In the ambulance voices hovered above me like bees, first flying in close, then far away, and then close again. I drifted in and out of darkness, unable to open my eyes. Hands moved on either side of my body, lifting me off the stretcher.
“Cough, damn it!” a woman’s voice ordered.
I clamped my jaw shut and shook my head.
“Okay honey, here’s the deal. If you don’t cough, we’ll just pump your stomach again to make sure we got it all. Did somebody call psych?”
The next morning I stood in a grey-walled room with no windows, waiting. A dark wooden desk and two metal chairs sat in one corner, an empty bookcase in the other. I paced back and forth to keep from crying, my throat so sore I could barely swallow. The clock on the wall ticked off minutes like a time bomb as I looked down at the dried, crusted blood on my wrists. What was going to happen to me now?
At seventeen I was just another foster kid, a thorn in the side of an overworked, underpaid system. I’d worked hard to try and fit in with my foster family—would’ve turned myself into clay so they could shape me into whatever they wanted if I could, but I was never anything more than “the foster girl,” the one they kept in return for the monthly welfare check. Mom had kept me around for the same reason, tearing open the envelope each month to make sure she hadn’t been cheated on the amount.
“Well,” she’d say, stopping to take a long, slow drag off her Pall Mall, “at least you’re good for something.”
I’d grind my teeth and silently curse her for all I was worth, secretly wondering if anyone would ever want me without having to be paid for it. Love didn’t come easily for girls like me, and I knew it.
When the shrink finally walked in with his salt and pepper hair and paisley tie, I knew right away he wouldn’t understand why I’d tried to kill myself. No, I could tell from the way he greeted me with that easy, confident smile and pearly white teeth that he’d never known what it was like to live on the outskirts of life, to be so far removed from normal experience you couldn’t even laugh as others laughed. How could I begin to tell this man about things I swore I’d never tell another soul, about shame that ran through me like a river and kept me different from the rest? How could I say out loud that Mom used to make me touch her in ways I never wanted, that every time I tried to push the memory away it’d push right back with a vengeance?
It started when I was five, late at night in the room we shared. She’d call out for me in the sweetest voice I ever heard, my name riding the space between asleep and awake like a song. I’d lie still as stone and pretend to be asleep, but then she’d call out for me again—this time not so sweet anymore.
Even at five, I already knew better than to tell, and hid our secret so deep I sometimes wondered if God even knew. It was the 1950s, then the 1960s. No one had ever heard of mother-daughter incest, much less talked about it. Everyone knew that mothers don’t hurt, right?
When I grew old enough to fight back, Mom sent me to live with my father, whom I’d never met. It was raining the afternoon he came for me, and when I looked up at his milky brown eyes and wet, greased-back hair, I knew I’d been saved. I’d dreamed of having a father ever since I could remember, and now here he was right in front of me. My prayers had finally been answered.
The following morning Daddy woke me up and told me to come over and sit on his lap so he could get to know me better. I did as he said, even though the smell of beer and cigarettes was so strong I had to work to keep from gagging. When he wrapped his arm around my waist I felt his hand graze the side of my breast and squirmed, telling myself he probably didn’t realize that fifteen-year-old girls were developed enough to wear bras. I sat quietly as he stared up at me, too self-conscious to look him square in the face.
“You sure are a pretty little thing now, aren’t you?” he said.
I felt my face turn hot, and then suddenly he pulled my head down, stuck his tongue in my mouth and grabbed my breast. I pushed him off but he yanked me closer. I screamed for him to stop, but he was strong and held me tight. I pushed harder, hard enough to get free, and ran out of that ramshackle trailer so fast I tripped, but kept running just the same.
After I reached the highway I hitchhiked back home, but Mom refused to let me in the house. Instead she called the caseworker to come for me, and when she drove up in her green and white Buick I climbed in without a word. I didn’t tell her about Daddy. I didn’t tell her about anything. As she pulled away from the curb I asked where she was taking me, but she didn’t answer until we were practically at the front door of the Allen House, an institution for unwanted children.
