By Ronit Feinglass Plank
In a box of old things my sister recently sent me I found a photo of my mother from when I was thirteen and my sister was ten, when Mom had just come back from her second cult experience.
She looks thinner than I’d ever known her. Hollows carve shadows under her cheeks and the pallor of her skin is off; her face has a gray tinge to it. She has a faint smile but it doesn’t reach her eyes. My sister dangles from her left arm and I, a little chubby and wearing too much make up for a middle-schooler, have my arm around my mom’s shoulder. I am leaning into her, a big stretched out smile across my face as if everything is normal.
It had been six months since me and my sister had seen my mother and we were grateful to have her back. But tentative. Like if we said the wrong thing or touched her without warning, or got too close, she’d disappear again. We had none of the casual comfort we might have once felt with her. I remember serving her tea, asking for permission to touch the tinsel threaded scarf she wore draped around her neck, offering her blankets and snacks, trying to keep her comfortable so she would stay.
For the longest time my mother seemed like a superhero, she was dazzling to me, which made no sense since she left me and my sister twice: once when she went to live on the ashram in India, and once when she went to live on the ashram in Oregon. I think it confounded my father, too, since apart from a few years of weekends at my mom’s after their divorce, she had left him taking care of us since I was six. Still, I dreamed of seeing her. She was the gift parent, the special occasion; I imagined her appearing like a fairy queen—and changing my life.
She was back this time because the ashram had broken up, her holy man arrested, his ninety-three Rolls Royces confiscated. She and the other followers—sannyasins they called themselves—had given up everything they owned for their guru and were now leaderless, scurrying back to wherever home had been to plan their next moves. My mother had nowhere else to go.
Even though this was the second time she had skipped town leaving my father to care for us, he told her she could stay at our apartment a few days while she figured things out. My sister and I were elated: both of our parents under one roof with us was something we had stopped hoping for. But my father should have known better before he agreed. And my mother should have known better than to ask.
I could feel his agitation soon after he came home from work that first day. After so many cancelled visits, so many missed birthdays, to see my mother curled up cozy on our sofa like she belonged there, a daughter fawning over her on either side, was too much for him. His frustration simmered through the apartment until it swelled into a wave of fury he could not contain. His profane expletives flew and my eyes darted between him and my mother, the panic in me growing, trying to figure out even as he got louder and louder how I could make it go better, how I could make it stop.
He said he wanted the child support money she owed him for all the years she hadn’t paid. But I understood it was much more than just that.
He stormed into the dining room and snatched her purse off the table searching for money. My mother tried to get it but he grabbed it away from her. He swung open the apartment door and she followed, crying out that he should give it back. But he wouldn’t. He threw it onto the stained burgundy carpet in the hallway.
“Where is the money? Where is the money?” he yelled, his eyes blazing, his face burning with anger. But I was so angry with him because after all us kids had been through, all the waiting for our mother to return, he was going to scare her off. It didn’t have to be this way but he was making it happen: he was going to force her to go away.
And that’s when our elderly neighbor Elizabeth from England, whose apartment was right next to the garbage room, opened her door to see what the trouble was.
There was my mother, kneeling on the old matted carpet, clutching at her purse, my father pulling at the handle. My mother wasn’t letting go and so he dragged her along the carpet by it for several feet, her thin scarf trailing, the warm garbage stink of the incinerator room filling the airless hallway, Elizabeth looking on.
I was so sorry Elizabeth had to see this. So sorry because it wasn’t really true, what she was seeing wasn’t our family. I wanted to smile at her to tell her this is not what it looks like, this doesn’t ever happen. But something about Elizabeth witnessing us made it worse, made it harder to convince myself everything was going to be okay.
My mother was gone by evening. She zipped up the two suitcases that she had not yet really unpacked and left.
It’s not easy now to look at that photo of us from before she left again, to remember how careful I was, how hard I was working to keep her with me. When we took the photo I understood I didn’t have my mother in my life. What I didn’t know yet is that I never would.
Ronit Feinglass Plank’s short fiction and essays have appeared on Salon.com, The Iowa Review, Lilith and is forthcoming in Best New Writing 2015. She lives in Seattle with her young family.