It’s raining now, as I write this, which matches my memory of the day I lost my mother for the first time. It rained at her funeral too, but I’m getting ahead of myself. With all that’s happened recently, my therapist wants me to write my story, “like I’m telling a dear friend.” There was an analogy there too- something about lancing a boil and getting the poison out, but that doesn’t sit quite right with me. I don’t feel full of poison. I don’t feel full of anything. I’m empty, even if the tears still keep flowing- a seemingly inexhaustible supply.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, “dear friend.” The story begins on a normal day when I was in the second grade. I remember practicing my handwriting on paper meant for beginner cursive writers. Each row had a dotted line in the middle of two thick lines, designed specifically for practicing uppercase and lowercase letters. I remember at that age I pressed so hard with my pencil that I had a perpetual callous on my index finger.
On that normal day, our teacher- the kind-eyed Mrs. O’Brien- took me from my writing and out to the hall where my dad was waiting. He told me mommy was missing, but lots of people were looking for her and that I shouldn’t be scared. I remember him escorting me to the car and putting his jacket over my head to protect me from the pouring rain.
That was the first time I lost my mother.
The second time came shortly after. Looking back, this loss feels more like a brief intermission. My mother had been missing for three weeks. I didn’t know how long it was when all this was happening. I don’t remember the extent of time back then. I only know that it was three weeks because I can look back on police reports and newspaper stories. My grandparents remember down to the hour, but dear friend, it’s enough to know that three weeks and two days passed with no word from my mother.
I heard the adults talking in hushed voices. I listened so carefully back then because when they spoke of my mother, they whispered. It would have been better for my mental health if they hadn’t tried so hard to protect me. The mystery of it all just made me more frightened. So, I had to be stealthy. I snuck around and hung on every word I caught. Then one afternoon I heard them say, “they found her.”
I can’t even express the joy I felt. I think I jumped up and down. They found my mom! I didn’t care where she had been, I just wanted to melt in her arms.
Of course, I felt terribly stupid when I realized what they had actually found, but feeling stupid is a lot easier than feeling sad. The sadness came soon after, of course, and then more tears. I was a fountain of tears. My little eyes practically swelled shut from crying.
I had lost my mother for a second time.
After that I lived with my grandparents- my mother’s parents. My father receded from the picture almost entirely. My grandparents refused to talk badly about him in front of me, but I knew how they really felt. I never did stop sneaking around and listening to conversations I wasn’t meant to hear. They loved me, though, and put that love above their dislike of my father. They wanted custody, and he never fought it.
Nevertheless, he was there in a remote sort of way. He paid child support, and occasionally something would trigger him to send me a card or a present. His affections were sporadic at best, but I cherished them. Every card or little gift he sent, I kept in a special box. He once sent a sweater, a beautiful plum color in the softest knit. I never wore it, not once. I wouldn’t have been able to bear if something happened to it.
I learned that he remarried, and that he had other kids with his new wife. I’ve never met them. I’ve seen them, of course. They were there in the courtroom at his second trial. But we never spoke. It’s weird to know you have a half-brother and half-sister out there. I think if they were to contact me, and try to have a relationship, I would be okay with that. They haven’t, though, and I don’t think they ever will.
But I’m getting ahead of myself yet again. Where was I? Yes, my father remarried, and this is hard to write, even if I am writing to a dear friend. Even if I were writing to no one, this would be hard to write. My father remarried, and then he killed his second wife. Let’s skip the details for now and just say that this is what led to me losing my mother a third time.
When my mother disappeared all those years ago, the theory was that she was angry after a fight with my father and she stormed off to clear her head. My dad said she had been so mad that he could practically see the smoke coming out of her ears. The argument was over money, or at least that’s what I was told.
Back then they said she died of natural causes, in particular from a blunt force trauma to the head caused by a fall. She had slipped and tumbled down into a rocky ravine while out for a walk after the fight. Suspicious is an understatement for how it all sounds now, and it makes me crazy that there wasn’t more of an investigation. My father had been a police officer at the time, and looking back I have no doubt that’s what led to the hands-off approach from the sheriff’s office. I suppose I should have mentioned all of this earlier. I’m sorry. I know I’m telling this in a most convoluted way.
All that being said, my mother did like to take walks in the part of the woods she was found in. I don’t have the memories that my grandparents do, but they say she had a real Earth-mama personality and she loved being outdoors. It wouldn’t have been unheard of for her to turn to nature to calm herself. I’m much the same way. Sometimes being among the trees is the only thing that brings me peace.
I’m going to jump to the part of the story when it was proved beyond a reasonable doubt that my father had murdered his second wife. This was when the detectives on that case started to wonder if his first wife’s death wasn’t so natural after all. I was a freshman in college by this point. I honestly don’t remember a whole lot about what was going on. I don’t think I wanted to know, because in my heart, I already knew.
