Originally published in PS I Love You.
Two weeks before my eighteenth birthday, my grandparents took my sister and me on a surprise trip to Montana. I didn’t know that we would visit my mom, who had been relocated to the witness protection program for the last four years. I couldn’t believe I would see my mom again, after being told that wasn’t possible.
It felt like I could close the book on ‘the past,’ which had been my entire childhood. My sole focus was on getting answers and healing the old wounds. I was too young and naïve to realize how the next six months’ experiences would end up being lessons for the future.
Relationships are never black and white
The reunion didn’t go quite as my grandma had planned, and I stayed in Montana with my mother. One of the first things I had to tell my mom was that I had lice. My grandma had ordered me not to tell my mom about it and had purposefully given my mom my hairbrush when the opportunity struck. My mom’s head had been itching for days, and as my grandma’s van drove out of sight, I used up the last bit of rebellion in my spirit to tell her why.
I didn’t understand my grandma’s motives. I thought it was some spiteful act because my mom hadn’t been around for any of the parenting hardships, and it was my grandma’s way of leaving her with a glimpse of the not-fun side of parenting. As I got older, I learned it was more than that; it was jealousy, pain, and decades of pent up anger.
I remember the look of pain in my mom’s eyes, but I had been too young to recognize how deeply it went. My mom and grandmother built their relationship on a foundation of distrust, abuse, rumors, and dependence. My mom never got therapy; she self-medicated with drugs, alcohol, and increasingly dangerous behavior. Her trauma bonds ran deep, and the thought of her mother purposefully doing something so cruel sent her down the slope of despair.
My grandmother lashed out in familiar ways, saying cruel things to my mom over the phone in the following days. My mom responded in kind until the two stopped speaking. My grandmother refused to send any of my clothes or the $3000 I had saved for college. She told me I owed it to her for taking care of me since I was six and that it wasn’t my money.
I could have forgiven her because all I needed was my books, and my journals were full of poems and stories. She refused to send them. And the sheltered bookworm I was, felt like I had lost my universe. The characters in these books were my friends. My poems and journals expressed my deepest pain in a way that I hadn’t verbalized.
My mom was more concerned that I only had one suitcase, filled with a week’s worth of clothes. I also had to get enrolled at the college, purchase books, and I needed a car. Relationships, like the ones between my mom, my grandma, and I might not be black and white, but I was about to learn that money was simple: you either had it or didn’t.
The person you are when you need money, matters
I focused on bonding with the woman who’d wandered in and out of my life like a gypsy. I didn’t realize the pressure my mom was under as she had to learn how to be a mother. She was also having another epic battle with her mom, and she had to provide for me. My mother was not conventional in any sense of the word and had a lengthy criminal record before entering the witness protection program. She turned back to her old ways almost immediately.
I had been there for about two weeks when my mom received a credit card in the mailbox for the older woman who lived in the house they had purchased. It was the kind of card that came in the mail, and if you wanted to accept the terms, you just called the automated number, and it was ready to go. I remember my mom came into the house, so excited that she had a solution.
I looked at her like she was crazy and said, “Mom, that is stealing! We can’t charge stuff to this lady.” She said that we weren’t stealing from the nice old lady.
The credit card companies have money built-in money for this kind of thing; we are sticking it to the man.
I was the kid who graduated from college before high school. I had not met a rule I didn’t like. There was wrong, and there was right, in my world. I had never had detention, and I had never stolen anything. My mom ended up running an elaborate thievery scam that meant purchasing and returning things for cash, depending on the store. This was back in 2001, and the return policy at places like Walmart was lax.
Her shopping spree took all of three or four days. She hadn’t maxed the card out, it had a few thousand left on there, but this was part of her plan to dispose of the card.
She serviced vending machines across four states. On one route to South Dakota, she stopped at a biker bar. I was with her on this trip and asked her why she looked like a biker again; truthfully, she looked like her old self. She told me:
Just be patient, and you will see. This is how I don’t get caught.
I sat in the big white van while she went inside. Ten minutes later, she came strolling out. It turns out; she had walked up to the bar, ordered a beer, drank it, and then went to the ladies’ room. She casually dropped the card in the stall, walked out, got in the van, and drove off.
I remember asking her if she were concerned that whoever found it would turn it in or try to see who it belonged to. She just laughed at my naivete, explaining that she was sure the lady in the stall next to her was already planning her shopping spree.
While she drove, I sat there, staring at the plains. I hoped the view would help me avoid the feeling of regret that had been scratching at the edge of my brain since the inception of this plan. I already had a lifetime’s worth of self-worth issues because she hadn’t loved me the way she was supposed to. I wanted her to like me now, so I let the conversation drop.
I remember her looking at me and saying, “Well, you needed clothes and gear for school, right? Now you have it.” I knew this wasn’t right, but listening to my mom, “She had no other choice because my grandma had been so unfair.” My grandma had been unfair, I was angry about that too, but still… integrity should matter.
I almost lost myself under the guise of freedom
I lost a lot of things when I moved in with my mom. Sure, I had lost all of my stuff, but I was in danger of losing my moral compass. I had let her sneak me into a bar where I got so wasted that I ended up going home with a strange man and losing my virginity. I had gone from the girl who was terrified of doing anything that would make my grandma angry to someone who profited from stolen goods, drank, smoked pot, and cigarettes. I didn’t read a single book that entire four months.
I realize now that my new sense of freedom blinded me. Growing up with my grandma was like living in a gilded cage. The accommodations were plush, the food superb, and the entertainment was magical.
Yet, I could only go outside the bars with permission. I hadn’t even been able to purchase clothing that didn’t meet her approval. I performed daily tasks on her schedule and always to her satisfaction. The bar she set was still one I felt I could never meet.
I always thought twice before breaking the litany of crazy rules because the punishment was steep. Sometimes, it was the back of her hand across your face or biting words that hurt more than the slap. Other times, it was the belt, or shoe, or flyswatter.
The road to finding myself again
I had been living with my mom for four months, and her reckless behavior was only escalating. I had toned mine back because, after the initial experiences, I realized they didn’t feel like me. Seeing my mom strip on the counter of a bar in a one-horse town after hours was the breaking point.
I focused on college work (this was a familiar task, at least) and my new boyfriend. It was the beginning of December, and my mom was going out of town to fill the vending machines. I was supposed to go to, but I had many things going on that week, and she thought I should stay behind. The next day, the police Chaplin showed up at the door.
On a snowy and windy night, while driving alone on a one-lane highway in Montana, my daredevil, living life on the edge, danger seeking mother, did something as banal as losing control of her car. She wasn’t wearing her seatbelt, and the van flipped on its trip down the 80-foot ravine. She didn’t die from a wildly reckless decision or a drug overdose. The van crushed her because she wasn’t wearing her seatbelt.
It gutted me.
My mom had left again, and this time she really would never come back. I was angry at the universe because I had only just gotten to be with her in a way I had craved always. I went through a dark time, and I made a few other poor choices out of grief. However, I learned that every relationship is made up of many shades of grey. I knew that integrity, and doing the right thing, are essential.
I also learned that life is unpredictable and unfair, sometimes. I knew who I was, who I wanted to be, and who I didn’t. That is probably the biggest lesson I learned. Your past shapes who you are, but each day decides who you will be and what you will become.