When I was nine and got my new mother I had ideas about what she would be like. She was always nice when Dad had taken me and my sister along when they went to supper. For as long as I could remember my friend’s mothers had patted me on the head, and said, “You poor child who doesn’t have a mother,” and gave me a cookie. That seemed to be what mothers did. Now, I was going to have one of my own.
She was a lovely, pretty lady who had never been married before. My Dad asked her to marry him three times before she accepted. She was nervous, and she had good reason to be. My youngest sister was now four years old and called the aunt and uncle she lived with “Mom” and “Dad.” It would have been cruel to remove her from the home she knew. My father’s new wife became a mother for the first time with two daughters, ages seven and nine.
She had become a registered nurse out of high school. She left Canada and worked for years in public health in beautiful coastal cities such as San Francisco. She told a story of fog so thick while crossing the Golden Gate Bridge that she just stopped her little VW beetle because she couldn’t see the hood outside the wind shield. She’d had her own apartment with white furniture and pretty things and her own space to live how she wished.
My new mother came with a long history of alcoholism. She hid it so well that people who were close never knew. I remember her mother, my nana, kept a bottle of red wine under the kitchen sink. She would spend her time leaning an elbow on the kitchen counter with a glass of wine perched beside her. When it became close to empty she would just reach down, swing open the cupboard door, grab the bottle, refill her glass and then tuck the bottle back under the sink. Nana never seemed any different from day to day, possibly a constant state of pickledness.
Our first home as a new family was in a trailer park six miles from Nelson on the north shore of the Kootenay Lake. We could see the water from the windows. Our trailer smelled clean because it was brand new. It had a golden yellow shag carpet in the living room that I raked the footprints out of, making all the golden strands stand up, on Saturday morning as part of my chores. My sister and I loved our tiny bedrooms. They were identical with room enough for a bed, a built in dresser and small closet. For the first time ever I could shut the door and be completely alone.
My mother nursed at a long term care facility a short distance from home. She hated her job. The nursing she had done in public health was nothing like the grind she experienced caring for heavy, old people who couldn’t wipe their own butts. She would work two day shifts and then two night shifts. The walls of our trailer were thin, and I was impulsive and found it impossible to remember to tip toe when mom was sleeping. My dad often spanked me for waking her up.
My mother could remain sober for months. Eventually though, and I’m not sure if something set her off, or she tried really hard not to drink because her drinking incised my father, or she just couldn’t help it, and I’m inclined to believe that was it, she would begin to drink. Dad drank socially, and once in a while he had a buzz, but he was funny and told stories and he didn’t fall down. Mom and dad would go out, or have people in, and there would be beer and wine. But sometimes mom didn’t stop when everyone went home and the party was over. A bout of drinking would go into the next day. After I moved out, my little sister told me that when she got home from school and if mom was drinking Dad said she had to go to a friend’s house and not come back until he was home from work. He didn’t like my sister to see mom in a stupor.
She drank until her cheeks flushed, her words slurred and she stumbled against the walls down the long hallway of our trailer. Her drinking frustrated the hell out of my father and maybe he would yell, but he would watch so that she wouldn’t hurt herself, and then he would tenderly nurse her through horrific hangovers when the binge was over.
Mom’s drinking was a problem that never went away, and my Dad never gave up trying to help her. While my parents worked on their relationship I went from wild child (remember ADHD) straight into unruly teenager. I smoked pot, and drank until I got drunk. I butted heads with my mother, but I drove my father insane.
I was a gawky, clumsy girl who was growing so fast I was teased about the hem of my pants above my ankles. “Waiting for a flood? Afraid you’re gonna get your pants wet?” I bawled buckets of tears over the torment I went through concerning the “coke bottles” that were my glasses. Grades four to seven were torture at the elementary school on the north shore in the Kootenays. I was overjoyed when I finally got to ride the school bus into town to the junior high. There were so many more people for me to make friends with.
By the time I was in grade eight I ached to be in town where the action was, not out on the sleepy north shore where there were no streetlights. I would skip school and go to the beach. I was walking with a group of friends and my father drove by and saw me. I was grounded for weeks. It didn’t matter. I sneaked out at night and hitchhiked six miles into Nelson along the dark north shore of the Kootenay Lake. Even my dad’s wicked temper and heavy hand didn’t deter my ambition to get into town to hang out with my buddies. I’d be rich if I had a nickel for every time my mother said to my father, “Gerry calm down! Your heart!”
