By Nikki Grey
My mother’s hand shook as she set the black velvet jewelry box on my lap. I knew she was trying to seem excited to give it to me, which was true of course, but she also was attempting to hide the fear in her eyes with the smile on her face.
I opened the box and saw the golden heart-shaped locket. An intricate carving of a mockingbird decorated its face along with a long stem of flowers. I knew the significance of this special gift. I knew she was going to die soon.
This necklace would soon be all I would have left of my mom.
I wore the locket around my neck day and night, even in the shower, for weeks before the day came when my foster mother pulled me aside and told me to go upstairs with her. Right away, I knew something was wrong. My foster mother never asked me to come to her room, even if I was in trouble. Besides, the look in her eyes was not one of contempt— the way she usually looked at us if she were upset, or just in general really, like every time any of us spoke. She never did like any of her foster kids much. But today my foster mother looked less cold and distant than usual. She appeared old and somber. I felt small and young. I was 13.
Immediately I knew what my foster mother was going to tell me. My golden locket clung to my chest, seemingly heavier than before. With its weight my real heart sank, too, because I knew.
I knew as I glanced at my foster sister. She knew, too. I knew as I climbed the staircase up to my foster mother’s room. I knew as I sat on her bed and she put her arms around me. The gesture broke my resolve and I started to cry.
My foster father was also in the room. He sat on the bed with us. I sat waiting between them, two people who hardly knew me and definitely didn’t like me. I held my breath and blinked back a few tears. Then my foster mother delivered the news.
I saw it coming. I’d known for months. I knew it would hurt, but I didn’t really know. I didn’t know my body would shake uncontrollably. I didn’t know I would let these strangers try to comfort me. I didn’t know I would feel so alone. I clutched my golden locket in my hand and held on tight. I didn’t want to let go.
That was my final memory of my mother. It wasn’t a memory of her really, as much as it was my experience of her death. Now all that’s left are memories. The problem is that sometimes I’m not sure I really knew my mother all that well. I saw her as beautiful and fun, but who was she to everyone else? My mother was a drug addict to my older sister when we were growing up; Mom always let her down. To my younger brother she was just a compilation of stories and brief memories of being held as a child; he was only 10 when she died. Her parents viewed her differently from her friends, different from her kids.
Her kids. My brother and sister. Different perceptions and memories of the same woman. My grandpa and grandma. Different stories to define the girl. Who was she? Who was my mom?
My mother. Born July 2nd, 1959. Died November 12th, 2001. Since I grew up shuffled back and forth between Mom and Dad before going into foster care when I was 12, I’ve had to speculate on memories about my mother.
I’ve never known much about my mom’s childhood. Family secrets that are guarded even from me shield the truth. What I know for sure is that my grandma is a schizophrenic and that my mom had a difficult time being raised by her. I’ve always known my grandma as the sweetest woman imaginable. But I’ve only known her since she’s been medicated. My grandma hurt my mom to an extent unknown to me. Even considering that, I still think the secrets are not just protecting my grandma. I think they are meant for my grandpa as well.
“Nikki, you are so beautiful. Just don’t gain any weight,” Grandpa said.
I found this comment ironic seeing as how we were sitting in a booth at Denny’s and he had insisted that I order a Grand Slam. Crazy old man.
“Your mother always took care of herself. She was very petite and always cared about her appearance. When she was your age, your mom would always ask me if she was pretty. She’d say, ‘Dad, am I pretty?’ and I’d say, ‘Well, yes you are pretty. You’re not the prettiest girl in the world, there are plenty of girls out there that are prettier than you, but yes, you’re pretty.’”
Grandpa said this with an air of authority. He frequently told me how he didn’t need me or anyone else in his life if they didn’t respect him. Under the category of respect fell listening and following his advice.
Somehow, my pancakes didn’t look as appetizing as they did before.
My mother was born in Southern California. In high school she was outgoing and popular. She was a cheerleader, and all three of her brothers were on the football team. She dated a lot. Several years later, when Mom was dying, she wrote me a letter warning me about boys.
“I know we’ve already talked about this but the more I talk about it, maybe this way you might be more careful when you have choices to make,” my mother wrote. “And just to make it clear, I do trust you Nikki it’s the other people I don’t trust. And young pretty girls like you have it harder because boys, even men, come around you more often. And that’s what worries me and that’s who I don’t trust.”
