“I had to get away from her,” my husband whispered as we lay together in bed. For thirty years, I’d heard only his sharp, flinted words, the stories about his mother no more than a few terse sentences—“She sacrificed me to my stepfather. She let him beat me. She beat me too”—his resentment flaring on this dark winter evening, the light fading, the wind up, tossing branches against the roof. Then, just as suddenly, the fuse fizzled. He shook his head. Old stuff. He didn’t want to go there, dragging himself back into the past.
And yet, each time he mentioned his mother, I resented her. I disliked her. I felt embarrassed by her, this woman I’d never met who looked so working-class old and frumpy in the one picture I’d seen: shaggy hair, a beaky nose, dark circles shadowing brown melancholy eyes. A wicked witch! I thought: you dumped him in foster care as a child and didn’t protect him once he was yours again.
Nobody deserved her.
But now, now that I’ve read the foster care files, the narrative has begun to shift, her story so much larger and more complicated than I could have imagined. True, I can’t see her clearly, can barely scrape the surface of her life, but the difference is that I want—and need—to make her more than a monster. She died in 2000. She died and we didn’t know it. Now I think that the only way to resurrect her properly is to write what I’ve come to know, to say goodbye before I’ve even said hello. And though I don’t have the historical documents or personal anecdotes to give her a proper eulogy, to chart even one hour of happiness, I like to imagine a night in spring as she sauntered down Millbury Street, the laundry done, the moon low and white over the trees, a new pack of cigarettes snug in her pocket.
I spread out the information I have: a 1940 US Census report (she was eleven); thirty-one pages of typed caseworker notes in a Health and Human Services file dating from 10/19/48 to 06/25/56 (the period that my husband—her son—was in foster care); a 1957 Worcester County Probate Court petition for adoption by her and her new husband, Orrin Campbell; a US Social Security Death Index (she was seventy-two); an online obituary; and a few random pictures, one in which she looks so young and lovely I can’t quit staring at it. In this photo, she’s a slender woman, auburn hair swept back from her face, a bright cranberry sleeveless shirt bloused over tan shorts, one sandaled foot lifted as she leans into her new husband. Her skin looks pale and creamy, her thin lips pressed close, her almond eyes dreamy, almost sleepy, as if she’s been coaxed up from a nap for this quick photo in an ordinary 1950s kitchen with its bright white cabinets and blue-gray tile. A paper-towel rack is just visible behind her left shoulder.
Though she may indeed have been a monster, I know now that she was also a motherless daughter, an abandoned girl, a jilted lover, a young woman caught in the crosshairs of poverty with a deep, hungry love for a baby she couldn’t afford to keep.
Her name was Ann.
She is listed as Anna C. Trigiano in the 1940 US Census, though I don’t know what the C stands for or when the final a was dropped from her first name. Ann. I say the name out loud. My own middle name.
She was the last of five children born in May 1928 to an Italian Catholic family in Worcester, Massachusetts, immigrants from the province of Foggia, known as the “granary” of Italy and famous for its watermelons and tomatoes. The records show that her mother died when she was three years old and she was raised by an eleven-year-old aunt in a family whose social situation was listed as “poor” by social services, a 1950s code for economic and social dysfunction. When I read these words, I pause, alert to the genesis of trouble–mother died; raised by an eleven-year-old aunt; already in the system. In one paragraph, the seeds of despair, the constraints of a future. Adversity often repeats itself in traumatized families, as if the child who becomes the adult remains locked in the peril of her childhood, tangled in its black shadow, unable to detach.
For years, researchers have acknowledged, even insisted, that problems in mothering were “the most dramatic for those who’d lost a same-sex parent at an early age.” Here, a trope of inevitability, a helplessness that cuts like glass. Unmothered. Untethered. Unprepared. Where’s the gleam in that? Maybe her mother’s early death explains why she felt “so unloved” in childhood, why she described herself to the caseworker as developing “a shy, inferiority complex with a defeatist attitude,” why she became such an erratic mother, both detached and overly involved, trapped in her own twisted loyalties.
