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My Mother's Daughter
I sit by the window in the attic that looks out on the wooded area behind the Doral House, just the way I imagined my mother had done more than sixteen years ago when she was about my age. This year heavy March and early April rains had turned the trees and foliage so plush and thick in upstate New York that sunlight was barely able to reach the forest floor. While I sit here, I try to envision and understand what it was like to feel like a bird in a cage, especially a bird that had flown into the cage deliberately and then locked the door behind her, for that was what my mother had done. However, unlike a bird, she couldn't sing or flutter about too noisily.
My mother had turned herself into a silent prisoner, mute and ghostly, and even though I was created up in this attic, fathered by my grandparents' son, Jesse, while he and my aunt Zipporah hid my mother in this attic after she had killed her stepfather, Harry Pearson, I was, for all practical purposes, born without parents.
Almost from the first day I was nurtured and began my relationship with the people caring for me, the people who were supposed to love me and whom I was supposed to love, I understood them to be Grandma and Grandpa, not Mommy and Daddy.
Neither pretended to be anything more.
Of course, I can't remember exactly when I heard the words Mama and Papa, Mother and Father, Mommy and Daddy. Maybe I first heard them watching television, watching other little girls and boys my age being cared for by younger people. Even then I began to feel I was different and began to understand that someone else, someone very important, was missing from my world, my life. Now, years later, I still feel like someone who had part of herself amputated even before she was born.
I imagine a child psychologist would have a field day with all this. He or she might even decide to do an article about me for some therapy magazine. My classmates -- and even my teachers -- would not be surprised if my picture appeared on the front page of Child Psychology or some such publication. I'm sure I don't do myself any good or change their minds either by keeping so much to myself or, especially, by the way I dress. I can't help being drawn to darker colors and blouses, skirts and shoes that detract from my appearance. I wear clothing usually a size or two too big, things women my grandmother's age would wear. In fact the other girls call my wardrobe Granny clothes. They bob their heads and cluck like hens about me whenever I walk by in the school hallways.
I've always deliberately kept my hair cut a little too short, and, unlike most girls my age, I never wore lipstick, trimmed my eyebrows or used any makeup. I had no mother or older sister to show me how, and my grandmother has never offered to do so, but I'm sure I've refrained from doing any of those things for other reasons, too.
I readily admit one reason to myself. I am fully aware that I have made choices that will keep boys from noticing me or caring about me, including deliberately wearing clothing that makes me uninteresting. The reason is simply that I wish I really was invisible or at least slowly disappearing, and being ignored helps me feel as if I am. I know all this contributes toward why people think me somewhat weird, so in a real sense, I suppose I am at fault. I am a bit mad.
And it isn't just my fellow students who remark about me. Over the past sixteen years, I probably heard some adult whisper something like "That girl should see a psychiatrist" a dozen times if I heard it once, and even if people didn't say it, they surely thought it. I could see it in their eyes as they followed me along while I walked with my head down, skulking through the village of Sandburg or to the Doral House.
It was interesting to me that I could not refer to where I lived as home. To this day I call it the Doral House, as if I knew instinctively that I was living in a place that was as temporary for me as the various small hotels and tourist houses in this New York mountain area were for vacationers.
Other girls and boys my age would say they had to get home, whereas I would say, "I have to get back to the Doral House." I made it sound like a safe haven, like my private embassy where I had diplomatic privileges and immunities. Once I was shut up inside it, no one could bother me, no one could send any accusatory darts from his or her eyes, and none of their dark whispers could penetrate the walls.
In a very true sense, then, my mother, the woman I had yet to meet, had turned me into a prisoner as well. That was why it wasn't all that difficult for me to spend so much time alone up here and why I would sit by this attic window for hours looking out at the world the way she had. The questions I would ask myself from the moment I understood the story, as well as the questions I knew to be on everyone else's minds, were, What else did she pass on to me? What similar demon hovered under my breast? What would I become? Would I end up in an attic of my own making?
As I imagined her doing, I would sprawl and put my ear to the floor to listen to the muffled sounds and voices below to try to picture what everyone was doing. I wanted to feel exactly the way she had felt. For most of her day, this was her only contact with anyone. I thought the loneliness would have been enough to drive her mad, even if she had come up here in a clearly sane state of mind.
The only pictures I have of my mother were the pictures my aunt Zipporah had of the two of them. If looking at these pictures could wear the image down, they would have disappeared long ago. It was like studying the Mona Lisa to see what clues I could find in that smile, those eyes, the turn of her mouth, the way she held her head. I even studied how my mother cupped her fingers against her hip in one picture. Did she always do that? Did it mean she was always tense, afraid? Who was she? What was her voice like? Was mine at all similar? What about her laugh? Was it short and insecure like mine, or was she totally uninhibited?
