Copyright is held by the author.
LOOKING BACK, there doesn’t seem to have been a beginning to the events of that weekend. They just exploded upon us and as the smoke and debris cleared, everything had changed.
It was a glorious, golden Saturday afternoon and the April smells filled the air and my head with dreams. I sat at the desk in my room, hopelessly struggling with pen and paper and thoughts too rebellious to stay confined indoors. Even that urgent nudge in the back of my mind that whispered, “Major Sociology term paper; due in three days,” could not keep my wandering eyes from staring out the window and down into the backyard at the greening garden.
A flurry of movement caught the corner of my eye, but before it registered, I heard a terrific crash and heavy running feet. My heart stopped for a moment and then restarted, beating erratically. A long, sustained bellow of anger roared through the house. To my heightened senses the walls seemed to shake and the windows rattle with the anguish and ferocity of that sound. I came to my feet and stumbled through the door and down the stair, a nauseous bile in the back of my throat.
In the living room, I found my twin brother holding Dad suspended by his shirt collar and shaking him furiously. There were tears streaming down his face, his voice hoarse and choked as he screamed, “You liar. You liar . . . I saw her! I saw her!” Dad’s face blanched to a sickly pallor, then his jaw clenched as he struggled to regain control.
“Hold on! Take your hands off me. I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about!” Michael slowly released his grip allowing Dad to slump back into the chair, but his eyes held the old man’s gaze in a cold vise.
“Michael! Michael, what’s going on?” A hoarse croak wheezed around the constriction in my throat.
“Denny,” Michael said without turning his head. “I want you to call Marisa and Drew. I have an announcement to make.”
With difficulty, I dialled the phone numbers of my older brother and sister. My inner stress-finder sensed an ugly scene building and I looked helplessly around for a means of escape. I had never learned how to cope with the strain of family crises. Michael had always shielded me before and if he wasn’t there, I just closed my eyes and daydreamed or fled into my schoolwork. Now he was the author of a crisis and I was on my own.
Marisa sounded annoyed and more than a little skeptical about the need for her presence, but Drew was worried and said he would be over immediately. Reluctantly, I returned to the living room and sat sideways in a chair so I could look out the window rather than face the combatants.
In what must have been only a short time later, but seemed like hours, I heard the back door open and the murmur of voices as Marisa and Drew came through the kitchen and down the hall to the living room. The sudden silence made me turn my head and I saw them standing together in the doorway, their troubled faces registering concern. With a quick, flick of his ice-cold eyes, Michael acknowledged the new arrivals and rose to stand beside them, one hand, palm out, towards Dad in a introductory gesture.
“I would like you to meet the liar who turned our mother into a bag lady!”
The shocked silence was broken first by an uncontrolled hiccuping sob that burst painfully from my chest and then the angry babble from Drew and Marisa directed, surprisingly at Michael.
“That’s ridiculous! Mom is at Aunt Nina’s for a visit!”
Marisa threw a disgusted look at my twin and flopped down on the couch. Drew remained standing, his habitual calm only slightly ruffled. All this time, Dad sat slouched in his chair, his face a mask of pale calm betrayed only by his shifting eyes and the muscle twitching in his jaw.
“Perhaps you should explain yourself, Michael,” Drew said.
“First of all, we only had his word that Mom went to Aunt Nina’s,” Michael’s eyes stabbed in Dad’s direction. “And this morning, I saw her.”
Dad flinched. The horror and pain I felt was acute, but I turned in my chair so that I could watch him. My mother was a bag lady. He had made my mother a bag-lady!
Involuntarily, my mind went back to a fight I had overheard two months ago. Mom and Dad hadn’t known I was home. The sound of their rising voices was bitter and I heard Dad say: “Go ahead and leave, but you take nothing.” And their voices faded again. Michael wasn’t home and I tried to block out the hurtful words. After all, they had argued before. But, now, that fateful pronouncement took on a new significance.
Michael was explaining that on the way home from the library, he had seen her, swathed in layers of clothing, sitting on the sidewalk, with a large shopping bag between her knees. When she recognized the car, she jumped up and disappeared into the crowds before Michael could stop and park. He searched, but couldn’t find her.
As I listened and remembered, I looked at the old man with new eyes. I saw the petulance around his mouth, the aloof don’t-touch-me expression, his once powerful frame now doughy and immobile slumped in the cavity worn in the chair, his right hand clutching the customary coffee mug; its heat had faded a permanent ring on the arm. I could almost hear Mom’s voice asking him for the thousandth time to use a coaster. It seemed to me, that even in the moments of silence the room echoed with her voice, patient and kind and long-suffering.
My attention focused again on my family: Drew trying to rationalize and smooth over; Marisa sarcastic and irritable; Michael passionate and hurt; Dad silent, his face alternately pale or angry red. My heart ached for them all.
“Shut up, all of you!” I cringed inwardly as they each turned to look at me, surprise and shock showing in their faces at my uncharacteristic outburst. I squared my shoulders, prepared to have my say, but at the last moment courage deserted me. In appeal, I looked to Dad. “Can’t you see what this is doing to us?”
