When I try to write about my mom, words become straight pins . Straight pins are handy — keeping things lined up as you hem a pair of too-long pants, or marking a place on a map to show where you’ve been in the world. But they can miss their target and prick your thumb, draw blood, sting.
maybe i will wear thimbles as i write.
I don’t know the whole story. I know what I remember and then there is embellishment, and then there is what I remember she told me and I’m sure I’ve embellished that too. Objectively, I know that she was popular in high school. She was valedictorian — smart, sweet, and beloved, as her best friend kindly wrote to me after learning of Mom’s death. She once told me that she first met my dad in a hotel lobby somewhere in New York, maybe in Syracuse. She fell in love instantly.
i don’t want this to be a long story. i don’t have that much time to write.
She grew up on a farm with horses. Her dad sold insurance and her mother became a Christian Scientist. She idolized her father and was crushed when he died of a heart attack. He died before I was born, when my family lived in Cortland, NY, after living in Poughkeepsie, and before that Texas, and before that Oklahoma (where she nearly drove into a tornado). My dad was a test pilot, and then an aviation engineer, and most of the time, a grad student. They had a baby each time they moved. By the time I came along, my mom found herself in Ohio. I think Ohio and I tipped her over the edge.
My dad once told me that I walked into the bedroom while she was trying to hang herself. My sister confirmed this, saying that for weeks my dad kept bringing me presents. I think I remember getting presents a lot. I remember listening for trains at night. I remember my long stringy hair always being knotted and how my head ached when a neighbor tried to comb it.
I remember the night she tried to kill herself through an ingeniously symbolic combination of pills and hypothermia — the air conditioner blasting, the windows open, on a snowy New Year’s Eve. She had stayed home that night while we attended a wedding where I was the flower girl, my father beaming as I carefully dropped petals down the aisle. I don’t remember the ride home or walking into the house. My next memory, possibly fabricated, is of me sitting next to my dad on the bed as he cried.
And then next: Mrs. Anderson from next door anxiously plopped my brother and I on the living room floor in front of a wooden skittles game. I could not see the spinning top through the tears. [i still resent Mrs. Anderson, btw.] I turned to see my mom on a stretcher carried out of the house. She didn’t come home after that.
My sister remembered being told that Mom had a bad case of hay fever.
if “LOL” had existed back then, we would have typed it and laughed. we earned a dark sense of humor.
Two months later, we visited Mom in the hospital for Valentine’s Day; she made us big, red construction-paper hearts with lace around the edges and Beatitudes on the back. Mine said:
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
I never knew her like my siblings did. She always cried when she hugged me, but it wasn’t a joyful cry of reunion. It was regretful, sinking. She always called me “baby,” in a way that made me think she didn’t know my name.
i didn’t start out wanting to write something sad. i was going to write about a cat, in fact.
that’s the thing about straight pins.