I'm re-running one of my favorite *FootNotes* entries today in honor of
my mother, Karen Beeson. Happy Birthday, Mom!
My Mama drives a
it's a Chevy,
but I'm not sure. (I don't even know what "Chevy" means, anyway. I'm
still trying to figure out "divorce.") All I know is that it's a big
car, and it's black, and it's noisy, and my little
brother and I slide back and forth on the big slippery back seat while
Mama drives us around town.
what else I know:
I know that my little brother and I are not supposed to touch anything
when Mama leaves us alone in the car. We are supposed to sit and wait,
while she runs into the grocery store for cigarettes, or while she
plays cards with her girlfriends, or while she visits with her mother.
the time we're
good, and we do what Mama tells us to do.
has been inside
Grandma's house for a long, long time today. It feels like she's been
in there forever, while we sit parked at the top of Grandma's long
gravel driveway. My brother and I are bored, and we're hot and twitchy,
and I have to go to the bathroom ... and I'm tired of just sitting
there, looking out the car windows and being good and not touching
going to drive
Mama's car!" I tell Dickie.
assent. Everything I do is a good idea, as far as Dickie is concerned.
Never mind that Mama has warned us a million hundred times to never
in her car. I scramble around and position my four-year-old self in the
driver's seat. I'm a foot and a half shorter than the top of the
dashboard, of course, so I can't see anything in front of me. But
that's OK. I plant my fat little hands on the steering wheel, and I
rock it back and forth a few times, pretending to drive.
vrooom!" I sing. "I'm
drivin' Mama's car!"
are all sorts of
interesting levers and knobs and pedals all over the place. I touch
them experimentally. Most of them don't do anything -- the radio knob,
for instance, flicks uselessly, on and off, on and off. For a moment I
consider honking the horn, but I decide that might be pushing my luck.
Ditto the cigarette lighter. So instead I slide down in the driver's
seat and push on the floor pedals with my little feet.
that's when it
happens. We hear a scary *popping* sound, and all of a sudden Mama's
car begins to roll. It is rolling backwards, down Grandma's long gravel
driveway ... with Dickie and I inside.
this isn't fun
car is rolling
down the hill, and Dickie and I are both screaming, and all of a sudden
Mama is running out the door of Grandma's house towards us, and she's
screaming too, and Grandma is right behind her and she's
screaming, and we keep rolling, and the next thing I know Mama's car
has crashed through the side of Grandma's detached garage, at the
bottom of the hill, and come to a shuddering, splintering stop.
the end of this
particular memory fragment. I can imagine the rest of it, though. I'll
bet you can, too.
* * * * * * *
Mama is gone. So is Daddy.
either one of them has disappeared to. One minute my brother and my
Mama and I are living in the backseat of Mama's car ... the next
minute, Dickie and I are standing on our grandparents' porch, with all
of our toys and clothes packed into big paper bags, and Mama is kissing
us goodbye, and I am holding my little brother's hand as tight as I
Mama is gone.
and Grandpa are
very nice. You will stay here
with us until your Mama is ready to come back and take care of you
again, they tell us gently.
They have a
pretty white house with an upstairs and a downstairs, and a big
backyard full of fruit trees and flowers, and an elderly cocker spaniel
named Hobby ... and they buy us new clothes, and they feed us three
square meals a day, and they take us camping, and they give us chores
-- helping Grandpa pick raspberries in the garden, helping Grandma take
the clothes down off the clothesline in the evening after supper ...
and eventually some of our surprise and our hurt and our unhappy
feelings begin to dissolve, just the teensiest bit, and we forget a lot
of the bad things -- and a lot of the good things, too -- that happened
before we came to Grandma and Grandpa's house.
laying in my bed in the upstairs bedroom, I remember things. I remember
driving Mama's car into the side of the garage. I remember the Wise
children throwing my brand-new birthday tea set out a second-story
piece by piece, while I watched and cried and did nothing. I remember
sitting on a sofa with my Daddy, holding a balloon. I remember standing
on a kitchen chair and fixing myself a sugar water bottle, while my
parents slept in the next room. I remember a song about a Mama fishy
and her little fishies three.
out the window
sometimes, and I watch for a shiny black car that never appears.
know is this: when
I grow up and become a Mama, I am never, ever going to go away and
* * * * * * *
across the world's most amazingly groovy secret:
mom keeps a journal!
discovered it while I was snooping through her desk drawers today. As
soon as she and her annoying boyfriend leave for work every morning, I
start going through all of their stuff. This is how I'm learning about
their lives this summer. I've already read all of their Harold Robbins
paperbacks ... listened to all of their Mamas & Papas records
... sampled some of the annoying boyfriend's Peppermint Schnapps, and filched
a couple of Mom's Tampax from the bathoom (which I've tucked away in a
secret part of my suitcase and intend to experiment with,
my period finally starts.)
