October 26, 2013
Permanent separation doesn’t always result in romanticizing, though the separation still colors one’s life as indelibly as the sound of children's laughter echoing on a warm afternoon breeze.
My mother’s wrath was simply more than I could bear, even as an adult. Or perhaps more accurately, becoming an adult and starting my own family at last gave me the courage to walk away from the angry growls and harsh lessons of the intimidating she-bear.
She loved shopping, which may have explained her compulsion to purge. She and I had grown increasingly alienated with each substantial loss in the family, whether it be relocating (which we did often), separation, or death. Her reaction, for whatever reason, had been to strike out angrily throughout the event, creating a false aura of malevolence surrounding the person or event that simply was unsubstantiated.
One cold February day in eighth grade, I came home from school to find her loading kitchen items in a box. Since we moved frequently alas by this point in my life the discovery came as no surprise. The circumstances surrounding this particular occasion, however, were, and her decision would serve as the first catalyst in what has become our permanent alienation.
She informed my brother and I, stone-faced as always, that she had been told our stepfather was still married to another woman. He was a polygamist, so she was leaving him. Barely considering the legal ramifications, her justification for separation was based solely upon scripture.
Throughout the next few months, rather than addressing the subject with him and silencing us as well, she began selecting items necessary to set up house in Colorado, surreptitiously mailing them to my sisters who lived in Colorado. She likewise surreptitiously skimmed off as much cash from the family budget as possible, stashing it in a coffee can.
Every few days, when my brother and I would come home from school, we found a few more boxes prepared to be lugged to the post office. As with all our chores, as we would walk to the post office with small wads of cash that smelled oddly of a two-day old pot of coffee, we would make a game of it, challenging one another with simple feats such as balancing the boxes on a single hand, carrying the load on our heads, or whatever we could do to relieve the mounting tension.
My stepfather, silenced over the years in the same way we had been, never noted or perhaps bothered to say anything about the increasingly empty apartment. Not surprising, for my mother’s inclination to purge by this point in their 3 ½ long marriage was equally not surprising. He would simply come home from his job as construction supervisor, curl up in his easy chair with his latest paper-back novel, and spend the remainder of the evening lost between the pages of the book, occasionally glimpsing over its cover with his twinkling, mischievous blue eyes to give me a smiling wink.
My brother and I had always found his company agreeable. When he and my mother first married, his laughter came as easily and brightly as the sparkles in his eyes, and he loved dancing, walking, fishing and smiling, doing each with a casual ease foreign to our tension-filled early childhood.
He lived simply, working long hours when the season permitted, contentedly owning two pairs of pants, a few shirts and a small pile of novels he always kept beside his chair. His passion, in addition to his novels and fishing poles, consisted of breeding fish, a distraction he nurtured most diligently when weather wouldn’t permit him to drown a worm at the end of a hook.
His simple lifestyle adapted well enough to my mother’s compulsion, and his easy-going demeanor sharply contrasted yet strangely complimented her perpetual angry tension.
With each move, he, too, would have to yield his tanks full of guppies and mollies, converting the glass aquariums to moving boxes, and upon entering whatever would serve as our next home, his first undertaking would be to refill the tanks, simultaneously filling the room with a quiet, soothing, bubbling hum of the filtration system in anticipation of his next trip to the neighborhood pet store.
Since his other family had never once interrupted our lives, my brother and I mumbled disgruntledly amongst ourselves against my mother’s perceived offence, fighting silently against yet another pending relocation.
He was a sophomore in high school, and he had received accolades for his prowess on his harmonica, a gift from our father, one of the few items he had been able to hold onto throughout the tumultuous years simply because it slipped easily into his shirt or jacket pocket undetected from my mother’s furious eradications of our material belongings.
For the first time since my mother had married my stepfather, we had remained enrolled in a single school throughout the year, moving only once but miraculously staying in the same school district.
Throughout middle school, his harmonica had served as sole consoling companion on our increasingly long walks through whatever neighborhood we happened to land in following our latest move. He would play melancholy, blues-based phrases, not songs really, just the wheezing, often mournful, sometimes angry and insistent breath-like sounds that served as soundtrack to our lives, accompanying our steps through Colorado’s dry fields littered with cactus and lizards, Texas’ metal-infused ghost-like abandoned oil fields, or Washington and Oregon’s fern-bathed, conifer-shaded paths.
As we would walk back from our post office pilgrimages, he would pull his harmonica out of his front pocket, playing a compositionless tune, sucking and exhaling air through the harmonica rather than his mouth or his nose as most ramblers do.
He literally breathed music, so it wasn’t surprising that the high school jazz teacher, discovering his talent, had entered him into a national competition.
My mother’s marital date of redemption, according to her strange, arbitrary schedule, was set for the day before Easter. The high school music competition was to be held the following week. He knew for months he would be unable to participate, yet optimistically held out hope that my mother’s wrath would wane and we would perhaps remain in Seattle, an optimism that somehow gave an odd lilt to his blues-infused riffs.
His hope remained firm until the day we purchased the airline tickets a week before our departure, and as we rode the bus returning from the airport smelling of day-old coffee, although he exhibited the deeply ingrained lesson of a tearless life, the furtive, frequent gestures toward his shirt pocket were the only outward signs of his grief.
A few years ago, as I visited with my brother, I noted the same recurring motion, a quick sweep of his hand across his chest. The gesture of grief has become an odd, nearly imperceptible tic he still frequently repeats even forty years later, although he now infrequently plays his harmonica. The instrument of his youth now remains wrapped in a deep blue velvet cloth, stored in a box, safely tucked into an unopened, dark, dusty dresser drawer.