This is a memoir-style piece I was commissioned to write about the lives of women beyond motherhood. I decided to share it here as well.
This is a picture of me and my mother who gave birth to me at nineteen.
“When is he coming back?” the whisper came from the floorboard of my dad’s old Honda civic where my little sister had wedged herself, her pink cotton nightgown stretched over her knees.
“I don’t know,” I whispered back.
“Can you see anything out there?”
“No. Just be quiet. He’ll be back soon,” I said as much to reassure myself as the owner of the little voice in the backseat.
The truth was I wasn’t sure when our father would return. He hadn’t given any explanation for our midnight drive, he had only gently shaken us awake and asked us to put on our shoes and get in the car. A few minutes later we arrived at a building made from blue sheet metal where, even with the windows rolled up, I could hear the sound of country music playing from within. A sign over the door in flickering neon lights, large enough to draw the eyes of thirsty passersby, announced that this was Castaways -- a place for those who had gone adrift.
“Keep the door locked,” my father said before disappearing inside.
The sound of beer bottle meeting pavement sent my sister scurrying, but my desire to know what we were doing here was stronger than my fear of the drunk couple three cars away and I remained in my seat, eyes fixed on the shadows moving behind the tinted glass of the door.
I can’t be sure how much time passed, I only know that it was long enough for my skin to become sticky with sweat. I had just begun to consider the risk of cracking open a window to welcome in the night air when my father emerged with my mother chasing after him.
Face pressed against warm glass, I strained to hear, but their words were carried off on music notes and after a brief but heated exchange, my father climbed in beside me and drove us from the parking lot of Castaways, gravel flying.
Three months after that night, my mother was gone. It was as if she awoke one morning and decided to shed her life as a snake sheds its skin. Without warning she had enlisted in the military.
I don’t recall the day she left, but no memory from my childhood is as sharp as our reunion on an army base in South Carolina. The factory worker with sad eyes was gone, replaced by a soldier whose embrace smelled strongly of the starch in her uniform. She was glowing. In our absence, she had flourished.
“Who is this woman?” I remember thinking. The doors of Castaways had been boarded up for fifteen years by the time I realized that the real stranger was the person who worked all those years on second shift at the local rubber plant, seeking refuge from her life in dive bars in the early morning hours, as trapped in a loveless marriage as she was the town in which she was raised.
In my mid-twenties, much like my own mother, I found myself ship-wrecked. In the space of one year I had become a college graduate, a wife, and a mom. My life had never been so full and yet I had never felt so hollow. While I loved my son, my husband, and the daughter who arrived two years later deeply, the fact that I had aligned my very identity with the role I played in their lives had begun to catch up with me. It was as if the moment I began making bottles and crustless peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, I had lost the luxury of making mistakes. I could no more take a risk than I could an afternoon nap. For years I dreamt of leaving my lucrative position as a senior scientist to pursue a career as a writer, but I was the breadwinner and the thought of gambling the comforts afforded my family on a dream, no matter its importance to me, was paralyzing.
Trapped in a career I didn’t love by my own sense of familial duty, I began to experience two things: resentment and guilt. I never gave serious thought to leaving, but the depression that followed brought about an absence all the same. I was parenting from a place of quiet desperation, mentally checked out, but each night I fell asleep under the same roof as my children to the sound of their even breathing on the monitor. I was still at home with them which meant that I was, at the very least, better than my own mother, or so I told myself.
I had long ago made peace with the reality that my mother left home because we were suffocating her, that she abandoned us for her own personal gain, but my view of her changed when I stopped looking at her through the eyes of that 7-year-old girl and began to see her as one mother at her wit’s end sees another. Before I had children of my own, I knew only the person I was born to, a woman whose life began with my own. After the birth of my children, I began to gain an understanding of her true beginning, of the dreams she held long before she first held me.
My mother’s decision to enlist in the military meant the end of her marriage to my father and our family as we knew it. My sister and I would not grow up in a small town in rural Alabama alongside our cousins, but neither would we be raised by the factory worker with sad eyes. It was the soldier, the eventual college graduate, the woman who fell in love and married again, this time for good, who delivered me to adulthood and it was this newfound understanding of who my mother was and the strength it took for her to make the decision to become who she was meant to be that gave me the courage to take action in my own life, to trade the job I hated for one that I loved.
In our lifetime, we have the ability to see our parents in two ways: once through the eyes of a child and later through those of an adult. For now, my children know me as a bringer of comfort, a baker of cookies, a reader of stories, and while they are confident in my ability to tuck them tightly into bed, they are less aware that I am a writer, a creator, and a business builder.
I can only hope that as they grow their understanding of the person that I am forms a story that, should they find themselves a castaway marooned, enables them to find their way back to shore just as my mother has done for me.