PART 2 - Remorse
Memory is a tricky thing. I have fragmented memories of my mother that don’t involve her drinking. I remember going to a movie with her when I was twelve to see Man of a Thousand Faces, and of going to work with her on the Saturdays she waitressed at a pizza parlor years before she became bedridden. But those memories are elusive, as if their benign nature prevents me from recalling them as vividly as I do the dark times, which were far more common.
The Saturdays I spent at my mother’s apartment, her husband, Wally, cooked dinner for me. I sat in an upholstered chair next to her bed with a TV tray in front of me. When Wally served me dinner, my mother required him to wear a towel draped over his arm like a waiter in a fancy restaurant. Most Saturdays, Wally cooked spaghetti for me, al dente, the way I liked it. He was an excellent cook. By trade, he was a bread baker, but my mother told me that before they married, Wally was a bookie. He attracted her, she said, because he dressed in expensive suits and flashed a lot of money. I had a hard time envisioning Wally, the skinny man in a tee shirt, striped pajama bottoms and slippers, wearing a fancy suit.
I remember one Saturday in particular. She asked Wally to go to the store for cigarettes and to come right back. When he returned, she put her hand out. “Give me the change,” she said.
Wally dug into his pocket and gave her some coins. My mother counted them and said, “There’re ten cents missing. You stopped at a tavern for a beer, didn’t you?”
“No, I didn’t,” he said.
“You're lying. Get over here and let me smell your breath.”
“Ah, so what if I had one lousy beer?” Wally said.
“I don’t like you drinking. That’s what.”
“Shut yer trap,” he said, hurrying out of the room.
My mother turned to me, shaking her head. “I give him just enough money to ride the bus to and from work. If he has any more money, the somnabitch stops at a gin mill. I can always tell when he’s been drinking because his ears turn red. He made me so mad once that I picked up a knife and stabbed him in the chest.”
“No!” I couldn't believe she said what I thought she said.
“Wally!” she hollered. “Get in here and show Joan what I did to you.”
Wally walked into the room. “Whaddya want now?”
“Open your shirt and show Joan what I did to you.”
“What're you talkin' about?”
“You know what I’m talking about. Open your shirt and show her where I stabbed you.”
Wally opened his shirt, and sure enough, there was an ugly purple scar on his chest.
“She didn’t really stab you. Did she?”
“Yeah, she stabbed me.” Turning back to my mother, he said, “Can I button my shirt now?”
After he left the room, Mother told me she had nearly taken his eye out when she whipped him with the metal end of a dog leash, and another time she smashed my school picture over his head.
“The glass broke,” she said. “That’s why the picture’s not on the mantel anymore.”
I don’t know what stunned me more—the fact that she physically abused Wally or that she seemed proud of it.
That night, when Wally served my salad, he covered the lettuce with sliced tomatoes and green olives. I loved black olives, but hated the green ones. When my mother saw me picking at the salad, she said, “I sent Wally out to buy a jar of green olives, especially for you because I know they're your favorites. Right?” She aimed her eyes at me with a menacing smile on her face. “They are your favorites, aren’t they?”
“Yes,” I lied, shoving an olive into my mouth. “I like the green ones best.”
I was fourteen when I stopped all contact with my mother. Several months before, our family doctor prescribed tranquilizers for me, but they didn’t always calm my anxiety. I remember three separate occasions when I flew into a rage—screaming, crying, and throwing things—frightening my stepmother, who had no clue how to handle me when this happened. On those days, Dad rushed me to our doctor, who injected me with a tranquilizer. During the ride home, I was so out of it I kept falling over and banging my head. After the third emergency visit, the doctor told my father that I had to end my relationship with my mother, or else. I do not know what “or else” meant. But I was afraid it meant I would end up in a booby hatch, a place where they lock crazy people up.
