“I always say kidnap, but Mary might have had custody; it isn’t clear.”
One day in Venice I took my children on a vaporetto ride to San Giorgio Maggiore, an outlying island in the lagoon. The kids were tired of traveling, listless; my daughter said that Venice smelled bad. The enchantments of the Doge’s Palace and the statues of San Marco had made less of an impression than the rats running across the floor of a pizza restaurant.
We walked through the pebbled paths of the San Michele Cemetery and I pointed out the symbolism of various styles of headstones. Finally we found the rectangle that read ezra pound.
My children stood there squinting in the sunlight as I delivered a monologue about modernism, fascism, freedom, and madness.
With each word I knew they were not really listening, that this was a speech they would never remember. I wanted to mark the event with more than just a snapshot of a headstone and a note in a calendar. I wanted the experience to be important, significant, pivotal. I said, “Do you understand?”
The children didn’t answer: They were more interested in the feral cats flitting between gravestones, and one particular feline who seemed to be inviting them to follow, like a scene from a Ghibli film. They turned and walked after the cat as it wound away toward the farther shore.
I sat with my back against a brick wall warmed by the sun, watching as they played in the cemetery, planning what we would see the next day, the next week, over the next year, thinking about where we might live next. They were growing up as immigrants in England, but I didn’t want them to become British, or settle anywhere at all. Instead I wanted to take them to Amsterdam, Berlin, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Prague, Rome. I was living out my own childhood fantasies, whether my children cared for the adventures or not.
Later that evening I received email from my mother. “You need to come home. Your aunt Mary is going to die.”
I said, “Do you promise?”
I had spent too many hours collecting Mary from emergency rooms, jails, and psych wards to take the threat of her imminent demise seriously. She often claimed to be dying, or threatening to die: this was a feature of her addiction.
“This isn’t a joke. You will never see her again. She took an overdose today.”
I typed, “Overdose of what?”
I dropped my children off in England with my husband before I flew back to the States. My life had devolved into a scattered and itinerant existence, moving back and forth between two countries working on research projects and doing publicity for my memoir. The book had been released in several nations; in the United Kingdom there was a special edition being sold in a national grocery store chain. For months I had been unable to buy milk without seeing a photograph of my own seventeen-year-old face staring back at me from the shelves. This created a strange and pervasive sense of surveillance, because people on the street recognized me (or my daughter, who looked exactly like me at that age) without quite knowing why.
After growing up in a small town I had valued the anonymity of life in another country; it was disconcerting to have strangers stare, then stop me to say, “You look familiar. Do I know you from somewhere?”
Flying toward Seattle, I was glad that I would shortly be back in a place where people recognized me because we had gone to school together, or had dated, or share common ancestors. Sitting in a business class seat obtained through frequent flyer upgrades and still thrilled by the novelty, I thought about how far I had traveled from my working-class childhood, and about the first time I’d had the chance to fly on an airplane. I was thirteen years old, and it was a secret mission: the family kidnapped Mary’s son from his father and delivered him to his mother in California.
Mary was my mother’s youngest sister, and like many of the girls in the family, she married young, at nineteen years old. On that day she wore a big white dress and white veil, her brothers and sisters lined up solemnly in their good clothes for the group photo. I was seven years old and a flower girl, wearing a dress my mother made out of red velour, and a bonnet with red ribbons. The snapshot from the church that day is the only photo of all the siblings together.
Mary’s son Charlie was born later that year and I held him within hours of his arrival home from the hospital. I remember the shabby apartment they lived in, and the VW van my new uncle drove, and the fact that he was a gentle and sweet man. I also remember the fights between him and my aunt, which looked like any schoolyard scuffle, and that they carried their drugs around in the diaper bag. I was sad to lose that uncle when the marriage broke up; he was the nicest one I’d ever had.
I always say kidnap, but I'm not sure of the legality of the action—Mary might have had custody; it isn’t clear. I know Charlie was about six years old and living with his father in the house Mary had also abandoned. I remember that his grandparents on the paternal side were kind, and always visited me in the hospital after I had surgery. I often wished they were my real family. But none of that mattered to my folks. We picked up Charlie for a weekend visit, smiling and pretending that everything was normal. We didn’t ask permission from the dad to take his son out of state, or even say that Mary might like a visit. At the time I was puzzled, because Mary had frequently misplaced the kid. It was not unusual for her to drop Charlie off with us “for a couple of hours” and then call several weeks later from somewhere on the other side of the country, asking for bail money.
My family had a collective belief that the boy would be better off with us, or with his mother, so whenever he ended up with his father one of my adult relatives intervened and took him back to Mary. She would keep him for a while, then drop him off at the family farm or with one of her siblings, and we would keep him until his dad turned up. My mother made sure Charlie always had shoes, a winter coat, toys at Christmas, but the possessions were scattered across households and states and lost.
I know that I asked why we did it, why we kept handing that kid back to his mother when she could not provide a home for him. The answer was always: “She is his mother. She loves him.”
