The Prologue (or, a rationalization): I’ve decided it might be helpful for the sake of past and future posts to give you some background about the important characters in my life. After all these years, I feel I can tell my story with some perspective and even a shadow of compassion. The purpose isn’t to make anyone accountable. We’re long past that.
My past influences the themes in my book, so writing about it here is not much different than there, if you subtract the fictionalization (though I do see the distinction). That said, the people in my family have a general and, I think, accurate sense of where they fit into my life. Whether they’re in or they’re out, and for what reasons. In a few cases, it’s been a bit ambiguous over time, but less so in recent years. No one on the perimeter of my life will read this, and if you know me well, you know them already. I’ve changed the names, and I will be as fair as I can–and as brief.
And it comes to you all of a sudden:
That was it! And you arise, for you are
aware of a year in your distant past
with its fears and events and prayers.”
~ Rainer Maria Rilke
It was 1972, and from what I understand, it was impossible to get Coors beer where we lived in southwest Missouri–but you could get it over the border in Kansas. One week, someone made a beer run (my father? a friend?), and that’s how he came to be sitting on the back of his car in our driveway, drinking Coors beer, when she walked by on the way to the pool, wearing a bikini. Not long before, she had moved from Colorado, home of Coors. It was her favorite, and he offered to share.
Even though I know it’s not an original tale, I find it a bit embarrassing that all of the events of the rest of my childhood rested on this rough, elemental moment. Beer, and a bikini. Every other weekend, my dad might have been drinking Schlitz, for all I know. But not that day. Is that all it comes down to? A beer run? A hot day and thirst? One thing done, or not done? I know that’s how it is, but I’m not sure I like it.
The next February, on Valentine’s Day, my father married Sue in the office of a justice of the peace. She wore a blue dress. Sleeveless, polyester, and with a good amount of extra fabric through the middle, to accommodate her 7-months-pregnant belly.
In my next memory of that time, I remember walking down the hall toward her, and calling out her name to ask her a question. I was four years old. She was loading clothes into the washing machine at the end of the hall, and she stopped and turned to face me.
“What did you just call me?”
“Sue?” I repeated, my voice uncertain now. The feeling in my gut told me I had done something very wrong.
“You are to call me Mommy. Do you understand?” The look in her eyes was both fierce and cold, a combination not everyone can pull off.
The word felt strange to say, almost like it was nothing. Like a piece of tissue stuck to the roof of my mouth that would disintegrate at any moment. A notion, not even a real word. But no matter how odd it felt to me, or how transient, the word was mine. It did not belong to her, and I didn’t want her to have it.
I had a mommy, already. And Sue was not my mother.
That mommy lived in Kansas, and she wasn’t coming back. By then, I knew that much. Though I hoped. For years, I would hope.
At least a year, and maybe two, had passed since my mother left my father. Since she left my sister and me. We saw her a handful of times before my father married Sue, and would see her again two or three times after. The last time, I was six. (The photo above is of my sister and me on one of our last visits with our mother.)
After that, she stopped visiting. By all accounts, my father and Sue didn’t make it easy for her to see us, or even to talk to us on the phone. My mother told me 14 years later, when we made contact again, that she came to town for my 5th birthday, but wasn’t allowed to see us.
So she did try. And then she didn’t anymore. She went on to have three more children, from two other marriages and another relationship. I think my father told me, though the context of that conversation is a little blurry. (I remember trying to give off an air of interest without showing that I cared about this piece of information.) Was it out of the blue, or was he trying to let us know that she had moved on? That she had other responsibilities now? And other children she didn’t leave behind. Whether he meant it that way (though I believe he did), that was how I understood it.
My siblings, strangers in every way though the same blood ran through us all, became a mystery. To me, their existence was no more solid than a thought or a fluff of dandelion seed floating away from me.
It would be years, decades really, before I would understand all that happened in those early years. Who said what, who did what. Why. The stories would untangle and I would separate them into clear paths. This led to this. And this to that. It would all become clear.
Or it will. Any day now.
My sister, who you will recognize as Ducky in the comments (and from the photo above), posted this essay today over at Hints and Guesses. She adds her own slant on our stepmother’s nature, and explains a nickname that came to her just this morning.