That mother o’ mine

(The four pieces below were originally published separately; I thought I’d here collect them into one piece.)

My Runaway Mom

My father ditched out on his/our happy, middle-class suburban life when I was eight years old. (And this was long enough ago so that once their marital vows became mutual “Ciao!”s, my mom and dad became easily the only divorced parents in the neighborhood. It was so weird being, suddenly, the kid with the radically unnatural home life.)

Poof! Instant Dad-B-Gone! One minute I was part of a nuclear family—Father, Mother, eleven-year-old sister Nancy, seven-year-old little Bro (me), dog, cat, hamster, guinea pig. And the next minute my family went nuclear.

My dad moved into a one-bedroom bachelor pad some twenty miles from the suburban tract home in which my mom, sister and I continued to live.

At least I got to stay in my house. That was … nice.

Except that two years after my dad left that very house, my mom left it, too.

I was, like, “What the [bleep]? Is it the hideous green shag carpet in this house? Is that why everyone keeps leaving? Cuz we can change that, you know!”

First, as part of our happy, whole family, my mom was (more or less) Donna Reed herself; next, liberated from what she took to calling her “emotionally retarded” ex-husband, she rather instantly transformed into a pot-smoking, rap-session-going, Vietnam-war-protesting college student.

And then, two years into being a single mother (and a real babe of one, at that: believe me, you haven’t lived until you’ve watched a succession of college professors nervously fidgeting on your couch as they wait for their date with your mom to sort of kick in), my mother became no mother at all. Because she totally disappeared.

“I’m going to the store for some milk and bread,” she said one sunny afternoon around one o’clock. She then took her keys, purse, and sunglasses from off the dining table.

“Be right back!” she said, closing the door behind her.

And then it was three o’clock, and she hadn’t come home yet. Pretty weird.

Then it was six o’clock, and she still hadn’t come home yet. Pretty darn weird.

Then it was eight o’clock, and dark—and still no mom. Okay. Completely freakish.

Then it was midnight, and my sister and I were just frantic with worry. (I have no idea why neither of us thought to call the police. Well, I know I didn’t because I had no idea cops even did stuff like find lost moms. If my sister—who was thirteen by then—thought to alert the authorities, it makes sense, given the severely disturbing way my mother had begun treating her once our father had left, that she just might freakin’ not.)

Next morning, and still no mom.

My Runaway Mom–and Her Surprise Replacement


But then guess who did show up back in our house the morning after my mom didn’t? Our dad! After two years away, our six-foot-four, physical phenom dad just … turned the front door key, walked on in, and was home again.

About the first thing he saw upon his Big Entrance was my sister and I more or less huddled together on the couch, scarfing Oreos and shivering from fear.

After prying us off him, he said, “Kids, I need to talk to you.”

We were definitely all ears. What with us figuring our mom was dead and all.

“Now Nancy, John,” he said, “What I have to tell you isn’t … very easy to say. Your mother has, it seems, um … taken a little vacation. She’s not going to be living here anymore. I’m not sure exactly where she is going to be living—in fact, I’m not sure where she’s gone to at all, or what’s happened to her. I’m sure she’s fine, though. The main thing for you to know is that I’m back now, and that I’m going to be taking care of you from now on, or until we can figure out what’s going on with your mother. For now, everything’s going to continue exactly as it was before—except for without your mother. Now come on—you kids need to get to school.”

Yeah. Because what we really needed right then were lessons in geography.

What made the whole event particularly … different, is that when our dad came back to live with us, he brought with him someone else to live with us, too. It turned out he’d gotten (surprise!) married, to a fairly tall, square-shouldered, bombshell-figured, ramrod-backed, blue-eyed woman of Swedish extraction wearing form-fitting Capri jeans, a crisp white sleeveless blouse, and a blonde wig coiffed into something that managed to say at once, “I’m a healthy, fun person upon whom you can absolutely depend,” and “Are you sure you don’t have any Jews hiding in your basement?”

