This piece is pieced together from aging photo albums in cheap vinyl bindings. From pages that stick together and pull apart, and from the rare times that my mother dared delve into memories she would rather not recall. It has become the story I tell everyone when I want to tell everyone how much I love my mother.
Something That Sounds Trite But Isn’t
Like – ‘The Most Amazing Woman I Know’
She was living down in Florida with Brian. A small town called Port Charlotte, which sounds pretty enough. Really it was just flat and cheap and warm. Florida has the right climate for escapism. Escape the winter and the cold, escape the watchful eyes of a family in Maine who may not like how their daughter is being treated, escape into the nearest bar, escape your two year old son and baby on the way. Get high, hit your wife, get a tan. You know, Florida.
She had bought Brian a collection of Ansell Adams prints as a birthday present. Apparently Brian was a fan of the simplicity, the black and white landscapes, the contrast – he especially liked the desert scenes of barren waists and dominating cacti. She framed out some twenty odd prints of various sizes in mid-west hued frames, very Floridian; burnt sienna, dusty grey, desert rose, and hung them on the wall behind the couch. She took a photograph of Brian, sitting there, reclining, smirking at the camera with his handsome angular face, olive skin and dark hair. Physical traits he passed on to his daughter.
“That year, the year I bought him all the Ansell Adam’s, that was the worst of it. Towards the end of it,” she said. She was always going the extra mile to make everyone happy- whether it be a birthday gift or something bigger like, say, forgoing her own happiness. Anything to preserve and persevere. And so she bought gifts, and played house, and forgave more than she should have. That was the year she started walking into doorframes, tripping a lot – she became clumsy. “People knew,” she said “but it made it easier to pretend that they didn’t know.”
Brian took her out drinking one night. She was never really much of a drinker – the type of woman who once bought a six-pack for a dinner party and nearly a year later finally threw out five beers. He fed her tequila, cheered her on in front of his notorious friends, passed her around on the dance floor until the floor starting spinning and she stopped remembering where she was. “There were a lot of his friends yelling and grabbing. He didn’t treat me like his wife,” she said, “He didn’t treat me like the mother of his son.” She doesn’t remember getting home, or getting on her knees in front of the toilet, but she remembers vomiting. The deep kind of sick that does not stop – the kind that made her cry because she wanted it to. The coolness of the bathroom tiles, the only comfort she had. It was in this moment, this moment that she barely remembers, but remembers too well, that Brian walked in behind her. Her head on the porcelain lid, slumped over. Her hair pasted against her face with sweat and sick. He walked in behind her and lifted her hips to him, lifted her dress and ignored her feeble protests and trembling arms. All of her strength, gone out of her – nothing but a swirling room -and when it was over – a cold floor. “That was how it was,” she said, and looked away. “That was how it was for too long. I think that was our anniversary.”
A photograph of Brian and their son Aaron at Disney World; looking the picture perfect image of a good father and a beloved son. Brian in a go-cart with the iconic Mickey ears pleasantly askew on his head. His dark muscular arms reach around his son, a beautiful meager blonde child, and he holds the wheel -Aaron holds the wheel too, and together they drive father and son smiling and laughing – a two year old’s dream birthday outing. She is somewhere behind the camera –six months pregnant – and validating her family in Kodak.
Not long after, a drunk and angry Brian left the house without telling her. Grabbing his son absentmindedly on his way out of the door. He put Aaron in the passenger seat and sped away. Father and son driving together. No seat belts. Gone for hours. And she just sat – head on the kitchen table crying, not wanting to call the police and have her husband arrested, not wanting to lose her son – seven months pregnant. “It got harder and harder to make excuses for him,” she said.
