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Calling Ida

Family in forestBy K.G. Wright

Ida—a soft, round, raven-haired woman so different from my petite, blonde mother—broke up my parents’ marriage. An Inuit from Canada’s Northwest Territories, Ida was forced to leave home to attend a government residential school in Yellowknife when she was seven. She returned, pregnant, at 17. Her parents dead, her siblings scattered and her finances precarious, Ida gave up the baby girl for adoption and set out to Toronto seeking a better life.

When Dad left Mom to live with Ida, my older sister, Laura, followed. A rebellious teenager, Laura (with the help of a family therapist) convinced my reluctant mother that she’d be better off at my dad’s. I was 10, so a judge decided I would stay with my mom. Laura and I were divided like the spoils of war—each parent’s household a separate side of the battle line.

Their side set up, to me at least, the perfect Hippy family. Ida, then 27, played guitar and made dinners of brown rice and tofu. Laura smoked dope and went to Neil Young concerts. Dad grew a mustache and kept a little pot plant on the windowsill of the guest room. The same room where I slept on a futon during my one-night-per-week custody visit.

The rest of the time I lived with my mother and her gun-in-the-mouth depression. She drank whiskey out of coffee cups and took an overdose of sleeping pills that, once she was released from the hospital, miraculously triggered her latent, yet powerful, Protestant work ethic.

At the age of 35, my mother finished college, earned a business degree and became a high-powered career woman. She ran marathons, sewed her own suits and made tiny, designer throw pillows from the remaining scraps of material. She gave lavish dinner parties replete with five-course meals and me at the piano— her charming daughter— entertaining the guests. One evening, after a fabulous meal, her admiring friends raised a glass of expensive wine and dubbed their hostess “Supermom.” The name stuck.

Supermom’s perfectionism was, of course, time-consuming. When she wasn’t working, running, sewing or fighting the forces of evil (a burned soufflé), she was hosting a party or attending one.  Martha Stewart would have knelt before my mother’s extraordinary domestic powers (spice rack alphabetized; color-coded sweaters folded with military precision).  Ironically, her way of parenting by the time I was twelve was to prepare a nutritious, microwaveable meal for me to eat, alone, while she worked late, or attended a fundraiser for orphaned children. A handwritten set of instructions, in the form of my “to do” list, would be attached under a magnet on the fridge:

walk dog

eat dinner

wash dishes

do homework

one hour of T.V.

practice piano

brush teeth

lights out

These lists became her way of raising me in absentia.

I lived for the liberation of Thursdays, my night at Dad and Ida’s, where my biggest to-do was to shred the vegan cheese for taco night. Dad was a book salesman and when he wasn’t traveling, he liked to stay home, stroke his mustache and read. His social life was Ida, and after a time, so was mine.

Because of her longing for the baby girl she’d given away, Ida doted on me. She didn’t have much money, but she loved to buy me gifts: used items from flea markets and yard sales. No amount of expensive piano lessons or back-to-school clothing from my mother could compare to the rusted harmonica or the garbage bag full of old rag dolls that Ida gave me. I played with those dolls for hours, made up names and stories for them— made them the family I longed to have.

More than gifts, Ida gave me attention: she braided my hair, read my Tarot Cards, and strummed her guitar along with my wailing harmonica. She told me stories about her childhood at the residential school. How the children had to eat frozen cow beef and boiled Arctic Char—a diet that put her off meat-eating for the rest of her life. When she first arrived at the school, one of the Grey Nuns, younger than the rest, was told to cut Ida’s hair. But the young woman took pity on the little girl whose dark eyes glowed with tears as her braid slid silently to the floor. Though it was against the rules, the nun let Ida keep the braid. Which she hid, coiled like a snake, in a hollow place she cut inside the pages of her Bible.

I would call Ida when I was alone in my mother’s big, empty house.
“I’m scared,” I’d tell her.
“Don’t be scared little one,” she’d whisper. “You have no idea how lucky you are.”
“How am I lucky?” I’d sniffle.
“Your father loves you so much.”
“Why can’t I live with him?”
“When parents don’t live with their children, they love them even more for missing them.”

Ida’s kindness awakened in me a ferocious desire for attention. Supermom eventually noticed my increasing interest in spending time at my ordinary Dad’s house.  Our conversations became a power struggle over Ida—though we never spoke of her directly.

“I’ll be home late tonight,” she’d tell me at breakfast.

“Maybe I could go to Dad’s.” This was meant to sound like a nonchalant suggestion, though I’d hold my breath until she’d answer.

“Not tonight. You have piano lessons and a whole list of things to do.” Then she’d lace up her running shoes and bolt out the door.

