“I am happy and well. Thanks for asking. And thanks for the pictures, although I’m puzzled as to why you are sending them to me. Unless there’s been a development I’m not aware of, I don’t have a daughter named Jennifer. According to your birth certificate, your mother’s name is Sue…perhaps you should send them to her.”
That was an email from my mother, dated December 2, 2006. She sent it in response to an email from me, in which I attempted to test the waters after we had not spoken for two years. Except for the answer I sent in response to this, and the one she wrote back after, we have not communicated since. Her words closed the door on all the years I had spent trying (and failing) to have a good relationship with her.
When we first reconnected after 14 years apart, I was in college. She visited once, with my two sisters and brother. It was a strange visit, and complex. Joyous, yes. But I remember other things, too. She did things that annoyed me, like laying her right hand on the seat next to her when she drove the car. A silly, small thing that I should not have cared about at all.
What I couldn’t see until later was that my annoyance was nothing more than a product of my anger at her for leaving us when we were so young. Of course, I was happy that we could see each other after all that time, but I remember also feeling jealous of the shorthand that she shared with my sisters and brother, jokes and stories that I didn’t understand. And the glaring truth of it was that they could share that banter because of the years they had together, years I could not claim.
There was a honeymoon period for a while. We wrote dozens of letters over the next few years, and spoke on the phone. But as I learned more about her and began to understand what kind of mother she was to my sisters and brother, it became difficult to keep seeing things as I wanted them to be. Every fantasy I had as a child about a reunion with her, and the relationship that would follow, fell away over time.
As it turned out, I wasn’t exactly the daughter she always imagined, either. I wasn’t always sweet or compliant (though I was those things at times), and I wasn’t willing to blindly accept her version of things. There were three parents in my life, each of them with a different version of events, and it wasn’t an easy thing to throw all of their stories into a pile and sort out what was true.
But it was exhausting, and after a while, I just didn’t care anymore who was to blame for what. I just wanted to get on with things, and try to go forward. There were breaks in the relationship, and then other times when we tried to patch it up again. We both said hard things. We both tried, and we both failed.
After I had children, she visited us several times, when Boy was a toddler, and then after Girl was born. The last time was when Girl turned three.
It was a difficult visit, peppered with arguments. One of her biggest issues with me is that I (and my sister) have not yet gone to court to have Sue’s adoption of us set aside. It is something I want to do, but it will also take some time and money, and there hasn’t been an easy time to move ahead with the process. (We would have to do it in Missouri, where neither of us live now. Never mind that it was an adoption my sister and I never wanted, yet it’s now our responsibility to set it right so that our mother’s name will once again appear on our birth certificates.) So that explains what she meant in the email above about Sue’s name being on my birth certificate.
The morning when I received the email (above), it was a Sunday and I was up early to take my kids to church. I checked my email, and found that one. After I read it, I sat there, stunned and in tears, though I shouldn’t have been all that surprised at her reaction. It wasn’t as though I hadn’t guessed at how it might turn out.
But I hadn’t expected that. Her words were so final, so sharp and specific, pared down to the cruelest thing she could have said. “I don’t have a daughter named Jennifer.”
I called my sister Ducky to read her the email, and while we were on the phone, another call came in. The caller ID showed that it was my cousin B. And because it was early in the morning, and because I knew that her mother had been very close to dying in the last few days, I knew why she was calling. I answered her call and listened to her tell me that her mother had died just 15 minutes before.
My aunt (she was my favorite aunt) had been ill for many years. I won’t go into the details of her struggle, but it left her unable to interact with her family–her husband, her children, and her grandchildren. She would have given anything to have those years to be with them, I know that.
There was such pain and grief in that moment, and utter disbelief and sadness that my own mother would throw away the gift of all the years still ahead of us (and over what?), when my aunt would have celebrated every one of them, if they were hers to have.
That moment will never leave me. Even as a writer, I don’t think I could have imagined an intersection of events quite like that. It broke something in me.
The waste of it. The carelessness. After all this time, I can accept whatever my mother’s feelings are toward me. She has written things that have made it clear enough over the years, how ambiguous those feelings are. But how could she just toss away a chance to know two of her grandchildren, even as their sweet faces looked back at her from my email?
I’ll never understand it.
But it’s not all bad, this story.
The sisters and brother I mentioned? Well, I have a lovely, easy relationship with the oldest of them, my sister W, whom I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. She has two children, a girl and a boy. I have a friendly, though still somewhat unformed, relationship with my other sister, C, who lives on the East Coast and is very smart and accomplished. I haven’t had any kind of relationship with my brother, but neither have W and C in recent years. Who knows how that will go.
But that makes five of us, the children of one mother, and the point is, we’re the heart of this family now. It’s a fragmented, complicated family tree, but it’s up to us to make ourselves important in each other’s lives, no matter how we got here, and we’re on our way to making that happen. It’s not a straight, smooth road, by any means, and I doubt Norman Rockwell will come back from the grave to paint us.
But we’re trying, and I am grateful for all of them.