All the Absent Mothers
A Father and A Daughter, Imagining Mom
“I need to talk to you about my mother.” My daughter says this in a business-like whisper after dinner. She’s sitting on my lap eating the last bits of oil-saturated kale from the salad bowl. There’s still piano to practice and dishes to do, but we rush through them so we can get to the business of her birth mother. Some fathers bond with their daughters over sports; they might go outside after dinner and takes shots on goal or practice the Maradona fake and spin. My daughter and I bond over mothers. Her mother. My mother. Absent mothers. Dead mothers. Biological mothers. Mothers.
Curled up in her bed together, Monkey and Hippo tightly secured in a headlock, we stare up into the murky light projected by a rainbow-maker low on batteries. She has a daydream she wants to tell me about.
Born in South Korea and adopted when she was three and a half months old, my daughter is a mature eight, more mature than her eleven-year-old brother, also from South Korea, whose vocabulary consists of varying timbres of farts and squeals and monosyllabic words like “hump.” The kid can really dish, is what my mom would say if she were still alive. She wakes talking and falls asleep talking and I don’t mean light banter—she hits hard subjects that demand an attention that can’t be faked while thumbing emails or checking Facebook status.
In our nightly conversations we’ve covered: the transformation of the body during puberty, in particular the volume and odd places that hair grows; a step-by-step breakdown of our chickens’ sex lives and why Waffles the rooster went away to a “farm” upstate; and more recently, mothers—her biological mother and my dead mother and the layers of complexity that accompany exploring who they are or were and what that means to us and who we might become.
* * * *
Men came into my life and vanished. He died in a foreign country, my mom liked to say, and they never found the body. My father went missing when I was two, after he found out about the affair she was having with my future stepfather, who in turn disappeared when I was 12, after she returned from an unexpectedly life-altering (sex-laden) trip to Puerto Vallarta without him. The names of the missing were too numerous to remember after the second divorce—Arturo, Abraham, Mustafa… —but spanned only two years before she met Carlos with his motorcycles and blousy shirts unbuttoned at the top. After he was arrested with a kilo of coke in the Dallas airport, I waited for my mom to ceremoniously announce his death and disappearance too. Instead she disappeared, year by year, as she devoted her life to getting Carlos out of prison.
My mom has been dead for 14 years, but images of her linger. There she is sitting at the makeup counter in her white tile bathroom, flannel robe lilting open as she sips wine and dishes with friends, all getting ready for a night out at the discos. She takes a drag off her cigarette. She leans in close to the mirror and blends an earth tone rainbow on her eyelids. “I need a button next to my bed,” she says, “so that when I’m all done, I can just push it and whoosh, whoever’s there will just disappear.”
All the women laugh. I laugh, a 13-year-old me in a button-down Polo and khaki shorts hurling head-on into the neutered manhood of the 1980s.
She haunts and defines me, but defies any attempts at my defining her, keeping my mind busy with a never-ending loop of vivid childhood memories: a living room packed with bodies dancing to Duran Duran’s “Wild Boys”; a Thanksgiving road trip to El Reno Federal Penitentiary to see Carlos; the burgundy booth of the Around the Corner hamburger joint where I told her as a 17 year old leaving for Italy for a year that all I wanted was for her to be my mom, and what she said in response: I never signed up to be your June Cleaver.
* * * *
I fumbled through my first adoption conversation with our son when he was six months old. He sat on my lap, alternately gumming Blue Bear’s nose and mine, as I began the story of how we became a family. Over the years, my wife and I have told thousands of variations of that original story, first to my son and then to my daughter, in what has become a family right of passage. Age-worn and personalized by and for each child, their stories have become the fabric of our family. And before the heavy lifting of our nightly conversations, my daughter likes to hear a small chunk of her story. Her story begins: Your mother and I couldn’t have children of our own. And all the way around the world, in South Korea, a baby had been made who needed a family. There are FBI background checks and fingerprints taken at the 78th precinct in Brooklyn; a 15-hour flight over glaciers where polar bears roam; tea gardens with song birds, ramen served with quail eggs, and a Sunday meal of japchae and bulgogi shared with Korean friends; there is the first meet and the first hold, the first smile and the first nap, and somewhere toward the end, after the BIG CRY, when everything we did wasn’t enough to staunch her tears, when we thought social workers would break down the door and take her away, there is the BIG CALM—that moment when she melts into my wife’s arms as if saying, fine, you can be my mom.
The first time I told that story, it felt like a bag of rocks had been firmly lodged in my chest, each rock a different emotion I would never digest. There was grief and sadness that my family’s foundation was built on loss; there was resentment at how easy other parents had it, that they could just be parents without background checks or parenting workshops about racism. But the biggest rock to swallow was the anxiety that one day my kids would ask about and want to know their biological parents and at that point I would cease to be their dad.
That bag of rocks dislodged over the years, every pebble broken down and digested as I settled into the narrative of my own family.
* * * *
“The daydream is always the same,” my daughter says. “I’m staring at my book at school and all of a sudden everything clears from my mind and a hole opens up I can walk through and when I come out the other side I’m in Korea, and standing right there in front of me is my mother. I’m s so happy to see her, but there’s something wrong with her face—I can’t see her eyes. They’re just bright white holes and then she disappears and I’m back at my desk staring at my book.”
I pull my daughter close and she snuggles in tight.