The profound hurt my mother must have felt about the woman who’d taken away her husband and daughter—and won her younger child’s heart with a bag of dolls— did not resonate with me until years later when my own husband left me to live with the “other” woman: a childless, 40-year-old academic, to whose tiny apartment he took our four-year-old son every other weekend. The woman gifted my boy a necklace: a black onyx half-moon hanging on a tight string of rawhide.  Obviously, she didn’t see the choking hazards that gift represented—or did she? The sight of this ominous trinket, encircling my son’s delicate neck like a noose, penetrated a place in my heart’s deep core that I cannot accurately describe.

During my divorce, I spoke of this feeling to my mother over the phone while she was vacationing with her boyfriend in the Bahamas. The long distance connection kept breaking up, making her sound as if she were yelling from inside a rain storm. “My god, darling,” her words crackled far away, “don’t you think … I know … how that feels?”

Looking back, I believe the breaking point came for my mother the day she pulled into my father’s driveway and saw Ida and me walking up the street, hand-in-hand, fresh from a yard sale.  She marched toward us, high heels clicking rhythmically like my piano teacher’s metronome. My mother slammed the car door behind me with such force, the windows shook. As we drove away, I looked back and saw Ida standing on the sidewalk. Black-hair parted into two braids, red feather earrings, knee-high leather beaded moccasins. In her hands, broken pieces of a Madonna and child statue she’d bought at the yard sale. She’d planned to glue the pieces together and put it in the garden along with her growing collection of owls and gnomes.

One night, I ran away from home, arriving at my father’s house with my tiny black miniature poodle, Susie, her head sticking out of my backpack. It was a late summer night; even the crickets were silent. When my father saw me standing in the wan porch light, he sighed heavily. He turned the lock to let me in. I sat with Susie on the couch.

“Why can’t I live with you?” Tears formed like glue at the back of my throat.
“You can stay tonight,” he’d said, quietly. Then added, “But I can’t afford to have you live here all the time.”
“I won’t eat much, I promise.” Susie licked my hand.
“I’m sorry, honey. You need to stay with your mom. You’re all she has. Besides, I don’t have enough money to support you. Your sister already lives here.”

What remained unspoken that night, and forever afterward, was that he supported Ida: her yard sale habit and Saturday night Bingo games. That conversation blasted a hole of loneliness in my gut so wide that now, years later, I still feel its hollow ache. Like the hole that Ida’s missing baby girl must have left inside of her.

When Ida had the affair—a one-night stand—that broke up her relationship with my dad, I took it hard, though I never admitted it. I walked into his house one Thursday, and found her guitar was missing. My father stood at the kitchen counter vigorously chopping onions for beef stew—a rare carnivorous meal. His eyes were moist.

‘Where’s Ida?” I’d asked.
“Gone.” Chop, chop. The hole inside me widened.
“Gone where?”
“Just gone.”

I saw her only once more, a few months after she’d moved out. I was 15. Laura, with a shrug of her shoulders, gave me Ida’s new address scrawled across a piece of marijuana rolling paper. “Why do you care?” she’d asked. “You didn’t live with her.”

On a frigid winter Saturday, I took a Toronto City bus across town to visit her, unannounced, at her new place: a nearly empty studio apartment she was renting, in part, with money borrowed from my dad. But mostly she lived on her modest salary as a switchboard operator at a local hospital. We sat at a little table in her kitchen. She spoke of her mother. One night, after Ida and her sisters and brothers had been sent away to learn the Qallunaat—non-Inuit—way of life at the white school, her distraught mother had wandered away from home without her coat on during a fierce snowstorm. She never came back. Ida rolled some tobacco into a filter-less cigarette as she spoke, and stared out of her kitchen window. It was snowing—a soft downy snow that concealed the hard ice beneath. She lit the cigarette; white smoke trailed upward toward the few grey hairs beginning to sprout at her temples. The smoke seemed to signal to me that this was the last time I should come here. Ida was not my mother—and I could not ask my parents to accept her as my friend. This wasn’t bitterness; it was truth. We drank some tea. The conversation turned to her new job: how anxious people calling Ida relied on her to connect them with the broken ones whom they loved.

K.G. Wright’s poetry has appeared in Midwest Quarterly, Cold Mountain Review, Sanskrit Literary Arts Journal, among others. Her most recent publication is an interview with poet Mark Pawlak in Amoskeag Literary Arts Journal. Currently she is at work on several writing projects, including a memoir essay collection entitled True North, and a scholarly article on multimedia composition.  An assistant professor of English, Wright is passionate about teaching literature and writing courses to college students. She lives outside of Boston with her adorable 7-year-old son.

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