Maybe not being mothered left her empty. Maybe desire became demolition. Maybe it made her terribly hungry, reckless for any kind of love…
But I don’t finish that sentence. I look out my window, but there’s only inky darkness, the air blue with cold.
She left school and her father’s house after the ninth grade–she must have been fifteen or sixteen years of age–“because of my father,” she confessed to the caseworker. After I read that sentence, I am indignant. I can’t help but blame him: a shiftless worker, a gravedigger, a lay-about, the files note—his stubby fingers reaching for a cigarette, a beer—and who knows, maybe a domestic brute and an abuser of girls? Regardless, her home was known to social services as a place of “little security,” where she felt “unloved” in an unsettled, shifting immigrant family dominated by men. At sixteen, she went to work in a factory, perhaps the Cudahy Packing Company, an Irish meatpacking plant on Franklin Street with its stench of offal and blood, sweat, and chemicals. Though I can’t know exactly what hardships or abuse she attributed to her father, I sense her urgent need to escape, the desire to slip from the old life into a new world. Just as her son will do many years later.
And this is the way I see her: a halo of smoke circling her as she stands in sturdy brown shoes just outside the factory gates at 6:58 a.m., a last puff of her cig before the grind begins. It’s the summer of 1944, the whole world at war, puckered and burning, refugees crowding the roads of Europe, dreaming of cabbage, of black bread slathered with butter, the cloying stench of carcasses wafting in the breeze. And yet here in America with its energy and bustle, its humming factories, there are jobs for women–even for girls like her—with so many of the men overseas, the Allies preparing to enter Rome just as she, an Italian American girl, steps through the factory door into hot, dusty air.
A year later, I lose her. She’s vanished from social service records. I have no idea what happened to her right after the war. Did she stay in touch with her sister, with the aunt who raised her? Was she laid off from the factory once the veterans returned, men needing and deserving good jobs, their welfare a national priority? Is that why she began waitressing, surviving on tips, on her feet all day, carrying trays, chatting up the customers—old men with yellow teeth and bored smiles; married men who demanded their coffee hot—prepping for the next day, the steady, methodical folding of napkins, the clinking of silverware, the stacking of cups, a little more knowing now at seventeen or eighteen or nineteen? She’s petite but voluptuous, a wary girl but quick with words—this last I sleuthed from my husband’s comments—and an easy laugh. You can see I’m casting about; there’s nothing concrete for me to know of her life—except that she was a waitress—until 1947 when she discovers her pregnancy, a fact she can’t seem to reveal to the man she’s fallen in love with and been dating for two years. The caseworker writes:
Mother (A) talked freely about putative father and with a great deal of feeling. She said she had known him for over two years and he was a toolmaker, attending _____ Institute during that time. A better job possibility had required him to leave the area shortly before she knew she was pregnant. She said she had heard from him in June (four months before the baby’s birth), but at that time, she lost the purse containing the letter and she was not able to write to him.
When I read that last sentence, I blush. It has the feel of a nineteenth-century novel, the tragic heroine defeated by the most mundane of complications: a lost purse. Oh, dear! And yet this is the middle of the twentieth century and that lost purse, I suspect, is simply a face-saving excuse, an apt metaphor for so much more: the end of a relationship that once carried the potential for emotional and financial salvation. There’s something so guileless about the comment, so vulnerable to easy critique that I imagine her glancing furtively away from the caseworker, embarrassed and uncertain if she’s disguised the true state of things: she is alone and pregnant and abandoned by her boyfriend. The caseworker’s notes continue:
She fully expects that he will soon be back in Worcester, and at that time, she will inform him about the baby. It was apparent to Worker that she is hopeful that marriage to [the baby’s] father will ensue.
And what, I think cynically, could possibly go wrong with such a plan?
“I never knew who my father was,” David said casually one evening on a road trip to Alabama to visit my mother. Driving on Interstate 55, through the piney woods of Mississippi, I pretended no surprise, squinting at the highway while he tried to find the next exit on the map.
“Your mother didn’t tell you anything about him, not even his name?”