“I’ve been thinking about her eyes, too,” I say. Since returning from a recent family trip to Korea, I’ve been piecing together mental composites of her mother based on the girls we saw in the subways and streets and shops of Gwangju, the city where she was born. The skinny jeans and long hair blur into an ambiguously young girl—15, 20, 23 years old—and the one physical trait I can imagine clearly are her eyes. Her mother would have her eyes, the same bottomless pools that captivated me the first time I held her. I imagine my daughter’s mother holding her as I did and seeing herself in her own daughter as she questions for a moment if she’s strong enough to raise her child. It’s a difficult question for a teenager—difficult to understand how it will ripple through the lives of others for years to come. She makes her decision, but before she does, she names her baby Hyun Ah, Beautiful Sunbeams. I tell my daughter all of this in an attempt to help make tangible the intangible details of how she came to be, to create vivid memories where none exist.
I feel her body relax against mine.
My wife and I will never be able to answer all the questions that nag at my daughter: What’s her birth mother’s favorite book? Song? Food? Did she go to college? Why couldn’t she keep her? In the safety of her bedroom, in a space created by her mom and my wife, I imagine her birth mother out loud. And it’s here that something strange happens. While we both imagine a young Korean woman, the thoughts that bring her to life for me are almost entirely my mom’s, creating an uncontrollable convergence between the two absent mothers. I talk to my daughter as if she is me and I am my mom. I don’t exactly channel my dead mother—I wish it were that simple—or even say what she would have said if she were still alive; I listen to my daughter and talk to her as the parent I wish my mom had been, and together we create a father/daughter fantasy world of mother-oriented wish fulfillment.
“Do you think about your mother?” she says.
“Every day,” I say. “And you’ve helped me think about her in a different way.”
My daughter lets this settle for minute and then she says, “I wish I could meet my birth mom.” My daughter hesitates, and then says, “I wish I could live with her, but still live with you and mom.”
“It’s ok to feel that way,” I say. “No matter what you say, your mom and I will always be here for you.”
She squeezes my hand a couple of times as if saying, let’s move on.
“I think my mom has dark brown hair,” she says.
“No—lighter, because I think my dad has darker hair and mine is somewhere in the middle.”
“Like milk chocolate.”
“And she has dimples,” I say. “Right here and here. I touch the corners of her mouth.”
“And she loves dok,” she says.
“And she might be allergic to peanuts.”
* * * *
Two years before my mom died, she took me on a road-trip to the small town where she grew up and hadn’t visited in 40 years, since being sent away one Christmas to an all-girls boarding school. Together with her therapist she had been trying to figure out why she had spent her adult life running from man to man in a perpetual state of distrust.
“I smacked my stepfather.”
We were sitting in the parking lot of that girls’ school, a light snow blanketing the quad. “He had corned one of my girlfriends in the upstairs hallway,” she said. “He was drunk. He was always drunk. But it was our Christmas party and he wouldn’t leave her alone and so I smacked him. I smacked him so hard he fell down the stairs.”
“What the hell did your mom say?” I asked.
My mom laughed. “Sweetheart,” she said, “this was 1954. I ruined her Christmas party. She’s still pissed at me.”
The strained relationship she had with her own mother snapped into focus. My grandmother’s heavy drinking, her addiction to prescription pills—it all began to make sense. It was a rare moment of personal revelation and openness between my mom and me that I hoped would allow us to talk about my own childhood and why I had moved in with my dad when I was 16, something we never talked about.
“That’s why I raised you kids the way I did,” she said. “I wanted you to have your own freedom. I wanted you to make your own rules. I wanted to put an end to the abuse.”
An awkward silence enveloped us as I puzzled over how she equated her absence as a mother to my needing freedom as a 12 year old. She lit a cigarette and rolled down the window. Awkward turned tense as I thought about my childhood: How I spent my 13th birthday alone while she was in Puerto Vallarta with Ernie; how DEA agents camped outside our house after Carlos was arrested; the click the phone tap made after ten seconds of idle, non drug-related chat. I thought about my binge drinking, my string of arrests, her telling me I was an alcoholic.
“I was really unhappy,” I said. I hesitated, unable to find the right words to give that unhappiness form.
“Bullshit!” she quipped. “You had a great fucking childhood.” She flicked her cigarette out the window and started the car. “Asshole.”
Maybe that wasn’t the best segue into a conversation about my childhood and the strangely indefinable feeling of abandonment: she was physically present, but somehow absent.
What lingers with me, maybe as a genetic remnant passed down from generation to generation, is a lineage of willful dysfunction, of not listening and remaining silent just at the moment when it’s most necessary to talk. After leaving the girls school, my mom and I didn’t speak to each other until we pulled into her hometown an hour later.
“Sander’s Shoes,” she cried. “I can’t believe it’s still there!”
It was as if I had never said anything. And just like that, our conversation was over forever.
* * * *
The men came into our lives and disappeared, but it wasn’t the men I missed. My mom was always running from something—from herself, from her childhood, from man to man to man, from her mother, from me.
My biggest fear as a parent was that our family lacked the unshakable foundation of genetics that would keep us together no matter what. What I found is that I could create a stronger bond with our words. I will never know what it’s like to be adopted, but I do know what it’s like to piece together who I am from fragments and abstractions. As a grown man and father, still toiling over his dead mother, I know what it’s like to be consumed with absence and loss and unanswered questions about my mother and who I am. What I regret most is that in those final weeks before my mom died I didn’t have the courage to ask her the one question I needed answered—why did she abandon me for all those men?
I don’t worry about what binds me to my children anymore. That genetic lineage of willful dysfunction has been broken. We talk in our family. Our kids ask questions; my wife and I use whatever experience we have to try to answer them, no matter how difficult or painful they may be. Together we delve into the past and dream into the future, imagining a day when we might meet their mothers and ask all the questions that burn inside.