Fleeing from or moving toward something, we are always alone. I remember someone saying this to me during my graduate training and I wondered then and now, aren't we always doing both? In moving toward knowing my mother, aren't I fleeing from the empty space that has been her for most of my life?
When I finally get my mother's best friend, Linda, on the phone, my expectations are greater than building layer upon layer to reveal my mother. I must be inside my mother's head, have my mother's eyes, and see the world as she saw it. I want her to be so full in me that her memories feel as if they are mine.
"I did not know until after Pat died that she had a child. I didn't even know who she was with. It's like she kept him such a perfect secret that no one knew about him. Perhaps he was older. I don't know."
Within moments of our greeting, Linda has launched right into the heart of one of my greatest questions-- my paternity-- and I can barely contain myself. "So you were still in touch with my mom even then, years after high school?"
"What do you mean? Didn't your mom have you right after high school?"
"No. She had me when she was twenty six. She died ten years later."
Linda pauses. "Well that doesn't make any sense to me." Another pause. "Wow. She lived that much longer? We moved away to Vermont." Linda sighs, begins to talk, then stops herself. "Your mom lived quite a number of years more then, I guess."
I don't understand what Linda is talking about, why she seems to think my mom died sooner than she did. But before I can ask her, she continues her story.
"We really were good friends. Oh wow! I thought she had died. We were so young. It was so many years ago. I had to have met Pat through school. Bridge Street grammar school. I can't remember where your mom lived. I lived on Strong Avenue with Carol and Pat. We used to get together. Have you spoken to Pat? Your mom was also friends with Marlene and Karen." Suddenly Linda is silent.
"Oh my goodness that was awesome that she lived that long."
My hands are shaking. We are circling something big, something unexpected. "Linda, I'm not sure I understand."
"Your grandmother and your aunt came to see me in a little apartment I lived in right after high school. Your mom wanted to see me. This has bothered my conscience for a long time. It really bothered me. If I knew she lived to be 36. You have to understand where I was coming from. Until I married and said I do, I did not know what jealousy meant. I was not allowed to go anywhere he didn't take me. I think that was it. Or maybe I was afraid to go see her. But she wanted to see me." Linda sighs, takes a deep breath. "I knew your grandmother and Barbara. The way they talked, I was under the impression that your mother only had a short time to live. I don't know why, but I did not want to go see her. I pray that...." Linda begins to cry. "We were friends. We played together. I just felt that...."
"My mother was in the hospital and she wanted to see you? When was this?" I am desperate to begin to fill in the pieces but Linda is working through her own unfinished story with my mother. I can feel this in every word she speaks. My mother is here with us as we talk. Linda is bringing her forward through this reverie. A young woman who called her best friend to her side. A young woman whose request went unfulfilled. But what hospital and when and why?
"I just think that your mom must have drawn away from me because it just seemed to me like there were secrets. From the 6th grade until late in high school, we used to play and have so much fun. And then we went to the record hops in Easthampton and Northampton. You could go from 8-10 Wednesday and Friday and until 11pm on Saturday. Us girls, we all loved to dance. Then again she was distant, more and more, but your mom did not want to share her problems. I did not know. I never questioned things because I also had things I did not want to talk about. So maybe she was pulling back. And then again my life changed so dramatically when I was a sophmore and when I met my husband, maybe it was me. I'm under the impression that they told me she had Huntington's."
"She did." I want to move her back to the beginning, to the secret man, and the thought that I was conceived many years earlier, but Linda's narrative flows forward without pause.
"As children we were close. We always enjoyed everything we did. We rode our bikes so many miles together. We talked about boys. Went to dances. And Tri-Hi-Y. Carol has a better memory than me but I used to go to your mom's house. They had problems, your mom and grandmother. My mom was divorced and in those days, there must have been 1200 students and only 2 kids whose parents were divorced. So I was a very private person. I never talked about what went on in our household. It seemed to me that things weren't always right for Pat at home but I never knew why. And I never knew how to...." Linda pauses and takes another deep breath.
"I always thought your aunt and your grandmother were hard on Pat. It was never easy. Some parents are easy on their kids, so they feel free. Pat was not free. It was not smooth in that house and I always thought that your grandmother had problems. She was very strict. And she was not normal when it came to her hatred of men or having teenagers in the house. Pat and I would ignore it and try to have fun."
With each offering, my mother comes to life for me, this young girl riding for miles, talking about boys, and dancing as many nights a week as possible and ignoring my grandmother. But what of the questions around when my mother died, the secret boyfriend and my mom wanting to see Linda while she was in the hospital. Though the questions press forward, I try to follow Linda's trail back to my mother as far as it will lead me.
"It seemed to me that later in high school, she did not stay with me as much. A lot of times I'd ask Marlene about Pat. I don't know if your grandmother was restricting her. I was married the year before we graduated. And I never saw her again after graduation. I had many moments as a adult when I was driving down to see my mom, if I only knew your mom was alive, I would have gone to see her. When they came to me, I was only 19 or 20. They said your mom was in the hospital. I think it was the State Hospital."
"When she was 20? The State Hospital?" Why would my mother be in the State Hospital when she was so young? This doesn't fit with what I know of her disease course.
"Your mom really was a beautiful person. I don't ever remember having a disagreement with her. I took tap dancing lessons. So did Pat. I also played the piano."
"My mom played the piano."
"She did? Are you sure? I never heard her play. Maybe she was very good and didn't want to embarrass me. Barbara was married and much older at the time. I did not think Barbara liked her but when they came to see me, they were sincere in trying to fulfill your mom's wish in getting me to see her. But I just couldn't go. I wish I did. I thought she died then. I can't believe it. And she didn't have you until she was 26? I wish I had known there was still time. "
Finally I tell her that my mother must have had some symptoms when she was 20, but that I don't know why she would have been hospitalized so early. Linda has no further answers, just remorse.
"Your mom could have been anything. She was very smart and did well in school and she was very normal in every way. I'm so sorry I didn't see her."
What did my grandmother tell my mother when she couldn't produce her friend? How did my mother react? And how had she found her way into an institution before the full weight of the disease was upon her?
I need to know the answers. For this, I must turn to Jill, and see what she can learn from her mother.
In your own mothering, or with your own mother, what are you fleeing from and moving toward?