Sometimes you can know something without knowing it.
My mom was always terrible at sewing. As kids who were constantly active and getting into scrapes, my siblings and I often needed our clothes mended. We would give them to Mom who would add them to a stack of projects. Once every couple of months, she would take that stack to the kitchen table, gather her sewing supplies, and with the look of a soldier going off to war, she would start to sew. It was about the only time we would ever hear my mom curse. The sewing machine would jam, she would stick her finger with a needle, or she would have to undo her work, and suddenly a stream of whispered profanity would begin to trickle out of the kitchen. Once, she even worked herself into tears trying to thread a needle. To us kids, her frustration was all at once funny, mysterious, and frightening, though these responses dulled over years of familiarity with her quirk.
My mom had other mysterious moods. Every now and then, when certain old friends would call, mom’s face would burst into light, and she would pace excitedly around the house, gripping the phone tightly, and pouring out news and stories as fast as she possibly could with whoever was on the other end of the line. But sooner or later, the call would end. Quietly and calmly, my mother would hang up, take a seat on the couch, and sink into a pensive silence. As ordinary as the conversation might have seemed, it would ruin the rest of the day. A gloom would settle over the entire house, and Mom would snap at anyone who bothered her.
She used to work for a non-profit organization. Mom organized elaborate charity events that were attended by local elites. Mayors, bankers, CEOs, artists, musicians, and clergy would gather at galas, auctions, and dinners that were planned by Angela Stewart. In fact, my parents met at one of those events. The way my dad tells it, Mom was the life of the party. She was never center stage of course, never drew undue attention to herself, but she moved gracefully among the guests, making introductions, laughing at jokes, bolstering conversation, and even engaging in witty repartee, all while making sure that the event went off without a hitch. She charmed everyone she met, including my dad. He fell head over heels with this woman who had the grace of a socialite and the work ethic of a political organizer. After attending three more of her events, he finally managed to ask her on a date.
It all sounds very impressive and romantic, and maybe that’s why it doesn’t seem any more real to me than the other bedtime stories my dad used to tell—the ones with knights or cowboys or talking animals. You see, I couldn’t recognize my mom in the portrait that he painted. Certainly she was always funny and enthusiastic with my siblings and me, but I couldn’t picture her enlivening any grand events. The woman photographed in an evening gown with ornate hair didn’t resemble the woman I had always known in her high-waisted jeans and long-sleeve t-shirts. As I got older and became aware of how my mother fussed over choosing the right tablecloth for Thanksgiving dinner or spent hours deciding what sort of pie to bake on the weekend, Angie Collins seemed like a bad parody of the event organizer she was supposed to have been in a past life. And as a teenager, I loved my mother, but I still found her annoying and simple and plain, and I sometimes wished the woman I had heard about in those stories was real.
“The house is so quiet these days,” she said one afternoon when I was visiting. My siblings and I had all gone off to college, I was in my first apartment after graduating, and empty nest syndrome had settled in. “Sometimes, I think the silence might kill me. Or maybe I’m already dead.”
“Mom, don’t talk like that.”
“But it’s how I feel. I gave up so much when I got married, and for years, you kids were all I had. And now… Well, what do I have now?”
My mother was depressed. And then I understood what I had already known—she had been depressed my entire life. The woman from the stories wasn’t a fiction; she had been killed. My mother had given up her entire life for a family, leaving her with just a shadow of an existence. The realization brought with it feelings of pity and disappointment. In fact, her weakness was almost repulsive.
I have never been like that. I have taken care of myself, controlled my own life, and made my own decisions. I haven’t let anyone else’s needs or desires dictate the course my life or my happiness. And yet I’m just as alone as she was. More. She at least had a husband. She had kids. What do I have? A career that is less than what I wanted and a house that is bigger than I need. Suddenly being self-sufficient seems insufficient. But when I’ve seen what my mother became, how can I possibly think that sacrifice is the answer? I wonder which fear will win; the fear of loneliness or the fear of losing myself?