I carry these pieces of my mother around with me. I don’t have many pieces. You see, she stopped being my mother when I was four years old. I have few of my own memories, but they stand out because my first four years were so very different from the last sixteen.
I always associate my mother with the lake. It may be that most of my direct memories of my mother surround the lake. Or perhaps it’s because the last few weeks we had together she spent most of her time on the lake. It may be because I sometimes think she died there. But I always feel closest to her there. It’s like she’s on the bottom of the lake somewhere. I can only visit her for the briefest of moments, as long as I can hold my breath and then she’s gone again.
My mother left when I was four years old. It was the height of what would become known as the Great Depression. My grandfather had died, as had my grandmother, so my uncle sort of ran things. My mother had never mentioned my father and it wasn’t until I was much older that I realized I must have had one. In either case, he wasn’t around and I never knew him.
My mother didn’t work, some women did during the depression. Elfriede did, she sewed birds on hats but we’ll get to her later. My mother was a stone mason that no one would hire. Part of it was that she was a woman and everyone felt that it was rather disagreeable to have a woman laying the foundation for your house. So the only folks who ever hired my mother were the town lesbians. I didn’t know the word lesbian until I was in college. I honestly thought that they were both cousins and old maids because that was the polite story that was told in town.
This book isn’t about polite.
I try hard to stay honest about things because the lies that we tell ourselves and each other to make things go over better? They have a nasty possibility of coming back on you. I once got in the habit of believing the lies. And once you start believing in lies, especially ones about yourself, you can set yourself up for a fall.
My mother disappeared when I was four years old. So to start out, here’s that story:
In the days leading up to her disappearance my mother was building an underwater cairn. I actually didn’t know this until many years later when I tried to find my mother. Back when I was four I only knew that my mother would put me down for my nap and then she would load the rowboat up with rocks and row out onto the lake.
My mother rowed unlike most people. She would set out in the boat, check her destination once over her shoulder and then turn her back on it and start pulling on the oars. She never looked back to see if heading in the right direction. She might glance to the side but mostly she stared straight ahead at the place that she was leaving. The times I rowed with her, she always made her destination, on the first try. My mother was rather sure of herself.
I know that she did all this with the rocks and the boat because I rarely took those naps. I just wasn’t the nap sort. I would lay in bed with my eyes closed, breathing slowly, shallowly until she crept out and shut the door. When I was sure she had left the house, I would creep to the window of the bedroom we shared and I would look out onto the view I had of our small bay on the lake. Once she had loaded the boat with her rocks, and had shoved the boat into the water, (riding rather low because of all the ballast) I would watch her row out of sight.
The view I had was rather restricted, I could see the boat shoving off, but after just a few strokes it would disappear behind a stand of trees. At that point, I would leave the house and resume whatever activity had occupied me prior to being hauled off for a nap. This might be torturing small tree toads by collecting them in a jar. It could be climbing a tree, because even though I was only four, I was pretty good at this. Or it could be ranging off into the woods.
My favorite play spot was near one of my mother’s cairns in the woods. I guess I should explain what a cairn is because it might not be a familiar to you. A cairn is really just a pile of rocks. Now my mother’s cairns are a bit more than that, they are art. And there should be one at the Met in New York City, but they don’t answer my letters anymore. It’s true though, they are art.
Anyone in town will tell you that if you have one of Feli’s cairns on your property it increases the value of the place. They might also make a sour face at the mention of my mother but they won’t deny that the cairns are art.
She would row back into our bay in late afternoon and she would find me wherever I was playing. She would lead me back to the house where we would make dinner for my Uncle Frank. Now I should say that my Uncle Frank is not some euphemism for my mother’s boyfriend. He really is her brother, and he really is my Uncle, they were twins actually. I didn’t know that for a long time either. But I just wanted to be clear on two points about my Uncle. One is that he really was my Uncle. And Two is that this isn’t one of those creepy incest stories. My Uncle was a great guy and a great Uncle and there isn’t anything creepy going on there. I just wanted to clarify because earlier I had talked about lies, and there are some lies, but they aren’t about Frank. No, the lies are about me.
So in the days leading up to my mother’s disappearance she left daily in the rock laden rowboat after I was tucked up for my nap. On the actual day that she disappeared something unusual happened (I mean besides the fact that my mother disappeared never to return.) Oh, and let’s be clear about that too. My mother doesn’t ever come back in this story. I’ll spare you that one. I’ve lived long enough waiting for her to walk through the door and I understand that misery, I understand it so well that I won’t be imposing it on you. No, the unusual thing that happened that day was that I actually went down for my nap.
This isn’t entirely my fault. My Uncle Frank, whom as I’ve said was a great guy, came home from the bar a bit early the night before. He’d been drinking but not so much that it was a problem. But he was drinking enough to think that going owling with his four year old niece was a good idea. On a sober night, there is no way this would have happened. But this wasn’t a sober night, so at 1 in the morning I went owling with my Uncle Frank. We didn’t see much because when Frank drinks he isn’t so very quiet. I was just happy that he let me carry the Niagara 2 cell Red Lantern. He let me carry it because he didn’t want to break it. Apparently a four year old is more trustworthy than a slightly drunk adult man. This is probably true in more areas than just flashlight carrying.
In either case, I didn’t get much sleep that night, nor did I see any owls. But when nap time rolled around, I actually fell asleep. So I never saw where my mother went that day. She wasn’t back when I woke up and I just figured it was like every other day, she was out on the lake doing her thing and I could out to play.
The rules were that if I was on my own, the lake was off limits. Uncle Frank had even gone so far as to establish a boundary of whitewashed rocks that marked the “line of demarcation.” On the house side of the line it was me alone but on the lake side of the line it was me with either my Uncle Frank or my mother. I was known to stand on the rocks but I was always careful not to go beyond them. At that time corporal punishment was not frowned on like it is today. And the one time I was caught beyond the line of demarcation, I was spanked rather hard and the memory did stay with me.
So I didn’t go down to the lake that day. And it wasn’t until Uncle Frank came and found me playing with a group of tree toads that I knew anything was different.
Now the thing is, that morning my mother and I had done our normal puttering around, cleaning up the kitchen and weeding our sad little garden. But we did one thing more that was rather exciting and different which is why I remembered it so clearly.
We packed a suitcase, a bright blue suitcase. We packed it with two of my mother’s dresses, some undergarments, her hairbrush, and her bathroom things. We set that suitcase by the front door to the house. And then we went on to the rest of our normal routine.
When Uncle Frank came home that evening and found me at the cairn, he asked where Feli was. He never called her “your mother” he always called her Feli so that as the years passed I began to think of her that way too. Not my mother, but Feli.
We began to look for her, starting at the lake where the rowboat was in its usual position, moored to the dock. We ranged around the property with no luck. Her bicycle was in the garage in its normal spot. And then I remembered the blue suitcase. I told my Uncle Frank about it and we went back to the house and I pointed to the place where it had been. It wasn’t there. I went racing around the house looking for it but Uncle Frank didn’t. I finally came back to the front door and found him still standing there.
At that point he sort of looked like a Barred owl which always had a wide eyed worried look to me. And I guess that’s where this story starts, on the day my mother disappeared and my Uncle Frank became wide eyed and worried.