He hunched one shoulder, his sole acknowledgement. Michael put out a protective arm, but I shrugged him off and ran from the room.
I didn’t know where I was going at first, but ran blindly and instinctively. I became aware of wandering under the trees in the garden, my insides trembling like partially set Jello. A hand lightly squeezed my shoulder.
“Please leave me alone, Michael! Haven’t you done enough?”
The hand gently forced me to turn until I found myself looking into my father’s eyes, mute with misery.
“I didn’t want it this way, kitten, honestly I didn’t. Your mother and I have had our problems but . . .” His voice trailed off and he stared sadly over my shoulder. I knew that he found crises as hard to cope with as I did. He and Mom fought but it always took a heavier toll on him. Mom had always seemed to take them in her stride. I felt so confused. My parents’ images kept shifting in front of me like a kaleidoscope. Who and what were they? One moment, they had no resemblance to the loving people who bore and raised me and the next moment here was Dad trying to put a Bandaid on my wound the way he had when I was a little girl. I flashed back suddenly to the feeling of sitting cuddled on his bear-like lap while he wiped my nose and hugged me until the pain was gone. I longed to be that little girl again.
“Find your mother, kitten. Maybe she can help you understand.”
I tried to keep my mind a blank on the bus trip downtown, not wanting to replay those scenes again. Yet every time I opened my thoughts they came fluttering back like moths around a candle flame.
The bus stopped to let me off near the place Michael said he had last seen Mom. The Saturday afternoon shoppers still crowded the sidewalks. A sense of despair gripped me. How would I ever find her? With an effort, I pushed the negative feelings down. It was like trying to hold a balloon under water at first, but the longer I walked the easier it got. The day was bright and warm, though the shadows still held a chilly reminder that winter was not far gone.
I developed a method in my search, walking slowly, scanning alleys between buildings and all the faces that I passed. The crowds began to thin a little. I had walked many blocks and the balloon of my despair was struggling to rise again when I finally saw her.
She was sitting on a crate beside a fruit stand, an oversized shopping bag between her feet, her favourite scarf around her head. She looked quite plump under the layers of clothing. She chatted easily with the fruit vendor, her face calm and serene, her hands gently stroking a scrawny orange cat that lay contentedly in her lap.
I was within a few feet of her before she looked up and saw me. The cat meowed his protest as he was unceremoniously dumped. Mom stood up abruptly, her pupils dilated, her face closed. She swallowed hard as though over something painful. And then she smiled. Tentatively. Shyly. I reached out and took her hand and she squeezed my fingers.
“Let’s walk, Mom.”
She picked up her shopping bag, hefting its weight until it was comfortable, then nodded at the vendor. We walked in silence for long minutes, both of us studying the uneven sidewalk as though we would be tested on it. My nerves stretched out to their limit, and to ease their tension, I finally spoke.
“We thought you were at Aunt Nina’s.” A shadow crossed her face, an expression I couldn’t define. Impatience? Fear? I was so accustomed to her habitual look of calm serenity that this woman beside me seemed a stranger of unpredictable temperament.
“I’m sorry for your hurt, Denny.” Her eyes looked away from me, as though she would rather be elsewhere. “That wasn’t my intention.” I scarcely heard her. I took a breath and launched into my speech.
“The law says you’re entitled to half of everything, Mom. You don’t have to be out here on the streets. I’m finished school at the end of the month. I’ll get a job and find us a place to live. And I’ll take care of you.”
“Listen to me carefully, Denise Roberta.” Mom finally looked at me. Her expression had changed again. I saw something different in her. Stronger. “I love you, don’t forget that, but I don’t want you to take care of me. I don’t need you to take care of me. I did not leave with nothing . . . I’m all right! I’m getting along. And I’m happy . . . well . . . yes, damn it . . . I’m happier than I’ve felt in years! There is a burden off my shoulders and I feel free. I wouldn’t put that burden on you. Live and love your life, Denny. Don’t sacrifice it. You would hate it in the long run.” Her gaze softened and she shook my shoulder gently.
“Don’t let this appearance fool you. You are such an innocent, living cocooned in your own world. Do you really know me, Denny? Have you ever seen beyond the cook and housekeeper?” She shook her head sadly at me. “I have had a part-time life that you have never bothered to question . . . just Mom’s little hobby. Not anymore! I asked your father not to say anything about this. It’s not his fault. You see a bag-lady today, but what am I really under all these layers of clothes? And who are those other nearly invisible souls living on the streets? They are someone’s child, someone’s brother or sister, or like me, someone’s mother and wife. I am out here making an in-depth exploration of what it is like to be homeless and I am going to write a story that will open eyes and touch hearts. You four are all grown up now. So this is for me.”
She turned with a half-flourish as if introducing me to the street. “I am just beginning to learn that my reach is unlimited. Today the world of the homeless, tomorrow the world of high finance or environmental issues. This is all just as much for you, Denny, as for me. Break out of your shell and follow me. Find your passion. Mine is exploring the human condition.” As I stared at her in bewilderment, she laughed and tapped my cheek with one finger.
“I haven’t moved out or stopped being your mother. I’m just doing full time what I have always wanted to do . . . I’m a writer.”