|How do you know someone loves you? Is it the way they stare at you in a crowded room, yet you are the only one present? Is it the way they gently brush the hair from your face, then give a delicate grin? Or is it the way they use those three insignificant words and bring life to them…meaning. I’ll never know, but I can remember what brought me to my endless questioning of the matter.
I remember sitting at the dining room table in the morning. There was always this pathetic painting of a feline plastered on our kitchen wall that I could see from the corner of my eye. The smell of burnt bacon filling the room. I counted the number of seconds before the smoke alarm gave its disgustingly irritating sound, and yet 312 seconds later, it didn’t. I doubted it even worked anymore.
“Here Jill,” my mother approached me with a scalding skillet of char, “Eat your bacon before it gets cold. And wipe that frown off your face! Be glad you have something to eat!” I pouted and rested my plump cheek upon my fist. How can this woman consider this overcooked disaster food? Nonetheless, I picked at the bacon like a treasure chest, sifting through for pieces that were valuable, or in my case, edible.
Mother approached the table, pulled out a chair and sat down. “I’m going to be working late again tonight. I know that you don’t like being home alone, but we need the money.” My silence was apparently an acceptable response, considering the fact that I was always quiet to begin with. Mother was used to it. Five minutes later she glanced over at my plate and noticed my bacon remained untouched, grabbed it and disposed of it in the trash can under the sink.
I grabbed my purple backpack, swung it over my shoulders and exited through the back door. After walking a good six steps, I quickly glanced back at my mother. I don’t know what compelled me to do so, but the image of her staring outside the kitchen window remains with me to this day. She looked solemn, like an old woman who had lost her husband of fifty five years and reminisces back on their memories together.
The rest of my school day centered on what I would do once I got home. Sometimes my mother wouldn’t come home until midnight, sometimes later. I knew she was a waitress at a well-liked eatery five blocks away. I also knew the eatery closed at ten o’clock. But I never asked what those last two to four hours were for. I was no saint either. My knowledge of the infectious desire for grown ups to let loose and have a good time was always my assumption for why my mother would leave me alone so late in the night. She didn’t realize I couldn’t sleep ‘til I knew she was safe at home. Sometimes she would enter the house with a sigh of relief, like she had been working the entire shift by herself. Sometimes she would enter the house with giggles, like a child who just stole candy from the drug store. No matter what the reason might’ve been, one thing was certain, I loved my mother.
I’ll never forget that cold October afternoon, sirens so loud you could hear them miles away. I saw the flashing lights from the distance and immediately ran towards them in dismay, thinking to myself “That must be my neighbor’s house, what could they have done?” As I ran close and closer, I realized that it wasn’t Mr. Whites’s house, or Mrs. Thomas‘s…it was mine. I ran so fast I couldn’t slow down fast enough, and a policeman had to extend his arm to my chest to help me stop.
“Y-y-yes,” I stuttered, horrified at what I was seeing.
“I’m sorry Jill, your mother has been arrested for murder.”
“Murder!” I didn’t mean for the word to escape my mouth so loudly, but my thoughts became a mind of their own.
“Yes honey, murder. Let’s take you downtown for questioning.”
“Well where is my mom? Where is she!?”
“They’re driving her over there as we speak.”
The cops explained to me that my mother was being charged with first degree murder for the death of Paul Peterson, a local businessman with whom she was apparently having an affair with. Oh yes, Paul was married, and yes he had three children. I remember passing by his house, it was ideal. White picket fence, royal blue shutters, and an immaculate green lawn. His life seemed perfect, why did he have to screw it up? And especially with my own mother?
The policemen allowed me to have a face to face conversation with my mother -- straighten things out. I was nervous…all this time I had been living with a murderer. Yet, how can you hate someone you love? The next scene plays out like a movie, my mother approached me in a bright orange jumpsuit, her eyes puffy from tears. She didn’t make eye contact with me until the last second and broke down.
“I’m so sorry! I’m so sorry Jill! I’m so s-sorry!” She began to squeal like a piglet. I had never seen my mother so distraught. I didn’t know how to react. Do I cry because she is crying? Do I get angry because she was now looking at life in prison, and I was obligated to grow up immediately and fend for myself. Neither of those, I just sat there silent.
“You can tell me how much you hate me. You can tell me how disappointed you are in me! What kind of mother am I? I hate myself. I failed you.” She continued to sob inbetween sentences, which made it difficult to cipher her words, but I interpreted her through her emotions.
“I don’t hate you mom. I never have and never will.” I paused slightly. “I love you.”
My mother paused, and looked up at me. Her face red like a beet, her eyes spouting water like Niagara Falls. Through her onion peels of gloom and frustration, she smiled for a brief second. Looking down, she let out a sigh. Whether it was of relief or an excuse to think of what to say next, I wasn’t sure. Finally she looked up at me.
“I don’t deserve your love.”
What kind of response was that! I was furious! I’ve never been good at expressing my emotions, especially in awkward situations, but this was beyond awkward. This was destructive. Before I could say another word, the officer came by and took my mother away. I sat in that cold, detached room for what felt like hours. How could my mother be so vile. I should be given an award for unconditional love, for loving my mother even though she was putting me through all this.
