March 27, 2002
Momstuff Revisited

Note: I'm re-running one of my favorite *FootNotes* entries today in honor of my mother, Karen Beeson. Happy Birthday, Mom!

My Mama drives a big black car.

I think it's a Chevy, but I'm not sure. (I don't even know what "Chevy" means, anyway. I'm still trying to figure out "divorce.") All I know is that it's a big car, and it's black, and it's noisy, and my little brother and I slide back and forth on the big slippery back seat while Mama drives us around town.

Here's what else I know: I know that my little brother and I are not supposed to touch anything when Mama leaves us alone in the car. We are supposed to sit and wait, while she runs into the grocery store for cigarettes, or while she plays cards with her girlfriends, or while she visits with her mother.

Most of the time we're good, and we do what Mama tells us to do.

But Mama has been inside Grandma's house for a long, long time today. It feels like she's been in there forever, while we sit parked at the top of Grandma's long gravel driveway. My brother and I are bored, and we're hot and twitchy, and I have to go to the bathroom ... and I'm tired of just sitting there, looking out the car windows and being good and not touching anything.

"I'm going to drive Mama's car!" I tell Dickie.

He nods in silent assent. Everything I do is a good idea, as far as Dickie is concerned. Never mind that Mama has warned us a million hundred times to never touch anything in her car. I scramble around and position my four-year-old self in the driver's seat. I'm a foot and a half shorter than the top of the dashboard, of course, so I can't see anything in front of me. But that's OK. I plant my fat little hands on the steering wheel, and I rock it back and forth a few times, pretending to drive.

"Vrooom vrooom!" I sing. "I'm drivin' Mama's car!"

Dickie smiles pleasantly.

There are all sorts of interesting levers and knobs and pedals all over the place. I touch them experimentally. Most of them don't do anything -- the radio knob, for instance, flicks uselessly, on and off, on and off. For a moment I consider honking the horn, but I decide that might be pushing my luck. Ditto the cigarette lighter. So instead I slide down in the driver's seat and push on the floor pedals with my little feet.

This is fun!

And that's when it happens. We hear a scary *popping* sound, and all of a sudden Mama's car begins to roll. It is rolling backwards, down Grandma's long gravel driveway ... with Dickie and I inside.

Suddenly this isn't fun anymore.

Mama's car is rolling down the hill, and Dickie and I are both screaming, and all of a sudden Mama is running out the door of Grandma's house towards us, and she's screaming too, and Grandma is right behind her and she's screaming, and we keep rolling, and the next thing I know Mama's car has crashed through the side of Grandma's detached garage, at the bottom of the hill, and come to a shuddering, splintering stop.

That is the end of this particular memory fragment. I can imagine the rest of it, though. I'll bet you can, too.

      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

Now it's summer, and Mama is gone. So is Daddy.

I'm not sure where either one of them has disappeared to. One minute my brother and my Mama and I are living in the backseat of Mama's car ... the next minute, Dickie and I are standing on our grandparents' porch, with all of our toys and clothes packed into big paper bags, and Mama is kissing us goodbye, and I am holding my little brother's hand as tight as I can.

And then Mama is gone.

Grandma and Grandpa are very nice. You will stay here with us until your Mama is ready to come back and take care of you again, they tell us gently. They have a pretty white house with an upstairs and a downstairs, and a big backyard full of fruit trees and flowers, and an elderly cocker spaniel named Hobby ... and they buy us new clothes, and they feed us three square meals a day, and they take us camping, and they give us chores -- helping Grandpa pick raspberries in the garden, helping Grandma take the clothes down off the clothesline in the evening after supper ... and eventually some of our surprise and our hurt and our unhappy feelings begin to dissolve, just the teensiest bit, and we forget a lot of the bad things -- and a lot of the good things, too -- that happened before we came to Grandma and Grandpa's house.

But we don't forget everything.

Sometimes when I'm laying in my bed in the upstairs bedroom, I remember things. I remember driving Mama's car into the side of the garage. I remember the Wise children throwing my brand-new birthday tea set out a second-story window, piece by piece, while I watched and cried and did nothing. I remember sitting on a sofa with my Daddy, holding a balloon. I remember standing on a kitchen chair and fixing myself a sugar water bottle, while my parents slept in the next room. I remember a song about a Mama fishy and her little fishies three.

I look out the window sometimes, and I watch for a shiny black car that never appears.

All I know is this: when I grow up and become a Mama, I am never, ever going to go away and leave my children.

      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

I have just stumbled across the world's most amazingly groovy secret:

My mom keeps a journal!

