Our Mothers Left Us

They left all at once.

There was no warning, or none that we could read. We were only children, and our fathers were only their helpless selves.

Mother and Child, 1914
(Pencil and gouache on paper, 48.2 × 31.9 cm)
BY Egon Schiele
Leopold Museum

One minute, our mothers were near us, making the noises of pots and pans in the kitchen, or they were sitting talking with cousins at the family barbecue, or they were arguing with us about the mess we’d made, or they said they were just taking a quick nap, or they were walking with us through the bright clamor of the mall — and then the next minute they were gone. Our mothers were not in the kitchen, not in a lawn chair, not slamming doors, not in their bedrooms, not in any of the stores. Nobody had seen them; they couldn’t be found by phone. Our mothers were nowhere at all.

As we searched, dull with shock, we saw that the spaces our mothers had inhabited were not just empty; they contained the presence of our mothers’ absence. We saw a shadow, a faint outline that matched the outline of what we knew and remembered; we heard the wind settling in like shallow breaths, heard a spot on the floor groan from what it had so recently held, what it still wanted to hold. The world lacked our mothers the way it lacked sun on miserable days, the way it lacked solace in the sharpest heat; it lacked them needfully, tangibly, in a way that you could almost — but couldn’t quite — hold.

Our fathers threw themselves clumsily into our lives. They cooked haphazard dinners, told nervous jokes, bought us what we wanted, scolded us as well as they could. There was no way for them to succeed, but we all pretended that we got the light we needed from these distant stars. We smiled for them, and we knew then, too soon, what it was like to have others in our care.

Some of us sat on the front stoop where the careening fireflies seemed stunned and we allowed important certainties to drain out of us into the stone. What we did while we waited could be called growing up; even with puberty lagging we became adults in other ways. We understood that the world had never told us that things were under control, that we had believed that because we had needed to believe that. Certainly our mothers had never said that, or never convincingly — only our fathers had, and they had just been frightened of the truth. We berated ourselves; we had made it necessary for our mothers to teach us these painful lessons.

As we searched, dull with shock, we saw that the spaces our mothers had inhabited were not just empty; they contained the presence of our mothers’ absence. We saw a shadow, a faint outline that matched the outline of what we knew and remembered…

It was hard to not look up from the stoop again and again in the expectation that our mothers would be coming down the street. We learned how a person refrains from looking, and we learned many times how you inevitably fail at that. We learned what our own feet look like when we’re staring but are too frightened to see them, and we learned the exact picture of the empty sidewalk on the block — where the trees leaned, where they held back, the way the front yards lapped up to the place where our mothers should have been but weren’t.

It was probably only a few hours. We couldn’t be sure because eventually we slept. We allowed ourselves tears when we were alone in our dark rooms and our fathers were watching television as though hunting for a message, and then, to our lasting shame, with the sound of the disinterested television in our ears, we fell dead into sleep. We would go on to hate ourselves for this, and we would blame many things to come on our weakness.

When we woke up, our mothers were back. They stood in the doorways of our bedrooms emerging from shadow. We leapt, clung to them as though we were still children, and for a time we believed it. But we stopped believing when our mothers gently put us back at arm’s length, wondering at our affection, claiming to have never been gone at all. They stood up and told us to get ready for the day, and we watched them turn to leave the room, and before that could happen, we threw our arms out and held on. We knew the bargain that was asked of us, and we would, by necessity, replace childhood with a desperate attention, an idolatrous certainty that our mothers would never leave us again if we only did exactly what we needed to do to keep them.

The new day rolled on, and at times it was as though nothing had happened. The sky lit up and covered our families. Our fathers laughed and kept things happy. Our mothers returned to kitchens and chairs and hallway arguments and all the other stations of their lives, to the extent that we understood those lives at all. We would endeavor for the rest our lives to understand them. On this day in particular we were perfect. We sang; we danced; we carried dishes without breaking any. We kept the bargain.

Of course that didn’t prevent it from happening again.

Of course our mothers would leave again, without warning, and many times.

Certainly mine did.

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