The first link that comes up on my Internet search is a mug shot of my mother in an orange jumpsuit, hazel eyes wide open like she’s trying to look less drunk. Her skin is smooth and tight. Only the thin white hair fanning around her face gives away her 70 years. The arrest report is from 2003. The reason: driving under the influence. I’m relieved it’s not something worse.
My mom and I haven’t spoken in 30 years, since I was a child, but I know a few things about her. My grandmother, who gave me her phone number, told me she never remarried after she and my father divorced. I also scanned through a couple of her academic papers online while rolling the small piece of paper with her phone number on it between my thumb and index finger. I assume her students did an Internet search on their professor and found the same mug shot that I did. I roll her phone number into a nice cylinder and then roll it back out flat and look at the digits.
She lives in sunny Florida, but when I imagine where she’ll be when I call, it’s dark and lonely. I pick up the receiver. Florida is three hours ahead, lunchtime. I want to catch her before her first glass of wine.
My fingers carefully press each number. I pause at the last digit and take a deep breath.
Maybe she’s not home?
I don’t want to leave a message or hang up with just my name on her caller ID. On the fourth ring, I slouch into the disappointment of her not being home.
Her deep raspy voice has a high-pitched inflection like it’s been a while since she’s spoken out loud. She coughs once. My heart stutters, and then picks up a new, quicker rhythm.
“Hi, Regina. It’s Thais.”
There’s a brief pause, less than a second but long enough to make me wonder if she remembers me.
“Thais, my dearest Thais. How thrilled I am to hear from you!”
I spring out of my chair and start to pace my long, narrow kitchen.
Small talk makes no sense when we share such a loaded history. “Since I had a couple of my own children, I’ve become really curious about my first four years of life,” I tell her. “And brace yourself — I want to hear about the divorce.”
I expect Regina to burst into a rage, but she doesn’t. Instead, she talks about never wanting a divorce, about wanting to be married for life. She sniffs repeatedly. As she’s trying to stop crying she says “God” a lot and “Uh, God, Thais.” I don’t try to stop her. Her own hoarse smoker’s cough seems to jolt her from her tears back to her story. “Your dad was seeing a psychologist, and he came home one day and said that he needed a break. I was there with you three kids and I was like, Yeah, I need a break too.” I hear the rattling bang of a fist pounding a glass table.
“He left,” she continues. “I didn’t know that he wasn’t planning on coming back. I wasn’t the easiest person to be around at the time, but three under three isn’t a picnic.”
Just last week, overwhelmed by only two kids, I stormed out of the house with no explanation to my husband. I left the cellphone on the counter and took the car keys. I wipe the one tear that’s escaped and pull myself together. I can’t let her hear my emotion because I don’t want this to be about me. Regina has enough emotion for 10 people, and what I really want is the story.
“Your dad’s lawyer delivered the papers on your sister’s fourth birthday party at the Carmel Valley house.” The single-story ranch house with yellow pile carpet in the bedrooms and green tile in the kitchen was the California dream. “I guess that he figured that I’d be around all my girlfriends. It was carefully orchestrated. The party ended shortly after the papers came, as you can imagine. Georgia’s birthday party! How thoughtful of him.”
She still hasn’t forgiven him. I can’t imagine Zack just walking out on me, but then again, I can’t imagine living with her violent alcoholic tantrums. She keeps talking like a volcano oozing lava. I don’t want to miss anything, but it’s so much to take in that part of me wants to shut down.
“The judge granted me $1,200 a month from your dad. It didn’t even cover the house payments. The judge told me that I should find another teaching job. I looked everywhere, even near Soledad prison.”
My dad always blamed Regina for leaving us, but more and more I see that she found herself in an impossible situation. “My lawyer said that I’d never come out with a good divorce settlement because George played golf with the judge.”
Ironically, my dad told me that Regina was a friend of the judge. Maybe they were both friends with him, which is what happens in married life. I know parts of her story could be lies or exaggerations.
“But even if I did get a job as a high school teacher, we would be living in low-income housing in Salinas. You know I supported George through dental school.”
Her voice cracks a little like she might cry, but she manages to keep talking with a quivering voice. I’m sitting at the kitchen table scribbling hard with a sharpened pencil.
She had angrily mailed my dad her wedding dress, diamond ring, and baby journals with her notes on our nursing schedules, but her decision to leave us wasn’t solely emotional. She said she thought about her options and her kids’ future. She wanted us to go to college.
“I sold the house, gave you up, and left to get my Ph.D. with the money. I needed to find a way to support myself for the rest of my life.”
I am surprised at how much I can sympathize with her. Sometimes taking care of small children is so hard that any alternative looks better, even running away. She saw no future for herself with us. And she saw a better future for us with my dad.
“This is going to sound bad to you, but it was the best decision I ever made,” she says.
I buckle over a little. I always thought that she wanted us back. But I appreciate her honesty. I can imagine her quietly picking up the toys for the last time in the Carmel Valley house just after handing us over to my dad. I could never do what she did, but for the first time, I can understand it.
“Why didn’t you come see us?” This is my big question. Why did she eject herself from our lives completely? Why didn’t she build a new life for herself closer to us?
“The only way that your dad would let me see you is if I flew to California to pick you up and then flew back to Florida with all of you, and then escorted you back to California to drop you off. I did it a couple of times, but I couldn’t afford it. After your second visit, your stepmother came running to greet you saying, ‘My babies, my babies.’ I knew it was over then.”
I vaguely remember this awkward moment at the airport. I was stiff when my stepmother hugged me. The tension was like a rubber band pulled back and ready to launch.
My dad touched my hair and walked over to Regina to grab our backpacks. They spoke briefly. My stepmother released me to watch them with her hands on her hips. She could always hear a conversation a mile away. Then my dad walked back to my stepmom and the three of us. As we left, I glanced over my shoulder. Regina stood there so skinny and tall without any luggage, just watching our backs move away from her.
“All I could do then is send gifts, cards, birthdays, Christmases, to all three of you, and nothing back ever from California.”
My memories of her letters and gifts are so vivid. I studied each word, even the Hallmark greeting, to find meaning. I can see her signature in my head even now, but I never responded. Even though my dad had custody of us, I always felt like he was scared that Regina would come take us back. Regina stopped calling, writing and sending gifts.
“I remember you calling when I was 5.” Now my tears have the better of me, but I want to finish this thought, and so I just plow through, crying. “On the phone, you cried and told me that you loved me, but I didn’t know what was going on. Nobody told me where you were and why I called someone else Mommy.”
Regina and I are both emotionally drained. Our conversation is coming to an end, and she tells me that she loves me, once, and then twice. Do I love her? Would I be lying if I said that I loved her back?
“I guess it’s that unconditional love that a mother has for her child,” she says.
If I don’t say that I love her and I never talk to her again, will I regret it?
“I love you,” she says for the third time. Her voice is determined. After all these years, it’s those words that she really wants me to hear, not the story, but that she has always loved me and she’ll continue to love me very, very much.
I don’t need to be afraid that she will hurt me. I am an adult, a mother. I can protect myself now. I don’t have to feel ashamed that I care for her despite everything.
“I love you too,” I say, and I mean it.