You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.
–from Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott
I’ve been thinking a lot about motherhood now that I’m pregnant. Well, really, I’ve been thinking about my mom. To be more specific, I’ve been thinking about my mothers, plural. See, I have kind of a complicated history.
My biological parents were never married. They had my brother and then me during the course of their relationship. I don’t know all the specifics, but the way I understand it is that they broke up before I was a year old. One day, when I was one, my dad asked Debbie (my biological mom) if he could take me and Nate to visit his friend’s daughter in the hospital in California (we lived in Las Vegas at the time). He promised to have us back by 10 the next morning. He disappeared with us instead.
It took me until I was in college to understand that my father kidnapped us. That’s because (a) I didn’t understand that a parent could kidnap his own children, and (b) I had a really good life, so it never occurred to me that what he’d done was wrong, because it turned out so well.
The next several years don’t matter for the purposes of this story, but suffice it to say, they were not good, particularly for my brother, and my dad was in school, so we were separated from him, living with different family members. When I was 5 and Nate was 7, we – my dad, the woman who would become my (step)mother (Renee), Nate, and me – were all finally able to be together again in a little town outside Philadelphia. When I was 6 and Nate was 8, my dad and mom got married, and in a few weeks, they’ll celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary.
I want to be clear that Nate and I always understood that Renee was not our biological mother. I also want to be very clear that we did not care. We did not feel Debbie’s absence in our life in any way. For my part, that was probably because I was so little when my dad took us that I had no memory of her. That’s probably true for Nate as well, but I can’t be sure. In any event, when I was about 10, shortly after we moved to Virginia, Debbie reappeared in our lives by mail. I honestly cannot remember the first letter or my parents talking about her wanting to write to us or anything – it just happened (the how came later, and I’ll get to that).
I was 10 or 11; I thought it was cool. She lived in Las Vegas, which I thought was so glamorous, and she sent pictures of the desert and wildlife. She also sent pictures of our half-brother and the rest of her family. We graduated to talking on the phone, and the next summer, she came to visit. Looking back, I can see just how awkward it must have been for everyone, but for us it meant a motel pool and baby mementos and presents and showing her off at little league games. For Nate, it meant an illicit ride in the driver’s seat of her rental car on a back country road – he was 14.
It also meant the first time I came face-to-face with a functioning alcoholic. I didn’t know it then, of course, but she literally drank beer as if it were water, including when she was driving us around. I clearly remember her worrying that she might get pulled over for something and the cop would see an open container.
I remember feeling, even then, like I had some obligation to her, to protect her feelings. I would apologize when I referred to Renee as “mom,” which we’d called her since she married my dad. She would lament how much she missed while begrudgingly admitting that our lives in Virginia were better than she could have possibly provided for us. I felt guilty because I had an easier life than she did.
We went to visit her in Las Vegas when we were in high school. That’s where we met our half-brother for the first time and where the rest of her family wept with joy when they saw us, because the last time they’d seen us we were 1 and 3. It’s also where I learned that she essentially blackmailed our father into letting her have contact with us again. I clearly remember the smile on her face as she told us how it happened and what she’d threatened him with – my dad was just a kid when they were together, remember, and it was the 70’s. She obviously thought she’d been so clever. I didn’t understand it then; in fact, I think I chuckled right along with her. Less than 10 years later, though, I’d see things much differently.
We went again to Las Vegas when we were in college. I honestly don’t remember that much about that visit except that, like the two prior times we’d seen her, alcohol was her number one priority. It seemed normal there, because all of the adults (and several of my underage cousins) also drank, but in truth, it was so far from my reality at home that it shocked me.
The next and last time I saw Debbie was the weekend of my brother’s wedding, almost 11 years ago now. Nate and Molly paid for her to come to Virginia – she never could have afforded it otherwise – and she got off the plane with $100 cash that her sister had given her when she dropped her off at the airport. We all met for lunch and then she came back to my apartment with me to get ready to go the rehearsal and then the hotel. On the way to my apartment, she said, “Do you have beer at your apartment?” When I said no, she said, “Then we need to stop and get some.” So I did. She bought a case of beer and cracked one – warm – in the car on the 5-minute ride to my apartment. And she carried the case with her to the hotel and I never saw her without a drink the rest of the weekend.
After the rehearsal, my whole family went out to dinner. I asked her if she wanted to come and she asked if my grandmother (my dad’s mother) would be there. When I said yes, she said, “I’ll pass.”
The next night, after the wedding reception, I came back to the room to find her on the phone to her sister, in tears. When she hung up, I asked what was wrong. She said, “That bitch . . . ” and said that when Molly’s brother was doing the toast at the reception, he made sure to thank Debbie when he thanked my parents. She said that my grandmother, who I guess happened to be standing right next to her, said, “How nice for you.” In case you can’t keep track, my grandmother is “that bitch” in this story.
