The house is empty when I get home from Catholic Charities. My husband has taken the kids out, to the city park probably. Our son Locklin likes to play in the rock piles underneath Pittsburgh’s Panther Hollow Bridge. On one side of the bridge, there’s a remnant of a one-story-high graffiti’d face of Andre the Giant. Andre’s eyes, stenciled, blackened, painted over and dissolving in light, look even sadder than they did on TV. In life, in death, in cartoons, he always seems to be melting and on the verge of tears.
When I was very young, I watched Andre the Giant take down bad guys — George the Animal Steel, the Iron Sheik, various Russians. My father, who was rarely happy, liked to watch wrestling, the spectacle of it, the clear and simple lines, the way it was nothing like life.
“You can always tell the bastards from the rest,” my father would say, and it was almost always true, except for Andre. “A change of heart,” Vince McMahon would say when the gentle giant of the 1970s became a villain ten years later. Hulk Hogan in his red-white-and-blue Speedo needed someone to bump against. The world was short on bad guys with Eastern European accents. The Berlin Wall had come down. Andre the Giant would do.
When the crowd called for blood, they got it. A chair to a head, a face ground into the ropes, skin sanded to pulp, a red trail along the mat.
“You never can tell about people.” My father said that, too.
Locklin is three, going on four. He likes Star Wars. The lines there are pretty simple, too: good guys in white, bad guys in black. The Force. The Dark Side.
Locklin has a collection of toy light sabers – blue for good guys, red for bad guys, green for guys who feel conflicted. Before trips to the park, my husband loads a backpack with the sabers. When he and Locklin go alone, they have long battles to the tops of the rock piles. They knock each other down and come home filthy, tiny stones in their shoes, rock shards embedded in their skin, dirt ground in down to their underwear.
Today, they won’t be alone, though. Locklin will have to climb solo while his father and sister urge him on. He’ll slash the air around him. He’ll imagine himself surrounded. He’ll imagine the many ways he will or will not pull this off.
Phelan, our daughter, will be in a backpack. She’ll hold onto my husband’s hair, tiny fingers digging in at the roots, drool dripping into his ears, the babbling cadence of her small voice. “Such a happy baby,” people at the grocery always say, and it’s true. My son, with his green saber, his darker, more complicated moods, takes after me. My daughter is more like my husband. So much pure light.
Phelan is four months old. I was pregnant with her when my mother died. I didn’t know this then. If I had, maybe it would have made a difference. If my mother knew she would soon have a granddaughter, maybe she would have tried harder to stay alive. “Something to live for,” people say, but my mother had so much to live for already – a grandson, a nice son-in-law who cut her grass and liked her meatballs and listened to her stories. She had me.
“I need you,” I told my mother in the hospital.
“I’m tired,” she said.
She said, “No. You don’t.”
By forty, I’d finally pulled the strings together into something that looked like it would hold. What my mother meant – I have a good husband. A son. A steady job teaching writing at a university. A life.
“I was forty. Then I was fortier,” a friend of mine once wrote.
I can’t imagine when I could ever be old enough to stop being my mother’s daughter.
I can’t imagine when I will ever stop needing her.
Phelan isn’t named after my mother. She has my birth name, a last name for a first name. I thought it was pretty. I thought it made sense. My daughter has my husband’s personality, but she looks so much like me. We have the same blonde hair, same green eyes. One day soon she’ll insist my baby pictures are her baby pictures.
I thought giving her that name was a way to honor roots.
I always pronounced it Fay-Lynn.
This is my daughter’s name.
At Catholic Charities, they said I had it wrong.
“The family says it Fee-Lynn,” the counselor with the bone-colored shoes told me. She didn’t look up from the forms I’d filled out to start my adoption search, the forms she was examining for errors.
It’s not nearly as nice.
I should have named my daughter for my mother, my real mother, though she always hated her name, and wouldn’t have wanted me to pass it on.
“It’s an old lady’s name,” my mother said.
My mother’s name was Alberta. She shortened it to Bertie, but it still made her wince. Her maiden name was Bonde, switched from the Italian Bondi with an “i” so it would seem more American. My grandmother’s name was Ethel. Ethel, out of spite my mother believed, named her children as follows: Florence, Velma, Gertrude, Alberta, and August. “One name more hideous than the next,” my mother said.
Most were named for friends, except for August, who was named for his father and made everyone call him Butch.
My grandfather August Bondi, was an orphan, too. His mother delivered him to an orphanage one day when he was nine or 10. She packed a small suitcase. Clothes, a child’s bible. It was the beginning of the Depression. She said she couldn’t afford to feed him. She said he was difficult.
She didn’t say she drank too much.
She didn’t say she wanted her own life.
My mother said her father wouldn’t talk about it. She said he always made sure they had plenty to eat, even ice cream, three or four different flavors, gallon cartons lined up in the ice box, even when there wasn’t money for anything else.
I never knew my grandfather. I know he made bathtub gin to pay for food. I know a few pictures – a thin dark man with sad eyes like Andre the Giant’s under a paperboy cap, mugging it up in a tough-guy stance on the fender of a shiny black Ford. I know he died on his birthday the year I was born.
“He would have loved you,” my mother always said.
I would have loved him back.
How a mother could take her child by the hand and give him over to strangers, how she could walk away and not look back, I don’t know. I don’t know what she told him, what she could possibly have told him, to make him stay and believe, in what?
That she’d come back.
That she wouldn’t come back.
That his life would be better, either way.
Or I do know. Motherhood is a conflicted state, not clear and simple at all. Very few mothers are monsters.
Joan Crawford, maybe.
“You’re a good mother,” my mother told me one day when I was weeping in her driveway.
Locklin was very young then, a year maybe. I’d gone to the grocery store. He screamed the whole time. He thrashed and wailed and I had to hold my hands over his hands in the cart to keep him still. He was a beautiful baby, but he cried so much and so long that I started crying too. I cried over bills and junk mail and episodes of Mister Rogers Neighborhood. I cried over Oreos commercials, where fathers taught their children how to pull apart and dunk a cookie and scrape the white icing off with their teeth. I cried in class, when I tried to explain to my students about Raymond Carver, how, when the doctor told him he had cancer and would die, Ray Carver thanked the doctor, “habit being so strong.” I cried that day in my mother’s driveway when the grocery bag tore open and milk spilled out and flooded the trunk.
I knew no matter how I tried to clean it up, the milk would molder and stink and the car already smelled all the time. It smelled like wet diapers and diaper powder and something called Butt Paste, a brown muddy-spearminty diaper-rash lotion, the only thing that worked on Locklin. The car smelled like Locklin’s shit and car-sick puke and the lingering grease from the fast food I ate because I was too tired to cook or eat anything else. I smelled like all those things, too, all the time. I smelled feral, animal, desperate, everything I was.
“You’re a good mother,” my mother said, a gift, a mantra, a promise, like something she’d said to herself through the years.
She tried to help me, but I kept on crying like the child I was. My mother sopped up milk and sprayed the car with air freshener and took Locklin from his car seat and rocked and rocked and rocked him until he passed out, which is what he did instead of falling asleep. He never just fell asleep peacefully, like babies in commercials. My son passed out from exhaustion, all that anger, all those built-up then let-go tears.
Photo by Strifu