The winter of our exile, 1978, we nestled in to a split-level apartment, in northwest Ohio, far from coal and Virginia farms and bars and in-home beauty shops. The kitchen was on the top level and was the place of the back door, the upper means of escape. Escape was important, as we'd learned. Vital. Necessary.
That year, the snow closed in over that door in an eight foot drift. We wore our pajamas and watched cartoons. We had our faces turned toward the TV but our ears tuned to the snap of the Valium bottle, the quiet sobs of our mother. We had only one escape route; the front door. Reduced circumstances.
The judge had exiled us. He gave my mom a gun permit and told her to move far away, so she did. All of us, all being my brother, my mother, and myself, wore the typical cool, blank faces of the shell-shocked. I was in fourth grade, and I remember absolutely nothing about school that year.
After such a pain, such a wound, so much conflicting inside, healing has to come. It just does. A wound cannot be escaped; it must be prodded, explored, questioned, assessed. It must be expressed in hobbling, a stultifying lilt in your voice, a hesitation towards Life. You must sometimes leave your body and gaze on its hurt state in order to handle it. Wounds take time to close. "Letting go" cannot be conflated with repression. No steps skipped. Slowly, slowly, you drag your wounded self back to life.
I watched my mom do that. Looking back, I see her as a wrangler, roping and wrestling yearling calves, deftly steering a quick pony. Her arm is raised over her head, a rope circling. She is on a mission to overcome, because one cannot face the sadness of abuse without getting PISSED OFF.
And overcome she did. What preceded the judge exiling us was my mom following my dad to catch him cheating. The story goes, she then sold the cattle and bought a 1978 red Grand Prix with a white leather interior. Roping calves. She lost a ton of weight and looked like a babe in this black leather coat with a fur collar she'd bought. Skillfully riding her horse.
That coat became a symbol of my mother's liberation and strength for me. It showed she could pick up her grief-stricken, sore-hearted self and get back to wrestling and wrangling despite those wounds.
The coat itself became an object of fascinating lore for me. I had this vision of my mom, a discarded and abused woman, refusing to act like she was just wiped off a man's shoe. She went on to work at General Motors as a foreman (fore woman?). That's a far cry from her life as a hairdresser. But she managed men in her factory job just fine. She found her strength.
She later told me a suitor from her foreman days bought her the coat. I was deflated, because I was certain she'd told me it came with the car, so to speak, and was part of her post-divorce 'coming out party.' Or she had to buy it when we moved to Ohio. The coat is sassy, rebellious, super fitted, shiny, durable. It screams, "I have been THROUGH divorce hell and now I'm back and feeling my own power." It told me my mom didn't take shit off of anybody, and she was a real catch. The coat had achieved epic status in my mind, more than a coat, it was a cloak of freedom.
That coat was the exit, the sign of leaving reduced circumstances. No matter what doors closed to her, my strong, beautiful mother found a way.
I think about the circumstances we are born into. My mom was born in Appalachia, and so was I. There is so much to be gleaned from those circumstances...how the area is structured to meet the insatiable needs of corporate libertarianism. How one of the strengths of the people has historically been their ability to adapt to reduced circumstances, in some ways....to grow their gardens and trade with their neighbors. Yet I'm convinced the structure of neoliberalism has a trickle-down effect to personal relationships. If all your men are being exploited, then by default, some will come home and set up that same exploitative structure in their homes. Entitlement is a yeasty, insidious presence that is unconsciously absorbed and wielded by some. The stress of being exploited and this enforced class and poverty disintegrates relationships and communities, or, it can be a unifying force, a motivation for "buck against" and overcome. My mother and I grew up in this structure of relationships, this creation of oppressor/oppressed, of user/used. Everything trickles down...the sins of the fathers...the tears of the mothers.
Somehow, despite a person formerly known as an intimate trying to drag you down, despite all the lingering messages of class and stereotypes sticking to you like a "kick me" sign on your back, despite the structure into which you are born and learn to adapt to, somehow, there arises in some a desire to make it better. There arises a strength to take the worst circumstances and make good out of them. This strength is what my mother modeled for me. I know, like me, she had times where she didn't think she could make it, where she didn't think she could cope, where she was overwhelmed by all the burdens of the past and present. I learned that poverty can dog your steps and nip your heels for a long time and not many people will care, especially not the people who should, like your children's parent or family. Appalachia gets recreated as one marries an adherent of personal neoliberalism, of exploitation of the poor, of making the rich man richer, of having you take up their slack.
This is what I admire about my mother-this alchemy of spirit, this drive to rise above reduced circumstances. We have been through the wringer with each other as we have tried to reconcile our own feelings and grief cycles with each other. My mother has always modeled reconciliation and has very much desired a relationship with me, despite the hurts we've given each other. There won't be a day that goes by that I don't think about my mother, how I hear my voice turning just like hers, when I see my face looking so much like her. My mother is in me, and I am in her.
When I wear that coat, I wear its stories. I wear the overcoming of the terrors of abuse, the symbolism of leaving poverty, the unblocked exit door, the power of wounds and the gifts of exile, and the ever-present hope in good things to come. My mother gave that to me, and I am forever grateful for her gift.
Happy mother's day to all the strong, beautiful women I know, especially to my own sweet mother, who to this day has the most generous heart, is still incredibly funny and sassy, and who is dearly loved by her family.