Now, look: I know my grandmother, and I know exactly how she said “How nice for you” – I can hear it in my head as plain as day, and I know it wasn’t genuine. I also know that Debbie blames my grandmother for not helping her find us when my dad took us. But at that point, 25 years had passed, she had a relationship with us, and she was at my brother’s wedding, for crying out loud. I thought it was time to let bygones be bygones. I asked her not to talk like that about my grandmother, and she said she was sorry.
Later that night, the bridesmaids and groomsmen went out to a local bar. When we walked in, the first thing I saw was Debbie, drunk, hanging out by the pool table flirting with some young guys who looked increasingly uncomfortable. I pretended I didn’t know her.
She came back to the hotel room around 1 a.m. when Aimee and I were already in bed, stumbling around, reeking of cigarette smoke. She asked if she could leave the TV on while she fell asleep. I was sick already and needed my rest, and I can’t sleep with the TV on, so I probably said “Ok” in a less-than-agreeable manner. She immediately turned off the tv, threw the remote on the table, and started basically acting like a child who didn’t get her way, throwing her suitcase off the bed and generally stomping around. I turned on the light. “What is the problem?”
All of a sudden, it was on. She called me a selfish brat and said I always had to have everything my way. It escalated from there. At one point, I wheeled on her and said, “Fuck you.” I immediately regretted it and said I was sorry and didn’t mean it. She narrowed her eyes and said, “You meant it.” I started packing my bags to go sleep in my parents’ room. She begged me not to – “Don’t drag your father into this.” She begged Aimee to stop me – Aimee was like, “Sorry, lady – I’m not getting in the middle of this.” I told her she’d taken advantage of Nate and Molly’s generosity to bring her to the wedding and then she shat all over my family while she was at it. I told her I was tired of seeing her drunk all the time – to which she had the audacity to reply that she hadn’t had that much to drink. We left and went to my parents’ room, waking them up. I could hardly tell them what happened I was crying so hard. We slept on the pull-out couch in their room.
The next morning we were supposed to go to brunch at Molly’s mom’s house. My face was swollen from crying and my head was pounding, so I was going to pass. I was also supposed to take Debbie to the airport. My dad said, “You need to deal with this. You can’t let her go under these circumstances.” Then he gave me $40 to give her for a cab.
I knocked on her door and she opened it and let me in. She handed me a bag filled with stuff I’d missed in my frantic packing the night before. She was going to leave it at the front desk with note for them to call me to get it. When I opened it later, I saw she’d included the three beers left over from the case she’d bought Friday afternoon.
I apologized and offered her a ride to the airport. She refused and said she’d already called a cab. I offered her the money my dad gave me, but she refused that, too.
In the aftermath of that weekend, she wrote me a dozen or more times, until I left for law school and told her to stop contacting me. For me, it was a necessary break. I finally admitted to myself what I’d been denying for a very long time: I don’t like her very much. I don’t think she’s a good person and I don’t want her in my life. When I was in contact with her, I constantly felt guilty for one thing or another, but mostly just for generally turning out ok, because I wouldn’t have if we’d stayed with her. I always felt that a lot of what I did for her, the contact I had with her, I did out of a sense of obligation, not because I loved her or even liked her. I realized that I 100% resented the way she’d wormed herself into our lives, the way she threatened my dad, the way I hadn’t even known who she was and she insisted on being a part of my life when I wasn’t in a position to say no.
She kept writing me, sending the letters to my brother’s house, even though he’d cut off contact with her, too, after learning about what happened after the wedding. I never opened them. I don’t know if she still sends them. I’m friends with my half-brother and cousins on Facebook, but I blocked her when she started messaging me there. I assume they tell her things about me, and I don’t particularly care. I just don’t personally want a relationship with her.
Three years ago, for my mom’s 60th birthday, Nate and I asked her to adopt us. She was our mom when we didn’t even know what the word meant – she accepted the three of us as a package deal and put her own plans on hold to be sure she and my dad could take care of us. By the time they were sure they could, her time to have biological kids of her own had expired. As much as she loves us, I know that’s one of the great sadnesses of her life. She never lets on, though, and she never, ever treated us like we robbed her of something she wanted so badly. And she would have adopted us years ago, but they knew Debbie wouldn’t give permission. So we want it to be official now, finally, because she’s our mother in every way that matters.
We started the process, but it got delayed for one reason or another and still hasn’t happened yet. Recently, my mom brought it up and said she hadn’t forgotten about it, but that before we do it, she wants me and Nate to tell Debbie. I was hoping to skate by with the legally required notice from the lawyer, but I know that’s the coward’s way out. I don’t know what to say to her. I mean, I guess it doesn’t matter, because it’s not her choice and we don’t need her permission anymore, but I want to be kind about it. I need to talk to Nate, obviously, so we can work on a letter together.
The sooner, the better. It’s already been too long coming, as far as I’m concerned.