PART 1 - Reflections
The switchboard was busy that day, and a pile of forms to be typed threatened to spill out of my IN box. I didn’t have time to sit on the phone with Mother while she nodded off, but I could not get her attention to tell her to hang up the phone. Her slurring that day was worse than usual—she drank too much wine or swallowed too many pills.
I worked as a receptionist for The Greater New York Mutual Insurance Company in East Orange, New Jersey. The company was adamant about no personal phone calls, except in an emergency, but I had no luck convincing my mother the ‘no personal calls rule’ applied to her. She telephoned my workplace every day—calls in which she rambled, raged or slurred. I uttered, “uh huh” or “yes” or “no.” Didn’t even need to move my lips.
My workstation was L-shaped. The reception desk faced the entrance, the phone system to my right. I wore a headset tethered to the switchboard. As calls came in, I put my mother’s open line on hold while I answered the new phone calls. That day, the connection to my mother had been open for well over an hour, but she was not talking. I called her name every so often, hoping to rouse her, but it was not until five o’clock rolled around that she stirred enough for me to tell her I was leaving work for the day.
I never lived with my birth mother. When I was a baby, my mother abandoned me and was later declared an unfit mother. I lived with my father and stepmother until I was nineteen. After a year of having been out on my own and failing miserably at adulthood, I moved back in to my father’s house. I had no car, no money, and barely enough clothes for office work. My supervisor, the president’s private secretary, had counseled me more than once to dress appropriately, causing my face, neck, and ears to become impossibly red.
I rode the bus to and from work, and on my way home that day, thoughts of my mother filled my head. I pictured her sitting up in bed, her hair in pin curls, a Confidential magazine on her lap—a cigarette smoldering in the ashtray next to a cup of wine on her nightstand. Was she even sober enough tonight to sit up, let alone read a magazine? Her incoherent phone call told me otherwise. As the bus inched its way toward Newark, I argued with myself. Should I get off at her stop and walk the four-blocks to her apartment through an iffy neighborhood? Sundown was a couple hours away, and if I stayed till after dark, I could take a cab to my father’s. Frustrated and tired, I just wanted to go straight home, but Mother sounded so out of it when I said goodbye. My stomach flipped.
My head bumped against the window as the bus made its way down Springfield Avenue, stopping at every corner to let passengers on and off. My mind wandered, drifting back in time to Saturdays spent in my mother’s company.
The first clear memory of being with my mother was when I was four years old. We stood together in the bright sun at a bus stop near Penn Station in Newark. The bus arrived, spewing exhaust fumes in our faces. Mother lifted me onto the first step and I climbed the rest of the way onto the bus. I imagine no empty seats were nearby because I jumped up to grasp a strap that hung from the roof of the bus. I was much too small to reach that high, so when the bus lurched forward, I stumbled against the legs of a woman sitting on the bench seat behind the driver. The woman smiled, scooped me into her arms, and held me on her lap.
My mother paid our fares, and then, seeing me on the woman’s lap, grabbed my arm and admonished me for trying to reach the strap. She demanded the woman put me down. “You don’t need to yell at her. She’s just a kid.”
“Mind your own business,” my mother said. She again grabbed my arm to pull me off the woman’s lap, but the woman held me closer. That’s when the shouting began—my mother’s voice louder and meaner. The bus driver yelled at my mother to be quiet, but that made her angrier and she screamed louder, arguing with both of them at once. The bus slammed to a stop. The doors hissed open, and the driver ordered my mother to get off the bus.
“Give her to me!” Spittle flew from my mother’s mouth as she yanked me from the woman's lap and dragged me to the sidewalk. When she set me down, she slapped me hard across the face. “Don’t you ever do that again,” she said, her eyes drilling into mine. I flinched; afraid I would pee my pants.
I learned an important lesson that day: don’t make Mother angry.
One Saturday, a man my mother met in a tavern drove us to Olympic Park, the largest amusement park in New Jersey.
I loved trips to Olympic Park, where I could ride the ponies, eat cotton candy, or float in the Olympic-sized pool in a swimming tube.
Just inside the park's entrance were the funhouse mirrors. I skipped from mirror to mirror, fat in one, skinny in another, short legs and gigantic head in another. I wanted my mother to look into the mirrors with me, but when I turned to get her attention, she was already heading toward the picnic grove.
Patches of grass and several oak trees decorated the dirt around the picnic tables. The midway, a wide path of carnival games and concession stands, was to our left. The carousel’s calliope music and the screams of people careening down the first hill of the roller coaster excited me. I hoped my mother wasn’t planning to stay in the picnic area all afternoon.