“Nope. She refused.”
“She didn’t say what she liked about him or why they didn’t marry?”
“Nothing. Not one word.”
“That seems odd. I wonder why.”
He didn’t answer. “Exit thirty-four,” he said. “About four-and-a-half miles.”
Now I believe she may have been one of those women who couldn’t bear the loss, the betrayal, all hopes dashed, the man denying or simply rejecting the fact of a child. But perhaps she began to hate him too, to see that love can be duplicitous and slippery, can strangle the dignity of a woman while letting the man slip entirely free. I hope so. I hope anger singed her respect for him, but it’s just as possible all the anguish turned inward, dulling and eroding the self, sneaking into her thoughts each morning to ambush her self-esteem. Perhaps she vowed never to mention his name, to keep him a private punishment and pleasure, a lifetime penance, the knowledge of his rejection like teeth sunk into her neck.
But she had the baby. Oh, yes! His baby. She had a part of him to love and delight in if not the man himself. He couldn’t take that from her. Nobody could.
But of course that too turned out to be a lie.
“I never knew why I was put in foster care so early,” David said to me one night, several months after he’d read the foster care files. We were sitting across the table from each other, having just finished dinner, our napkins crumpled, our plates not yet scraped.
“Honey, your mother didn’t have anyone to keep you while she worked and she didn’t make enough money as a waitress to hire someone to watch you.” I tried to smooth out my napkin, my hands needing something to do. “The truth is,” I said simply, “she couldn’t keep you because she was poor.” That’s the real reason. Poor and alone. No family. No husband. No one to step in and help. Nobody to care. “After you were born, she stayed at the Girls’ Welfare Society for six weeks, the file says, but I’m sure she could only stay for a certain amount of time.”
He looked surprised. “But wasn’t there welfare—”
“No, they didn’t have welfare for unmarried mothers in 1948, you know. Only for widows. They didn’t have daycare either, at least not what we think of as daycare, though I think there was some childcare in New York and Philadelphia after the war. But not in Massachusetts.” Back then, it was all sharp corners and straight edges, no room for ambivalence or surprise.
David stared at me, uncertain. “I thought I was taken from her. I thought, you know, there must have been something wrong with her.”
It was apparent to Worker how very proud the Mother was of her child and how much feeling she had for him. Mother evidenced sheer delight in her intention of notifying all her friends and family about D [the baby].
I think of the articles I’ve read, how middle-class unwed mothers in the 1940s and 1950s were so degraded by illegitimacy and so shamed by their families that they were strongly advised to give up their children for adoption while lower-class mothers more often kept their babies. And yet, in postwar America, even for poor girls like Ann, marriage was still the prize, the only rescue. She might as well have been living in Jane Austen’s England with Lady Catherine de Bourgh sniffing her body, pronouncing everything about her unworthy and inappropriate, while Mrs. Bennett fussed frantically to get her girls wed. And just as in Austen’s time, the word bastard rang out a curse, “shame, shame, shame.”
Bastard or no, when the Worker suggested her baby might be a hindrance “in terms of matrimonial possibilities,” the “Mother was quick to voice her feeling that she would like to tell the whole world about the baby and that she would under no circumstances keep him a secret.” And in this moment, I like her very much. True, she must place her baby in foster care before he’s three months of age, but during the first seven months of care, so the files note, she visited him four nights a week after work and took him to her brother’s home for Christmas and his birthday. I imagine she thought she could manage, could make a go of it, sharing the baby with another woman.
But then suddenly the child’s placement went to hell, the foster home was closed down for “unfavorable conditions,” the baby moved, and Ann’s visits in the new foster home were cut to once a week, her mind ragged with worry.