I accidentally discovered it while I was snooping through her desk drawers today. As soon as she and her annoying boyfriend leave for work every morning, I start going through all of their stuff. This is how I'm learning about their lives this summer. I've already read all of their Harold Robbins paperbacks ... listened to all of their Mamas & Papas records ... sampled some of the annoying boyfriend's Peppermint Schnapps, and filched a couple of Mom's Tampax from the bathoom (which I've tucked away in a secret part of my suitcase and intend to experiment with,  whenever my period finally starts.)

Everything about my mom's life seems interesting and exotic and cool. But it is this journal thing that fires my thirteen-year-old imagination more than anything else.

At first I think it's just an ordinary spiral-bound notebook, filled with notes or recipes or poems or something. But upon closer examination, I can see that these are personal writings of some sort, written in my mom's small, careful hand. Not a diary, exactly. I've been keeping a diary myself, since second grade, and I know the difference. This is more detailed than a diary. In fact, it almost seems like a life story ... one of those autobiography things, maybe.

I read the whole thing in one sitting. It never even occurs to me that I shouldn't. Along the way, I discover things about my mom that I never knew: for instance, that she and my Dad had a lot of fights while they were married. Or that she was in a bad car accident, when I was a baby, and she almost died. Or that she gave up a baby for adoption, in the late 60's -- a little brother I never even knew I had.


I make up my mind, right then and there. Diaries are for babies. As soon as I go home to my grandparents' house, when the summer is over, I'm going to go out and buy a spiral-bound notebook and start keeping a journal, just like my Mom. I don't have a lot of "life history" to write, just yet -- although I did receive my first real kiss from a boy, that very summer of '71, and I'm hopeful of receiving more eventually -- but I'm sure I can think of other stuff to write about when eighth grade starts in the fall. Someday I might even let Mom read parts of it!

My mom is the world's coolest mom ... I swear to god.

      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

My mother is the world's most annoying mother ... I swear to god.

Ever since she and my stepfather went on the wagon and stopped smoking -- this whole AA/clean-living/God grant me the serenity blah blah blah business that has suddenly taken over their lives, like bad religion -- I feel like I have even less in common with her than ever before.

It hasn't always been like this. When I got married and started having babies, a few years back, it seemed like the two of us were finally beginning to *connect.* I remember I wrote her this whole big long letter, after the girls were born, all about how I "forgave" her for leaving my brother and I with our grandparents ... and about how, now that I'm a parent, I can "understand" what an agonizing decision it must have been for her to make, to leave us  ... and how "happy" I am that we're growing so close now.

And for a while, it really felt that way.

Family get-togethers were especially nice.  Christmas Eve with my mom's side of the family, for instance, or a birthday celebration for one of my babies, at our little house in Kirkland. While the kids played, the adults would all sit around and get pleasantly squiffed on beer or wine or vodka screwdrivers. I would sit on the floor with my drink and my Salem Slim Lights, and I would drink and smoke right there in front of my mom. It made me feel incredibly cool and grown-up. Plus, the gentle nudge of *liquid courage* made it lots easier to actually talk to my mother, around whom I still felt occasionally shy and awkward ... even as an adult.

But now my mother is sober. Even though she doesn't preach or scold or *accidentally* leave AA pamphlets sitting around on my coffee table -- even though, basically, she never says anything at all about my drinking: we focus instead mostly on my husband's "problem" -- I still feel the weight of her sobriety hanging between us like a lead curtain.

She is sober. I am not. Furthermore, I don't even want to be.

End of story.

I especially hate it when she shows up unexpectedly while I'm sitting out in the laundry room, enjoying my Mountain Chablis and my Baby Boomer Chat Room. "Grandma's here!" one of the Tots will shout in warning, and I'll scramble to stub out my cigarette and stash my wine glass and my smoldering ashtray into the cupboard above my desk, before my mother sees them. If I've been drinking for a while before she gets here, I have to pretend to be sober. It's so annoying.

Everything about my mother's life annoys me these days.

I'm annoyed by how relaxed and centered she seems. Nothing seems to rattle her. Nothing seems to tie her up in knots. Nothing seems to ever make her want to hurl an empty wine bottle across a dining room in empty black rage. I'm annoyed, too, by how great she looks: by her nice clothes, by her nice hair, by her nice fingernails. I'm annoyed by all the weight she's lost, and by her glow of good health. She never looks tired or bloated or hungover anymore. I am annoyed by her respectable office job. I doubt that she has ever thrown up on herself in her car, while driving to work in the morning. I am annoyed by the fact that she pays her bills on time. I am annoyed by her pretty home, and by her reliable car, and by her close relationship with her mother and with my sister and with assorted other family members. I am annoyed that she had the courage to end a failing marriage and move on. I am annoyed by her solid, decent, sober life.

I am annoyed by all of the things that she is ... and that I am not.

I always used to think I wanted to be just like her. Then I got older, and I WAS just like her, for a while, until she turned around and changed all the rules on me.

Now I don't know who I want to be when (or if) I grow up.

