Family, Guest Posts

Tough Questions

August 11, 2016

By Joanell Serra

One night my eight year old niece and I find a quiet moment, and she springs a question on me I don’t see coming.   Which shows the depth my own denial.

We are two weeks into a long summer visit, my niece Molly and her six year old brother Ryan have travelled across the country to visit with myself, my husband, and our two children.  It is a chaotic but fun summer, a mixture of Northern California beach days and trips into foggy San Francisco.  I evoke the ghosts of my own childhood in New Jersey, as I drag the four children through city art museums and Shakespeare in the park. And avoid talking about the certain topics, even in the face of obvious evidence that something is very wrong. 

Tonight Molly and I are alone, doing her hair before bed. It’s a complicated process, that requires just enough (but not too much) conditioner in the shower and liberal use of detangler after a quick towel dry. Next I pull the brush carefully through the mass of her thick brown hair and braid it tightly so she doesn’t wake up with knots and frizz. This morning’s tug of war and tears as I tried to tame her locks motivates me to get it right this time.

I am glad to have the time with only Molly. As the oldest of the four children, she often falls into the role of mother’s helper during the day — more so than she should have to at her age. While my husband enforces bed time in the other room, Molly leans her back on my knee as I braid, her small vertebrae lining up like shells in a row. She tips her head slightly to the left as she follows the story on the television, Sleeping Beauty finding her way to the seven dwarfs for the second time today.

Too much TV, I think. I’ll do better tomorrow. I walk on thin ice during these six week visitations, and beneath the ice is an undercurrent of guilt.

The mothering I am trying to pour into my niece and nephew in six weeks, theoretically to carry them through another year away from us, seem like a tiny drop in a deep bucket of need.  Molly and her brother are perpetually circling the pain at the core of their lives – their motherless-ness — and my own children can seem strangely spoiled by the luxury of having a mother.

At the end of each summer, even as they cry while they hug goodbye, they will all seem a little relieved to push away from this reality, this awkward sharing of parents, of space, of every box of popsicles.  And I will feel that somehow I have failed, again, to make up for the losses they’ve suffered. To right the wrongs heisted the entire family, but especially on these two children, by addiction.

Molly stirs, her braids finally done, and turns to me. I expect her to ask for the next favor: one more show on TV, another Popsicle, for me to read an extra-long chapter book to her. I ready myself to say no, I am too tired tonight.

But instead she springs upon me the question she must have been holding onto all summer, waiting for this moment alone. Perhaps she has been waiting for me to offer this information without her having to ask the question, as I should have.

She places her warm hand on my knee and takes a deep breath. Her wide dark eyes are enormous as she studies my face.

“Aunt Jo, do you know where Amy is?”

My stomach shrinks to a hard knot, like a punch has landed square in my center, and my throat is dry. We so rarely cross this line, referencing her mother, that I almost say, “Who?”  Our entire family participates in this implicit agreement. We don’t talk about my sister anymore.

Molly hasn’t said, “Do you know where my mother is,” but “Amy.”  Molly’s father, who won custody of Molly for the other 46 weeks a year, has a new wife. He insists that Molly call her stepmother “Mom”, and not refer to Amy at all, and most certainly not as her mother.  Molly, always eager to keep the peace, has acquiesced.  Even here, across the country from her father, she is afraid to call my sister “mother”.

And I am afraid to speak of Amy at all. As if saying her name might evoke her presence from the shadows, from the murky life she lives – on and off the streets, drug addicted, in trouble with the law, always in danger.

For years, I was the sister who sought Amy out, who fought for her sobriety, begged for her to stay with us. But since the last time she left, two years earlier, I have reversed course. The children are the priority now – her son and daughter- and I will do everything to protect them. They will have no more nights on a couch in some dealer’s run down living room, no more drunken scenes in the preschool parking lot, vials in the bathroom next to the diaper wipes, soiled baby clothes piled by the sink. No more guns left on the living room table, or strange men banging on the broken porch door.

We have finally given up on my sister’s ability to parent. We have cut a painful deal with the two biological fathers: they will each raise their own child, in New York.  We will have six weeks a year visitation in California, when the children could be together. No-one will let Amy near them. Everyone would do their best to salvage the lives of these two small humans, aged four and six when the papers were signed. We will try to love them so hard the wounds heal.

But here I am two years later, and Molly is waiting for answer.

“No,” I say, “I don’t.”  I am almost grateful I can answer honestly.

I have known Amy’s location a few times that year– in jail, when she called my father for money. On the streets, when she missed my mother’s funeral.  In a hospital, when the insurance company reached one of her ex-husbands.

But this day I have no idea where she is. Not here, not clean or sober, not being a mother to this child who traces the spirals on her pajama pants slowly with one finger.

I notice the polish on her nails has chipped, and offer to fix it up.  Molly’s stepmother works in a Salon, and Molly has come to expect a level of personal grooming that often eludes me. But tonight I wipe the chipped polish off with remover, and paint it with a fresh pink, my hands shaking slightly as I do so.

“I’m sorry,” I say to her, tears pushing through my poor attempt at Auntie- like cheer. “I wish I could tell you she is better.”

“It’s Ok,” Molly pats me lightly, a kitten’s paw on my back. “I know she isn’t better, or she would have come for us.”

I nod, too sad to answer.

“It’s not your fault,” she adds. 

She leans her head into the crook of my shoulder and turns back to Sleeping Beauty, who has tidied the dwarf’s house quite nicely. I let her finish the whole movie, so I can hold her close a little longer. And then she goes to bed, the wiser of the two of us.

Twenty years later, Molly lives here in Northern California, having come out west full time as she navigated the difficult waters of adolescence. She has been forced to face and forgive both of her biological parents again and again as they each succumbed to their addictions, disappeared in the justice systems, and resurfaced, to some degree.

Molly and I have circled the same painful territory repeatedly: I am her aunt, not her mother, and could never completely heal her pain of being abandoned. But she let me try, absorbing all she could. And my husband and I had the pleasure of watching her grow. She has created a life, incorporating the scars of her childhood into a tapestry so rich it makes them almost invisible. Though I can still see them, in the right light, and remember the girl at my knee.

Mostly I see a grown woman. A woman who stands tall in her yoga class, who arrives on our door step for every holiday perfectly adorned.  A woman who shares her life with a deeply committed partner. A woman who teaches children how to read and write, and perhaps most importantly, how to ask important questions.  The children in her classroom are six and seven, about the age Molly was when her mother left.  Molly loves these children hard, healing their ouches as they arise, prodding them to rise up and do their best. Accepting their struggles, and letting them lean on her when they need to.

And so we circle back, we move on, and we rise above. We answer the tough questions, as best we can.

Joanell Serra MFT lives and writes in Northern California. An award winning playwright, novelist and short story writer, she has published stories in Eclectica, Blue Lake Review, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Poydras Review, Limehawk and elsewhere. In 2015, she won a full scholarship to Santa Barbara’s Writer’s Conference and also attended the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. She can be found online at


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