Among Legends: Mom

Blessed Redeemer, Precious Redeemer, Seems now I see Him on Calvary’s tree; Wounded and bleeding, for sinners pleading– Blind and unheeding– dying for me.

-Blessed Redeemer, Avis B. Christiansen

My mother’s earliest memory played out in a living room under a pointy slate roof in the northern Adirondacks toward the end of the Great Depression. She looked up from her bassinet. A man and a woman, eyes and smiles wide, looked down. They were there, that small, forming mind somehow understood, to take her away forever.

I was maybe seven when I first heard this story. In liquor boxes collected in the school bus parked at the back boundary of our property, I had seen recolored black and white photos of her on her first birthday. Her chestnut snail shell curls framed her big green eyes and elbows, cheeks and knees were all dimpled. She was as precious as the toy Kewpie doll in a nearby box. I could imagine that sweet baby months earlier, supine in her bassinet, body awash with fear, the hollow panic of not being wanted.

My heart ached for her. When she told me this story, I wanted to scour away all evidence of pain from that memory, to fill that empty place with the knowledge that she was loved and wanted now by me.

In the end, the kind couple that came for her didn’t bring her home. They wanted her very much, but my great grandmother had convinced Nana that though she was divorced, already raising my two aunts on a nurse’s salary, she should keep her youngest daughter. And so, Mom would grow up under that pointy slate roof, listening to her grandmother earnestly crooning Blessed Redeemer while Apple Brown Betty bubbled in the oven.

Mom wasn’t much older when a second painful event etched itself onto her brain. It began with an unexpected rap of knuckles on the front door. She was upstairs with my aunts, just three or four years old.

Downstairs, the door swung on it’s hinges.

“I want to meet my daughter.” The voice, foreign to Mom’s ear, was demanding.

“Leave,” Nana said.

Aunt Marion, the oldest, grabbed Mom’s arms and guided her roughly to the closet. Aunt Marilyn held the door open and Marion shoved her in.

It was dark. She tried the doorknob, but it was held fast on the other side by older, stronger hands than hers. “Let me out!” She pounded. “I want to meet my father.”

Her keen ears heard through the closet door and one floor down the man at the door plead, “please, I just want to meet her.”

“Leave,” Nana repeated. “Don’t ever come back.”

He didn’t.

As a young girl, Mom slingshot rocks onto Pop Henicki’s tin roof with her friend Freddie Todd. Her mouth was washed out with soap for saying god damn it to her sister. In school, teachers taped her mouth shut and rapped her knuckles for talking in class. Some kids could avoid such a fate, but Mom was strong willed.

By high school, boys were crazy for her big green eyes, tiny waist and generous bust. She was head of her class, head cheerleader, too, and spent as many winter days as she could swooshing down the little ski hill in the back of her town. For adventure and the chance to hear live Jazz, she stowed away in a freight car to New York City. Mom owned every square inch of her world that she could. Then finally, she beheld the one thing she had wanted but couldn’t have; her father. He was in a coffin, dead from an automobile accident. Life without him had made her who she was, but she was still pissed at Nana and my aunts, with no interest in forgiving them.

In her first semester at state teacher’s college, Mom dropped out, not from lack of ability, but from feeling out classed by a roommate who never wore the same underpants twice when Mom couldn’t even afford a letter sweater. Mom moved home for a short time, then had a go at business school in Albany and hated it too. She didn’t want to sit in an office all day. She wanted to travel. With that goal in mind, she enrolled in stewardess school. A Life Magazine article on the glamorous girls of flying featured my mother, a poster child for the industry. And while she was a stewardess, she met a professional football player who, once they married, began medical school. It was a fairy tale marriage that had her in doubt as she walked down the aisle. Was this what she wanted?

To be sure, Mom and this man loved one another. At first they were best friends. But some things are not meant to be. Three times their babies tried to form in her, and three times they didn’t survive. Women clamored for the big, strong former pro baller doctor with the impish grin. Doing laundry, Mom found lipstick on his collar. She answered phone calls and the caller wouldn’t speak, but Mom could hear her breathe. Mom, for her part, had grown out her pageboy in favor of long center-parted hair, wore short corduroy skirts, bright print tops, and had discovered health food.

Hoping that the change would save their marriage, when he was drafted into the Vietnam War, they moved to Tokyo together where he served in a military hospital. There, Mom was charmed by the temples and shrines of Hokkaido, the traditional house in which they lived, Koto music, tea ceremonies. His life revolved around the hospital and officers’ club.

In 1967, after returning from Japan, Mom showed up near Dr. Benjamin Spock, the author of Baby and Child Care, at a photo taken of a war protest on Century Plaza in Los Angeles. Several months later, on their way home, marriage in irreparable ruins, she and her husband picked up a man thumbing a ride from his broken down automobile. He convinced them to bring him home to use their phone to call for a ride. There, they discovered him thumbing through their files, most likely, they believed, seeking evidence of Mom’s greater role in the antiwar movement.

Marriage and faith in mainstream society dissolved, Mom moved nine hours north to run a tiny bookstore in the mecca of tune in, turn on, drop out: Mendocino.