This provocative, poignant memoir of a daughter whose mother left her behind by choice begs the question: Are we destined to make the same mistakes as our parents?
One summer, Melissa Cistaro's mother drove off without explanation Devastated, Melissa and her brothers were left to pick up the pieces, always tormented by the thought: Why did their mother abandon them?
Thirty-five years later, with children of her own, Melissa finds herself in Olympia, Washington, as her mother is dying. After decades of hiding her painful memories, she has just days to find out what happened that summer and confront the fear she could do the same to her kids. But Melissa never expects to stumble across a cache of letters her mother wrote to her but never sent, which could hold the answers she seeks.
Haunting yet ultimately uplifting, Pieces of My Mother chronicles one woman's quest to discover what drives a mother to walk away from the children she loves. Alternating between Melissa's tumultuous coming-of-age and her mother's final days, this captivating memoir reveals how our parents' choices impact our own and how we can survive those to forge our own paths.
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Pieces of My Mother
By Melissa Cistaro
Sourcebooks, Inc.Copyright © 2015 Melissa Cistaro
All rights reserved.
a house underwater
Bun-Bun notices my mom outside before I do. He tells me about it. We watch her walk toward her car. She's wearing her summer dress that is the color of ripe avocados. Her brown purse, slung over her shoulder, is as fat as the raccoon that crawls into our garbage cans late at night, and she has an armful of clothes hooked into her elbow. Her favorite coat drops onto the pavement. It doesn't look like a coat the way it crumples up on the ground.
I know that coat so well, every bit of tan, brown, yellow, and red — every small wooden button. So many times I have traced the curling patterns and small rows of dots with my fingertip, and my mom always reminds me that the pattern is called "paisley." She turns around, picks up her favorite paisley coat, and tosses it on top of the pile of clothes she's already put in the backseat of her blue car, then slams the car door shut.
As she turns around to look back at the house, I have Bun-Bun do a little wave and a dance as I duck below the window in my room. She'll think Bun-Bun has really come to life. His tan head and floppy ears are made of real rabbit fur that only recently began to shed around his green eyes and on the tips of his ears. I know how to make him look like he's hopping through a field. I lift my eyes just above the ledge. My mom is standing next to the car looking down at her feet.
I am supposed to be taking a nap, but it's too hot and I don't like to sleep. During nap time my whole room comes to life and anything can happen. Stuffed animals talk to each other, fairies fly out of the wall sockets, and plastic horses gallop across the hardwood floor. My brother told me that when I'm five like him, I won't have to stay in my room during nap time.
For days now the air has been like fire, so hot that it ripples above the concrete and makes things outside look like they are underwater. It is the kind of heat that has made our next-door neighbor's dogs hide underneath our house where it's cool and dusty. Mr. Bird, who owns the dogs, came over and told us this just yesterday.
"Dogs know what to do with themselves when California heats up like this, but not people," he said. "It's the kind of heat that could cause some folks to snap." And when he said that word, "snap," he took the toothpick out of his teeth and broke it in two. Then he laughed like he thought he was clever. Later, I saw his broken toothpick on our porch and kicked it into the dead grass where it got lost in all the yellow.
I open my bedroom door and peer into the living room. My brother Eden is asleep on the couch with a box of Lucky Charms wedged underneath his arm. The TV is on and I watch for a moment as Underdog flies across the gray screen, and I remember that my brother Jamie isn't here. He's almost six and the oldest. He left the house earlier to go swimming in his friend Bobby Winston's pool. My mom was mad when Mrs. Winston showed up early to grab Jamie for swimming. She told Mrs. Winston that she only had two cigarettes left and didn't want to go out to the store in the heat.
When Mom is out of cigarettes, she counts on Jamie to be here with Eden and me so she can run down to the corner market. If she has to wait too long to get them, the house begins to swell with noise — the clap of cupboards opening and closing, the crack of the ice-cube tray slamming against the counter, and her voice rising over ours like a mockingbird.
I wish that Mrs. Winston had offered to lend her some cigarettes or get her some, but she didn't. She just pointed to her hairdo, which she called a "beehive," and said, "This darn heat is just killing me and my hair too."
