When I was 19, my mother started dating a guy who was 24. She also started smoking pot, hash and doing magic mushrooms. “They’re natural!” Then she quit her job, and ran off on a cross country camping extravaganza with her new guy.
His name was Leonard but she called him Chip. When you are 19 and your mom’s boyfriend is 24, it’s difficult not to feel repulsed. In the late 1970s, the term ‘cougar’ had not been coined. But she was one. And I found it gross.
“Chipper is a free spirit, a rambler… He’s a rolling stone,” she said to me one morning as I complained about his backpacks and bedroll taking up space in the den.
Mom was sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee, looking at the newspaper. I was rushing to class, Creative Writing 101 with the blind professor who locked you out if you were late. Mom’s nubile boyfriend was still asleep, down the hall, in her (yeck) bed.
She was correct about the free spirit thing. And Chipper certainly looked the part. Like a Halloween hippie, long hair thinning on top, and scraggly beard, he wore Jesus sandals and used a walking stick that he had whittled himself.
“Yep, that’s what he is. A real wayfarer.” I answered. Then, hoping to get in a quick dig and go, “He’s also a freeloader, a slob and a stoner. Lucky you.” Taunting my mother, was a favorite sport of mine, especially when she had fallen out of favor with me. Dating a boy had moved her into the out of favor arena.
“He wants to take me cross country. Show me America.”
Now this, made me pause. I found myself shaking my head as I studied her. What was she up to? She was being too casual. Then I noticed her lipstick was on. It was her tell.
Mom looked up from her paper. She had flipped on the twinkle in her eye. This 46 year old, suburban school teacher, with her movie star beauty and Tennessee Williams mental illness, looked up at me. She was buzzing with the hum of a school girl crush.
It made me want to puke.
“When, Mom? When is it that he wants to take you on this… trip?”
She folded her paper and went over to the coffee pot to refill her cup. Her body showed the wear and tear of bearing three children and never exercising. With her back to me she said, “We’re leaving next weekend.”
Now, we all know that mother daughter relationships are complex. Ours was no exception. This wasn’t the first time I found myself in the role of parent, while mommy dearest acted out the part of immature teen. But let me fill in some key details. It was September. I had 2 younger brothers. We were ALL in school. I had recently moved back home from Texas, where I’d given up attending UT in Austin, for UK in Lexington, because my mother announced she had breast cancer. She needed me to come back to Kentucky to “raise my brothers after she died. Thing was, she did NOT in fact, have cancer. And she had known that. What she had was an off the charts manipulation prowess She had made up the cancer scare to get me to come home. Yeah, sure. She had a cyst that had to be removed. But not cancer. I’d been suckered.
Now she was gonna travel some back roads with her hippie lover and leave me to- what? Hold down the fort? Raise the kids? Pay the mortgage?
“What about your job?” I forced myself to ask.
“I gave notice.”
All at once I felt too many things to process.
She returned the half and half to the fridge and began to pull out breakfast fixings. Breakfast fixings! Like eggs. And bacon. Items that required fire and attention. The last time anyone knew her to have prepared a morning meal, it had been pop-tarts, and I was nine.
I couldn’t deal. “Ok,” I said. “Cool. I’ve got to get to class.”
I grabbed up my books and purse while every muscle fiber in my body became jello. This made walking down the steps to the front door a challenge. The hair on the back of my neck said she was standing in the kitchen watching me go. As I reached the doorknob, she said, “Thought you’d be happy for me.”
My heart was pounding in my ears. That rush of emotions I’d spent the better part of a lifetime trying to conceal was erupting through my skin. I wouldn’t identify that feeling as rage until many years and many therapy sessions later. I couldn’t turn to look at her as I said, “Happy about what?”
I waited, my hand on the open door. I fixed my eyes on the harsh slant of light outside.
“I think I’m in love.”
I started to say something. But only air came out. I pushed open the screen and let it bang behind me. My VW bug still had its Texas license plates. It could take me anywhere I wanted to go. I got in and started to cry.