I was later notified that I would be living with my Aunt Claire in Georgia, the last place on Earth I would want to be. Not just because my Aunt Claire lived like the Amish, with no television or radio, but because she was never a part of my life. She didn’t know me. She was there when I was born, and left, never to be seen or heard of again.
I packed my belongings and surveyed my bedroom one last time. This was where I had tea parties as a little girl. Where my mother read me bedtime stories, sometimes more than one, to help me fall asleep. This was where I cried after the first boy I ever kissed deserted me for my former best friend, Helen. I sighed and trudged along. A cop was waiting to escort me to the train station.
When I arrived at my Aunt Claire’s house, I wasn’t nervous or scared or excited. I was indifferent. She came bursting through the front door, arms extended, and a smile so wide I thought she needed more cheek to support it. “Welcome home darling! Oh my goodness, how you have grown! Look at you! You’re taller than me!” I didn’t smile. I didn’t laugh. I was indifferent.
She brought me inside and I felt like I had time traveled to the 1920’s. “Great,” I thought. She had a tea kettle on the stove, whistling away, ready to be poured and be made into delicious English tea. After preparing two cups and setting one in front of me, she sat down, smiling with glee.
“So I want to hear all about how you’ve been. How’s school? Do you have a boyfriend.” She let out a short giggle like a school girl drooling over a poster of James Dean.
“No.” Cut and dry, no more no less. I wasn’t here to become best friends with my Aunt Claire. I came here because I was forced. Unfortunately, my Aunt Claire was no idiot, she knew why I didn’t want to talk.
“Look, Jill, I know I haven’t been a part of your life for a very, very long time. I want to apologize. Seeing you here has made me realize that I wish I was. I’m sorry.” She took my hand into hers and with her thumb, gently rubbed the side of my hand. The entire time I was looking down, but in that instance I looked up at her. Her eyes were so gentle and inviting. Her hair neatly kept, which caused me to wonder if it was always that way, or was it for me, because I was arriving. She had no lipstick on, yet her plump lips were the color of pink roses.
I nodded my head in response, and gave a slight grin. “It’s okay, Aunt Claire. Don’t worry about it.” I don’t know what compelled me to open up to her. Maybe all this time I just wanted someone who could listen to me. Mother would, but for a brief five minutes, and then change the topic to something regarding her. Aunt Claire seemed different. She wasn’t like mother, she was focused on me, how I felt, what I thought.
“Aunt Claire,” I muttered under my breath, “Why would my mother do something like that?”
“I don’t know. Your mother was always different. We never got along as kids, but it did change as we both matured.” She chuckled and looked away, having flashbacks of their past together. “I do know that she loves you. Deep down, I know she does.”
“I have a hard time believing that.” I was suddenly brought back to the moment in prison, that devastating moment.
“Why do you say that dear?”
“I told mother that I loved her, but she told me ‘I don’t deserve your love.’ Those were the last words she said to me!”
Aunt Claire winced, then straightened up. A couple seconds of silence felt like forever, until she finally said, “You’re not the only person she’s told that to.”
She caught my attention fast. “What do you mean?”
“Your mother used to live here with me after high school. She was definitely a trouble maker, but nonetheless I loved her. I always bailed her out when she needed to be. One night I found a note on her bed saying the same exact words she told you, and I felt the same way you did. After all the things I did for this woman, and she has the nerve to say this. But you know what, Jill?”
“What Aunt Claire,” I whispered, I was on the edge of my seat.
“She does love us. She never said I didn’t love you, she said she didn’t deserve our love, because she didn’t love herself.”
She didn’t love herself. What did that mean? My mother, although weak in numerous areas, was a great gal. She was very likeable, Mr. Peterson especially thought so. Yes, she had some rough edges at times, but who doesn’t? I didn’t quite understand what Aunt Claire meant, but those words remained with me.
The summer of my junior year of college, I sat under a giant oak tree, doing my favorite pastime, writing. The shade of the enormous oak gave me security and peace, I always felt safe under its sturdy branches. After hours of relaxing, I retreated to my dorm room, making a quick stop by my inbox. I pulled out the envelopes and frowned. There was a letter addressed to me, but what was peculiar about it was that the handwriting reminded me of my mother’s. We hadn’t communicated in years. I ran to my room, a thousand emotions bottled inside of me -- nervous, excited, shocked, scared, the list went on and on.
I sat at the edge of my bed, with the envelope in my hands. Trembling, I slowly undid the flap. I had never been good at opening envelopes, but this one opened with ease. I tossed the empty envelope with the letter sprawled across my hands. It was short and sweet:
I HAVE MISSED YOU.
I’VE HAD A LONG TIME TO THINK ABOUT THINGS.
I JUST WANTED TO SAY THAT I LOVE YOU TOO.
There was a side of me that wanted to complain about the length of the letter. How could a woman who hasn’t seen her daughter in six years write something so short. Yet, the length added to the power of the statement, “I love you too.” My mother has said she loved me numerous times before, but never in such a way that I could literally feel her love for me. Could it be that she was desperately seeking a visit from me? Could it be that she wanted to hear about my journey through college, and what I was striving to become? Could it be that she wanted to know if I was okay, if I was having enough clothes to eat, enough warm clothes to wear? No, it was that my mother…my wild, passionate, likeable mother…had finally learned to love herself.