For most of my life, my mother’s happiness was my main concern. I have fretted over what she doesn’t have, what she has lost, and what I wished for her. So much so, that I ended up sacrificing my own happiness at times. In the mixed-up maze of my family background, I felt the only way I could come out safely on the other side was to see her happy.
It’s not her fault. She didn’t set out for that, it wasn’t her goal. At times, she has asked too much of me, but only because she has felt so little true love in her lifetime. She cried out for me from a place of great loneliness and disappointment.
I have always tried to answer. Only when the weight of everything threatened to drown me did I finally realize that the balance was truly off. I always thought making your mother happy couldn’t be wrong. It wasn’t wrong, it was just overwhelming. Too much. Too much from a person whose own sense of being was hanging from very delicate threads.
My mother married at 16. In the photos I remember of her wedding, the photographer is too close to the bride and groom, obviously cramped in a tight space--the tiny living room of a relative. Their faces are blurred, too indistinct to see their expressions. My mother wears a simple dress, my father in something like a suit. The flash is too bright, the images overexposed. They are figures in a room of onlookers, taking part in a sweet ceremony somewhere in the hills of rural Kentucky—coal mining country—where marrying at 16 wasn’t unheard of, or even unusual. They had no money, no idea what was next. My father was 20 years old and became my mother’s future in that moment. For better or worse.
My destiny was also carved in that tiny living room. Their paths created mine, setting in motion years of pain they couldn’t imagine, standing there taking vows, ready to escape their own histories and lives of poverty and longing.
None of the pain was planned. No one like this sets out to hurt everyone, to abandon their vows and promises. No one strives for alcoholism or regrets. Yet, choices are made and the line between destiny and choice grows blurry. What kind of fate has this kind of outcome? Whose destiny does this all benefit?
My mother is now heading into her seventies. Her hands look frail; her eyes look tired to me. She still carries a beauty with her that I would be grateful to see at her age. She still sees only what she wants to, deals only with the superficial, and somehow looks the other way when something too painful to handle occurs. I marvel at her denial, and at times rage against it, demanding that she admit to me that she remembers things that haunt me in dreams and waking hours. These things truly happened, but somewhere in the world she lives in, they are locked away permanently. It took me so many more years to heal because of her locked away secrets. But, it is also the only way she knows to survive.
In my first years out of college, I finally landed in Atlanta, Georgia with a real job and hopes of a career future. The distance from my family-about a five hour drive- had honestly been good for me. I was finding my own way, still uncertain, so much more to figure out, but I had a little space to clear my own path. My father’s job led him to Atlanta from time to time, and he called while he was in town, and occasionally, we would meet somewhere for dinner, usually under my mother’s encouragement, both of us only getting together because it made my mother happy, and quieted her demands for it to happen.
A new feature was being introduced in the market where I lived for residential phone service. It was called Caller ID. My apartment complex was taking part in being one area of a test market. The little cumbersome box sat next to my phone in the bedroom, the readout offering the end of the mystery of who was calling. The phone rang, and instantly, the caller’s name and number appeared.
My father had arrived in town one week, and my mother had let me know he would be calling me on a Friday morning. Around 8am that morning, I was still in bed, and the phone rang. I picked it up, and heard my father’s voice, but saw a woman’s name scroll across the caller ID screen. I was distracted, and my father’s words pulled me back to the conversation. I hadn’t heard a word he had said, and I interrupted. “Where are you?” I asked. There was a pause. “I am at the Holiday Inn in Buckhead”. My turn to pause. “Can you call me right back?” I asked. He agreed.
Maybe this Caller ID thing was faulty. Maybe it was a glitch.
The phone rang. The same woman’s name appeared. I picked up the phone and acted as if nothing was wrong. He planned to come by my apartment that day. Mom had sent some things for him to deliver to me. We settled on a time, and hung up.
I laid in bed for a moment, and then went searching for my phone book. First, I scoured the hotel listings and called every hotel in Buckhead, GA after not finding him at the Holiday Inn. No one with my father’s name at any one of them.
Then, I grabbed the Caller ID box and scrolled through the names of recent callers. I settled on the woman’s name, and scribbled it down on a piece of paper along with her phone number.
I turned to the residential listings in the phone book and found her. Right there, staring back at me. Her name, her address.
When the time came for my father to visit, I was ready. Palms sweating, heart racing, but I was ready. It was no secret to me that my father wasn’t faithful to my mother, but I had never had any kind of proof. It was always just something I sensed, even when I was little. Even before I really understood what it all meant, something in me just knew it. It was never spoken about or discussed. But I knew.