After Mrs. Winston left, my mom said she thought that hairstyle looked "goddamn ridiculous." I picked up the box of cigarettes lying on the table and carried it to my mom. She tapped the last two out of the package. Then we sat side by side on the plaid couch as she smoked each of them. Out of her red shiny lips came rings of smoke like little white doughnuts floating through the air. I reached up and stuck my finger through the center of one. She pulled my arm away and whispered, "No, just watch."
She said she liked it when the rings began to lose their shape and stretch out. She said they were beautiful the way they disappeared. I didn't like it when they went away. I preferred it when they first came out of her red lips and looked like powdered doughnuts.
"Make more," I said. And she did, like magic, over and over.
With my brother Eden asleep and Underdog ducking back into a telephone booth, I sneak past them and into the kitchen where our old fan is clunking around in circles, but no cool air is coming out. On the counter there is a pitcher of sticky orange Kool-Aid with three black flies floating on the surface. The sight of the soggy flies makes me uneasy, and in an instant, the heat feels like it will swallow me. I want my dad to come home from work.
I race back to the window in my room to see if my mom is coming back in. She is standing in the same place. I want to tell her that it is too hot out there for her, that she could melt. But she's stuck out there, it seems, and I'm stuck in here.
I need her to come back in the house. I need her to tell me that nap time is over and that tonight we will go to Fosters Freeze where the ice cream races out of a noisy machine and into perfect swirls of vanilla and chocolate.
Instead, she opens the car door and gets in. I lay my hand against my bedroom window. The glass is warm and it feels like I can almost reach her.
I know this is not a trip to get cigarettes.
I want to yell out to her: "Please don't leave ..." I am trying to say it. But nothing comes out. I just watch her without blinking once. Bun-Bun and I both have stupid plastic eyes and sewed-on mouths. Inside of us there is nothing but sawdust.
Then I see her mouth break open wide like a fish gasping for air. She is crying inside her car. The air wobbles above the concrete. Everything is underwater. It crosses my mind that I could swim to her if I knew how. Jamie does; he would swim to her if he were here.
I press my forehead against the glass and swallow every word I know. Underwater, everything is quiet and full of ripples. My mom is a mermaid as she swims away from me, her thick hair waving like strands of long seaweed. I don't hear the sound of the car engine starting up, but I watch as my mom backs up and drives away in her baby-blue Dodge Dart.
* * *
Jamie says he was bad and that's why Mom left. Eden cries the most and spends extra time in the backyard looking for gypsy moths and black crickets to kill. I collect small boxes from around the house — empty Band-Aid tins, Lipton Tea containers, and Lucky Strike matchboxes. They are tiny suitcases that I can hide things in. Anything I want: buttons, bad thoughts, daisy petals, and even the shiny sequins that fall off my Christmas stocking. I put these small boxes just beneath my windowsill, all lined up and in order, and keep them there so that I can show them to my mom when she comes back.
Our dad tells us she's taking "a break" from us for a while but he doesn't like to talk about it. Jamie says maybe we will see her when the weather cools down. Or maybe she will come if one of us has a birthday. I keep hoping it is all a mistake. When I hear laughing late at night outside our house, I stay awake in case it is her coming back. And sometimes I hear the radio next door shouting out songs she would sing along to. I can feel her swaying me in her arms and singing "Good-bye, Ruby Tuesday." I am waiting for her to come bolting through the front door and never stop hugging us again.
A sitter, who is not our mom, comes to live at our house so our dad can go back to work. And when that sitter gets tired of us, a new one arrives. Everyone says I am too young to remember what's happened and that children my age simply don't remember the details. I can't blame them for saying that. But I am as quiet as a cat, watching everyone and everything.
a house in los angeles
My sandals clap across the hardwood floor and into the blue room where my children sleep. There are school art projects that dangle from clothespins, Legos in every color, stuffed animals of every breed, and shelves full of books. A small night-light flickers in the corner of the room. My seven-year-old son is already asleep on the top bunk. My little girl has called me back in for the third time. I remind myself to be both patient and firm. She is four.
"Mama, I keep thinking about the scary cat with red eyes."
"Have you tried thinking of all things blue?" I ask, hoping she'll be soothed by our nighttime ritual of naming all the things in the world that could possibly be blue.
"Yes. I tried that. I can't sleep," she says with a whimper. She reaches out and pulls at my arm. I do not feel the patience in me tonight.
