As I hovered outside the restroom of the Indian restaurant and watched my mother pay the check, her now-gray hair softening the person I had last seen six years before, I knew I had a decision to make.
Her shoulders were hunched in a way I hadn't remembered from when I was 16, her figure was heavier; her glasses were now bifocals. Cumin and fennel and memories saturated the air as she unclasped her change purse and counted out the money to the penny. Cash only now, since the bankruptcy terminated her credit cards. Since he terminated her savings. He -- the one whose name neither my mother nor I would speak, the one who ruined our family.
And as I stood and watched from a distance, I knew I had to choose: rage and hatred, emotions I knew so well, or forgiveness, a path that, until this moment, I could not have imagined even considering.
I WAS 16 when my mother met him in a smoky bar. It was New Year's Eve at the cusp of the nation's bicentennial.
She was 42 and had been a single parent for eight years already, raising the four of us in a small house on a lake. My father, a teacher, had left when I was 8 to move in with an English professor. After he drove away, waving goodbye to me and my 10-year-old sister, my mother cried. While cooking dinner. While sitting at the reference desk of the library where she worked. While explaining "separation" to my 7-year-old sister, who has mental retardation, and my brother, the baby of the family, who was then 5. While signing the divorce papers from the man she had been crazy about, who had fathered her four kids within five years, filled the house with his Beatles records and boisterous laughter, and left. And who, despite it all, we kids still adored.
With a broken heart and her kids devolving toward adolescence, she started to date. Soft-spoken businessmen with genteel ways, who wore hats. Men who could tell each of the four kids apart. They shook our hands when they picked my mother up.
We kids watched "Sonny and Cher" on television, and harmonized on Beatles songs, and played with our dog, Ringo. Every few months our father, who lived two hours and one state away, would pull into our driveway, and we'd go out with him to a diner.
Our mother spent her days doling out information to library patrons. Then she checked out books for herself -- Agatha Christie, UFOs -- went home to bake a casserole for dinner, and then went out to look. Parents Without Partners. Mensa. Bars.
After a time, she lowered her sights, and soon the men no longer shook our hands. These new dates were guys missing an arm or a sense of humor; guys who lived by their brawn or disability checks; guys with bad teeth and mumbles. Janitors, house painters, concrete contractors. Guys who liked children best when they stayed in their rooms, and who sometimes threatened to wallop us.
Each lasted a few nights, or, sometimes, months. They were not good choices, but she hung in, deeming drinking problems, moodiness and bad tempers on a par with warts. She believed, no matter what the obstacle, that if it was true love, she could change them.
I wonder why she tried so hard. Not at that time; I thought only of friends and homework and music. Lennon, unforgivingly, had broken from McCartney; Sonny had ended it with Cher; only wusses like the Carpenters seemed to sing about getting close to you. No one spoke of understanding.
I began to think about it only in the Indian restaurant when, for the first time, I found myself seeing her through the eyes of an adult. As she paid our check, and I fled into the restroom, I thought about how the woman out there -- my mother -- seemed like so many older women I'd met who'd grown up to bread lines, Benny Goodman, Franklin Roosevelt and rations. She had expected to marry young and have a family, whether she wanted to or not. She had never known what she wanted and never believed she had a right to know. Until he came along, she had lived prudently -- always driving under the speed limit, using a Water Pik, packing an umbrella in the rain, drinking only at Passover, adhering to a budget.
But, looking in the mirror at my face that even now resembled hers, I remembered that when I was 16, none of this cautiousness helped her. She seemed to have had a hollow inside that was awaiting construction. I could see it on her face. I could see it in her actions: a trance of desperation so complete that it ignored any common sense. Though perhaps, it occurred to me as the sound of taped sitar music leaked in through the restroom door, she was simply not as familiar with wisdom as she was with the terror of loneliness and longing.
So she was very ready when she walked into that bar on New Year's Eve and saw him.
She told me this later. How somehow, in the jammed bar, he spotted her, and waved her over to the stool where he was sitting. How she obliged, wanting to be wanted. How at first he said he tested parachutes for a living, that he was a disbarred lawyer. That he liked to drink. That he was on the road a lot.
She didn't tell me, for a long time, the other thing he said. He told her he was a secret government agent. Not FBI. Not CIA. But an agency so secret almost no one knew it existed.
Most women would have headed for the hills at this point, but my mother always gave men the benefit of the doubt. Gullibility fueling her hope, she kept going. And he kept laying it on thick.
With stories: The exact way they make a bed in Cuba. The sogginess of leather gloves in a Caribbean rain; Nixon's secret fetish for onion and mayonnaise sandwiches.
With praise: Her shapely legs; her beautiful eyes.
And she thought: What an adventurer he seemed to be. So much more exciting than the Dewey Decimal System.
