When mother whispered her secrets to me as a child or spoke them aloud when I was grown, she told the stories plain. This is path I went down, she said, and after that, I went this way. She never flinched or offered excuses; I never heard her say it wasn’t her fault. And she never cried when she told the stories.
She recited her secrets like confessions. Her penance: the bitter truth on her tongue.Tears would have only diluted the bitterness, would have made it seem as if she had had no choice. She knew better.
Mother chose to return to Alabama: a one-way trip down a dead-end road.
Grady found work in Mobile and paid the rent on a three-room house for several months before he decided he would rather spend his money elsewhere. Mother worked as a waitress and brought some money in but not enough for rent and food. Then, she got pregnant again. Grady spent his evenings in bars, drinking and chasing women. Some nights he would bring one of his girlfriends home, shake mother awake, and demand she make them something to eat. If she didn’t move fast enough, he would hit her. While she could still work, Grady demanded she turn over her tips to him. The one time she held money back, he found out and knocked out several of her teeth.
The landlord kicked them out of the house after Grady refused to pay any more rent, so they moved into one of the old barracks on Blakely Island, built during World War II for the war workers who had flooded into Mobile. Mother had the baby in late October at a charity hospital, out in the hall because the delivery room was for patients who could pay. Women on charity had to earn food by folding clothes or carrying trays, but mother had lacked food and care during most of the pregnancy, so she was too weak to do the chores.
Grady never came to the hospital; he denied the child was his. Only Connie, the oldest child, came. At twelve, she was still young enough to go trick-or-treating, and she brought her bag of Halloween treats to give to mother.
Mother had no clothes for the baby, other than part of old sheet one of the hospital workers gave her. Mother swaddled the baby and with Connie walked back to the barracks. Grady was gone. He found work on a ship and sailed away, leaving the other children on their own. He left no money or forwarding address.
Homeless and penniless, mother and the children slept in a park. Mother didn’t have enough nourishment to make any milk for the baby, so she sought help from the Red Cross and the Salvation Army. They offered to take the boys, Clyde and Jimmy, to a shelter. No facilities for women were available.
The baby cried constantly and when her cries became weaker, mother took the children and walked the streets asking passersby to take the baby so she wouldn’t die.
Most people looked the other way, averting their eyes from the disheveled woman, missing half her teeth and begging on the street with her five children. Finally, a man with paper-white skin, silvery hair and pale eyes stopped. He was nicely dressed and said his wife would be happy to feed and care for the child but only if they could adopt her.
None of us know what lies at the end of the paths we choose. When mother said yes to Grady and returned to the place she had once escaped, she couldn’t have known that this stranger would be waiting for her when her narrow path suddenly disappeared into a trackless wilderness. Mother was hopelessly lost, and the well-dressed man pointed in the only way forward.
He took mother to a stranger’s house where she and the children stayed until the papers could be signed. Once that child, the one she named Jeannine, was safe, mother called my grandmother in New Mexico and asked once more if she could come home.
Grandmother sent what she could, enough bus money to get Mother, Connie, and Clyde out of Mobile. But not Jimmy and Darla. Mother took them to Grady’s mother, their grandmother, and left them there until she could get settled and send for them.
She never did.
Mother chose other roads, each one leading her farther and farther away from Jimmy and Darla and from what might have been. (You can go here to read about what happened after she left Mobile that second time.) One of those roads led to my daddy and finally to me.
After my daddy died, my mother, sister Kathy, and I flew to Mobile to visit Jimmy and Darla. I was eight years old, and I remember the plane ride because I threw up. I don’t have a single memory of the time in Alabama, but I know I was there because my older sister said I was. I could try to fill in the blank spaces, but I won’t; I’ve learned to live with my gap-toothed memories.
Connie and her family drove to Mobile to meet us. We returned in her car – two adults and six children. All I remember from that 1200-mile trip is the policeman who pulled Connie over for going 100 mph. He looked at the children piled up in the back, told her she needed to slow down, and walked away without giving her a ticket.
Darla returned to Texas with us and stayed a few weeks. She traveled with mother, Kathy, and me to Disneyland, a trip financed by daddy’s insurance money. When Darla went back to Alabama, she never wrote, or if she did, I never knew of it.
When I was small, I kept mother’s secrets the best I could. I learned to listen at the telling, hold my tongue, and let the hard words fall without asking any questions. She bared her secrets, each one like a bruise that would not heal, and I could not touch them, for fear of causing her more pain.
I carried mother’s secrets in my heart for years, told them to myself at night, hearing her voice speaking the words, crying the tears she never could. The sharp edges have grown smooth; time and telling have worn away the layers of secrecy, revealing the veins and patterns of the stories. I carry them still, small stones of remembrance, gathered from the roads my mother walked once upon a time.