Dad told me that my mother wouldn’t believe him if he told her I didn’t want to see her anymore—it had to come directly from me. Too afraid to tell her to her face, or even to talk to her on the phone, I put it in writing. Composing the letter was difficult. I didn’t know how to tell my mother that I couldn’t see her anymore. The decision wasn’t mine, but I agreed to go along with it because I thought that not spending Saturdays with my mother would make my life easier, that maybe I wouldn’t need to take tranquilizers, and maybe I could pay attention in class. I had just graduated from elementary school and was about to enter East Side High in September. Writing the letter could wipe the slate clean, I thought, give me a fresh start, change my life for the better.
The doctor said I should not see you anymore
because it makes me nervous.
Two days later, Dad handed me a Western Union envelope. In it was a brown piece of paper with a typed message on white strips of paper.
Whatever people have told you about
me are lies-STOP- But I will abide by your
wishes-STOP- From this day forward
I will no longer be-STOP-
I cried after receiving her telegram. Even though I was the one ending the relationship, I felt that my mother had abandoned me for the second time in my life. It was as if she had said, you’re turning your back on me? Well, I’m turning mine on you.
Dad found me sobbing in my bedroom. “What does it say?” he asked. I handed the telegram to him. He read it and said, “It’s for the best.”
A few months went by, and the film, Imitation of Life, starring Lana Turner and Sandra Dee, was playing at The Rivoli Theater. Susan Kohner plays Sara Jane, a biracial girl who passes for white. She is ashamed of her mother and runs away from home. When her mother finds her, Sara Jane rejects her. In the film’s heart-wrenching scene, Sara Jane learns that her mother has died. Wracked with shame and grief, she sobs as she crawls after the hearse that carries her mother’s body.
I sobbed along with Sara Jane, because, in my mind, it was my mother in the hearse, and it was me crawling behind. The movie ended, and as the credits rolled, I was still crying uncontrollably. I cried all the way out of the theater, and all the way home.
If anyone had asked me why the film distressed me so much, I would not have been able to articulate an answer. But today I know my tears were about abandonment and guilt. I was crying for my mother because I had abandoned her. I thought about how I would feel if my mother died and I could never see her again.
As the years passed, I began to romanticize my mother, especially because my relationship with my stepmother was not good. I fantasized that my birth mother had quit drinking and could finally be a proper mother to me. I wondered what advice she would give me on my first date. Would she have helped me pick out a dress for my senior prom? Does she think about me and wonder what I look like now?
I had not heard a word from her in five years, and worried that she may have died. A year after graduating high school, I could stand it no longer; I had to know. I looked in the telephone directory for her husband, Walter Ryansky. The address and phone number were the same.
She answered the phone after four rings.
“Mom?” I said, my voice quivering. “This is Joan.”
“Joan?” She took a breath. “Is that really you?”
“Yes. I was wondering… can I come to see you? Maybe this Saturday?”
“Of course. Come at noon,” she said. I could hear the excitement in her voice. “I’ll have Wally meet the taxi downstairs.”
When I arrived at her apartment, Wally was downstairs, as promised. He paid the taxi driver and led me upstairs to my mother’s bedroom.
She was drunk.
For the next three years, the visits with my mother were like television reruns—she told the same stories, fabricated the same lies. Her drinking had gotten worse, and by 1965, my mother weighed just 84 pounds. She looked like a skeleton.
* * *
The bus driver honked his horn, jarring me back to reality. My mother’s stop, North 3rd Street, was coming up. I rose to pull the cord to let the driver know I was getting off, then changed my mind and sat back down. Ah, the hell with it, I thought. Just go home.
But I made the wrong decision. I should have stopped. If I hadn’t been thinking about all the bad things my mother did, if I had gotten off the bus, I may have prevented a tragedy.
Later that evening, I received a phone call from Wally. He said my mother is in Martland Hospital. “Your mother fell asleep with a lit cigarette. She has 2nd and 3rd degree burns over 80% of her body.”