After "Auld Lang Syne," she offered him a ride to his apartment, and on the way she tried to impress him. So she told him about UFOs, which she'd just read about. Exotic aliens. Amnesia. Abductions in the night.
He directed her to an apartment complex, and there he got out. Then he leaned back inside the car and asked, "If a Martian came down and wanted to whisk you off, would you go with him?"
"Yes," she said smiling. "In a flash."
A week later, she moved him in.
HE ARRIVED exhaling cartons of cigarettes and clutching bottles of booze and a small Samsonite suitcase.
I said to her as she stood in her bedroom doorway, "I don't like this. I can't breathe with him smoking all the time. And look at all that alcohol in the kitchen. You've never moved anyone in here before, and now this. What are you doing?"
She stepped back and closed the door.
I stared at the white paint. Knowing nothing I could do would matter.
A few weeks later -- a few weeks when I hid in my room, calling my father, begging him to let me visit -- she told my older sister, then 18, to leave. My father said to me, "You're next," and something inside me began to harden. Overnight, my father devised a plan. My older sister, my brother and I would ask my mother to release us into his custody. We would move in with him, but since space was limited, I would go on to a friend's boarding school, provided it offered me a scholarship. He didn't suggest bringing my other, developmentally disabled sister; my mother, he figured, would always take care of her.
So exactly one month after New Year's Day, the three of us called my mother into the sun parlor to negotiate our future.
"What do you want?" she said.
My older sister told her.
"And when does your father plan to do all this?"
"Today. He's waiting outside."
She peered through the window, then went to discuss it with her boyfriend.
No one spoke. My brother put his thumb in his mouth. My sister and I stared out at the evergreens of the lake, bent low as withered old men.
A minute later, she returned. "Fine," she said.
Fine. Disappointment hit me like a fever. I wanted a mother like the woman who stood before Solomon, disclaiming her bloodline just to keep her child alive. A mother worthy of the term mother. But that was not the hand I had been dealt.
We piled a few belongings into my father's Fiat and hugged our remaining sister and Ringo goodbye. Then we drove off in a February rain.
Left by herself with my mother, my sister wrote me letters at my new boarding school. In her first-grade scrawl she talked about Ringo and David Cassidy. And mentioned that my mother had gotten married.
A Valentine's Day wedding. She had known him six weeks. She really must have been happy to get rid of us.
Immediately, I dropped "mother" from my vocabulary. When I told my new friends about her, I used pronouns, and sarcasm.
A week later, when my older sister stopped by the house on the lake to visit our little sister, she found no one home. No one except Ringo, locked out on the back porch, his Alpo frozen, starving alone in the cold.
Our mother had disappeared, along with her savings, her car and her one remaining child.
MY FATHER, visiting me at boarding school, asked why I walked with my eyes down, my hair in my face.
I explained that I was following the wisdom I'd heard on an episode of "Kung Fu": "You are to be humble," the blind master had said, "like the dirt."
My father seized me by the shoulders. "But you're not dirt!" he said.
He was right. I was not dirt.
I was stone.
I could not feel my new friendships. I could not appreciate the Technicolor sunsets. If someone touched my arm, I was certain they could detect that I appeared to be flesh and blood, but I was really a stone, cut to fit the shape of a person, carefully camouflaged by skin.
In my dorm bed at night, I would imagine my mother dumping my little sister at a gas station and driving away, jolly. I would see my sister stumbling toward a luncheonette somewhere unknown, pleading in the parking lot for handouts, encountering a mugger, or a pimp.
I'd clench my teeth and lie there, rigid, feeling myself grow harder. Sleep pulled me under now and again, but mostly I drifted from one alarming scenario to another, afraid to fall unconscious, even for a moment, so reality could not batter me awake.
For four months, we heard nothing. My father returned to the house on the lake and retrieved Ringo. My friends stayed up past midnight, keeping me company. My laugh grew bitter.
Then one morning in late spring, my father's telephone rang. It was my mother's new husband, saying they were putting my sister on a plane. From Albuquerque. My father sped to the airport to meet her.
That afternoon, waiting in my dorm room, I heard giggling in the hallway. And then, my little sister's voice. At last, again. That melody of a voice, with its emphatic vowels. Details I'd already lost.
I whipped into the corridor. She was down the hall with my brother, grinning as if playing tag. She had the same lumbering walk, the same body, the same laugh.
I barreled down the hall toward her. She faced me, heavier than I recalled, and I put out my arms and threw myself into her embrace.
Minutes later, we got into my father's car, playing normal. "So," I said, as my father steered us down country roads toward his apartment, "did you like the plane ride?"
"I liked Las Vegas."
"I thought you were in Albuquerque."
My father said, "Albuquerque was a lie. They don't want us to know where they are."