Tucked away on the outskirts of the city and surrounded by a twenty-foot chain-link fence on a dead-end dirt road, the Allen House looked more like a deserted warehouse than a home for children, with its chipped paint and black metal bars lining the windows. When I looked up at the small, blank faces staring down at me between the bars, I suddenly thought about making a run for it, but just then the caseworker pulled me in and padlocked the door behind me.
Once inside, I was taken to the showers and told to strip and wash with disinfectant soap while a matron looked on. I soon learned the matrons watched everything. Big-bellied and mean-faced, they patrolled the halls night and day looking for the slightest infractions to justify our beatings—straying a few inches out of the food line, not pulling the sheets tight enough when we made our cots. What had we done that was bad enough to be locked up and treated like criminals? I was the oldest of the bunch, and couldn’t help but wonder how long the others had been there. From their scraggly hair and dark circles under their eyes, I guessed it’d been a very long time.
A week later I was placed in a foster home. “You’d better count your blessings young lady because believe me, nobody wants a teenager,” the social worker told me. I nodded, knowing she was right. Anxious to please, I did everything my new foster parents told me, figuring if I was good enough, my borrowed family might learn to love me over time. But all they cared about was that monthly check—nothing more and nothing less.
One Saturday afternoon my foster mother found a half-smoked joint in my room and promised that come Monday, she was sending me back to the Allen House. She didn’t believe me when I confessed I rarely smoked, so I pointed to my good grades instead, but it was no use. She’d already made up her mind, and that’s when I made up my mind too.
I decided calmly and without hesitation, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. I remember feeling certain in my decision, without a single, lingering doubt. But how could I explain to this man standing in front of me now that I did not come to my decision lightly? That living in a world without love is no life at all? That compared to the Allen House, death seemed like a welcome reprieve?
“Why don’t you tell me what happened,” the shrink said as he sat down.
My mouth was dry and my throat ached, the clock ticked off another minute. I stood looking at him, unsure of what to do, when suddenly it all came pouring out of me, the pain and grief and rage and hurt, the words all but tripping over themselves to get out. Someone was finally listening.
It took over an hour before I was able to fall silent again, my throat on fire now and my head about to explode. I waited for him to say something, but instead he just stared off into space as if he was deep in thought. Finally he looked up at me with the saddest eyes I’d ever seen and half-whispered, “Okay, you’re free to go.”
When I got home from Cincinnati General, my foster mother had my things waiting on the porch for me, clothes and books stuffed into old, half-torn grocery bags. I didn’t know what to do or where to go, so I called my friend Jane, explaining I was in trouble and needed a place to stay for the night. Jane didn’t come from the standard package of two parents and a nice house in the suburbs either. Jane’s mother worked two jobs to raise Jane and her older sister Nancy, but they always seemed happy. After putting her hand over the phone to ask permission, Jane came back on and said, “Sure, my mom says its okay.”
I gathered my things and took the bus to her apartment. When Jane answered the door and I saw her face, I broke down crying.
“Here, let me take your things,” she said, and then hurried me into the hall bathroom and closed the door behind us.
I couldn’t stop crying, and Jane couldn’t stop shaking her head.
“I can’t believe they didn’t clean this off at the hospital,” she said as she took my hands in hers and ran warm water over the dried blood on my wrists.
The water stung like crazy, but her tender touch felt so good I cried even harder. After she patted my wrists dry, she lent me a long-sleeved blouse to cover them with, and her mother went out to get Skyline Chili for supper. I’d only met Mrs Lyman a couple of times before, but remembered her strong British accent and deep smoker’s voice. No one said much as we ate at the small kitchen table, and I was grateful.
The next day after school a tall, thin caseworker with sunken cheeks and short, bobbed hair came to the apartment and sat on the living room couch with my file on her lap.
“I’ve been reading over your file,” she said with a sigh. “What were you thinking pulling a stunt like this? How do you expect anybody to want you with this kind of behavior?”