Because I’m writing this and because I can, I decide to give Ann a happy moment, an hour of delight playing with her one-and-a-half-year-old son. He’s pushing a shiny red fire truck across the floor, a toy she’s just bought him, though it will mean she’ll have to scrimp on laundry soap and stockings. But as he bends down to a crawling position and runs the toy back and forth on her old wood floors, making rrrrrhhhh-rrrrrhhh sounds with his scrunched lips and saying, “Mommy, Mommy, look,” she can’t imagine why anyone would give a fig about new stockings. His hair sticks up in a ruff, his pants are a bit too long, but he’s so gloriously occupied with the thick rubber wheels and the white plastic ladder that raises and lowers she forgets that very soon she’ll have to take him back. Back to his foster home, back to sleeping in the hallway in a house where the older boy has taught him to sing out, “Bad boy! Bad boy!” with such glee he too thinks it’s funny.
Each time my husband comes downstairs to get more coffee, I want to put this writing away. What the hell am I doing? I feel as though I’m being subversive, appropriating what’s not mine, rewriting the story of his mother, making it neater, giving it boundaries, tampering with it instead of merely attending to the facts: she got pregnant, she gave birth, she put him in foster care, she reclaimed him seven and a half years later. I listen as he turns on the water in the sink. I hear the refrigerator door open, then the swish of it closing. I hear the hiss and rumble of his coffee brewing, my hands paused, waiting. And then, just like that, he’s gone back to his study, but I remain uncertain, wavering, not sure how to continue. Ann is elusive. A quicksilver presence. I can’t see her. I can’t know her. She was no saint. Of course, I’m making her up, embodying her, giving her purpose and consequence created out of the caseworkers’ commentary and my own slender thoughts. But more than that, I’m shifting allegiance, allowing her to claim my sympathies. By giving her the benefit of the doubt, I’ve pushed past my husband’s resentment, allowing the context of shadows and sociology, a feminist rebirth, a right to a voice. Sort of. But why does this need to be done? No one has asked me to consider her as anything but an impoverished, conflicted mother who never got her act together. No one is demanding a eulogy or a vindication. And yet, after reading the foster care files, I lay in bed one night, dizzy with all the information, all the uncertainty. I closed my eyes, letting my thoughts drift, my mind untethered, and what I saw was Ann sitting in the caseworker’s office year after year in her sensible waitressing shoes, a woman unable to let her baby go, unable to rescue him. I sat up and reached for my notebook: the girl in the woman, the woman in the girl. She was the center of it all. And didn’t she deserve a story, not just the tired old story of the “fallen woman” but a story with a little charity, a small pocket of hope to even out the class barbarism, the misogyny of the late 1940s and ’50s?
I’ve no doubt that had she been born into the middle class instead of to the immigrant working class, she’d have had different opportunities—high school and maybe college, perhaps dancing and music, a room of her own and a closetful of clothes—and thus more choices, so many more ways to experience the world and perhaps so many more ways to fuck things up. “It’s all about options,” we say so casually today, the right to push against anonymity, to experience and value our difference, to thrust our thoughts into the air, saying mine.
And so every morning, I sit down to write about her. Every morning, I tell myself I should stick to the known, and yet the shadows beckon. What did she do with her private grief?
But perhaps I’m being romantic. Maybe she learned early to stifle the brooding, to get on with it, to avoid the mess of feelings, the push and heat of sorrow, enjoying instead her twenty-minute break from work with a piece of lemon meringue pie and a fresh cup of coffee. If I go this route, she’s earnest and dutiful and repressed, a woman who accepts her lot, does her bit, and tries not to think too much beyond the present. After all, she grew up in an immigrant Catholic family in the 1930s and ’40s, crowded with brothers and sisters and uncles and aunts, with little space for adventure or difference. “And don’t forget the misogyny of the older Italian men,” my husband reminded me the other day. “A father’s perspective was to keep everything in line, and if that meant a little violence, some slapping about, well, who was to complain?” So maybe after the birth of the baby, she doesn’t need a stern patriarch to keep her in line, someone whose fury boils and explodes. She’s already transgressed. She’s used. She’s done. So why not enjoy the lemon meringue pie, her feet propped up on a chair, bare and plump in the warm afternoon sun.
