This story is by Mary Evans and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
My name is Christina Armstrong. I was born in 1950 and grew up as an only child to wealthy parents. At the age of six, I was enrolled in a Catholic boarding school and saw my parents only at Christmas and for summer holidays. Some children long for siblings but I don’t recall ever feeling that way. There were plenty of playmates at school and when I was home, I was content to spend time alone, happy with my own company. Life was good.
When I was twelve, and returned home for the summer, my mother was gone. Daddy didn’t have much of an explanation, only that she had gone away and I shouldn’t worry about her. Any time I asked further questions about her, Daddy’s face would cloud over, his jaw would clench and he would look at me with angry eyes. He told me that she left us and we would just have to live with her decision. I was very confused, but told myself that Mother would be back soon. The house was quiet and sombre. Daddy and I ate meals in silence, and I was left alone to amuse myself however I saw fit. In September, I went back to school, and there was still no sign of Mother.
At Christmas that year, I fully expected Mother to be home, but the holiday came and went without her, and I missed her terribly. The excitement of Christmas just wasn’t there without her. I asked Daddy about her incessantly, but he would become so angry whenever I talked about her that I gradually stopped. I missed her quiet presence, her gentle hugs, the way she made me feel safe, and how she thought everything I did was marvelous. However, along with those feelings, anger began to bubble in my belly. How could my own mother leave me like that, go away and not even check on me once for all those months? It was unbelievable!
Many more summers and holidays went by without Mother. Her clothes disappeared from the closets and her dresser no longer held her fancy combs and perfumes. Photos of her disappeared one by one. A stubborn wish to put her out of my mind took hold inside me. If she didn’t want to be with me then I didn’t want to be with her. My heart had grown a shell and as a result, the very few memories I had of her, faded away. I don’t remember her reading to me, bathing me, playing with me or taking me to music lessons. She must have done all those things but I can’t remember. I don’t remember how she smelled or the sound of her voice or how she looked when she smiled at me.
I went away to college, got a job, got married to a wonderful man and we had two sons. On the day of my eldest’s twelfth birthday, my eyes were suddenly opened to a new realization. Seeing my own wonderful, smart, yet vulnerable child, made me understand that I too had been just such a child at that age. I could no sooner leave my boy than I could fly to the moon without a rocket. In that instant, I became certain that my mom had felt the same way about me. There must have been a terrible reason for her to have made the choice she did, but what was it?
When Daddy called to wish his grandson a happy birthday, he said, “Christina, I have something important to talk to you about, but not on the phone. When can you come to visit?”
“I’m not sure, Dad. I have work, the kids have school and I can’t take any vacation time until next month. What is it about?”
“It’s about your mother, but it can wait until you visit. That will be fine.”
My stomach clenched. “Ok, I’ll see what I can arrange.”
Two weeks later, I received a call from my father’s caregiver. She said, “Christina, I think you should come sooner rather than later. Your dad is failing fast.”
I sprang into action. I begged a few days off work and my husband was able to take care of things at home. The earliest flight was the following morning, and after a sleepless night, I was on my way. My brain wouldn’t turn off and kept saying, “Why have you let your father away with this all these years? She’s your mother, you’re a grown woman, you have every right to know the circumstances around her leaving. Did she find a new husband and have new kids with him? Did she just not want to be a mother and wife? Why is your dad always so angry when you ask about her?” I had no answers for all of my brain’s questions.
As soon as we landed, I called Daddy to let him know, but it was his caregiver who answered. She said, “Oh Christina, I am so sorry. Your dad passed away thirty minutes ago. He tried to hold on for you, but just couldn’t.”
I was numb. Then I was sad. Then I was angry ~ with Dad for never being straight with me about mom, but more with myself for allowing him to keep such a secret. My heart ached, my stomach churned, all feeling went out of my legs, there was ringing in my ears and my sight dimmed. I had lost my dad, but along with him, I lost my mother too. My grief was a tidal wave, and it completely engulfed me in that moment.
Somehow, funeral arrangements were made, my husband and sons flew in, and we had a small private service. We spent some time clearing out Daddy’s house, put it on the market, and then met with Dad’s lawyer to go over his will. At the end of our brief meeting, the lawyer took me aside and said,
“Christina, your dad called me last week because he wanted my help with something. He wanted to write you a private letter but wasn’t feeling strong enough to do it by himself. He dictated and I wrote it word for word.”
He opened his drawer and drew out a white envelope. “Here you go.”
I took the envelope, thanked the man and went outside to fresh air. I was hoping beyond hope that the letter would answer some of my questions but, at the same time, I was fearful of what I might be about to find out. I sat down on a park bench and opened the envelope with shaking hands.
I am so sorry that I have never answered your questions about your mother. You see, I was so angry with her for leaving us, and even angrier that you had to grow up without a mother, that I wanted to shield you from the hurt of the truth, because the truth WILL hurt you, Christina. In my old age, I have come to consider the idea that not knowing could actually be hurting you more. You deserve to know the truth, and only you will know which hurt is worse ~ knowing or not knowing.
Your mother took her own life in May of 1962. I knew she had been despondent in the months before, but we hid that from you, wanting you to concentrate on school without worrying about what was going on at home. Neither of us understood that there was anything anyone could do to make her feel better. We thought that it was just the way she was, and we would have to deal with it.
I had no idea when she left that morning that she would never be coming back. She had gone downtown, crossed the street in front of a bus and just stood there while it hit her. It was horrifying, Christina. I could never put you through the anguish of knowing what your mother did, and of picturing in your mind the way she died. Your grandparents and I decided to keep it to ourselves, and not let anyone know the truth. We had her buried in the pioneer graveyard near your grandparent’s farm. We could not give her a Catholic burial because, as you know, in the Catholic Church, suicide is a grave sin. In those days, the Church ruled our lives and we were so ashamed that her death went against church beliefs, that we felt the need to hide the truth from everyone. Now I realize that only God’s opinion matters, not the church’s.
I hope you can forgive all of us, Christina. At least now you know the truth.
With all my love,
I closed the letter and sobbed.