I realised that there was something “wrong” with my mother around the age of 12, something I knew had to do with alcohol.
I was able to walk into a room and know with one glance in her direction if she had been drinking. Sometimes the signs were subtle — a slight narrowing of the eyes or an exaggerated hand gesture — and went unnoticed by most. Other times, her inebriation was obvious to anyone present.
In retrospect, it is difficult to determine when my mother’s relationship with alcohol went from social to reliant.
In my early childhood memories, I had two loving parents who were endlessly committed to their three children — two boys and a girl in the middle. We lived in exciting places. I spent my first two years of life in Mauritania. My baby brother was born in the Philippines. We moved every three to four years, and my mother was, according to peers, the “quintessential expat.”
And then the solitary wine-sipping started. A lifelong night owl, her sleeping-in-late began to seem increasingly like sleeping-it-off. She frequently got tipsy at parties and other events. The question “Will she behave herself tonight?” became a recurring one.
Soon after, a distance set in between us, solidified less by conflict than by the things we left unsaid. I didn’t discuss her “problem” with anyone. I felt I needed to protect our family, and her reputation.
I yearned to be like my father, a humanitarian with the United Nations who was hardworking and intent on saving the world. Conversely, I saw her as an example of what not to do. I judged her for having no steady job and living in whatever country her husband’s work dictated, including ones with unstable governments and scorpions hiding in the yard.
A person immersed in substance is unreachable, in many ways. Even when they are physically present, even when sober at a particular moment, they are not all there. They are not fully accessible to you. There is an emotional distance that cannot be transcended. In a case where the person has never acknowledged having a problem at all, there remains a lie between you, a dishonesty that shrouds every word or gesture.
Growing up, my mother was there physically. She attended every recital, choir concert, play, softball game. She was there when I got home from school, asking me how my day had gone. She stayed up and waited for me when I was out with friends on weekends. As such, it never occurred to me that I was experiencing an absence. I knew I was angry with her. It is only now that I realise my anger was concealing another feeling, one akin to grief. I was actively missing my living mother.
And while my early rejection of her stemmed from anger, it was also self-defence. By locking me out, it felt like she had rejected me first.
I did end up pursuing a professional path similar to my father’s. I worked for a smattering of nongovernmental organisations with the stated cause of “ending violence against women and girls,” whose stories I sought to uncover and tell. As I doggedly chased the untold and complex narratives of women’s lived experiences, my own mother withered away.
When my father finally retired after 31 years with the World Food Program, my parents moved back to their hometown in Vermont. Over that summer, I decided to throw them a retirement party at their house in Springfield. On an early August morning, hours before the guests arrived, I found Mum on our back porch, where I had laid out a large poster board collage that boasted pictures spanning the past three decades. Mum was perched on a picnic bench, her face inches from the tabletop, staring at her life in images, forever adjacent to — or in the background of — the man she married.
While it was my father who was technically retiring, I did intend for the party to be about both parents. In retrospect, I am not sure I succeeded. I continued to be biased, putting my father on that humanitarian pedestal. Reflecting on that now, I cringe. The focus was on him, with a polite nod in her direction. And she obliged. With a smile.
My mother died at age 63 in July 2014 — the final step in her self-erasure. When she left us, she was a complete mystery to me.
I stayed the professional course for a few years afterward, until I simply could not anymore. At the time, I pointed to a number of external factors as the reason for my exit. But now I see that once the person I had always been trying to “save” was gone, so was my motivation.
I decided I would ― finally ― get to know my mother, Pam, the way I wasn’t able to when she was alive. I would uncover her story.
Peeling back the layers has taken me years, but in that time, I unearthed a person, not a problem. Talking to the many people — friends, family, ex-boyfriends — who knew and loved Pam over the decades has shown me snapshots of the independent and adventure-seeking girl, and then woman, I never got to know. As I slowly pieced together the anecdotes, sentimental memories, and Kodak pictures from the time she hitchhiked across parts of Europe in her early 20s, I was gifted with a glimpse of the complex humanity that a substance had long since obscured.
I now see how Pam found herself on a path walked by so many of her generation — one where the choices are narrowed by the demands of motherhood, a spouse and managing a household. Retreating into alcohol may have helped to numb the incongruence between reality and those lost possibilities.
I discovered something else, too.
After graduating from college, my mother taught English in Germany for a few years. In a letter to a friend back home in 1974, she describes her recently purchased means of getting around town: a bicycle. “[It’s] the 10-speed racer style, which shocks the hell out of everyone I ride by,” she says.
I found a photograph showing her ride this bike. It has a bright yellow frame and two side baskets suspended over the back wheel, one of which carries a beige satchel. She is leaning forward, wearing an unusual outfit for bike riding — a skirt, black tights and boots — and she is smiling.
A friend of hers from that time remembers Mum showing up at her apartment on the bicycle and proceeding to carefully pull beer bottles out of a backpack for everyone to share — atypical behavior for women at the time.
During a summer spent working with a local women’s business cooperative in Cameroon in my mid-20s, I too put beer in a backpack — raising eyebrows among the staff at the checkout counter. My mode of transportation was also called into question: Is it safe to take those motorcycle taxis around town?!
In my teens and 20s, I spent so much time trying not to be like my mother. By then, her retreat from herself had left behind someone else entirely — someone fragile, someone dependent, someone seemingly without dreams or aspirations of her own.
But I didn’t know who she had been, and I didn’t know, or want to see, just how similar we were. Purchasing those beers in Cameroon, I thought I was following in my father’s vocational footsteps. Little did I know I was actually walking in hers.
It’s hard to reckon with the fact that I kept my mother at arm’s length, even if I understand why I did. Now, however, I appear to be doing the opposite: pursuing her story across continents. I wear her jewellery, get tattoos in her memory and keep mementos from her college-era travels on my dresser. I even named my dog after the one she had at 16. I am doing everything I can to traverse the distance that started when she lost sight of herself.
I cannot bring my mother back, nor can I answer all the questions that remain. But I can blow life into the story she spent years diluting, and in this new knowing of her, I am able to reclaim the parts of myself that embody her. I stopped seeing my mother in life, but now I see her in me.