I don’t know my mom. What I mean is, I know my mom. I just don’t know her. You know?
I’m pretty sure I know “Deb”. Her on-the-surface persona that maintains “we’re having fun” or “for a good time, call Deb”, Deb. The person I don’t know is the vulnerable and caring mother I yearned for.
Deb favors pecan over pumpkin. She prefers red nail polish but only for her toes. She likes the word “fuck”. Fuck you, fuck them, fuck this. Deb adores the band The Eagles and she used to love Asti Spumanti, then switched to Mudslides. These days Whiskey Sours are her “signature drink”. Honestly, drinking is her signature drink.
What I can’t tell you about her is anything tangible or deep. I don’t know her favorite childhood memory or what makes her cry. Most of that’s due to the fact that we aren’t very close. She wasn’t very maternal and even when she managed to muster some love or affection, it was through gritted teeth. Like the runner up in a beauty pageant. “Congratulations, bless your heart.” You could feel that she almost didn’t mean it.
Deb rarely dished moments from her past but when she did it was usually a doozie. Dramatic, wild and shattered, often revealed over a cocktail — surprise, surprise. Complete with ice clinking and slurred declarations that she “used to be fun!”. Some of my favorite dirty Deb reveals include the time she nonchalantly shared that — in 1985- she’d put weed in our spaghetti dinner, in an attempt to “loosen up” my NYPD detective dad.
“Did Erin and I eat it?!”.
“Yeah, It helped you both sleep.”
“Mom! I was five!”
“You were fine.”
Another in my perennial top five disclosures was when we’d moved homes. I was helping unload boxes and while unpacking my parents literal baggage, I stumbled upon their wedding certificate. Starry eyed and curious, I read it over: “Kevin and Deborah were married May 1st, 1–9–8–1”. One full year after my birth. No wonder our home lacked wedding photos. It would have been proof I was in attendance! I find this particular family secret amusing because I feel more interesting as a “bastard”. Who wouldn’t?! Bastards are cool. I’m a bastard! Look out Jon Snow, Kara Subway Rat is in the game.
But, by far, the absolute greatest cover up she ever pulled was one that epically span thirty some odd years. The first chapter arrived on my 16th birthday. I remember this day so vividly. Although I was an understandably surly teen who often wore black, I walked home from school with considerable pep that afternoon. I was excited to finally celebrate what was ( I felt) my true foray into adulthood. I would feel this way again, at 18…21…30. I’m still waiting.
I made my way inside our house and into the family living room to find my mother had already started the boxed wine birthday bash. She swayed unsteadily over a cookbook.
“I’m making meatloaf, are you excited?”
I was not, in fact, “excited”. But all in all, it was a pretty standard birthday. A Carvel ice cream cake and a gift certificate to Delia’s. This would surely make up for the poorly prepared meatloaf I would be forced to ingest.
I gave her one of those half hugs where one side of your body is trying to escape the situation. And then 4PM hit — time for Oprah. Her attention shifted to the TV, where the queen of content was about to introduce her latest episode. My mother loved Oprah. Your mother loved Oprah. For a time, all of our mothers we’re team Oprah. And that day’s topic was pretty standard Oprah content — “reuniting mothers with the children they’d given up for adoption”. Surly no foreshadowing to be cognizant of. My mother, from inside the kitchen, squeezed her nearly empty boxed wine bladder into a glass and casually muttered “I should ask Oprah to help me find my boys”.
You know those moments in movies when people crane their necks or lean really far back in chairs because they heard just about the craziest thing they’ve ever heard? My sister and I were on the damn floor, to say the least.
“What?!”, I exclaimed.
“She’s crazy.”, my younger sister, Erin, piped in.
“What?!” my mother countered in her passive aggressive Brooklyn accent.
“Did you just say, find — your — boys?”
Silence. The last of the bladder was dribbling cheap wine into her goblet. I leaned in the kitchen doorway.
“Did you say… you have boys?”
“It was a long time ago……”
I sensed denial, rage, and delight. But there are really no words. You how I know? Because there’s no greeting card for this situation and ipso facto, there are no words.
I now have two brothers. Two! I already had four sisters and now, two brothers?! We only had one bathroom?! After a beat my sister and I launched into a flurry of questions but Deb quickly shut it down by lifting her wooden spoon into the air like an evil queen in a fairy tale and threatened to, oh so eloquently, “beat the piss out of you!”.
I wanted to find them, my brothers. At the same time I didn’t, because, well, look at this woman! As I mentioned, my mother and I are not close and she drinks a lot. A lot. She also drugged a lot, too, which often meant motherhood was a distant chore she sometimes satisfactorily achieved. It often spiraled quickly into emotional and physical abuse. Remember the drinking thing? Well apparently parenting and hangovers are not good teammates. Who knew? Still something kept me curious, even though they were probably better off never knowing “Deb”. Maybe helping find them would garner two big brother bodyguards for me. Maybe it could heal Deb’s wounds and she’d finally open up to love.
Over the years, I did what I could to probe for additional facts and did manage to collect tidbits here and there. Honestly though, it’s quite hard to question a user with a bad attitude. Very much like an episode of True Detective. You think you’re getting somewhere…..but then Matthew McConaughey shows up and starts rambling on about time and flat circles. Nowheresville, USA. To add insult to injury, my younger sister died in 2000. She was only 17. It was hard on all of us, obviously, but I think it finally broke Deb. She disappeared into a deep depression and hardly talked let alone shared further info about her past. The door to finding her sons seemed permanently closed and I lost a lot of my desire to solve the mystery. I went on with my life wondering if my mothers two sons were even real.
Then in 2013, something truly surprising occurred. The “boys” found Deb. And they’d been adopted together. And while this might seem like a happy ending to my story, I’m sad to report that nothing much changed for Deb. I’d hoped this moment might finally allow her to be vulnerable and open, but she danced around the truth with them too. Luckily they met her when they did.
In 2015 my mom began developing early onset Alzheimer’s. She wasn’t diagnosed until recently but when it began the primary symptom most apparent to all of us was how much she was forgetting. Every day my mother loses simple truths along with deeply buried memories of her past. What is already a secret to me will be or already has become a secret to Deb herself. I will most likely never know any more details about the complicated and mortal parts of my mother before they’re lost forever. She will literally take the secrets of who she really is, to her grave.
My brothers have yet to really probe me for answers they need, and I can’t say I’ll be able to give them anything because I struggle to answer many of those questions myself. I won’t be able to fill a void for them because it also exists for me. But if I have learned anything from all of Deb’s secrets, it’s how important and powerful sharing can be, even if that secret feels too painful to release and let go of. If anyone wants to know who I am because of Deb, I’ll be sure to share the most vulnerable parts of me. No more family secrets.