Back then I didn’t understand. I didn’t know why I had to go on the trip. But I was thrilled to take that flight. I sat next to Charlie, ignoring the fact that he was kicking the side of my leg. I stared out the window at the clouds and mountaintops, wishing that my Polaroid camera could capture the majesty of the scene.
Flying to the United States to visit Mary for what might be the last time, with my own children stashed in a different country in part for their own safety, I understood on a basic level the primitive love that any of the mothers in my family felt for their children. I knew why they would do almost anything to keep and hold their babies close.
When I became a parent I learned on a visceral level why “mother” was the justification for most of the ruthless actions required to keep and defend my babies. I finally understood why my aunt wanted her child to be with her, why she asked us to kidnap him, even why my mother agreed to do it.
But I have never been able to comprehend why Mary abandoned Charlie over and over, why she was a junkie at the expense of being a good mother, or why the family facilitated the drama.
Like my aunt, I was a parent before I was an adult, but even as a teenager my desire to shield my kids from harm was absolute. I knew without being told that my job was not just to retain physical possession, but to protect them. I was poor and sick and confused, and I made lots of stupid mistakes, but I figured out how to feed and clothe and comfort my babies. I obtained an education, and a career, and remained vigilant about any threats to our material safety. If that meant walking away from friends, family, lovers, the landscape of my childhood, that was simply the way it had to be. It was my choice to be a parent. The children did not choose to be born.
The journey from Seattle to my hometown takes an hour on the state ferry. I settled on the familiar cracked vinyl seats and looked around at the usual assortment of tired working people. The passengers are mostly the same as I remember from childhood: blue-collar men and women stretched out across benches, sleeping through the long ride; a couple of disenfranchised teenagers immersed in their own personal gloom, staring out at the water; some Navy personnel in uniform talking quietly amongst themselves; one or two teachers grading papers.
There was also the occasional delighted tourist exclaiming over the drenched beauty on view as the ferry winds through the inlets and bays on the way to the Kitsap Peninsula, and it struck me that this ferry and a Venetian vaporetto are more similar than different: just a practical way for working people to get from one place to another.
Before I started traveling I had a romantic notion of what the world would look like, how different each place would be compared to where I’m from, and that vision has largely been proved wrong.
I’ve seen and done spectacular things, but no scenery has seemed more beautiful than the Puget Sound. The cathedrals of the capital cities are inspiring, but no better or worse than the islands of my youth. Academics and expatriates are interesting, but my own blood kin are just as smart and a whole lot more amusing. The commercial strips around airports across Europe look exactly like the streets around Sea-Tac.
My parents picked me up at the ferry terminal and we drove to meet my aunt at an Italian restaurant with windows looking out over Oyster Bay. The tables have red checkered cloths, with wine bottles covered in candle drippings, and the walls are covered with Polaroid photos of celebrations. My grandparents often took me there as a birthday treat, and I’ve taken my own children there for the same purpose. We have all had our photographs on the walls, and it is the only place I visit every time I go home.
Mary was dressed in a long flowing floral polyester dress, with black laced high-heeled boots and big sparkly hand-beaded earrings pulling down her tattooed earlobes. She still had a neck brace on to emphasize the fact that she was injured, but the antibiotic-resistant staph infection I remembered from our last meeting was healed. The new angry red marks were just another layer joining the lumpy scars of her ravaged forehead.
I couldn’t tell if she was using drugs or, rather, whether they were legal or recreational. There was no trace of the overdose, no emotional contrition or physical sign. She seemed much like she had always seemed: a troublemaker, funny, whip-smart, fast-talking, selfish.
My father muttered something about the menu, crossed his arms and proceeded to stare silently out of the window for the rest of the meal. My aunt and mother gossiped about family members, the old neighbors, about what had happened to the farm since my grandparents sold the property. Several relatives had died of cancer, alcohol abuse, or suicide (often in wretched combination) since the last time I visited; a fair number of the people we had grown up with had succumbed to the same fate.
I listened and watched their faces, wondering what it must be like to live and die in the place where you were born. The waitress brought breadsticks and butter and the sun was setting over the bay: an idyllic small town reunion.
My aunt asked how long I would be in town, and then my mother asked if I wanted to visit my cousin Christopher.
“Where is he living now?”
“Where his mother lived.”
My aunt Signe’s final home was a shack in a ravine without running water or electricity. There is no real road to the place, just a rocky path that might slide down the hill if there is enough rain. I remembered the last time I had visited, a few months before Signe died of cancer, when the car was surrounded by lunging snarling guard dogs. My aunt had to beat them away so we could get out of the car.
“Does he still have a pack of killer dogs?”
My mother said, “They’re not his dogs. They belong to Willy.”
Mary said, “The dogs are friendly.”
I said, “No, the dogs are not friendly. Wait. His father is still alive?”
My mother and Mary exchanged glances. “Willy keeps having mysterious accidents.”
“What kind of accidents?”
“Recently he had an encounter with a pot of boiling water.”
I said, “That seems like a peculiar sort of accident.”
Mary said, “If it was an accident.”
