much, even for birthdays unless we begged. As the oldest child, I was the first to become aware that we didn’t celebrate birthdays and other holidays like “normal” families. I started to hector and insist on Easter baskets, birthday cakes, Christmas stockings and pretending that Santa existed (luckily, my dad was a Christmas guy when it came to having a beautiful tree), proper Halloween costumes, and please, could she cook us turkey for Thanksgiving? (Never happened.) I created rituals for us, as best I could.
I still don’t celebrate my birthday much, and I have a hard time remembering other people’s birthdays.
Anyhow, back to Aunty J. Apparently, when she spoke long distance with her brother, my father, he talked about what we girls were up to—he was interested even if he was never around—but Mom never talked about us.
I know many things about Mom now: undiagnosed depression (she was usually in bed when we got home from school); sexual abuse on her mom’s side of the family; a huge family scandal when Mom was a teenager; her own bitter, overly staunch and crusty mom; an out-of-wedlock son given up for adoption; loss of the man who I suspect was Mom’s soul mate; CIA recruitment straight out of college and life in Europe after that …
She will always be a mysterious figure—a figment that reflects too readily back onto me.
Could I write a novel based on nostalgia for what I never had? I suppose I could. A novel about absentee mothers, mother-daugher relationships, misperceptions, family mysteries … but I probably won’t. Or, maybe I already have with Kilmoon.