I was 14 years old when my sister, parents and I were driving to Spokane for the weekend. My dad pulled over and said, “I feel sick.” Mom looked at his grey face. “You’re having a heart attack!” We were almost to Salmo when she turned the car around. My sister and I held hands in the back seat while she drove that mountain pass like Mario Andretti.
My father and I persistently grated on each other. I was afraid of his fist but couldn’t seem to conform to his rules. We lived in a house with the strain of constant strife between us. My sister told me years later she was so relieved when I begged my father to allow me to visit two girlfriends who had moved to Calgary and he let me go. “This goes against everything I believe in,” he said with a grim face as I boarded a Greyhound bus. I promised to come back at the end of August before school started. It was early October when I returned, skinny, my hair bleached blonde, refusing to wear my bulky glasses regardless of not being able to see. My family barely recognized me.
I was given a bit more freedom then what I’d had before I left. Best of all, my Dad bought me contact lenses! Most weekends my friends could pick me up after church on Saturday night and my curfew was extended, although I often came home late, and Dad would ground me. One school night that winter after Calgary, I was in grade eleven, leaving the bathroom after my shower and wrapped in a towel I bumped into my father. Later, my parents called me into the living room. My mother spoke while my dad sat, his lips a pale thin line. “Susan, did you have sex while in Calgary?” I began to cry because I’d wanted to tell someone that pale white liquid had been dripping from my breasts. Tests showed I was seven months pregnant.
During the next few weeks I wasn’t allowed to go to school and was kept hidden inside the house so that no one might guess my “shameful” condition. The father of my baby was in Calgary and I had no continued contact with him, our tryst had been a fleeting thing, I was naïve and stupid. My parents allowed my current boyfriend and my friends to pick me up in the evenings and go for drives. I didn’t have the maturity to understand what was happening and I felt like a visitor to my own body, but I was careful and didn’t drink or smoke anything that might hurt the baby.
My father didn’t know what to do with me. The wounded look in his eyes made me squirm. I’d never before been more aware of his acute disappointment in me. He was the most patient and never once lost his temper. My advanced pregnancy had been hidden partly because I came back from Calgary underweight and swam inside most of my clothes. Now, that my secret was out and my father hadn’t murdered me I relaxed and my belly expanded to a more suitable size. The doctor said there was no reason why I wouldn’t deliver a healthy baby.
As soon as a bed became available I was moved to a group home for unwed mothers in Kamloops. Most of my relatives living there turned away and ignored me, but a few visited showing me my teenage pregnancy didn’t matter and I was still loved. When I went into labor I was taken to the hospital and my mother began the eight hour drive from Nelson. I labored alone with an occasional check by a cold and judgmental nurse; I was one of “those girls” from the unwed mother’s home. We had been taught breathing techniques at the home but there was no one to help me, so I thrashed with the pain. My cries brought the screwed face nurse who shoved into my hands a mask like the hard rubber of a toilet plunger. I fumbled with it, it seems dispensing most of the gas into the room because that same nurse on one of her cursory checks was overcome, dizzy and collapsed outside my door, while I clenched my teeth and fought the cramps. It seems my poor treatment was punishment for allowing myself to get pregnant in the first place.
At sixteen years old I gave birth to an eight pound baby girl. My parents had made it clear that I would give this baby up for adoption. Hospital staff and my mother alike told me I could not see her, it wasn’t a good idea. I presented myself to the nursery window and insisted I be allowed to see my daughter, and I wouldn’t leave until I did, after all she was mine until I signed the papers. I was sat down on a chair and given a tiny pink blanket – wrapped bundle. Clumsily I held her; I was never much of a babysitter and had no experience with babies. Pushing away the blanket with one big finger I stroked her tiny cheek. Her face was a dusky rose and she had a cap of dark hair that stood on end. The hospital staff had the decency to leave us alone. The little person I had made looked at me steadily.
I never asked to see her again.
Three days later I left the hospital and she was gone at one week of age with her new family. There had been stacks of prospective parents, their names covered in heavy felt pen, for me to choose from, but I chose quickly, a couple who had been waiting seven years. I liked that they lived on an acreage, maybe she would love horses like I did and they would get her one, in northern British Columbia, 50 miles from the nearest hospital. I asked that she be named Holly Elizabeth. The first name I had always liked, and the second name was my step mother’s middle name.
Years later when the registry opened and I could search for my daughter I discovered that they named her Nicole. I registered myself in the adoption registry so that if she looks for me she will find me, but I’ve never searched for her. I’m afraid that if I do I might find out that she has died. I don’t know; it’s just a feeling I have. I like to think of her as well and happy and not needing to know about her mother who gave her away.