Winter. Everything here in Iowa is either shrunken or dead—gone are the heart-shaped katsura leaves, the ivy, the geraniums, gone the red and pink impatiens, the lawn now khaki-brown or feathered white with frost, the trees mere sticks, branches rising upward and outward into skinnier and skinnier sticks. Only the fir trees blur silvery green in the late afternoon sun. When there is sun. But not today. Today the sky is empty, a gray swatch of color like lint or the inside of my purse, which is equally barren of money. “So much of possibility depends on economics,” I told David last month in the midst of an argument about an IRA, and then more insistently, “Don’t you know that to be financially independent is sometimes the defining moment in a woman’s life? This isn’t superstition or myth.”
If I follow that lead, I see that David’s mother agreed to pay $6/week to Family Services for his board in foster care out of a salary of $32/week. Mmmh. My shoulders tighten at that exasperating figure: a $128/month salary from a factory in Massachusetts in 1948 (the average monthly wage for a male worker in 1948 was $216.56). Simultaneously, I remember my mother’s complaints about her monthly salary of $500 as a high-school biology teacher in Alabama in 1951. The comparison isn’t merely the $372 difference in pay, but the fact that my mother’s check was a secondary income added to my father’s thriving medical practice. And yet, despite that reality, the whole of it stinks. Economic oppression is the dreary ballad of female history: for David’s mother and my mother the world will not bend.
For three months, the files note that Ann dutifully pays $6 a week, but then her salary is knocked back to $25 a week and if she pays $6 for the baby’s board, she has only $1 left to cover the cost of food and clothing and other essentials. And always something backfires: she hurts her back and must have osteopathic treatment for a chronic injury, losing four days of work; she leaves the meatpacking plant, goes to work at the Spanish Grille as a waitress, but quits this job to work at a girdle factory; when she’s laid off, it takes two months before she finds a position at a hat company where she works as an inspector. The caseworker writes, She looks very tired and admits that she does not eat properly, smokes usually too much. Inevitably, she’s asked again to think about adoption—it’s been two years since her child entered foster care, meant only to be a temporary solution. After all, she can’t make the payments and she’s without a plan. Be practical, I imagine the caseworker saying, observing her, noting the pallor of her skin, the dark circles shadowing her eyes. She’s thinner, her dresses beginning to sag, her hair needing a trim. The worker prods her, leans closer. “My dear, you need to think about the security of your child,” but still, Ann shakes her head, telling the caseworker she just can’t see her way to it, to letting him go. She promises she’ll make a plan, but several weeks later she’s hospitalized for neuritis in both legs.
She is twenty-three.
Let’s say she finds a way to accept this life, to survive her frequent disruptions in employment and the child’s transfer from home to home. Let’s say she understands that if she can’t live with her boy, she can at least visit him, hold and cuddle him, feed him and change him, make peek-a-boo eyes at him. I imagine she knows how to make friends with foster mothers, women not so different from her except that they’re married and with husbands whose labor doesn’t quite make ends meet. She understands this. She understands crowded bedrooms, three children to a room, one bathroom, thin towels, lines of diapers drying on the line, chipped bowls, dusty curtains, a pretty blue vase nudged high up on a shelf, out of reach. But after several years, she gets careless, forgetting that she’s at the mercy of another woman, forgetting that her presence in the foster mother’s house requires being attentive, pleasing, never lingering, always asking permission and showing gratitude for the favor of seeing her baby, now a toddler of two, and then three. It’s not that she does something outrageous or stupid. It begins with her being late for the appointment to see him, not getting the ride she expected and having to rush, now two hours late and earning a frown of disapproval from the foster mother who stands in the doorway. She knows she should spend five minutes apologizing and reprimanding herself before she crosses the threshold, insisting this is an aberration and then stay only an hour, leaving at the proposed time. But when she sees her son, his cheek a sweep of eczema, his right arm in a sling because he fell out of bed and broke his collarbone, his mouth crusted with old milk, she forgets all about the other woman. It’s as if the foster mother vanishes as she sweeps him up, “How’s my boy?” she whispers, and then hours later, it’s past dark when she walks out the front door.
Worker feels that foster mother is somewhat jealous of Mother’s love for D and that Mother, in turn, is jealous of foster mother for having daily care of the baby.