Suddenly Mrs Lyman stormed in from the kitchen and screamed, “What in bloody hell is wrong with you? Don’t you understand that this was her last plea for help? It’s the only way she could get anyone to listen, and yet you’re still not listening! Get out of my house. Go on now, get out!”
My mouth hung open as I watched the social worker scurry down the hall, with Mrs Lyman close on her heels. No one had ever taken up for me like that before, and certainly not in the way that Jane’s mother did. Most people would’ve stayed out of it, but Mrs Lyman wasn’t afraid to speak up and tell the truth on behalf of a girl she barely knew. And she didn’t stop there. A week later she told me she was going to become a foster parent, and I was going to be her foster daughter. I reached up and hugged her so tight she had to practically pry me off, both our faces wet with tears. That evening Jane and Nancy decided I had to call their mother something other than Mrs Lyman, and came up with ‘Mummy’ instead, given her British roots. We all agreed it was a good alternative.
I stayed with Mummy until I left for college, and after I graduated I worked to save enough money to move to the West Coast. Once I left, I never looked back. I wanted to get as far away from my past as possible, foolishly thinking that time and distance would banish the demons that haunted my dreams and made it difficult to trust. I didn’t even stay in touch with Mummy or Jane, as they were stark reminders of everything I wanted to forget. But now, after more than thirty years of running, I’ve come to realize that in my attempt to separate myself from my past, I also separated myself from the only real family I’d ever known. And when I finally realized this, I knew I had to do something about it.
It was a Sunday afternoon when I sat down at my computer to try and find Jane and Mummy, hoping they were both still living in Cincinnati. After multiple attempts I finally found Jane’s married name, a very long Greek name that I had somehow remembered over the years. I called directory assistance, got her number and quickly called before I had a chance to lose my courage, as I had no idea how I’d be greeted, if at all. When Jane answered, I recognized her voice immediately.
“Mary!” she squealed. “Oh my God!”
Jane and I talked for hours, trading the stories of our lives as if no time had passed at all. When she told me Mummy had died two years before, I began to cry, but not merely out of sorrow. I cried out of shame and guilt too, for I’d lost touch with the one person who’d given me back my hope, a woman who’d opened her home and family to a girl who had neither.
“I tried to find you to tell you, but didn’t get anywhere,” Jane said. “I knew you’d take it hard.”
After I calmed down she asked where I was living and I told her Portland, Oregon.
“Portland? I don’t believe it! My middle daughter just moved there a few months ago for a job. My husband and I are coming out to visit her in a few weeks for her birthday!”
As Jane and I plan our reunion, I am both thrilled and grief-stricken. Mummy is gone, forever lost to my frantic need to run from a past that is impossible to run from, only I didn’t realize it until it was too late. I have so many things I want to tell her, words and feelings that need to be voiced, for she needs to be remembered as the special woman she was. This then, Mummy, is for you.
I never had a chance to say goodbye to you, but I wish I had. I wish I’d been able to tell you how much you meant to me, for it was your kindness and compassion that saved my life. Before you came along I’d given up on life for good, but then you took me into your home with no questions asked and treated me the same as your own daughters, showing me that life was worth living after all. You were the one who gave me a second chance when others wouldn’t even give me a second look, and for that I will forever be grateful.
To fill in the time we lost, you might like to know that I’ve been married for almost thirty years, our son is finishing his junior year in college, and I have a Masters degree in Social Work. None of these things would have been possible without you, Mummy. Without you, I am certain I would not be here today.
Your legacy is a powerful one, the kind I can only hope to aspire to. It’s the kind that is reflected each day in the sparkle of my son’s eyes, the kindness in Jane’s voice, the success of your grandchildren. The fact that I am here today writing this letter is a testament to how you lived your life, for you showed us all by example the true meaning of humanity. And though it’s taken me nearly thirty years, I am no longer running. Yes Mummy, I am finally coming home.