What I do remember about that time period was just feeling exceedingly angry. I ended up taking a semester off and staying with my grandparents. One night, I found the box where I had kept the cards and few gifts my father had given me. I took all of it to the firepit in the backyard and attempted to burn everything. It didn’t go well. The cards flared up easily, but I couldn’t get the sweater or other miscellaneous objects to stay lit.
The anger consumed me. I threw things and shouted all sorts of obscenities. My grandfather came out, wondering what on earth I was doing. I told him. At first, he looked like he was going to object- there were probably rules about burning trash in one’s yard- but he didn’t say anything. He simply went in the garage and returned with a can of lighter fluid. He assisted with my sad bonfire and held me while I cried enormous body-shaking sobs.
This was right before I lost my mother a third time.
The detectives came to the house one evening. Their suits were as somber-colored as their mood. They sat formally at the kitchen table while my grandmother made them coffee. They made a statement, but it felt more like a question, “We’d like to exhume the body.” They would need our permission. My grandmother cried. My grandfather held her hand. If it would help the case, then of course.
We were allowed to be there when they did it. My grandparents and I stood stiff and wordless as they dug up my mother’s grave. We didn’t turn away as they lifted her coffin from the earth. I felt sick the whole time. A team stood by, waiting to take her to the medical examiner’s office.
But they never would.
They couldn’t, because the coffin was empty. Again, my mother was gone. For the third time.
It’s still not clear what happened, although it looks like there was some sort of foul play at the funeral home. And dear friend, I think the story about that will have to wait for another time. Right now, I just want to talk about the fact that my mother was gone. I was transported back to that rainy day from second grade, and I was again a child, small and afraid.
The casket wasn’t completely empty, though. Before they buried my mother, my grandmother had asked that something be placed with her daughter. I should mention, dear friend, that my mom was an art history major, and that she taught art at the high school level. She painted some too, mostly still life oils of flowers and leaves. She was quite good, or at least I think so. My grandparents hung many of her paintings throughout the house, and the rest were carefully stored in archival boxes in their master bedroom closet.
One of my mother’s favorite paintings had been Allegory of Chastity by Lorenzo Lotto. I don’t remember much about my mom, but I do remember that print sitting over her dresser. It’s one of those paintings that as a kid you can stare at for a long time. It’s sort of split horizontally with the top half being mostly sky and the bottom half being mostly earth. On the ground, a woman in white and gold lounges. Her dress is glowing compared to the dark green of the forest around her. Hiding among the trees are a couple of suspicious-looking satyrs. Above is a cherub, sprinkling what I can only imagine is white angel dust onto the woman.
It was a print of Allegory that my grandmother wanted her daughter to have.
My grandmother took the rolled-up paper from one of the detectives. It appeared to be in decent shape but the paper was very dry and she worried that unrolling it would damage it, so she didn’t remove the twine and kept it rolled up. She said she would store it for the time being, and maybe at some point get an expert to see how they could open it without damaging it.
My father was already in jail for what he did to his second wife when they tried him for my mother’s murder. As I mentioned earlier, dear friend, that trial was the first time I saw my half-siblings. I wanted to really stare at them, to see if we looked alike, but I only allowed myself stray glances. In the end, my father was found not guilty. Proving a murder is difficult to do without a body.
He didn’t look at me at all when he was in the courtroom. Maybe it was because I never visited him in prison, nor did I write. In my defense, he never contacted me either. And that’s how it’s been. Sometimes, it’s almost as if he doesn’t even exist.
A few years after the trial, my grandparents died. First my grandmother, then my grandfather, only weeks apart. I think he died of a broken heart. I’m still in their house. I know technically it belongs to me, but it will always be their house. In the dining room, they have a china cabinet where they keep some china, but mostly photos of my mom. It’s like a little shrine to her. I’m now older than she was when she died. It’s odd to look at her face and see traces of my own staring back at me.
I ache for her, but sometimes I’m grateful for how things turned out. It feels wrong to admit this, and I wouldn’t if I wasn’t writing to such a dear friend, but here it is- there’s some grace to losing her when I did. I was so young when she died, that we never had time for big adult arguments. We didn’t get the chance to hurt one another, as mothers and daughters often do. I hope it’s not too terrible to be grateful for that.
My grandparents never did find an expert to help with unrolling the Allegory of Chastity print. After they died, I found it and unrolled it myself as carefully as I could. For a while, I hung it over my own dresser. It wasn’t as bright as I remembered, but still, I looked at it for a very long time.
Eventually, I rolled it up again, and then found a small ceramic dish to burn it in. Then, on a bright day with a cloudless sky, I took the ashes out to the woods that my mother loved. I released them and watched them drift on a gentle breeze. It reminded me of Allegory and the cherub above the woman, and the gentle scattering of angel dust.