How did it begin to go so wrong?
I wonder if this is the moment Ann realizes she’s been naïve, walking through each day with her eyes half closed, seeing only what she’s wanted to see: obliging women offering her son to her for a few hours every week. Then again, her life isn’t the ordinary world of getting up and taking the bus to work, having a smoke break and chatting with girlfriends, flirting with the cook, paying rent and utilities, buying groceries and cigarettes, but a darker, restless world, an uncivilized place of men deserting and fathers berating and caseworkers always asking when, when, when will you be able to make a plan for your son as if she could simply sit outside in the evening and wish upon a star.
A plan is what you do if you’ve finished high school or maybe a year or two of college, had training in bookkeeping and dictation or plied some special talent: illustrating or drawing or hat design or sewing. To her, a plan means working extra hours at the Spanish Grille and trying to save a bit before the next layoff, the next bout of neuritis or bronchitis.
How is she supposed to make the unlikely probable?
And yet, somehow she does make a plan. It takes several years, but by scrimping and flirting—everything seems to require a bit of badness—she’s able to rent seven rooms in a rundown three-decker, fix them up with repairs, a coat of paint, and some cheap leased furniture and rent out rooms to boarders. It’s the first thing she’s ever managed and to her surprise, it works. She talks easily to carpenters, fixes them coffee, takes out icy lemonade on a sweltering day, handing a glass up to a man on a ladder who’s resetting the window, where she’s aware that, for a moment, he’s turned his attention to her, barefoot in blue shorts and a knit top, her eyes moist from cutting onions for the potato salad, her thick auburn hair pulled up, exposing her pale, smooth neck. Sometimes they stay later, do a bit of extra work, unclogging a drain, repairing a soffit, replacing a rotting step, chatting with her, and not charging her a penny.
At night, she feels the warmth of a man, the rustle of bedding, and in the dark, she smiles. She’ll get her boy back. She will.
But even with this entrepreneurial success, she can’t get her son back. Most of her boarders are old men on pensions, their payment enough to cover the rent and utilities and furniture payment, but she still has to work. It turns out that getting him back also requires a husband. She isn’t opposed to the idea. For a little while, during that spring when the elm trees are dressed out in green, when lilacs and daffodils bloom, there is a softness that surprises her, like a little cushion of air surrounding her, protecting her. Her son is safe and growing, a sweet but high-strung, mischievous boy who lives a 45-minute bus ride away in a small town, almost a village, where he tramps down the hill to first grade, kicking rocks and jumping puddles and printing his name in big round letters. [He] identifies Mother to the foster mother as his “best girl,” which makes her grin. Sometimes he playfully calls her Ma when she picks him up for the one overnight visit a month and refers to his foster mother as Aunt Adeline, and yet now he seems quite happy to return to his foster family after spending a night with her, throwing her a kiss even as he runs to eat Aunt Adeline’s chicken and dumplings. Though at first the ease of his leaving stuns her, this new cloud of possibility steadies her.
A house and a husband. It isn’t exactly that she makes a plan, only that there is someone already there, one of the carpenters, a big, strapping Scotsman who’s lingered more than the others, taking a little longer than necessary to sand a door. This, she was to understand, had been an odd job for him, something to tide him over while he waited for a construction job opening up in the summer. And yet, when she came home from her waitressing job, hot and sweaty, her hair pulled up, a few auburn strands loosed and tangled, tucked inside her collar, he didn’t seem to mind being there, would often stay for a beer. Then more.
Now the construction job’s come through and he’s drinking, blowing money on Friday and Saturday nights, but always back to work on Monday. It’s a way of life. Familiar. Familial. Favorable perhaps to having no one. When her son comes to visit, the man plays with the boy, laughs, and lets him sit on his big, wide lap. And hasn’t she seen this man, Soup, catch a green fly in his bare hands and drop it casually out the window, then glance up at her and sheepishly smile?