"Mama, can you stay with me on my bed? Please?"
She doesn't understand that I am goddamn tired. My husband is out of town, as he is so often these days. I know that if I lie down, I won't be able to get back up. My mind is on the school lunches I haven't yet made, the stacks of dishes lined up all the way around the kitchen counter, and the wet towels that are beginning to smell because they haven't made it into the dryer yet. And then there are the twenty-four shamrock place mats that I promised to cut out for the preschool class tomorrow and the haircut appointment I need to cancel.
I look out to the yellow light in the hallway. The headache that began this afternoon in my neck is now settling in behind my eyes. I rub my left eyebrow back and forth, trying to chase the pain away. I can't do this drawn-out routine with Bella. I can't do the twenty questions, not tonight. Okay, I think, take a deep breath and co un to ten. That's what all the parenting books say to do. I need to come up with something — some kind of sleeping dust from the sandman, some magic spell from Wynken, Blynken, and Nod.
"How about if you close your eyes and think of great names for pets? And not just the name of the pet, but you also have to think of what the pet looks like — in detail."
She stares up at me, her eyebrows furrowed. "But that might make me think of the cat."
Her mind never settles. If she were like her big brother, the routine would be a bedtime story, a back scratch, and off to slumberland. But not Bella. She is a girl with an epic imagination.
"Bella, please. It's time to sleep."
"I'm trying," she protests.
I watch her eyes blink, and tuck the covers snug around her body. I place her velvet bear underneath her chin and her shaggy cat in the crook of her arm. As I lean down to kiss her good-night, her eyes pop open wide and stare at me.
"Mama, what did your mom do when you were scared?"
Her question catches me off guard.
The room seems to tilt sideways. I don't feel dizzy, but heavy — like I might not be able to stand on my own two feet. I recognize it, this feeling, this physical sensation of being pulled backward, like standing in the undertow at Stinson Beach.
I do not recall slipping off my sandals and lying down alongside Bella on her bed. But suddenly I am here next to her, staring up at the ceiling with its tiny glow-in-the-dark stars. Star light. Star bright. First star, I see tonight. Wish I may, wish I might, have this wish I wish tonight.
"Mama," she asks again, "what did your mom do when you were scared?"
"I can't remember, Bella." My body is stiff on the bed. I am trying so hard to do the right things, to be a good mother. "I didn't get scared much," I say. That's not the truth either. "I guess she tucked me in and said things to help me to feel safe. Sort of like the things I say to you."
My mouth aches. I am a coward. I am afraid of the undertow. I don't want her to know that sometimes a mother can't stay. "Let's close our eyes and go to sleep," I whisper to her.
She smiles, pleased that I am lying on her bed, then whispers a reminder, "Don't leave, Mama." The room tilts again; the ceiling stars go blurry. The words I never once said.
I cannot tell Bella that my mom left when I was a little girl. And yet it was a simple fact, a well-memorized statement when I was growing up. "My mom doesn't live with us," I'd say in the same way I'd say, "Lilacs are my favorite flowers." It didn't occur to me that becoming a mother myself could wash to shore the wreckage of the past. To tell my daughter this truth is to tell myself the darkest truth. That I was leavable. Unkeepable.
I come from a long line of mothers who left their children. What if there exists some sort of genetic family flaw, some kind of "leaving gene" that unexpectedly grabs hold of mothers like the ones in my family? What if that leaving gene is lying dormant inside me? And what if my daughter, with her fretful imagination, worries that I might leave one day?
I picture my mom, a thousand miles away. She has always been a thousand or more miles away, except for the occasional visits. Each of us carried her leaving in different ways. When she left, it seemed she took all the colors with her. The world turned gray and itchy like a tight wool sweater pulled across my chest. In the early years, she didn't call us or show up on our birthdays, which deeply upset my father. He hoped she would at least acknowledge us on those special occasions. Later, she began to drift in and out of our lives like our live-in sitters, always seeming just out of our reach. If we were lucky, we might see her once — occasionally twice — a year. And then we never knew when, or if, we would see her again. Perhaps she might have stayed to hold our small hands if she could have foreseen the directions our lives would go after that summer.