Maybe five minutes after introducing his new wife to us, my dad requested that my sister and I start referring to her as “Mom.”

I looked for guidance to my sister. If she could call this new woman “Mom,” then I could, too. But I saw that just then Nancy had lapsed into “Brain Overload: Can’t Talk” mode. So–what the heck—I jumped in.

“Sure,” I said. “No problem. Mom.”

I tried to smile when I said it. I have no idea what expression actually appeared on my face.

My New Mom, Choppers


The next morning—a Saturday, her first in her new/our old home—my new mom backed me alone into a corner of my bedroom. With her nose inches from mine, she spoke in a voice kept low, but infused with a kind of feral menace I’d never before heard in an adult.

“I want you to listen to me, John. You and your sister mean absolutely nothing to me. The only thing the three of us have in common is your father. I never wanted a family; I never wanted children. I’m here for two reasons only: because I love your father, and I love this house. This house is worth something—and in ten years, it’ll be worth more. Just like your sister, you’re welcome to stay in this house until you’re eighteen. But not a day after that. And while you live here, you need to make sure this house—my house—doesn’t deteriorate in value.”

She shot a look at the posters on my wall—a Sierra Club poster of some pretty woods that said, “In Wildness is the Preservation of the Earth,” a poster of the text of “Desiderata,” a hippie-style black light poster of Buddha, and so on.

“Those come down today,” she said. “I don’t want you to put anything on these walls again. The tack holes detract from the value of the house.” She glared hard at me. I was terrified she was going to bite me. God knows she had the choppers for it.

“Do we understand each other?” she asked.

I think I managed to nod yes. I’m not entirely sure I didn’t pee my pants.

And then “Mom” was gone—off, I assumed, to clue my sister into Our New Reality.

And it was just after she left me again alone in my room that I discovered what in a million years I wouldn’t have thought possible: I could miss my real mom even more.

The Return of Mom 1.0


What had happened to our real mom was something my sister and I wouldn’t find out for two years after she’d left—after, for us, Life 3.0 had begun. During those two years we heard not so much as a peep from our mother. We didn’t know if she was dead, or kidnapped, or had runaway, or what. No phone call. No note. No visit in the middle of the night. No secret, coded, critical little communique that I was forever desperately searching to discern. Just … silence. Nothing.

As gone as gone gets.

To this day, whenever I see on TV or read about parents who have a child who’s been abducted or disappeared, I think, “God, I can’t imagine how that feels.” And then remember that, actually, I can.

And you don’t even want to be my wife coming home from somewhere later than she said she’d be back. Poor thing. If she’s, like, an hour late from somewhere, and didn’t call so I wouldn’t worry, I can totally milk my Serious Abandonment Issues to get free foot rubs out of her for a week.

It’s wrong, I know.

As it turned out, my mother hadn’t “disappeared” at all. She had, instead, been all along living and working (as a librarian!) only a few miles away from our house. For those whole two years, she’d essentially been right up the street from my house. Upon reentering our lives (“Son,” my dad said to me one day after I’d come home from a Little League baseball practice, “your mother called”—and just like that my legs gave out from underneath me), my mom explained to me how she had needed to get away to “find” herself; it turned out that, as she put it, “God never wanted me to be a mother.” And her idea whilst finding herself had been to remain utterly hidden from the children whom God never intended her to have, so as not to interfere with my sister and I settling into the life that God apparently did intend for us as a correction to his earlier mistake. It was right around the time of her Big Return that my sister and I also learned that our father had, in fact, known all along where our mother was—he’d been in regular contact with her, we learned—but that he never told us what he knew, because he felt it would be less painful for us to imagine that our mother somehow couldn’t communicate with us than it would be to know that she could, but simply chose not to. He was dead wrong about that—any closure beats no closure—but you can’t blame a guy for trying.

My sister ditched out of our home when she was but fifteen (and without question that was the Suddenly Missing Immediate Family Member that wounded me the most). I managed to gut it out until a couple of months into my seventeenth year.