      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

My mother's voice on the answering machine is heartbroken.

"Tae," she says waveringly -- reverting to my baby name -- "This is your mother. I ... I don't know exactly what's happened, or why you feel you had to do this ... but I just want you to know that I'm here if you need me, and that I love you."

I am sitting on the edge of a bed in a tiny apartment in Gladstone, Oregon, three hundred miles away. Twenty-four hours earlier I had walked out on a sixteen year marriage, leaving behind everything -- and everyone -- I care about. I have just this minute walked through the door: I haven't even taken my coat off yet. My new boyfriend silently carries my meager belongings in from the car while I listen to the message again, over and over ... tears streaming down my face.

It will be another two months before I can bring myself to erase her message from the machine.

      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

It's raining again when David and I drive to the hotel on Saturday morning. We're meeting my mother and her boyfriend for breakfast; afterwards, we'll be taking them back to the airport for their flight home to TicTac.

It has rained steadily, all week long ... almost from the moment Mom and Vince landed in Oakland last weekend. I'm feb. 24, 2001a little disappointed. This was my mom's first visit to the Bay Area -- to my new *adopted home* -- and I had wanted her to see it at its sunny, scenic best. But Mother Nature intervened. There were no Mom-and-Daughter photos in front of the Golden Gate Bridge, this visit. No picnics at Crab Cove. No long leisurely strolls through Chinatown. Instead, we've had to make-do with indoor "views," 49-mile tours from the inside of a rental car and Polaroid photos taken inside a restaurant booth.

Still ... it has been a sweet visit, in spite of the rain, and in spite of the sudden unexpected ant onslaught, and in spite of rabid PMS -- mine, not hers -- and in spite of the fact that David and I had to work for most of the week, leaving Mom and Vince to their own devices a lot of the time.

I learn something new about my mother, every time we're together. and this week has been no exception.

At breakfast the conversation turns -- as it often does when David and my mother and I are together -- to recovery issues. This is one of my favorite subjects, for obvious reasons. It's something we all have in common, for one thing: a bond that unites us. And it's a subject I actually know something about, which allows me to participate in the conversation with some degree of authority ... unlike conversations about politics or geography or mutual funds or local sports teams or automobile manufacturing or world history or seafood or quantum mechanics or any of the other bazillion and one conversational topics that I know absolutely nothing about.

This morning we are talking about how alcohol abuse retards social development. Alcoholics who are normally introverted and uncomfortable in social situations -- like me, for instance -- don't learn to relate to other people in a normal, healthy way, because we block ourselves off for all those years behind a comfortable, convenient wall of alcohol. Even when the alcoholic finally stops drinking, it's still tough to open up to other people socially.

"Take me for example," says my mother. "I'm still painfully shy, a lot of the time. I really have to work at it."

I am astonished. My mother? Shy? I couldn't be more surprised if she'd just announced that Matt Lauer is that long-lost brother of mine.

Dinner last Wednesday night is a good example. I listened to her chatting so easily that night, with David and his parents, and I was filled, as always, with equal parts envy and admiration for her self-possession, her wit, her social ease. Until now, I had always just assumed that she came by it naturally. (And I further assumed that I simply hadn't inherited any of her *sociability molecules* -- I'm more the grumpy introvert, like my grumpy introverted dad -- the way I inherited her little round chin and her baby-fine hair.)

Now she's admitting that it doesn't come naturally to her? That she has to "work" at it?

It's a moment of epiphany for me.

We arrive at the airport a full hour before their flight is due to take off, so the four of us stand by the window at Gate 6 and chat. Mom and David and Vince get caught up in a spontaneous conversation with an elderly stranger in a "Seattle, Washington" baseball cap; they're talking about California's energy crisis. I gaze out the window at the rain falling on the tarmac, and I listen to their conversation. I don't participate. There is nothing I really want to say on the subject, for one thing. And I am too filled with thought, for another thing.

I'm thinking about my mother.

The centeredness and the social ease she radiates these days seems anchored to something more than just lots of "practice." Is it the accumulated years of sobriety? Is it because she's in love? Is it because she's retiring in a few weeks (so she and Vince can travel more)? ... or is it because she's survived a lifetime of things like being separated from her children, and disappointing marriages, and fudked-up work situations, and family tragedies ... and has still lived to tell the tale?

Or is it because of all these things, put together?

I don't know. I could ask her, I suppose ... but I don't think I want to. I figure I'm going to find out for myself anyway. I spent the first forty years of my life faithfully duplicating most of her mistakes. I'm only just now getting started, duplicating some of her successes. I've still got some catching-up to do. I watch her, as she and Vince walk together towards the boarding gate, and I think That's where I'll be in eighteen years. If I'm lucky.

And I'm glad, because basically she is exactly what I want to be when I grow up.

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