"She has almost no clothes," my brother said, putting his arm around my sister.
My father added, "And what she has is filthy."
I turned to her. "What happened?"
Then she told me what she'd already told them at the airport: Our mother and this guy had been busing around, running from what he said was the KGB, living in hotels under aliases, selling things to strangers, running from skipped bills, shoplifting. He beat our mother and drank. He beat our sister. Just last night he threw himself, punching and raging, at her, saying he wanted to kill her. His Samsonite was filled with guns and knives.
She began to sob, and I did, too, and in silence we cruised down the road. I could no longer see the budding trees, I could not see the young corn in the fields.
A year later, while my father was flipping leisurely through the local Sunday paper, he happened to glance at a part of the paper that had never interested him: bankruptcy notices. Under which, he saw with a shock, was listed the name of my mother.
"It can't be her," he said to everyone, noting that she'd never lived anywhere near the area we now called home. But nonetheless, he drove to the address at the bottom of the notice and rang the bell.
She opened the door.
She was living alone, wearing no wedding ring. Working in a nearby library, where she'd gotten a job.
She was living 30 minutes from us, but she had not even tried to call.
He drove away in a fury.
A contagious fury that I picked up, as did my siblings. It seethed inside us as we finished high school and went through college. It taunted us every Mother's Day. It swelled us with envy whenever friends spoke lovingly of their mothers.
We tried to exorcise anything in ourselves that we knew came from her: turns of phrase, food preferences. We hated ourselves, because we came from her.
My senior year in college, I went to see a therapist. My goal was to talk about school -- I was miserable, I shrank whenever someone didn't like me, or I feared they didn't, which was almost all the time. But the therapist saw it differently. "There's only one way," he said, "for you to stand a chance of healing."
"What's that?" I asked.
"You have to contact your mother."
I almost slapped him in the face.
He said, "You mentioned that she's working near your father's house."
"She was, last I knew."
"Well, I'm going to suggest something. Find a phone book for her area, and look up the number for her job. Then carry it around with you. And someday -- maybe in 10 years -- when you feel ready to call, you'll be able to."
"I don't want to."
"Okay. You've got your whole life to decide."
"I never will. Never."
But one night I did look up the number, and slipped it into my purse. Just to tell him I'd done it. Not that it mattered to me.
AFTER COLLEGE, lacking direction, employable skills and the ability to like myself, I took the first job I was offered, and became a paralegal in a big law firm. I was assigned to a major antitrust case against our client. After a summer of paperwork I left the city where I was living and was shipped off to Manhattan for the trial.
There, every night, as I accompanied co-workers along the sidewalks of New York, headed for dinner, them with their confident strides, me with my slouched shoulders, I pondered what my companions possessed that I did not. More courage? A belief in themselves? Whatever it was, it allowed them to behave with independence and poise. In other words, to be adults.
Me? With a numbing thud I realized that I did not have this something. I had no idea how to feel as they did. I knew I would not survive in the world.
I was plagued by memories. They had begun soon after graduation, and they proliferated as I stamped documents with the para-legals in New York. I tried to bury each memory beneath disgust, but as the days marched us toward the trial, and I grew more doubtful about myself, they burst forth more copiously. Everywhere, triggered by everything. Old recollections, from a time that seemed biblically remote: the years Before Divorce.
How she'd taught me to tie my shoes, to read a clock. To write cursive, with patience and praise. How she'd made me Halloween costumes, choosing the fabric I wanted. And read me nursery rhymes. How, after my father left, she bought me a book on constellations, and we went outside to learn the stars.
I lay there remembering, in my hotel room. Maybe, I began to think, my mother wasn't a person of complete evil. Maybe she'd actually been all right, when I was a little kid. Some people can handle divorce, and the loss of their only dream. Maybe my mother could not.
I shuddered beneath the hotel blanket. Blasphemy; I had trained myself to think of her as the ultimate horror. How could I possibly consider that she might deserve an iota of compassion?
Then, after several weeks of these memories, the trial was settled unexpectedly. Boom, over. Knowing we would be sent home the next morning, the paralegals planned a big celebration dinner, and in the late afternoon I returned to my hotel to refresh myself before the toasts and the garment bags.
I took off my shoes and sat on my bed. But I could not rest; the memories were growing over my thoughts like vines. I don't know, even now, why I did it.
I sat up and reached for the phone.
Her work number was still in my wallet, softened into cloth. I dialed. I'd just stay on long enough to see if she was there. Use a fake voice. All I wanted to know . . .
One ring. Two . . .
"Library circulation desk," a man said.
"I . . . Can I have reference?"
I was put on hold. My breath seemed to cease. Hang up. No -- wait till someone answers. She probably quit years ago and . . .
