There comes a time in all parent-child dynamics, when the child realizes that their parent is not all-knowing. I remember being in second grade, hiding behind the baseball dugout, being offered an opportunity to do something I knew was wrong. I can’t recall the specific and perilous vice. I was wearing purple shorts. The hem was folded under itself, and the corduroy was extra soft inside the fold. I was digging the bits of fuzz out of the fabric thread, watching the yard. The yard monitors were all focused elsewhere. I scanned the field, the baseball diamond, and the fence that bordered the main street. The fence was chain link. A van drove past, and then a blue car, and a black truck. I declined the offer. I knew, I just knew, that my mother would be driving past the school the minute I would partake. This irrational fear kept me out of bed jumping, noise making, toy taking, and most misbehavior.
My mother was the opposite of my father. If my father was a bad man, then my mother was a good woman. If my dad didn’t know anything, then my mother must’ve known everything. The childhood extremes created a nice spectrum of what parents represented.
From about ages 5-9, during the school year I lived in California. My mother had married a man named Dan Adams. My sister, my brother and I addressed him affectionately as “Daddy Dan”. During those years my mother made us sack lunches. She wrote me notes telling me to have a good day, and reminding me how proud she was of me. She was, and is, still very proud of me.
After school we played with the family pets, and did homework at the kitchen table. My mom had yellow hair and smiled prettier than Ariel, if there wasn’t a camera nearby. No one was allowed in the kitchen when my mother cooked, daily. We swam in our backyard pool, and climbed trees, and rode bikes around the block. I lived like a white, middle class, suburban nuclear family. My biggest fears concerned Karen, the protagonist in the Baby Sitters Little Sister series, and if she’d find the best pumpkin for Halloween. I spent a proper amount of time tormenting my younger siblings, and also protecting them from the scary parts of animated classic We’re Back. The best lunch imaginable was lunchables and homemade dunkaroos.
This utopia of existence was held together by my mother. I don’t remember being told this exactly; it’s just been common knowledge since forever. My mother got us away from our father. By all accounts, that was a good decision. Unless your account was coming from the Louisiana side of the family. But, it was easy to tune out that infrequent presence. My mother had saved us, and now worked really hard to make our lives wonderful. I heard this from my grandparents and my aunt Janet. I didn’t hear much more, and it wasn’t a point heavily harped upon. Still, if you listened, it was a sentiment often echoed.
In fourth grade, at age nine, my mother started smoking cigarettes. It was the light green and white type by Virginia Slims. She smoked in the garage, outside of the house. I think it was a secret. I remember her telling me never to start smoking, because you never stop once you start. She muffled the words as she took a drag. Some days, her hair wasn’t bouncy on her shoulders anymore. It was sad by her neck. I used all of my blue play dough and most of my red to make my mom a trophy for quitting cigarettes, hoping it would serve as inspiration to do exactly that. A week or so later, I told her she could use it for an ashtray if she wanted.
Dan left. It seemed sudden, from my limited perspective.
He sat next to me on the couch in the living room. I was crying. He told me that it wasn’t my fault. He just didn’t want to be a dad anymore. Years later, in junior high, I called him on a whim shortly after discovering Yahoo search. His phone was crackly, and he asked me to talk to his girlfriend, to prove I wasn’t another woman. I debated if I was another woman, because I hadn’t started my period yet (thus, not a woman), but I wasn’t a guy, either. It was the last time we spoke. Two years ago I learned that he’d died from cancer.
My mother’s best friend, Mary Anne, moved into the house. She brought her five kids. We’d been playmates with the Bradfield family for a short while. They had five kids total, one in high school, one in 5th grade, one in 2nd grade, one in 1st grade, and one too little for school yet. I was in 4th grade, my sister in 2nd, and my brother in kindergarten. My journal was filled with confessions of secret love for the boy down the hall, one grade above me. I suddenly had two new sister figures, making our Barbie games much more dramatic.