As her due date approached Brian was increasingly absent. Sometimes for days at a time- coming home smelling of stale booze and other women. Out making bad decisions, drug deals, and more children whom he wouldn’t care for. She realized he probably wouldn’t be there for her when the time came. Their next-door neighbors were a cop and his wife and they saw how things were playing out. They agreed to look after Aaron for her when she had to go to the hospital. And so, when her labor started she calmly picked up her two year old and carried him across her front lawn, passed a little cluster of palm trees, and knocked on their door. She left Aaron in their care and politely declined their offer for a ride. Walking back across the lawn to her driveway, her water broke, and she continued on, got in her car, buckled her seatbelt and drove herself to the hospital.
Brian never came. In just six hours she brought her second child into the world; all of nine pounds, eight ounces, right number of fingers and toes – she did this alone. “Really, I was happy he wasn’t there,” she said, “he had a way of ruining perfect moments.” She named her Colleen, a strong Irish name, after her college roommate – a woman who had been stubborn and opinionated and viciously independent. A bra burner, a free spirit, someone who didn’t take shit. And she decided right there in the maternity ward what she needed to. “I had a daughter now,” she said, “A daughter with long eyelashes and big eyes, and she was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. And it was different than having a son – men in my family are big and can fight back, but a daughter, a daughter would become a woman and I didn’t want her to become a woman like me, trapped by her own kindness. I didn’t want to expose her to any of that. To her father, to Florida, to things she would want to escape. Looking at her for the first time, I knew right then I had to leave.”
So she bided her time – four months – just four more months till her daughter was old enough to sleep through a thirty-hour car ride. She called her family in Maine and told them what they already knew. How it had been and how she wanted to come home, and the next day, after driving all night, her father was in her driveway with a van. “I packed up everything I could, which wasn’t much and I left the rest behind, but it didn’t matter,” she said, “I had my son and my daughter and our clothes, Aaron’s favorite teddy bear, and some photo albums, that was it really.” She had to leave behind the big things: her career, her car, her house, her husband. She left behind the knickknacks of her life: year books, jewelry passed down from her great grandmother, mementos of her youth and happier days and she refused to be sad about any of it. They just drove away with what they could, they drove away with everything. Brian off somewhere drinking wouldn’t notice their absence for days.
Driving north, pinned in by hastily packed hefty bags, her father said little. From time to time he reached over, picked up her hand, gave it an encouraging squeeze, and put it back down. Aaron lay sleeping on the back seat, clutching his teddy bear, his thumb in his month, his blonde hair clinging statically to a nearby trash bag. Her daughter asleep in her arms –fitfully dreaming from time to time but never waking. “I didn’t know then exactly what I was up against,” she said, “if someone had told me how hard it was going to be I don’t know if I would have had the courage to leave. Thank god no one did.” She did not know she would spend the first six months tucking her children in on a friend’s couch while she struggled to find her footing. She did not know that they would freeze in their first apartment that she managed to scrimp together enough money to rent. The tin ceiling’s leaking heat to the upstairs neighbors, the electric blanket plugged in in the living room where the three of them would sleep huddled together by the coughing radiator- making a game of it all, pretending they were camping. She did not know he would never pay child support, or that he would sell all of their things, her things, even the Ansell Adams, and she would never see a dime. She was just driving home and that was all that mattered for the time being.
As they passed into New England, she did not yet know how she would make a living without a college degree, how she would juggle three jobs and night classes and still manage to be a mother. Still somehow finding the time and energy to go the extra mile, play the role of two parents, and succeed. She could not fathom then, that within five years, she would manage to get them out of subsidized living and buy them a house, and manage to make that house a home. A home next to a park and good schools, where her children could have the things every parent wants to give their children like a puppy and stability. A home with no father – but a father that no one ever even considered missing. Had she already decided then to cut herself off from everyone else? To never date, to never even risk introducing someone like Brian to her children? Had she decided then to be a mother, and nothing else, to devote herself completely to that task? “I was just a woman in love,” she said, “I was so in love I couldn’t see anything else – I love my children and people do impossible things for love.”
As they crossed the bridge from New Hampshire and were greeted with the benevolent sign “Maine; The Way Life Should Be,” she had to laugh a little and take it for what it was, a sign, and for the first time in a long time she hoped for the best.