And then—early out of high school, living in big city sixty miles away, trying to sell encyclopedias door-to-door in a ghetto neighborhood—my Fun Life Ride really began. (You can read a little bit about that then-new life of mine in my post, Labor Day, and Me Not Getting Killed By a Coke-Dealing Pimp.)

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  • Allie

    Geez, John. I hadn’t read this before. Wow.

    And here all I have is a mom I resented for years because she didn’t protect me from my dad’s physical abuse. 😉 Plus she doesn’t really like my hair. Your story really puts that sort of thing into perspective!

    Love you, and I hope you’ve found some sort of way to come to terms with your past.

  • OMGoodness, John! I’ve always thought that people growing up in the 50s when TV was fairly new assumed everyone else’s family was TV-show perfect and theirs was the one a little bit different. However, your family was decidedly different and very unusual; and it is amazing that you survived and are able to write about it so matter-of-factly…It cannot be easy looking back; but I hope/trust you’re surrounded by love and loving feelings today!

  • Absolutely unreal. Reminds me that I have absolutely no excuse for not being happy and balanced and a good mom. You are a miracle, John… Your life is a testament to grace.

  • Rici

    Wow. I’m sorry, John. As a mother who loves her children dearly, tells them every day that “I will ALWAYS come back. Always” I’m sorry for what you went through. As as a daughter who was frequently threatened with abandonment as a punishment, I’m so sorry. No child should ever have to endure the triple abandonment you experienced. I’m amazed that you turned into the open and loving person you are today.

  • Ian

    Didnt read it the first time your wrote it, but thank you for sharing your story, John.

  • Leslie Marbach

    John, you know me; I generally try to find the good in stuff. So the easy reply would be, “well, all this shit helped you become the amazing man you are today.” But that’s so hollow and so fucked up. You’re the amazing man you are today despite your worth-less-than-crap mom. You know I mean that completely.

    I think there are lots of us out here who had parents that shouldn’t have been parents. It never negates the fact that they *are/were* parents. All I can say is I’m glad I’m a mom because otherwise Mother’s Day would be just another day.

  • I understand where your mother’s day blessing came from. Peace to you.

  • John, you are miracle of God. Truly. <3

  • Nancy

    My heart aches for you & your deeply traumatic experiences in childhood. Words escape me. I wonder if you ever experienced any restoration with your mom, dad and sister? You certainly seem to relate to people in deep & meaningful ways today. John, thank you that you share God’s love with us daily.

  • Tim

    And I thought my childhood was bad. I guess having two parents fight over you and a mentally retarded stepmother is a totally different type of pain, no doubt. Same core issue, however, selfishness.

  • Ray Oflight via Facebook

    Big hugs, John :'(

  • Keetcha

    You understand pain John. You sharing your incredibly painful story here sure gives me a little perspective. It also magnifies what gave you the incredible capacity for love you give to any and all that need it. You know the pain, you understand it. And you have not drowned in bitterness from it. I for one am grateful to God for your ability to bless so many in spite of it. Thank you for showing me how.

  • Lymis

    Amazing. And even more amazing that you turned all this into a commitment to spreading love. Thanks, John, for this, and for all you do.

  • Gordon

    What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, right? My 17 year old self probably would have set my evil stepmother’s precious house on fire just as I was walking out the door. None of the adults in this story should have been permitted reproduce…but then the world would not have the gift that is John Shore.

  • Paula

    Just read this,and all the other essays you linked. Thank you so much. What was it Tolstoy said? ” Happy families are all alike, unhappy families are unhappy in their own way.” But oh man, they speak to each other.

    You should have a big fat juicy book contract, you know? What are Anne Lamott’s people doing between her books?

  • Caring Heart via Facebook

    Wow – I had no idea you had been through all that. So sorry – kind of at a loss for words. Lots of respect for how you have turned your life into something so good.

  • nickole huffman

    i read this and i think my heart cracked a little. wow.