Even though a large part of me still felt fearful of my father, I felt a need to do this—to confront him. To hear his answers. I was ready for a fight. I was ready to remind him that the betrayal went beyond his marriage. He was also betraying me—our family.
He arrived and I didn’t even let him set the bag down that my mother had sent. I asked him where he was staying. He responded with the same hotel. I told him I had called there, and everywhere else in Buckhead. He didn’t miss a beat. He almost looked amused. His response was that he traveled so much in this area that sometimes he forgot where he was. He said it was a Holiday Inn in a different location.
I said her name.
I asked who she was.
I expected an explosion. I expected him to be defiant and tell me what was and wasn’t my business. Instead, he fell into an abyss of a million excuses. She was the girlfriend of a friend, he was staying at her house with this friend to save money. He asked me to please not tell my mother, she didn’t like when he and his friend did things like this.
I bet not.
He had only stayed there last night and would get a hotel tonight, he promised.
This new side of my father was hard to take in. I had never seen him weak before me, but my ambush and information had caught him off guard.
He mumbled a few other excuses and promises and got out of my apartment as soon as he could.
I remember that I had a date that night. A second date with someone I liked. I had contemplated cancelling, but had waited too long to decide. He showed up a few hours after all of this had taken place and I was in a fog. In a weird (for him) scenario, he showed up to take me on a second date, and I blurted out everything that has just happened, warning him I might not be myself for the evening. Great set up, I know. Predictably, the evening was short, and I was home, still in my fog, by 9:30pm.
I called a close friend and updated him on the events of the day. I told him I wanted to go and drive by the woman’s house. Just to see, I wasn’t sure why. He offered to go with me. I told him I wanted to go by very late, like 2 or 3am. He was in.
We took the phone book page with us in the car, and drove around, finally finding the neighborhood she lived in. My hopes were dashed when I realized she lived in a gated community. We sat in the car, staring at the gate, with an attendant inside. Somehow, my friend came up with a story to tell, and a few fibs later, we were through the gate.
Her house was on the back end of a cul-de-sac. It was massive-- a huge, gorgeous house in one of the most exclusive areas of Atlanta. And there, at 2:30am in the morning, in her driveway, sat my father’s car. The house lights were dark. No other cars but hers (with Georgia plates) were parked near the house. I knew the friend my father had spoken of, the one who supposedly was the real reason he had stayed at this house. I knew his car. It was nowhere in sight.
My friend reached over and took my hand. “I am sorry, Kim”.
In the strangeness that is my mother’s mode of survival, in the weirdness that you can only understand if you come from a family where alcoholism, codependence, and denial are considered “normal”, I didn’t say a thing to my mother. Or to anyone else in my family. I knew my mother probably already knew. If she didn’t, it wouldn’t change anything. She wouldn’t leave. And to be honest, I didn’t know if she could handle knowing that I knew. It may sound bizarre reading those words. I can promise you that it is even more bizarre writing them.
Years passed and I moved a few dozen times—all across the country and back. Every time I unpacked, I came across an antique wooden box where I kept a few special papers and mementos. The page from the phone book was folded neatly and tucked inside. Every now and then, I would pull it out and look at her name. It wasn’t circled or marked, but I was drawn to her name every time. That phone book page was a symbol to me of all the things I had guessed but never been sure of, all of the things and people my father chose over my mother and our family. At least I wasn’t crazy; I hadn’t imagined these things were happening.
Fast forward seven years. Abruptly, out of nowhere, my mother and father announce they are moving to Florida. What might have seemed like a normal migration after retirement rang false with me and my mother’s sister and closest friends. It was normal for my mother to follow suit and do whatever my father said, but my father’s choice to move was odd. He was desperately close to his two grandsons, my nephews, really playing the role of doting father in their lives. My mother had a job and a close, protective circle of friends. It was hard for my mother to make friends due to her shyness and insecurity, so the few close friends she trusted were precious.
I spoke with my mom’s best friend, whom I was also close to, and we fretted together. We worried about the real reasons behind the move, about how my mother would fare in a place where she knew no one and had no real outlet to meet and befriend people. We worried about her moving to a place far away from everything and everyone she knew-and where my father was truly her only lifeline.
Something in my gut told me there was more to the story. And somehow, instinctively, I went to the antique wooden box and pulled out the yellowing, tattered phone book page. I went to my computer, navigated to Google search and typed in her name. Her name from all those years ago in Georgia. Her name and information magically popped up. Her new phone number and address, readily available on the screen.
It was too easy. It was too awful.
She now lived in Florida.