I always figured I’d recognize my mother when I saw her, but I don't. The woman sitting across from me looks too well rested and exudes too much peacefulness to be the person who left me behind. I see none of myself in her face. I expected something different. Growing up, most of my friends at least had one parent. Oftentimes I’d hear the remarks our neighbors made to those friends - “Oh, you’re beautiful! Just like your mother.” or “You have your father’s height and your mother’s eyes.” No one spoke to me about either of my parents. It was as if neither of them had ever existed.
“Fifteen years,” I murmur as the woman’s eyes bore into me. She bows her head for a moment before reestablishing eye contact.
“You know what things were like back then. After they shot your father…”
A memory resurfaces. I am eight years old. I am kneeling on the cobblestones, not caring that I am dirtying my school dress. My father lays, glassy-eyed, before me. His blood stains the cobblestones and runs in rivulets down the street in the little grooves. My mother stands just out of my view, but I know she is there. Other people are there too. My father’s blood is staining my skirt. I look up and my mother is gone. Some time later I feel the tight grip of my aunt’s bony fingers digging into my shoulder. She wordlessly leads me away from the street. She does not look back, so I do not look back. Her hair is pulled back into a severe bun and a grim expression adorns her face. The expression becomes a constant feature.
I feel a touch and instantly recoil. My mother’s hand hovers just in front of mine before being retracted.
“I’ve missed you,” she murmurs softly. I pretend not to hear. Is it possible to miss someone you willingly left? My skin crawls where she grazed it and for the first time in my life I find myself wishing my aunt was with me.
While not incapable of love, my father’s older sister did not feel the need for it. She told no stories of my father, there were no visits to his grave, and each anniversary of his death passed unmarked. She never regarded me as a daughter.
The woman whose daughter I am now sits before me. I know not how she found me. I suppose that will be one of many things to be explained.
Her hair shines in the light and only a few strands of gray are visible. She appears well. She appears healthy. A diamond ring on her left ring finger catches the light and sparkles periodically. I am not the only one she left behind.
I fight the anger that wishes to erupt. Her tailored clothes, her shiny ring, her unapologetic gaze make me feel ill. I clear my throat.
“Things were difficult with Aunt Agnes,” I manage to say. My mother’s gaze drops to her clasped hands on the table.
“I didn’t realize she helped you.” I stare at my mother. Did she not know who took her eight-year-old daughter in? Or is she simply commenting on my aunt’s reluctance to help others?
I manage to recover enough to speak. “Yes. She was the only family I knew.” My mother furrows her brow. She doesn’ know. The realization hits me with incredible force.
I have vague memories of my mother’s sisters, Lina, Magdalena, and Evangeline. Feelings last longer than the details that time chooses to reclaim. When I think of my three aunts I feel warm. I remember feeling full, warm, and happy. But that was before the government shot my father.
A slightly more recent memory retrieves itself from the recesses of my mind. I am 11. My father has been dead for three years. I no longer cry myself to sleep every night. I no longer call for my mother when nightmares wake me. Sometime during the last three years I learned better than to call for Aunt Agnes as well. Aunt Agnes’ frown deepens as she hunches over the worn wooden table. She writes furiously. I catch the names on the envelopes she addresses. My mother’s sisters. Elation and anticipation build within me.
Those feelings do not last. A short time later Aunt Agnes curses under her breath as she reads newly arrived letters. I try to read them before the fire consumes them, but paper burns fast. Aunt Agnes does not speak of my aunts and they do not come.
“Faustina?” My name rouses me from my reverie. I meet my mother’s gaze. “Did you hear me?” I shake my head. She is like a living ghost and I do not believe in ghosts. “It was such a dangerous time, with the occupation and the war. Your father, may his soul rest in peace, and I were fighting for our country the only way we knew how. It was dangerous work. Dangerous, important work.”
The word important sparks a flame within me. Important work. So important it justified abandoning an eight-year-old in front of the corpse of her father. So important it justified not even guaranteeing safety for said child.
I listen numbly as excuses pour from her lips. How could I ever view her words as anything but?
An overused word becomes cheap. Such is the fate of the word “important.” The longer my mother speaks, the cheaper the word becomes. She expects me to accept her explanations. It was a time of war. Our people needed to fight any way they could. Sacrifices were made.
The numbness did not subside. She did not understand. I could not explain. She spoke of war. She spoke of sacrifices. My mother sat across from me and, in her way, justified her actions. What she did not seem to comprehend was that we were on opposite sides of sacrifice. While she was the one making sacrifices, I was one of the ones being sacrificed. And for that, I didn’t think I could ever forgive her.