Babies cling so firmly to all those magical little things about their mothers. They are reassured by their mothers' smiles. Their mothers' love and the melodic flow of their mothers' praises help them feel safe, comforted, but, most important, never alone. I had to imagine all that, pretend I had heard it. Was it part of my madness that I thought I could hear her whispering up here or thought I had caught a glimpse of her dressed in a shadow's movement caused by the sun and clouds and especially the moon? Or was it all just my desperate need to know?
I could see the unhappiness on my grandparents' faces whenever I had the courage to ask about my mother, and I especially could see the fear in my grandmother's eyes. It was like asking about the devil. It was better not to ask, not to be curious, but what child would not want to know? It was what drove orphans to pursue their origins, for to know as much as you could about your parents meant you would know so much more about yourself.
It was in fact the way to find the answer to the haunting question we all ask about ourselves, perhaps all our lives. Who am I? And not just who am I to other people, but who am I to myself?
For me the answer was buried in the twisted and crooked way my history was entwined. To discover the answer, I had to unravel it.
At first it was all told to me in simple ways, like my grandmother explaining what a grandmother was really supposed to be and what she was now. Whether she intended to do it or not, she made it clear to me that even though she was doing what a mother should be doing, she could never fully fill a mother's shoes. Of course, as soon as I understood, I wanted to know why I didn't have a mother or a father with whom I lived just as other girls and boys my age did.
"The reason you don't have a mother and a father is because people are supposed to get married first and plan when to have their children so they could take care of them properly," she said. "Yours didn't."
She didn't come right out and call me a mistake. She told me I was as unexpected as a sudden summer thunderstorm. I actually used to think I fell out of the sky, came floating down like a leaf from a tree to settle at their front door. Sometimes, I wished it was true, wished that I had been left on their doorstep. It was all so much easier to accept when you believed a stork brought you to your family. That way a baby was his or her own little person and arrived without any baggage, and especially without any dark past. Stork babies were truly like Adam and Eve, original, born with no past, only a future.
However, at an earlier age than most of the girls around me, I learned the so-called Facts of Life, and so the stork, like so many of the fantasies other girls were being told, was swept outside my door. It was too dangerous for me especially not to know the hard, cold realities as soon as possible. According to my grandmother, who still worked as a special-duty nurse at the hospital, teenage pregnancy was practically a raging plague, and after all, wasn't that what happened in this very house? The chance of that happening again was greater for me because of who my mother was. No one came right out and said so, but I could hear it whispered in every dark corner. I could feel it. It was palpable in every fearful glance. As Karen Stoker's daughter, I was more susceptible to weakness and lust than most girls my age would be. I must be aware of that at all times and therefore be extra cautious.
Maybe that was an even more important reason why I did everything I could to keep boys from noticing me. I was afraid it was true, afraid of myself. "Stay out of the water and you can't drown," I told myself. For a long time, it wasn't all that difficult for me to do. Boys didn't look at me with desire, only amusement.
Being she was a nurse, my grandmother was always good about explaining the mechanics of sex. She made it sound as impersonal as the workings of a car engine, maybe to keep me from being at all intrigued or interested. Until I reached puberty, her efforts were successful. I found her lectures dry and boring and wondered what all the excitement was about.
"However," she told me in a veiled warning, "even if you explain it all clearly to your son or to your daughter, there's nothing you can do if he or she permits his or her body to take control of his or her mind. There's nothing you can do," she said, her voice drifting off under the pressure of the heavy regret. I knew she felt like a policewoman whose son had become a bank robber. I didn't know whether to hate him or not for causing me to be born. I saw him so rarely and had little opportunity to think of him as my father. I really had no clear understanding of how much of him was in me.
I winced every time I heard someone refer to another girl or boy my age to be so much like his or her father or mother that they were like two peas in a pod.
Whoever said it in my presence usually said it loud enough for me to hear. Of course, I suspected this person was thinking my mother and I were two peas in a pod and not my father and I. My grandparents had told me so little. How was I to know if it was true or not?
Actually, I had learned the most about my mother and the tragic events from my aunt Zipporah, who had been my mother's best friend at the time of the tragedy, and against my grandmother's wishes had given me those pictures of the two of them. It was from Aunt Zipporah that I learned that before anything terrible had occurred, she and my mother had turned the attic into their private imaginary world. I would never have known otherwise, because neither my grandmother nor my grandfather would talk about it and because my grandfather and my father had emptied it of all that had been in it and remodeled it. I suppose it was their attempt to erase the past. However, Aunt Zipporah helped me understand why and how it had been their playground before it had become a prison.
She described how they fantasized up here, pretending the sofa was a car taking them on cross-country trips. She told me about the old clothing they had found in old chests, and how they dressed in them and put on the heavy shoes, clumping about pretending to be this one or that one. They made up stories to fit the pictures of former residents they had discovered in dresser drawers, in boxes and cartons.
