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There aren’t enough words to define the colors, the sounds, the words that day -- the day I told my mother, “I want to go live with Dad.”

It wasn’t that my mother wanted me. It wasn’t even that she needed me. It was that my mother had lost. This was a defeat. I had chosen my father over her. And so my act, that one decision, resuscitated an avalanche of her hurts, all of them.

I became the mother who didn’t fight to keep her, the foster parents who fled. I was every stranger in all those families who couldn’t love her enough to say, “Stay.” I was the husband who (she thought) had run.

I was every goodbye, every abandonment, every wrongdoing, and every old wound. And as I stood on the porch beside my suitcase, waiting for my father, and she stood silent at the door, I knew that in time I would pay for this transgression.

And I would pay dearly.

No words, no embrace, no gift, not even a pronouncement in reverse could undo what I had done.  

Four months passed before I would see her again. And while there was a sense of relief in this disconnect, in the absence of the day-to-day turmoil, an unfathomable sadness was emerging as well. I sometimes felt an untethering I couldn’t grasp, and I missed her desperately. To love and to hate her all at once left me so depleted there were moments when I could barely lift my head.

I despaired that my mother didn’t miss me. That the feeling wasn’t mutual. That I had created a reality where she saw she could live without me. I was the problem child, after all, not my sister, not Sydney.

It was during those long stretches of silence, or as a result of them, that I sometimes sought the eyes of strangers -- older women who unknowingly smiled at my stare. And I wanted to stop them, grab their sleeve, careful not to be too frantic, too desperate or needy. How should I ask? What words?

There is a children’s book I remembered, “Will You Be My Mother?” (Or was it: “Are You My Mother?") -- I wasn’t sure, but thought I might just carry a copy and hand it out as an introduction or an explanation to the first hands that reached out.

Although I knew on some level what the consequences of moving in with my father would be, I was still not prepared for my mother’s almost complete desertion. Had I run away, had she not known for hours where I was, my odds might have been better.

Maybe then she would have waited in the hall for me, as she once had for Sydney.

Maybe she would have stood by the front door calling for me, as she had for our dog, Millie.

                                        

            When summer ended and fall began in an explosion of color, I felt better. I loved the predictability of seasons. When everything else let you down -- unkept promises, a friend’s loyalty, a mother’s love, the seasons never disappointed. They arrived and changed and ended just as anticipated, just as you always knew they would. Never mind what would follow. Never mind the ice and the gray and the cold. For then, for today, it was warm. It was red. It was magnificent.

I even called her. Three rings, and then she answered. “Mom?” I said. “Do you need some help with your yard? I could come over…”

This was safe, this would be okay. No struggle to manufacture conversations. No silence to break. My dad drove me.

            “This is nice of you,” he’d said, leaning over, hugging me with his non-driving arm.

Spending time with my mother? I wondered. Cleaning her yard? I didn’t ask. It didn’t matter.                         

She sat on her deck watching me, drinking ice tea. She had left the rake propped up by the gray steps. I took it and waved at her, then raked her leaves into gigantic piles. I resisted the urge to run and leap into them. Maybe my mother wanted to come down from her deck. Maybe she wanted to do that too.

I stopped and looked up at her, shielding my eyes from the sun. If that’s what she was thinking, if that’s what she wanted, I wouldn’t know it by her stare.

“Olivia?” she asked, suddenly right behind me. I hadn’t heard her over the rake, over the sweep of leaves, and she’d startled me.

“Listen, I’m just going to run out for a moment. Grab some things at the store. I won’t be gone long.”

I nodded. I watched her go.  

           My mother was away so long I finished the entire lawn. All those leaves, a mountain of color, swept away, pulled into a pile, leaving the dying summer lawn exposed. I set the rake in the shed by Dad’s lawn mower, beside the rusty watering can and the snow shovel, and before I pulled the door closed, I turned and looked again, remembering when Sydney and I played in there. A barrel for a table, a three-legged stool, old plates, a few wooden bowls and our younger voices calling "Millie, our child,” to “Come to bed.”

My mother had not still returned and it was almost dark. I walked up the steps to her front door, grateful to find it unlocked, and called my father. “I’m on my way,” he told me.

When I hung up the phone my mother was standing there. The second time that day she’d startled me. I couldn’t help but notice that all she was carrying was her purse, not a loaf of bread, no milk, no coffee. Just that black purse and her keys.

“Dad’s coming,” I told her.

“Okay,” she said and then, “you did a nice job. Thank you.”

“Sure,” I told her, surprised by her sudden warmth, her appreciation. And then we stood there. Silent.

“Did you see the sunset?” she finally asked.

I shook my head no, and together we walked outside. On the way she said, “There are a lot more jobs I could use some help with…when you’re not too busy helping your father.”

I just nodded, imagining her saying something else: Do you want to stay over? I miss you. I’m sorry I was gone all day…

She sat in the rocking chair by the door and I walked down to the bottom step, the one closest to the road.

Every car I heard I hoped would be my father’s coming back for me. I played silent games, “Dad’s will be the second car after the blue one, the red one; after this woman walks by; the one I hear in the distance; after the dog stops barking; Dad’s will be when I count to ten …”

When he finally pulled up, I got in and waved to my mother.

And I wondered, maybe she’d been counting too.

 

             

Originally from southern California, Anne Serling prefers small towns and the change of seasons. She is the author of AS I KNEW HIM: My Dad Rod Serling; the adaptation of  two of her father’s teleplays in the anthology The Twilight Zone: The Original Stories and she has had articles published in Salon.com, The Huffington Post, and appeared on NPR’S Snap Judgment



 


I have always been fascinated by stories about families and the complicated relationships that  either bind or fracture them. AFTERSHOCKS, an excerpt from a novel I am wrestling with, is a  glimpse into a difficult mother/ daughter relationship. Misdirected hurt and pain leaves one wondering, “Who is the real child?”









 





  


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