Mary Anne had a boyfriend. He flew a helicopter. I remember the baby of the family, probably about 3-4 years old, being called into the living room one evening when the boyfriend was over. Her mother pulled her over, and then in one swoop, lifted the little girl’s dress over her face and laughing. The boyfriend poked at her panties and complimented them. My stomach started to feel weird. I sat at the desk in my blue-walled room for a long time that day.
Things started to go wrong. My mother wasn’t the same. She and Mary Anne fought, loudly and frequently. Eventually, the Bradfields left. Then we left. I don’t remember selling the house, or how it ended at all. One day we were playing on Rocklyn Street, and then the next we were living with my aunt Janet in her condo.
I started to see my mother’s judgement as less than stable. She looked different, in the eyes. She was constantly tired. Aunt Janet didn’t like us living with her, so we moved a few streets away. Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, my mother was in need of a hysterectomy. She was trying to cope with massive depression. She was later diagnosed as bipolar. My mother was sick, and that’s what I told everyone who asked. I didn’t know what was sick about her, but it was obvious that she was sick. She had epstein barr and then her old cancer came back, and she had to have a whole surgery. She was sad a lot. Grandma stayed with us because my mother couldn’t even stand up for a few weeks. There were a lot of pills. Her hair was never bouncy anymore. I used to go through her bathroom cabinets, looking for hot rollers, just in case.
Aunt Janet and my mother fought. Grandma and my mother fought. My mother tried to make her own business, and I guess it didn’t work as planned. She went to an office job, but it didn’t last either. I stopped going to sixth grade daily and started more of a weekly appearance approach. Sometimes, we’d go “shopping” at Aunt Janet’s taking various pantry items back home for ourselves. My father stopped paying child support, which may or may not have been true.
I started to run track. Long-distance. My aunt lived down a short bike path from our condo. I used to run there often, and Aunt Janet seemed as frustrated at my mother as I was. It was like permission. I agreed with the idea that my mom wasn’t doing enough. I didn’t know what all she was facing (nor did she), and I didn’t know how to make it work better, but she should know. She was a parent. She was a mom, and moms know. I felt I’d been gypped in the mom department.
Things got bad at home. My mother was crying every day. She was dating lots of people that she met on her new computer. She had an online dating profile. We drove to the Del Mar fair to see Chuck, but we didn’t get out of the car. Jerry came to dinner, and I took him down to the garage, under the guise of showing off my newest video project. I told him that my mom was sad a lot, and that he didn’t need to have sex with her if he wasn’t going to stay. She didn’t bring home dates after that.
One morning, a man in a jumpsuit with a tow truck took away our car. I watched from the balcony.
It was a slow decline, over a matter of years, but it dawned on me at about age eleven: my mother didn’t know what she was doing. My mother didn’t have a plan, and didn’t seem to be able to make one. Social workers came to the house and asked us how we liked living where we did.
I started pulling weeds at our neighbor Laurie’s house. I walked dogs and did odd jobs, earning a few dollars here and there. We could walk to 7-11. Allison and Alex stopped going to school, too. Mom was busy or sleeping. Alex started hanging out with the tall boys from the condos down the next hill. They looked at magazines in the corner of the complex, and didn’t ride bikes or skateboards anymore.
Even though we’ve talked about it, my mother doesn’t remember the night she showed me where they birth certificates and social security cards were kept. It was in May or June, because school was almost over. My mother told me that we’d live with Daddy Jim, and that I’d need to make sure I took care of the kids. I asked her where she’d be. She told me she was going to be dead; that she planned to drive into the wall on the five freeway. We needed to live with our father. She couldn’t do it anymore.
The next day, I called Jim and struck a deal. I’d visit for five weeks, but not with my siblings. He’d send the child support first. I wouldn’t expect a court-appointed person to be present, since all three of us wouldn’t be there. He didn’t need help for just me, he said.