"We were surprised at how much the former residents had left behind. Your mother called the attic a 'nest of orphans.' She was so good at imagining what their lives had been like. She spun tales of love and deceit, loss and joy, adventure and romance on a magical loom. The attic walls are full of our laughter and pretended sobs and wails. For us it was way more fun than watching television or going to a movie."
I clung to every word she used to describe my mother. I was truly like a starving person treasuring crumbs. The stories she told about the two of them filled me with such warmth and pleasure. I couldn't help wishing that I had a friend that close who would do similar things with me, a friend whose parents weren't afraid of her coming here to spend time with me and share intimate feelings and thoughts. How wonderful it must have been for both of them to have someone each could trust, have someone who brought her joy and happiness.
Aunt Zipporah described how inventive, imaginative and unpredictable my mother had been even outside of the attic, and how that had given her so much pleasure.
"If it weren't for your mother, life in this small town would have been boring for me. We had moved up from a far more urban area close to New York City, where there was so much more to do, but your mother made sure that nothing was ever what it was in reality. Karen cast her imagination at homes, people, even dogs and cats and turned them into fantasies. People used to say we walked on air and bounced about as if we had swallowed helium. In those early days, they were always smiling at us, shaking their heads and laughing at our boundless energy. They enjoyed us."
She said other girls were jealous of their relationship.
"They stared at us with half smiles, wishing we would let them into our world," she told me, a half smile on her face as well.
It filled her with such pleasure to remember, but she was also so saddened by the way it had all turned out. When she relived all that, her smile would evaporate and be replaced with a pained expression that made it look like she was having a severe headache. I couldn't help feeling that she had felt betrayed, that her trust and love were things she should have been more careful about spending, especially when you realize how her and my mother's tale had ended.
Finishing high school here had been difficult for Aunt Zipporah afterward, but she had recuperated enough to do well and go on to college in New Paltz, where she had met and married Tyler James, a young man who had inherited his own café in the city where the state college was located. She earned her degree, but she didn't go on to be a teacher as she had intended. Instead, she worked in their café, and over the past two summers, I spent time there working as a busgirl, clearing off tables and sometimes helping with the hostess duties. I was happier there because I was away from my mother's history, which remained like some ugly stain, not only on me but also on the very streets and buildings.
Even people who were too new to the community or too young to have known my mother and my maternal grandmother, Darlene Pearson, knew the story. It was the most infamous tale in the community. The drugstore my mother's stepfather owned, Pearsons Drug Store, was practically a historic landmark because of what had happened. Nothing different had been done to the front of it and very little to the inside, from what I was told.
Not long after I had been born, Darlene Pearson (I can think of her only as Darlene Pearson), my maternal grandmother, sold the store, and it had been sold again since. She moved away, or, as I had heard many times, she fled, literally packing up and driving off in the middle of the night. No one, not even my grandparents, knew where she had eventually gone. Her real estate agent had been sworn to secrecy and handled all the paperwork between herself and the buyer, the Harrison family, who owned the lumber and hardware company in Sandburg. As far as I knew, my grandparents had never received a phone call or any written inquiry from Darlene Pearson asking about me.
Neither she nor my real mother had anything to do with naming me, nor, as far as I knew, did my real father. When I asked why my mother had no interest, my grandmother told me she didn't know I existed.
"How can she not know that?" I asked. "Surely, she knew she was pregnant and knew she had given birth to me."
"I'm only telling you what I've been told by the doctors at the clinic. Your mother is not in her right mind. She has blocked out any memory of you. It's better if we don't talk about it. It makes me just as upset as it does you," she said and snapped her hand in the air between us as if that would send all the questions and all the answers out of the house.
No matter what she told me, I couldn't imagine not remembering you were pregnant and had given birth. She must be pretending she can't remember, I thought. According to my aunt Zipporah, my mother was so good at pretending that I imagined she could even fool brilliant doctors.
My grandmother decided to call me Alice. When I once asked her why, she said, "Because maybe like Alice, you'll fall into a Wonderland someday."
Consequently, Alice in Wonderland was one of the first books I ever read and soon after, escaping into another world became my dream. I couldn't help feeling that no one, not even my aunt Zipporah, was all that happy to see me in this one. Darlene Pearson was certainly not happy about it. It was the final straw, sending her fleeing into the night.
Of course, I wondered almost as much about my maternal grandmother as I did about my mother. How could she have no interest at all in her own flesh and blood? How could she not have at least some curiosity? Later, when I was older, it gave me pause to wonder if the details of my mother's tragic story were true after all. Perhaps she wasn't so crazy when she killed Harry Pearson and the things she had claimed he had done to her were really done to her. I didn't know specific details, but I knew it had to do with sexual abuse. Perhaps Darlene Pearson was running away from that as much as running away from anything because she felt responsible, guilty since it happened in her home to her daughter.