When she was in school, my mother earned good grades and practiced the violin and piano privately with tutors. I don’t know if she did this because she wanted to or because her dad thought that she should.
I wonder why my mom did a lot of the things that she did. Did her actions stem from the insecurity of never being good enough for her father? Did that contribute to her marriage to an abusive man, my father? Is that why she did drugs? But the outside world saw a different side of her. My mother was loud, outgoing and pretty, but I wonder how she felt on the inside.
“You’re vivacious, Nikki, just like your mom,” my aunt, the younger sister of my mother, said.
I was upset because my older sister was getting all the attention. She was pretty and smart and no matter what I did, I always came in second. She was so beautiful and I was homely, I thought. At fourteen years old I was already more like my mother than I had realized.
My other aunt — my mother’s sister-in-law — had been my mom’s closest friend. When they were in their twenties and even after they had kids, they partied a lot. Several of these incidents involved my mother having run-ins with the cops, whether it was her flashing them (in a drunken attempt to save her sister-in-law from a D.U.I. arrest, which worked) or punching one in the face at a concert when she was pregnant with my brother.
Once when my mother and her sister-in-law were getting home from a night out, a man who was dressed in black and wearing a mask approached them. The girls were drunk and giggling, fumbling to find house keys, so they didn’t see the man approach them. He grabbed my mother’s tiny clutch purse, but she wouldn’t let it go. My mother, standing 5’2” and weighing not more than 100 pounds, fought the much larger man. They tugged back and forth, her long red fake nails seemingly not getting in the way. It went on like that for at least five minutes, my mom’s sister-in-law watching mutely, paralyzed with fear and shock. Finally the exasperated mugger gave up on my mother’s purse and in a split second, with hardly any effort at all, snatched her sister-in-law’s very large bag and took off running. In tears (my aunt is one of those women who carry her whole life in her bag), she asked my mother what she had in the purse that made her fight for it so hard. My mom smiled and, without a word, opened the bag.
Her driver’s license and red lipstick.
“Nikki, you have a good heart,” my mom said to me as she tucked a strand of my hair out of my face and placed it behind my ear.
We were sitting in our car, parked somewhere I can’t recall. It has been a long time since that day when I was around eight years old trying to console my mother. I could see that she was depressed. She holed herself in her room all the time, upset because her boyfriend had left her. I listened to her and held her when she cried. I gave my mom advice. I told Mom her boyfriend would come back because he loved her.
“I should spend more time taking care of you rather than the other way around,” my mom said.
I shook my head vigorously in disagreement. I didn’t need anything as long as she was happy; I just needed her.
But my mom was gone a lot and eventually got busted by the cops for drug dealing. My sister, brother and I moved in with our father and some time after getting out of jail Mom moved away. Eventually I was taken away from my father by social services. Months later, Mom died.
I imagine that she is with me sometimes. She clapped when I caught my first pop fly in a softball game. She smiled when I graduated from high school. My mom cried silently when I lost myself to depression and drugs, like she did. She was there holding my hand when I picked myself up and refused to continue the cycle, graduated from college, chased my dreams as a writer and got married to a man I adore, who treats me wonderfully. She is proud that I didn’t end up like her.
My mom is there every night when my grandma calls me to tell me she loves me.
My grandma loved her daughter. I know that much, no matter what happened before the pills. Grandma, to the degree she was allowed, took care of her daughter’s kids when she wouldn’t. When Mom was gone for days at a time, Grandma was there, taking care of us. To this day Grandma insists my mother was a good mom. Grandma was a good mom when she had the drugs; my mom was a good mom when she was off the drugs. Unfortunately, by the time she cleaned up, my mom was dying.
So, which version of my mom should I choose to remember, I wonder. The mom who left us for days at a time? The one who is responsible for my sister’s tears when she made Mom a cake with her Easy Bake Oven for Mother’s Day and Mom didn’t show up? Should I remember the larger-than-life party girl? Or should I remember the remorseful mom, who was sorry, who warned me about boys, who wanted a second chance to do things right, to be there for softball games and graduations?
I don’t know if it’s that simple, but if I had to, I would choose the latter. She would have liked it that way.
I loved this. What a beautiful, brave essay. Thank you!!
You are a very talented writer Nikki. Miss you.