How can she know—can any woman know?—that the very thing that is her salvation will also be her undoing? How can she know that though the husband will adopt the boy, he’ll come to resent him and resent her for having him, will punish the boy for being such a pain in the ass without even a drop of his blood? How can she know he’ll beat him, step on his hands with his construction boots, mock him, berate him, make him stand naked in a chalked circle for punishment? “I gave the kid a name, for shit’s sake,” he’ll yell at her years later, as if he’s the one who’s been played for a sucker.
This man, who once seemed so easygoing, so playful, eating a huge forkful of birthday cake, thick with frosting, while holding her boy in his lap, will, in three years, become an alcoholic, crashing again and again into Bridgewater State Hospital’s detox unit, while she’ll be passive and hopeful, then devious and resentful, and finally depressed.
And yet, in the summer of 1956, she’s in the three-decker with its ruffled curtains, its rented sofa, its secondhand tv. She’s attained the impossible: a husband, a reclaimed son, another on the way, even as the air of possibility now gusts past her, skittering down the block while she hovers in the doorway, exhausted, blinking, uncertain just how it is that she failed. For years, when her son looks at her, he seems hopeful and loving, but by age twelve, he’s wary, then angry, and finally, at sixteen, he refuses to look at her at all.
“My best girl,” she murmurs one night, staring into his empty room.
He’s gone, his closet stripped of clothes and books and guitar strings and dirty socks. She stares at the bare mattress, the stripped sheets, aware of how time folds in on itself, and yet she doesn’t cry as she pulls closed the door.
Today, the sun’s come out after days of rain. I leave the computer and step out onto my deck in Iowa City, the air fresh and clean, the sun warming my face. OK, OK, I breathe with relief, glad to feel nothing but this. Pleasure. The leaves just budding on the trees, the daffodils and tulips in bloom. When I go back to writing, I wonder if I’ve shifted the balance, made the intolerable tolerable, brushed a bit of color onto the cheeks of a sordid story. The truth is, I think I’ve only made myself feel better.
“I believe I should be able to forgive my mother,” David said one evening while we were making a snack in the kitchen, “because now I know from the files that she loved me. And she really tried.” He looked both sad and relieved at the thought.
“She did,” I agreed. And though I’ve been trying to re-see her, I wasn’t sure that I forgave her either. After working so hard to reclaim him, she seemed unable to protect him, to make him feel wanted and worthy and necessary to the world. Once she’d pulled it all together, everything just went to hell.
“Anyway, it’s good that I got the foster care files. After reading them I didn’t feel so much like a victim.” He washed the French press to make his evening coffee and began measuring out the dark roast. “And I didn’t hate her anymore, because they let me see a different part of her.” He glanced at me. “So, I’m just saying I’m glad you helped, glad—” but he didn’t finish. Maybe he couldn’t.
“Me too.” I got out rice crackers and almond butter and handed him a plate.
After he poured the hot water into the press, he waited, staring at the brewing coffee as if meditating. When he looked up, he gave me a rueful smile. “Family.” He shook his head. “It’s all Bosch and Brueghel.”
Delighted, I laughed. At the moment it seemed true.
But I also think of his mother on the Greyhound bus riding out of Worcester on a Saturday or Sunday to see her seven-year-old son at his foster home in Sturbridge, watching the city’s shoe factories with their rising plumes of smoke give way to the countryside, goldenrod and bluebells blooming on the side of the road, grazing cows in the distance, fat trees crowding the far end of a pasture. What must she be thinking, sitting alone on that bus for thirty-five minutes, going to see a child she hasn’t put to bed or fed or talked to in three weeks? She’s never seen him catch grasshoppers, do his arithmetic homework, or read his first series of books at a desk, never taken him to the dentist or to buy shoes. And yet, when she’s there with him, for two hours or four hours or sometimes an overnight visit, I like to imagine that the uncertainty of her choices lifts and for that little bit of time, she’s someone else, someone better. I like to think that she holds onto this thought, slippery as it is, her face softened, her shoulders eased, the possibility of connection there only because she’s kept it alive.
“I’m glad,” I imagine her whispering to him, summing up her plight. “I’m glad and I’m sorry.” Five honest words.