My mother sat at a table and told “Uncle Harry” to get a pitcher of beer for them and root beer for me. My immediate impression of Harry was he was slippery, like the actors who played gangsters in the movies.
“Go play some games,” Harry said, fishing in his pocket for dimes. “Maybe you’ll win a teddy bear.”
I walked toward the carnival booths to find a game that might be easy to win. Right off, I lost two dimes on the word MOM at the spinning wheel booth, and another two dimes throwing darts at balloons. I had only three dimes left, so I skipped the booth where you knock milk bottles over, and moved to the next booth where live goldfish swam around in little round fishbowls.
“Do you want to try, little girl? Three balls for a dime.” The man running the booth wore a straw hat and juggled three ping pong balls. “If a ball lands in a bowl the goldfish is yours.”
I sorely wanted a pet of my own, preferably a dog, but my father and stepmother wouldn’t go for it. A few times, I coaxed stray dogs to follow me home, but I was not allowed to keep any of them, especially not the pregnant ones. But a goldfish was nothing like a dog, so I thought for sure I could keep it if I was lucky enough to win one. I gave the man my dime, and he gave me three ping pong balls.
The first three I tossed missed the bowls. I placed another dime down and got three more balls. No luck. I took the last dime out of my pocket, kissed it for good luck, and placed it on the counter. The first ball skimmed the edge, but the second one kerplunked right into a fishbowl.
“Look here, folks! This little lady won herself a goldfish.” I turned, hoping my mother had seen me win, but she wasn’t looking my way. The man handed the fishbowl to me.
“Thanks, Mister,” I said, clutching the bowl in two hands. I gingerly walked over to the picnic table and laid my prize in front of Mother.
“Look what I won,” I said, beaming.
“Good for you,” My mother said. “Sit down and drink your soda.”
“Can I go on the pony ride?” The ponies, my favorite in the park, were further along the midway, past the roller coaster and carousel. I loved the way the ponies smelled, and the feel of the leather saddle. I would have happily spent the entire day riding the ponies.
“Not right now,” she said.
“Not right now” meant not at all. I spent the rest of the afternoon at the opposite end of the picnic table watching my goldfish swim around the bowl, a long trail of poop floating out of its back end.
My mother picked me up in a taxi and directed the driver to drop us off at a tavern uptown. We were supposed to be shopping for a coat for me, but she wanted to stop at a tavern first. We went inside, and my mother led me to the bar where she asked the bartender for a double shot of rye with a short glass of water. I had never seen my mother drink whiskey before. In her apartment she kept gallon jugs of Christian Brothers wine in the bedroom closet. She sipped the wine out of a delicate English teacup. The few times she asked me to pour for her, she said she drank the wine for medicinal purposes.
“Don’t put the whiskey in the water,” she said to the bartender. “I'll take it on the side.” She swallowed the double shot in one gulp, then asked for another. After her third double, she drank the water. We walked back outside where a cool breeze followed us down Broad Street to Haynes Department Store.
My mother told me to pick out a trench coat. I found a pale iridescent-green one I liked. While she paid for the coat, I scanned a nearby rack of skirts. I heard shouting and spied my mother yelling at the cashier. I ducked my head, rushed through the first set of exit doors, and pressed against the wall until my mother finished paying for my coat. When she caught up with me, she made no mention of the argument. Neither did I.
We crossed Broad and headed toward Market Street to hail a cab to take me back to my father’s house. My mother walked on my left side, weaving and clinging to my arm, staggering through the people heading in the opposite direction. I hated how she clung to me, and how the other shoppers frowned at us. I kept my head down and my eyes focused on the ground. When she lost her footing and lurched forward, I grabbed her before she fell over. When I looked up, a girl from my fifth-grade class walked toward us. Her eyes opened wide, as she looked from me to my mother and back to me again. In that moment, I saw my mother through the girl’s eyes: a drunken woman holding onto her daughter for support. Shame washed over me.
When I arrived at school on Monday morning, the girl was already in the classroom. As I walked in, she jumped out of her seat and headed straight for me. In a move to avoid her, I darted across the room toward the pencil sharpener. She stood behind me while I sharpened my already sharp pencils. I turned around and faced her.
“Was that your mother I saw you with on Saturday?” she asked.
“No,” I lied, my stomach turning.
“Who was she then?”
“She was… she was just some woman.”
The girl’s eyes narrowed. “I think she was your mother.”
“No, she wasn’t!” I said, angry with myself for not coming up with a more believable lie.