How would my daughter thrive if I leaned down to kiss her good-night right now and told her that I couldn't live with her and her brother anymore? And that I wasn't sure when I'd visit next or if I'd come back? How will I ever be able to answer my daughter's questions — or my own?
I close my eyes, rearrange my unbearable thoughts, and tuck them away. I am a mother now. A good mother.
I rest my lips against Bella's shoulder and breathe her in like sweet, warm bread. I want my daughter to feel safe. Every day I rebuild a scaffold inside myself in hopes that she will have something sturdy to hang on to.
It's all I can do for now.
Four Years Later
The telephone rings midmorning. Barefoot, I step outside before answering. It's my mom's sister.
"Melissa, your mom's stopped eating and she's not very — well, cognizant."
"Stopped eating," I repeat. "Okay."
No, this is not okay. I've been tracking my mom's struggle with cirrhosis and liver cancer over the past few years. I've witnessed her health deteriorating during our occasional visits, which I reached out for more frequently since she's been sick. All my fears surface. She is leaving again.
"The hospice nurse doesn't expect her to make it to the new year," says my aunt.
I bite down on my thumbnail until it snaps between my teeth and squint up at the December sun. The calculation is a simple one. New Year's Eve is in six days. Her sixty-fifth birthday is in five. Los Angeles to Seattle. I can get there before the sun sets.
I look through the window at my daughter, Bella, waving a wand in big circles inside the house. Bubbles scramble up in the air and then drift down toward her bare feet. She is almost nine now but still believes in Santa Claus and the magic of Christmas.
"Should I come?" I ask my aunt.
"I don't know. It might be too hard," she says.
I feel an odd pang of jealousy, like she wants to be the only one with my mom when she dies. But I can't explain why I need to be there either. I just know I need to see her one last time. I cannot bear the thought of her sneaking away before I arrive.
"I'm coming," I tell my aunt, acutely aware of how disappointed the kids are going to be that I'm leaving them on Christmas and also feeling that there isn't a moment to waste.
Bella pleads with me not to leave her on Christmas, "of all the days!"
"It's not fair, Mama. Can't you go tomorrow instead?"
I shake my head, unable to articulate my sense of urgency. My son, Dominic, thumbing through a deck of new playing cards, asks, "When are you coming back?"
I look out the window as if the answer is somewhere in the row of yellow and pink roses still blooming in the December sun, or in the way the palm tree casts its slender shadow against the house. I add and subtract the hours, minutes, and seconds. I have to get there before she dies.
"I don't know when I'll be back for sure." I hate that I can't give a definite time. I swore I'd never do this to my own children.
"You have to be back for New Year's Eve," cries Bella. "You have to promise this. Please, Mama?"
"Okay, I promise," I say as I gather a random assortment of clothes and toss them into a suitcase.
Excerpted from Pieces of My Mother by Melissa Cistaro. Copyright © 2015 Melissa Cistaro. Excerpted by permission of Sourcebooks, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Then: A House Underwater,
Now: A House in Los Angeles,
Now: Christmas Day,
Then: Fire and Sugar,
Now: Arriving in Olympia,
Then: One at a Time,
Now: Brown Speckled Hen,
Then: Big Yellow House,
Then: Merry to Melissa,
Then: All Kinds of Flowers,
Then: Prized Possessions,
Now: Between Paper and Pen,
Then: Terry, Our Ninth Live-In,
Now: Into the Wild, Blue Yonder,
Then: All Things Red,
Then: Just Off Center Road,
Now: Inside Out,
Then: The Last Litter,
Now: Ashes, Ashes,
Now: Some Kind of Trust,
Now: Strike Three,
Then: Getting to California,
Then: Running on Empty,
Now: Real Soon, Sugar,
Now: Four-By-Four Photograph,
Now: Permanent Ink,
Then: First Dance,
Now: A Handful of Butterflies,
Then: Pennies on the Dashboard,
Then: The Devil Under Jamie's Bed,
Now: Mind and Heart,
Then: African Tomatoes,
Then: Brick Fight,
Now: Oh, Bean,
Then: Lola Asks,
Then: The Good Girl,
Then: Clear Lake,
Then: The Cost of a Blue Chair,
Now: A Thousand Places at Once,
Now: A Few Small Repairs,
Now: Leaving Olympia,
A Conversation with the Author,
About the Author,