Of course, I had a selfish reason to hope this was possible. If it had all happened as my mother had first alleged, I wouldn't have evil to inherit. I'd be the daughter of a victim not a mad person, and people would owe me sympathy, not disdain. They could be cordial, not fearful. I'd have lots of friends. I'd be invited to parties and sleepovers, and the gloomy cloud that hovered always over my head would be blown away. I would walk in sunshine. I could smile and laugh and, most important, not be so afraid of the shadows that spilled out of the moonlight and edged farther and farther, closer and closer toward the Doral House and toward me. When they arrived, I'd be like Dr. Jekyll and turn into Mr. Hyde, unless I really was the victim's daughter.
But without ever meeting my mother or my grandmother, how would I ever know what was true and what was not? It was truly as if I had no maternal family. I knew only the relatives on my father's side, and even they were distant and impersonal. Because I saw him from time to time, I at least knew something about my father. I snuck peeks at his high school and college yearbooks, and there were all the pictures in my grandfather's office, of course.
I knew my father was bright and handsome and had once been a very good athlete, a college baseball star, but he moved away after he achieved his law degree, and my contact with him became infrequent. I understood that my grandfather and my father had dreamed of opening their own law firm here in upstate New York someday but the events that led to my birth pretty much made that impossible. A so-called wise business decision was made and my father took the California state bar exam and put as much distance between himself and the past, which included me, as possible.
Not long after that, he had married Rachel Petersen, another attorney in the firm he had joined in Los Angeles, and she had given birth to twin boys, Justin and Austin, who were now five. They were my half brothers, of course, but to keep peace in his marriage and new family, my father and my grandparents, as well as Rachel, had decided that in front of the twins, they would treat me as if I were my grandparents' child. Otherwise, they would be just too confused. Justin and Austin were growing up believing I was their aunt. They lived far enough away and were never exposed to the truth.
When I was older, I understood the fabrication was created more for Rachel than it was for the twins. My father's wife didn't want to think about him having had a child with a woman out of wedlock, a woman who had committed murder and had gone into a mental institution. Of course, none of their friends or business associates back in California had any idea. She was adamant about keeping the secret buried.
"I don't ever want Jesse to think of you as his daughter," Rachel told me on one of their recent visits when we were alone. "It's better for all of us if we continue forever to pretend what happened never happened, better especially for my children."
"I know. I just appeared magically," I told her. "One day my mother had a headache and then I popped out of her head, just like Athena popped out of Zeus's head." I had just read the myth in English class.
She wasn't looking at me when she had spoken, but her head sure snapped around when I replied. I had never taken that tone with her. Her eyes were wide with both anger and fear. My stepmother, which was who she really was even though she never acknowledged it, always was uncomfortable around me. I once overheard her tell my father that she thought I stared at her in a very unnatural way because of how I narrowed my eyes and stiffened my lips.
"I feel her resentment," she told him.
"That's silly, Rachel. How could she? She doesn't understand all this."
I was only about five then myself, not that it mattered to her. I could have been two. She wanted me to be unnatural; she wanted me to be weird.
"Oh yes, she does," she insisted. "Yes, she does."
I thought that if anyone believed I inherited evil, it was Rachel.
She was a tall, thin, dark brunette with hazel eyes and that light toast California complexion. I could see why she would be a successful attorney. She had a careful exactness about everything, as if she had a built-in editing machine to trim her dialogue so as never to waste words. No one had to wonder what she meant when she spoke. She was even that way with the twins, and especially with my father.
I wondered if they had fallen in love or simply fallen into marriage.
It was easy to see that he was at a disadvantage every time they visited us. I was sure that before they arrived, all sorts of promises had been made, stipulations, as she might refer to them. It wasn't difficult for me to imagine what they were. In my mind, my father practically had them printed on his forehead or had agreed to them by signing in blood. Even before they arrived, I heard them whispered in the wind.
Don't spend very much time alone with Alice, time without the boys, too.
Don't show any more interest in her than you do in them.
Don't permit them to call her anything but Aunt Alice and don't let them spend too much time alone with her either.
Don't ever take the twins up to the attic.
Don't ever ask any questions about Karen Stoker or her mother in front of me or the boys.
And remember, we don't stay too long and we must never, ever give Alice even the slightest reason to hope that she might come to live with us someday.
It occurred to me that my father would never stop paying for his sins. It also occurred to me that he deliberately married a woman who would see to that because he never wanted to stop punishing himself for disappointing his own parents.
At least I had a purpose. I made my father's pain everlasting.
How would you like that to be your reason for being born?
Copyright © 2008 by the Vanda General Partnership