The line picked up.
"Information services." A woman's voice. "May I help you?"
I exhaled and, forgetting to use an accent, I said, "I'm trying to reach" -- and I said her name.
"This is she."
I paused. Then I said, "This is your daughter Rachel."
There was a gasp, and immediately she began to cry. "Thank God!" she whispered, and with a great rush I remembered that voice and her face. "Thank God!" she repeated, and something inside me blew open. I closed my eyes, dumbfounded. It had been almost six years; she could have called me. But I was on the edge of tears, too overwhelmed to confront.
We spoke for a little while, and I filled her in on what everyone was doing. She was so happy to find out, and, though I felt dizzy from the chaotic mix of wrath and relief, I did not find the exchange painful. Not even unpleasant.
Just before she had to get off, she asked if she could see me. I said yes before I could stop myself from speaking.
We hung up, and in a daze I headed off to meet my colleagues for dinner. I had called my mother, and she had wanted me! She had wept at my voice. She had been grateful.
I glided along the New York streets beside my companions. The night was clear, and I caught glimpses of the sky between skyscrapers as we strolled to a food court for dinner. There was the Big Dipper, and there, as I had learned years before from our book on constellations, the North Star.
We opened the doors to the food court and suddenly I realized I'd just broken a habit -- one I hadn't even known I'd possessed. We stepped into hundreds of people milling about, and I did not fall into the same compulsion I had felt for the last six years. As woman after woman paraded by, many of them roughly the age of my mother, I did not peer into their eyes trying to see if, behind their glasses or makeup, they were really the woman who had given birth to me. Instead I saw that they were, as they had always been, nothing to me but strangers.
I gaped at how I had lived.
And my stone began to soften.
SIX YEARS, to the day, my front bell rang.
There she stood, a plump, harmless-looking woman. Fiftyish. Soft-eyed. The kind of benevolent older lady trusted by lost children in department stores.
Her black hair was ribboned with gray, her lips parenthesized with wrinkles. She was beaming and her face was streaked with tears. We hugged. Her body was familiar, warm. I felt both comforted and afraid as she wept quietly into my neck.
Then, we headed out to dinner. She told me about her new husband -- an easygoing factory worker, a good man. The other, the con man, was long gone. I told her about my job. It all seemed so normal, our talking about vacations and shopping, parking on a street I knew well, weaving our way through the weekend crowd toward the Indian restaurant. Just a mother and daughter out for the night.
Except I didn't feel as I believed daughters feel about mothers. I didn't look up to her or experience unconditional safety or shed every stitch of self-consciousness. In fact, I felt quite self-conscious, wondering not what she thought of me, but why I was there. Anger detonated inside me at odd phrases. I had disquieting moments when I spied mannerisms I remembered as grating and realized I still found them grating.
But I pushed through. I had gone this far, and had a question I needed to ask.
We settled into the restaurant, and as soon as we placed our order, I said, "You lived just a half-hour away. So why? Why didn't you ever call us?"
She lowered her eyes and said, "I was afraid you wouldn't want to speak to me."
"You thought we would reject you?"
"Why would you think that?"
"I thought you hated me."
"I guess . . . I guess because I hated myself."
I sat back. It had never occurred to me that she might have so flipped the roles of parent and child that she might think that we had spurned her. But there it was. What I had interpreted as her evil exile of us was merely the avoidance of her own self-abhorrence.
I felt a chill in that warm room. All this time, the witch hadn't been screeching with laughter as she jetted away from us on her broom; she had been dragging the broom behind her, beating herself with it as she slumped along. Years of convictions shattered inside me. Oh God, I thought, everything I have believed until now -- about her, about my family, about good and evil -- was wrong. I grabbed the edge of the table to steady myself.
And then I slipped into the restroom to think. I splashed water on my face and looked in the mirror. The face that was mine, and hers. My body was shaking and I thought: I could hate her. It would be as easy as opening my eyes in the morning. I could do that, but I knew then that hating her would not give me satisfaction or retribution or pride. It would only give me more anguish.
I had one other choice: I could forgive her. Not let her off the hook. Not forget. Because forgiveness, I realized as I stepped back into the dining room, back to my mother, isn't something you give because someone has earned it; it's something you give because you need to for your own sake.
It is the way to keep the stone from hardening.
As I walked into the room, she turned. And I felt a tumble of emotions, wariness and excitement, resentment and release -- and a new commitment to forgiveness inside. I was preparing to learn a lesson that no one -- no cultural heroes, no TV show, no song -- had taught me. One I would have to teach myself, on my own.
My mother smiled as I approached her, and finally I smiled, too. Maybe it wasn't happily ever after. But I was ready to begin.
Rachel Simon is a creative writing teacher and author of several books, including The Writer's Survival Guide.