When I was 6 years old, my mother and father divorced. He vanished like a sorcerer’s trick and she, until then a stay-at-home mother, went to work. She was very glamorous, dressing each morning in silk and wool, donning tall leather boots and statement jewelry. I had only the vaguest idea of what she did, but I imagined her as one of the career gals I saw on TV, a cross between spunky Mary Tyler Moore and cheerful Bonnie Franklin on One Day at a Time. A bus took my mother to Manhattan every day, where she rode an elevator to a high floor. There were late nights at the office, business trips around the country, and something called “market week,” which demanded all her time and energy several times a year.
When she was gone, I was entrusted to her mother’s care. No wrinkly bubbe, my grandma was young and charming, only 46 when I was born. I adored her, the way swing music seemed to play wherever she went, her delight in bawdy jokes, and the endless stories she told about her audacious youth. We had the most glorious time together.
But despite the love and care lavished on me by my grandmother when my mother was away, and my mother’s own playful affection when she was home, I was furious with my mother. In the dark fairytale I told myself, my handsome, charismatic Daddy’s strange disappearance had opened a door for her, and she had deserted me for a glittering life that lay elsewhere—in offices and on airplanes, in hotel rooms and tall buildings. My rage grew between us like brambles. I thought I knew the truth of her, that she was distant, and selfish. I believed I mattered to her, but not as much as everything else.
To call me a fool would be too kind.
In recent years, I have pieced together my mother’s version of this story. She resisted telling me, not wanting to upset me, but I have pried it out of her, a sharp-edged treasure.
On the day my mother kicked my narcissistic, philandering, thieving father out of the house, she was 30 years old, possessed only a high school diploma, and was in a mountain of debt she knew nothing about, because my father had “managed” their finances. She was movie star beautiful (I have seen photos and she was a dead ringer for young Elizabeth Taylor), deeply intelligent, and so terrified she could only manage to exist from one breath to the next. She began her career as a secretary at a company that manufactured underwear, and with nothing but her formidable grit, nimble mind, and unshakable determination, she rose to become Vice President of a lingerie company that was known around the world. Her success was personal, certainly, but it was also political. She was one of the women who cracked the glass ceiling so future generations could shatter it.
She did this not for vanity or ambition, but because there was no one else to take care of us. She divorced my father and settled his debts. She fed, sheltered, and clothed us. She bought me books, took me to plays, sent me to camp. All the while, she sheltered me from the painful realities of our life, never letting me know about the years of financial precariousness, my father’s cruelty, her exhaustion and sadness. She accepted my rage to spare me the weight of the truth—the Daddy I pined for had abandoned me utterly. He never called to ask how I was; he never sent a dime of support. My mother was the sun that warmed my shoulders and the moon that lit the dark, the solid ground I walked on and the safe air I breathed, and I never knew.
I see her with new eyes now; my anger replaced by awe for all she accomplished, for her courage and ferocious compassion. When I revisit our shared history, the thought of her — so young, so overwhelmed — makes me hurt. But there is one memory I treasure as a talisman and a comfort. When I was little, I would sometimes weep and beg her to tell me where my father had gone, ask why he didn’t love me anymore. And she would rock me in her arms and soothe me with the names of all the people who did love me, always starting with herself. “Mommy loves you,” she would whisper. “Mommy loves you most of all.”
This post originally appeared on the blog “I’m Just Sayin” as part of a series about the often complicated love between mothers and their children.