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The Times You Wish You Had a Mother

I didn't invite my family to my wedding, or call my mother when my baby was born, much less care for her and my father as they aged. There've been no Thanksgiving dinners, no summer weekends by the beach. No nieces and nephews to invite for sleepovers.
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November 2001
Berlin, New York

I thought I'd gotten away, or at least as far away as I needed -- far enough to be safe.

It was a quiet and solitary sort of day: A Saturday by myself in the gable-roofed carriage house with stone steps that my boyfriend Neil and I rented in a small town in upstate New York. I was sitting at the computer in a spare bedroom when the phone rang, disrupting the country calm. I ignored it. I didn't know anyone for a hundred miles -- not well enough, anyway, to justify interrupting the day I had planned of writing, reading and a bath, followed by dinner in bed with the television on for company.

Then I heard the voicemail message.

"I'm in Williamstown. I'd like to meet for coffee." He told me where he was staying and left a room number.

I was shaken, taken aback by his voice, the reality of it no longer just in my head or persistent nightmares but here, recorded, for me to play back again and again. The strong, unmistakable Long Island accent seemed particularly glaring -- a caricature -- now that I hadn't heard it in months; the same accent I managed to drop years before.

"I need to see you."

How had he tracked me down? When Neil and I moved from Brooklyn, the summer before 9/11, I'd insisted we live outside the Massachusetts college town where he taught, across the state border. There, we could afford an entire house for half of what we'd been paying for a one-bedroom in Park Slope. I wanted to nest. More than that, I wanted to hole up and hide.

Now, alone in that idyllic, rural place, my pulse raced, my body suddenly on high alert. Neil was on a plane coming back from a job interview in California, unreachable for hours -- and this was it, my greatest fear realized. I'd been found. He had found me. The view out my study window, of a tidy, calm woods, turned dangerous and foreboding.

This time, I thought, my father is going to kill me.

I imagined him with a knife. A gun. Or even his bare hands. How humiliated he must be for what I'd done to him.

I called my friend Kathy, who'd known me since the sixth grade. I could hardly get the words out; there wasn't enough space between my hyperventilated breaths to explain about the voicemail, about Neil being away, about my fears. Were they misplaced?

"Go," she insisted. "Leave the house." Just in case.

Neil had our good car at the airport and I didn't know how far I could make it in the rusty Volvo station wagon I'd bought cheap the summer before because it made me feel bohemian and free. And where would I go, anyway? I grabbed my cell phone, threw on my bulky winter coat and boots, and went to knock on the door of my landlord, who lived in the main house on the same property. Matthew Milburn, as I'll call him here, was a retired physicist. We'd never spoken much, but he seemed trustworthy.

"My father..." I said, and began my story. All my life I'd avoided this very shame -- the knock on a stranger's door asking for help, the admission that my own father had hurt me, and might again.

"Is he dangerous?" asked Mr. Milburn (Neil and I always called him by his last name). When I was a girl, my father used to commute to his office in Long Island City with an axe tucked underneath the driver's seat of his blue 1976 Toyota Corolla. But that was 20 years ago. In the message, he sounded eerily calm and determined -- like a father who missed his daughter and would do anything to see her.

Was he dangerous? I hardly knew anymore. To me he was.

* * *

I haven't spoken to my parents, or my two older brothers, in 13 years. (When Neil called to check on my mother that night, she insisted my father had driven up to Williamstown not to hurt me, but in an attempt to repair our relationship. Looking back on it, I'm sure that's true.) There've been no cards, no emails, nothing besides a single phone conversation with my sister-in-law who, worried about her children spending time with my father, contacted me years later to ask if the abuse had been sexual. (It wasn't.) Once, after they sold their house, my parents sent a pain-filled box containing the remains of my childhood bedroom -- journals and photo albums and yearbooks -- to Neil's office.

As far as I know, my mother and father are still together. Last I heard, they live part-time in Queens and part-time in Florida. After moving around -- to Los Angeles, Boston and then Vancouver, Canada, I'm back in New York. My oldest brother lives in New Jersey, my middle brother in Westchester. I could run into any of them on the street, at a museum, a Yankees game. But our relationship has been over for a long time. I didn't invite my family to my wedding, or call my mother when my baby was born, much less care for her and my father as they aged. There've been no Thanksgiving dinners, no summer weekends by the beach. No brothers to fight or make up with. No nieces and nephews to invite for sleepovers.

I've always wanted a mother and father -- a family -- people to love and accept and nurture me, for whom I could do the same. We all do. From a very young age, I knew I didn't have those kind of parents. But it took me 20 more years to realize -- or rather, to decide -- that by hurting me, my mother and father had forfeited their claim to me, and their place in my life.

Here are the moments when you wish you had a mother: At the obstetrician's office when you get pregnant for the first time and find out there's no heartbeat; years later when you fly across the country for one costly, all or nothing round of IVF; when you finally have your baby and are holding him in the NICU. At your wedding; When you buy your first house and try to fix it up; At your first bookstore reading; When your husband's research makes it into the newspapers; When your son has his first birthday; His fifth; On the first day of kindergarten. When the writing disappointments come; When marriage gets hard; When you and your toddler have the flu and your husband is in Finland or Hong Kong; When friendships end. A mother, yes -- what I wouldn't do for one. But not mine.

This post is excerpted from "Estranged," a new Amazon Kindle Single.

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