When I was 7 years old I lived with my dad and step-mom in N. Andover, MA. I had a pet bird, and a few diseased kittens, one after another, who for some reason would be very cute for a few days and then succumb to some kind of malady that left them foaming at the mouth, collapsing on the floor.
I wore my hair long until I grumbled about having to brush it, and wash it, and my step-mom took me to get it cut. I had a few friends at school, and a few in the neighborhood. I’d heard my first Go Go’s record when my friend Alicia played 7” on her Holly Hobby portable turntable, and I loved it so much I couldn’t dance, I was just too awed. At school I was often in trouble. I preferred looking out the window to paying attention in class. I liked to read, and did quite a bit of that. I was in Brownies. Vicki’s mom was the troop leader, and my parents talked about how Vicki ran wild because her mom was a single mom.
My dad worked in Boston, and my after a while, my step-mom did too. They were saving to buy a house in my step-mom’s home town, Hanover, MA. She was very earnest about wanting to stay home and take care of me, but the extra money was important. I had a babysitter, a 16 year old high school girl whose best friend lived in our same building. She would take me down to her friend’s, where there was a color tv, as opposed to our little black and white, and we would watch General Hospital. She got fired after taking me for a joy ride, but that was after Luke and Laura’s wedding.
There was always some tumult about what relationship labels we should have in our house. My mom was my mom, and she lived far away in New York City. My dad was my dad, and he did the dad thing of working, and coming home tired, and wanting to sleep in on Saturdays. But my step-mom was this odd confluence of relationships. She was my mom but she wasn’t my mom. She wasn’t my friend, even though she was young, 15 or 16 years older than me, 10 years younger than my mom and dad. I didn’t call her by her name, because that would have seemed rude. I didn’t call her step-mom, because same, so I ended up calling her a pet-name her nephew had called her when he was just learning to speak. This ended up being the name we all called her, and she seemed to like it well enough. Although she would say things like “I’m your real mom, don’t ever forget that,” with tears in her eyes. She would tell me what real moms are supposed to do, they’re supposed to take care of their children, and nurture them, and be home to bake cakes on the first day of school. Real moms are not supposed to live in New York City while their daughter lives in N. Andover, MA. Real moms are not supposed to put their careers first.
I internalized all of this. My dad felt it too. We both felt lucky, dad and I, to have a mom in our lives after the first one had so heartlessly checked out. I wanted to call my step-mom ‘mom,’ it seemed like the right thing to do, but I couldn’t do it. I had a mom, and we all knew that. I missed my mom, and wrote her letters. Once I wrote a letter to my mom, using a Stevie Nicks record to lean on. I didn’t know it, but the ball-point pen left indelible tracks on the album cover. My step-mom saw the tracks, and cried when she made out the words. She wanted to be my mom, she wanted that. And it seemed plain to me, writing letters to my distant mom, that my mom didn’t want that.
I wanted to prove my loyalty to my step-mom and dad. I wanted them to know how much I loved them, and appreciated them, and our life. I wanted my step-mom to know that if I could, I would blot out my mom, I would make her my mom, and leave me own mom behind forever. Even though that would be a lie.
I told my mom I didn’t want to come visit her anymore. I told her I didn’t like her, that she was ugly. I told her that she wasn’t my real mom, that real moms take care of their kids, and don’t live far away, and don’t have big careers that they care about more than they care about their kids. I died inside, but I said it anyway. My dad called my mom “shit-head,” and my step-mom and I giggled, and she held me tight. We accused my mom of neglect, of being self-absorbed, of not caring about me. We went back in time, to right after my birth, and used examples of their life then to prove that this had always been so, to prove that my mom’s only purpose was to birth me for my step-mom to raise.
I wanted my mom to hurt, I wanted her to know how much she’d been missing when she missed out on raising me; I wanted my step-mom to love me, to know that I was hers, to not cry. I wanted my dad to know I was cool with this life, that it was a good life, that he’d done his best by me and that I was grateful. No matter how many times I said I didn’t want to go visit my mom, she made me go. She said “you’re coming to see me, you can’t say no.” And that was that. I would get on a plane. I would cry the whole way there. I would be comforted by sad stewardesses who would hold me tight and dry my eyes and bring me extra nuts.
A few months ago I told my mom how I’d felt. She said she hadn’t known what was going on, about the manipulation that after a few years turned into abuse, but she knew that she wouldn’t give up on a relationship with me. She didn’t believe me when I said I didn’t want to see her. Even at the time, when I would have to go, with the odd arrangement where I brought no clothes but those I wore on the plane, and barely anything else in my tiny, backpack carry-on, I was so glad that she made me go, so glad that she wanted to see me.
(I finally gave in and read about the Farrow/Allen accusations that are making the rounds, and thought I’d think about what I was up to when I was 7. It’s hard being a kid.)
My Aunt sent me these photos this past fall, except for the last one, which T. Tara recently dug up.