mom's life seems interesting and exotic and cool. But it is this journal
thing that fires my thirteen-year-old imagination more than anything
I think it's
just an ordinary spiral-bound notebook, filled with notes or recipes or
poems or something. But upon closer examination, I can see that these
are personal writings of some sort, written in my mom's small, careful
hand. Not a diary, exactly. I've been keeping a diary myself, since
second grade, and I know the difference. This is more detailed than a
diary. In fact, it almost seems like a life story ... one of those
autobiography things, maybe.
the whole thing
in one sitting. It never even occurs to me that I shouldn't. Along the
way, I discover things about my mom that I never knew: for instance,
that she and my Dad had a lot of fights while they were married. Or
that she was in a bad car accident, when I was a baby, and she
almost died. Or that she gave up a baby for adoption, in the late 60's
-- a little brother I never even knew I had.
up my mind, right
then and there. Diaries are for babies. As soon as I go home to my
grandparents' house, when the summer is over, I'm going to go out and
buy a spiral-bound notebook and start keeping a journal, just like my
Mom. I don't have a lot of "life history" to write, just yet --
although I did
receive my first real kiss from a boy, that very summer of '71, and I'm
hopeful of receiving more eventually -- but I'm sure I can think of
other stuff to write about when eighth grade starts in the fall.
Someday I might even let Mom read parts of it!
is the world's
coolest mom ... I swear to god.
* * * * * * *
mother is the world's
most annoying mother ... I swear to god.
since she and my
stepfather went on the wagon and stopped smoking -- this whole
AA/clean-living/God grant me
the serenity blah blah blah
business that has suddenly taken over their lives, like bad religion --
I feel like I have even less in common with her than ever before.
hasn't always been
like this. When I got married and started having babies, a few years
back, it seemed like the two of us were finally beginning to *connect.*
I remember I wrote her this whole big long letter, after the girls were
born, all about how I "forgave" her for leaving my brother and I with
our grandparents ... and about how, now that I'm a parent, I can
what an agonizing decision it must have been for her to make, to leave
us ... and
how "happy" I am that we're growing so close now.
a while, it
really felt that way.
were especially nice. Christmas Eve with my mom's side of the
for instance, or a birthday celebration for one of my babies, at our
little house in Kirkland. While the kids played, the adults would all
sit around and get pleasantly squiffed on beer or wine or vodka
screwdrivers. I would sit on the floor with my drink and
my Salem Slim Lights, and I would drink and smoke right there in front
of my mom. It
made me feel
incredibly cool and
grown-up. Plus, the gentle nudge of *liquid courage* made it
easier to actually talk
to my mother, around whom I still felt occasionally shy and awkward ...
even as an adult.
my mother is
sober. Even though she doesn't preach or scold or *accidentally* leave
AA pamphlets sitting around on my coffee table -- even though,
basically, she never says anything at all about my
drinking: we focus instead mostly on my husband's "problem" -- I still
feel the weight of her sobriety hanging between us like a lead curtain.
sober. I am not.
Furthermore, I don't even want
especially hate it
when she shows up unexpectedly while I'm sitting out in the laundry
room, enjoying my Mountain Chablis and my Baby Boomer Chat Room. "Grandma's
here!" one of the Tots will
shout in warning, and I'll scramble to stub out my cigarette and stash
my wine glass and my smoldering ashtray into the cupboard above my
desk, before my mother sees them. If I've been drinking for a while
before she gets here, I have to pretend to be sober. It's so annoying.
about my mother's life annoys me these days.
annoyed by how
relaxed and centered she seems. Nothing seems to rattle her. Nothing
seems to tie her up in knots. Nothing seems to ever make her want to
hurl an empty wine bottle across a dining room in empty black rage. I'm
annoyed, too, by how great she looks: by her nice clothes, by her nice
hair, by her nice fingernails. I'm annoyed by all the weight she's
lost, and by her glow of good health. She never looks tired or bloated
or hungover anymore. I am annoyed by her respectable office job. I
doubt that she has ever thrown up on herself in her car, while driving
to work in the morning. I am annoyed by the fact that she pays her
bills on time. I am annoyed by her pretty home, and by her reliable
car, and by her close relationship with her
mother and with my sister and with assorted other family members. I am
annoyed that she had the courage to end a failing marriage and move on.
I am annoyed by her solid, decent, sober life.
annoyed by all of
the things that she is ... and that I am not.
used to think I
wanted to be just like her. Then I got older, and I WAS
just like her, for a while, until she turned around and changed
all the rules on me.
don't know who
I want to be when (or if) I grow up.
