I birthed a man-child in 1974. He was red-faced, scrawny, and irritable, refusing to be comforted by the usual methods. I could not blame him, born of a loveless union. It took me sixteen weeks to find out I was pregnant—not dying. The local GP’s frog tests said I wasn’t pregnant, so he prescribed pills to make my period start, ordered X-rays to determine the cause of my back pain, and finally gave up and referred me to endocrinologist in Jackson, who booked me an appointment for two months later, which I missed because I was six hours early, burst into loud sobs when the nurse said I would have to wait, and ran out of the office. All in all, it was not a great beginning to motherhood or sonhood. Mother guilt settled in early. It had no reason to leave.
The scrawny, irritable fellow floated around in the sphere of an unhappy marriage for his first fourteen years. Whatever heat had warmed the couple before his birth was replaced by a cold desert of despair by the time he was a teenager. Did he feel the desert wind, the dryness, the sand between his toes?
One early morning when the boy was fourteen, the husband erupted once again over some failure he ascribed to the man-child’s mother. Mismatched socks strewn over the bed indicated that his day had been ruined by incomplete foot apparel. He bolted down the basement stairs to the garage. She heard the car door slam, and he was gone. The son crept into the room and found his mother sitting on the bed, matching the socks, while hot tears slid down her face. His words pierced the malaise that engulfed her: “Mama, don’t let him make you cry.” Nothing had been hidden from him.
Within a few months of the sock scene, I committed the ultimate mother-sin. I left the marriage. Raised in an era when divorce was rare, I would never escape the shame. But my son’s words had generated an important realization. I was not doing him any favors by constantly exposing him to an emotionally abusive relationship. Or was that just an excuse to have a relationship with a man I believed could love me? Forty-four years later, I still can’t answer that question.
I moved into an apartment a block from our house, taking the mattress off a rollaway bed, a card table, and a small black-and-white television my parents had given me. I wept every night for a year. My son spent the next five years traveling between houses and lives.
Since I have reached my seventies, I dream more often and more vividly. It is a way to conduct a life review, I guess, but I don’t enjoy the pain. I frequently have a dream about wandering in an old house with yellow walls, looking for something that eludes me. The house has many bedrooms and alcoves—perhaps a home of a big family, one full of children, activity, and love. I always wake up with a sense that I have lost something. By settling for part-time motherhood, I still worry that I have caused harm to the one I love above all others. I wonder if the life we lived was worth that sacrifice.
When he was a junior in college, my son gave me a book by Doris Lessing, The Memoirs of a Survivor. This feminist dystopian masterpiece tells the story of a country slowly disintegrating, overrun by gangs, and people who try hard to make this life ordinary, although it isn’t. It is Reality. The book is the journal of a middle-aged woman who is acutely aware of her inner life and alarmed about her outer. One day she is staring at the walls of her flat and they dissolve. She is in rooms she dimly recognizes but can’t place. She wanders, looking for something that can tell her where she is, and then suddenly she is back in her Reality, and so are the walls. The memory of that other world stays with her and becomes her “conviction of a promise.” In the end the walls dissolve for the last time, and she walks into that promise.
Did my son know that one day I would dream of those yellow walls? The inscription he wrote said, in part, “we are all looking for that ‘conviction of a promise.’ You are that for me. I know that you have had walls that kept you from accomplishing all you could. I hope one day all your walls will dissolve and you will be standing where you have always belonged, on top.” It seems he understood far more than I had ever imagined.