Thursday, September 24, 2009

I Remember Her

Wandering around the internet today, I came across this message:

I am looking for anyone who might have known or remembers my mother.

A few spare details were provided, followed by the plea:

If you remember her, or know people who knew her, I'd really like to talk with you.

There was something about the message that made me think this man's mother was dead. I did a little more searching and discovered she died last summer -- and felt that momentary twinge I always get when I see that someone almost exactly my age has died. Continuing my searching, I learned that she may have died under somewhat odd circumstances.

...I am looking for anyone who might have known or remembers my mother.

I knew her. I remember her.

For her entire life she'd lived just three or four blocks away, but I never laid eyes on her until the summer before seventh grade when she suddenly showed up on my street riding an old-fashioned bicycle that had an old-fashioned wicker basket covered with stitched flowers attached to the handlebars. Everything about the girl was old-fashioned: her clothes, her hairstyle, even her name. She was very chatty and she'd reveal just about anything in conversation, as if she hadn't yet learned that some things are better left unspoken...just for the sake of protecting oneself. The very first time I met her, she told me that she'd be attending my public school in the fall even though she'd always gone to the local Catholic school where her mother was a teacher.

"Why are you changing schools?"

"Because the nuns and the principal think I'm too attached to my mother and should try going to a different school on my own."

Too attached? I wasn't even sure what that meant. Someone who went to the Catholic school later told me that this girl spent most of her time hanging around her mother's classroom and would cry when she was told to return to her own class. She was an only child and apparently very sheltered and overprotected. For years she rarely played outside and wasn't even allowed to cross the street. When she went somewhere with her parents, all three sat in the front seat of the car -- dad driving, mom in the passenger seat, and daughter squeezed tight between them.

Though I had never seen her before she turned up that day on her old-fashioned bicycle, from that point on she was constantly around, pedaling up and down the streets of our neighborhood and eagerly talking to everyone. It was as though her parents, confronted by the fact that their daughter was "too attached," had suddenly sprung her from captivity. She was liberated. (Well, it was the early seventies!)

During that summer, I went to the library nearly every day and I'd almost always see her there as well. "I loooooove reading," she said. The two of us checked out more books than any kids in the neighborhood. She liked Elizabeth Enright and Edward Eager and horse stories and dog stories. She always rode home from the library one-handed, steering with her right hand and resting her left hand on top of the books stacked over the brim of her wicker bicycle basket with the flowers stitched on it.

When school started in the fall, I discovered that most of the kids didn't like "the new girl" -- she talked too loud, she laughed too much. And did you hear she got KICKED OUT of the Catholic school? Even though her mom worked there? She was "weird"..."dorky"..."different."

But I liked her. How could you not like someone who read that many books?

The following year we started junior high. I wasn't in any of her classes, but I can't imagine it was easy for her, especially because she now had glasses (not cool ones, of course, but desperately old-fashioned glasses) AND braces. She hung out with a group of outcast girls who started their own "knitting club." I still saw her at the library and she'd still jabber away, saying anything that came into her head. She'd still ride home with her left hand steadying the stack of books in her wicker bicycle basket.

One evening, late in August, I was surprised to run into her at the library. The library was in a questionable neighborhood and her folks usually only allowed her to visit during the day, and here it was twilight-turning-to-dark. "I thought your mother said you couldn't come here after dinner," I said.

"My mother doesn't run my life," she replied, then went outside to the bike rack, stacked her books in the basket, and rode off. When school started up, she no longer spent time with the bespectacled, stringy-haired girls in the knitting club. Instead she'd go down to the baseball field and lean against the backstop, talking to the older guys who loitered there every afternoon. She quit wearing her glasses. She started smoking. The girls at school called her a tramp and wouldn't hang out with her. The guys at school called her a tramp too...but they continued to hang out with her.

In the past she seemed defenseless and vulnerable. Now she had a hard, older look about her. She pretended she didn't know me when I'd see her in the halls.

You can guess how this story ends:

"She doesn't even know who the father is!"

"Oh. My. Gosh. What did her parents say?"

"She told them she got raped walking to the grocery store."

"Oh. My. Gosh."

I've always wondered if her parents believed that story. Probably not. Surely they had seen how she'd changed over the last couple years, from a vulnerable, newly "liberated" kid who would talk to anyone on the street to a hard-looking pregnant fifteen-year-old. The irony is that she had spent her first dozen years so terribly sheltered and then, after a couple years of freedom, she became homebound again. Someone who lived on her block said that he'd occasionally see her standing in her bedroom window, but never again saw her outside, even after the baby boy was born. In the years since, I've wondered if her parents constantly thought, "if only, if only," wishing they had kept her at the Catholic school, kept the apron strings attached, kept her from ever crossing the street. Or did things fall apart because they gave her her freedom much too late -- thrusting her unprepared into the scary world of junior high and mean kids and dicey neighborhoods? I've even wondered if she didn't orchestrate events on purpose, ultimately finding a way to return to her parents' shelter and protection. Or maybe I'm over-analyzing the situation when the answer is simply that people change. Though she continued to live just three or four blocks away, I never laid eyes on her again, not even at the library, and that's what I couldn't understand. Yes, people change, but can someone go from visiting the library every day to never going again? Can someone change so much that even books are no longer a part of their life? I hate to even think about that.

Now she's dead and her son, age thirty-five, is issuing this plea:

If you remember her, or know people who knew her, I'd really like to talk with you.

Of course I don't know for sure, but I'm guessing he's trying to figure out his paternity. And I know nothing about that. I'd only be able to tell him about the girl I once knew who loved Enright and Eager and horse stories and dog stories...the girl who rode home from the library every day with one hand resting on top of her wicker basket full of books, protecting them so they wouldn't fall.


Melissa said...

Wow ... what a powerful post. And an amazing one, too, given that you happened to see it.

I hope the person who is seeking answers sees this, too, and that it brings a bit of comfort to him ... and that so many of us now know her as a result.

Tabitha said...

What an amazing post. I'd be inclined to share the info you have with the 35 year old guy, any info at all is surely better than nothing.

Unknown said...

This is a great post. I would also imagine, as an only child, he is looking for someone else to reminisce with. I hope he finds the answers he is seeking.

Misrule said...

I'm a bit late reading this, but you really ought to get in touch with this man and tell him what you remember of his mother. It might not just be his paternity he's interested in. Perhaps he was adopted or otherwise estranged from his mother and is desperate for any information abuot her. This is such a beautiful, poignant story and I think he should hear it.