* * * * * * *
mother's voice on the
answering machine is heartbroken.
she says waveringly -- reverting to my baby name -- "This
is your mother. I ... I don't know exactly what's happened, or why you
feel you had to do this ... but I just want you to know that I'm here
if you need me, and that I love you."
sitting on the edge
of a bed in a tiny apartment in Gladstone, Oregon, three hundred miles
away. Twenty-four hours earlier I had walked out on a sixteen year
marriage, leaving behind everything -- and everyone -- I care about. I
have just this minute walked through the door: I haven't even taken my
coat off yet. My new boyfriend silently carries my meager belongings in
from the car while I listen to the message again, over and over ...
tears streaming down my face.
be another two
months before I can bring myself to erase her message from the machine.
* * * * * * *
raining again when
David and I drive to the hotel on Saturday morning. We're meeting my
mother and her boyfriend for breakfast; afterwards, we'll be taking
them back to the airport for their flight home to TicTac.
all week long ... almost from the moment Mom and Vince landed in
Oakland last weekend. I'm a
little disappointed. This was my mom's first visit to the Bay Area --
to my new *adopted home* -- and I had wanted her to see it at its
sunny, scenic best. But Mother Nature intervened. There were no
Mom-and-Daughter photos in front of the Golden Gate Bridge, this visit.
No picnics at Crab Cove. No long leisurely strolls through Chinatown.
Instead, we've had to make-do with indoor "views," 49-mile tours from
the inside of a rental car and Polaroid photos taken inside a
... it has been a
sweet visit, in spite of the rain, and in spite of the sudden
unexpected ant onslaught, and in spite of rabid PMS -- mine, not hers
-- and in spite of the fact that David and I had to work for most of
the week, leaving Mom and Vince to their own devices a lot of the
about my mother, every time we're together. and this week has been no
conversation turns -- as it often does when David and my mother and I
are together -- to recovery issues. This is one of my favorite
subjects, for obvious reasons. It's something we all have in common,
for one thing: a bond that unites us. And it's a subject I actually know
something about, which allows me to participate in the conversation
with some degree of authority ... unlike conversations about politics
or geography or mutual funds or local sports teams or automobile
manufacturing or world history or seafood or quantum mechanics or any
of the other bazillion and one conversational topics that I know
absolutely nothing about.
morning we are
talking about how alcohol abuse retards social development. Alcoholics
who are normally introverted and uncomfortable in social situations --
like me, for instance -- don't learn to relate to other people in a
normal, healthy way, because we block ourselves off for all those years
behind a comfortable, convenient wall of alcohol. Even when the
alcoholic finally stops drinking, it's still tough to open up to other
says my mother. "I'm still painfully shy, a lot of the time. I really
have to work at it."
I couldn't be more surprised if she'd just announced that Matt Lauer is
that long-lost brother of mine.
night is a good example. I listened to her chatting so easily that
night, with David and his parents, and I was filled, as always, with
equal parts envy and admiration for her self-possession, her wit,
her social ease. Until now, I had always just assumed that she came by
it naturally. (And I further assumed that I simply hadn't inherited any
of her *sociability molecules* -- I'm more the grumpy introvert, like
my grumpy introverted dad -- the way I inherited her little round chin
and her baby-fine hair.)
she's admitting that
come naturally to her? That she has to "work" at it?
epiphany for me.
arrive at the airport
a full hour before their flight is due to take off, so the four of us
stand by the window at Gate 6 and chat. Mom and David and Vince get
caught up in a spontaneous conversation with an elderly stranger in a
"Seattle, Washington" baseball cap; they're talking about
crisis. I gaze out the window at the rain falling on the tarmac, and I
listen to their conversation. I don't participate. There is nothing I
really want to say on the subject, for one thing. And I am too filled
with thought, for another thing.
thinking about my
centeredness and the
social ease she radiates these days seems anchored to something more
than just lots of "practice." Is it the accumulated years of sobriety?
Is it because she's in love? Is it because she's retiring in a few
weeks (so she and Vince can travel more)? ... or is it because she's
survived a lifetime of things like being separated from her children,
and disappointing marriages, and fudked-up work situations, and family
tragedies ... and has still lived to tell the tale?
Or is it
because of all
these things, put together?
know. I could
ask her, I suppose ... but I don't think I want to. I figure I'm going
to find out for myself anyway. I spent the first forty years of my life
faithfully duplicating most of her mistakes. I'm only just now getting
started, duplicating some of her successes. I've still got some
catching-up to do. I watch her, as she and Vince walk together towards
the boarding gate, and I think That's
where I'll be in eighteen years. If I'm lucky.
basically she is exactly what I want to be when I grow up.