My mother said, “Oh, who knows.”
I flinched, and paused before choosing the next question. “Why does Christopher live there?”
“He doesn’t have a choice. He’s on house arrest.”
I said, “What do they do to earn a living?”
Mary said, “Willy lets people illegally dump chemicals into the salmon stream, for a fee.”
The waitress put plates of iceberg lettuce with bright orange dressing in front of us. My mother said, “I’m going to take some blankets and firewood out there. Do you want to come?”
I said, “I’m happy to buy some blankets. I’ll skip the visit.”
Mary said, “Who are you to judge him? That boy never had a chance. He needs our help.”
“I’m not judging. I just don’t want to be attacked by killer dogs, and I don’t want to see Willy.”
My mother said, ”Do you remember that time when Christopher was about eleven years old, and he had pneumonia, and he wasn’t doing his chores fast enough so Willy kicked him in the chest and Christopher went flying off the porch into the yard?”
I said, “No. Why would I remember that?”
“You were there.”
“I was there? I saw it? How old was I?”
The first time Christopher went to jail he was twelve years old. It was known within the family and surrounding farms that he had not committed the crimes in question (theft, trespassing, vandalism) except insofar as he had gone along with his father on the jobs. Willy was a career criminal with a long and varied history of convictions; he didn’t want to go back to prison, so he offered up his only son as the culprit.
This pattern was repeated many times while Christopher was a teenager. Willy knew that his son, as a juvenile, would get a comparatively lenient sentence. He knew that the courts and the jail system would take into account both the age of the offender and the negative family environment, and make some effort toward rehabilitation.
Willy also knew from his own experience that life in any prison is hellacious, but this was a trivial concern compared to sustaining his various schemes and plans.
When Christopher entered the juvenile detention system he was still in elementary school, a little boy on the cusp of adolescence who laughed and played with the other cousins and rode a dirt bike through the fields.
Over the next six years he would come back to the farm a handful of times for brief stays before he got narced out by his dad again. Each time Christopher came home he was bigger but quieter, covered in bruises and scabs, his hair greasy. He would sit at our grandmother’s kitchen table silently watching the two of us play Go Fish. He never wanted to join in a game.
At some point he was upgraded from juvie to the state penitentiary via a crime nobody explained to me. Christopher skipped bail and the adults talked about what to do; Mary hid him for a while, until my grandma called to warn that the sheriff was on the way. Christopher jumped out of a bathroom window and tried to run, but he didn’t have a gun, or a car, or a ride to the ferry. Whatever happened next, it must have been serious, because after that I would only see Christopher three times over twenty years. His sentence was longer than that of a neighbor who committed patricide, but I never knew for sure what happened. I didn’t want to know.
The view of the family was that while detention might be hard, it was better than living with Willy.
Mary excused herself to use the bathroom and my mother leaned toward me and lowered her voice. “Mary has the light fixtures from the homestead with her. You need to buy them, before she sells them for drug money.”
“Okay. How much should I give her?”
“Three hundred. But don’t give her the cash. Give it to me, and I’ll make sure she has food and pays her bills.”
I nodded, picked up the paper napkin and started to roll it between my fingers. I was exhausted by jet lag, and sorrow, and the dull monotony of taking care of Mary. When I was a teenager I assumed that growing up would change everything. Later I thought that I would be free if I moved away from our hometown. When I left the country I hoped that my life would be entirely new. But the whole scene was just a repeat of a hundred other dinners with Mary, strung out, needy, endearing. I was exasperated by the fact that, even as a child, throughout the darkest cancer years, I was always expected to be sober and responsible, putting other people first, never complaining, never asking for anything at all. I wished I was back in England.
Mary came back to the table and said, “Hey, do you remember when your daughter wanted something and you said no, and I taught her how to throw a tantrum?”
It would be impossible to forget the image of my three-year-old child watching, fascinated, as my adult aunt demonstrated a full screaming tantrum, rolling around in the aisle of Toys “R” Us shrieking about how she wanted something or other. My aunt was proud of this accomplishment, considered it a good and interesting story to tell: She brought it up every time we met. She had not connected that event with the fact that her access to my children was restricted, supervised, and then nonexistent.
They laughed, and I sat back in my seat, watching as the two women continued to chatter about events in the history of the family that it would not be prudent to write down.
Mary looked haggard, a lot older than her late forties; years of hard partying were visible in the way her hands shook, and the marks on her arms. Her surgically reconstructed nose had been broken in fights several times, and her skin was craggy from infections, but she seemed (as always) speedy, sarcastic, dismissive, indestructible. She had a new haircut; she had transitioned from Stevie Nicks to Pat Benatar. She didn’t look or act like she was dying, or wanted to die.
As a child I was a voracious reader growing up in a place without a library. I would read anything handed to me, and my aunt Mary was a primary source of literature. She would get high and put David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” on the stereo, then sprawl across whatever borrowed bed she was occupying, reading science fiction and fantasy novels purchased at yard sales and thrift stores. When she finished the books, she passed them on to me.
She gave me books about dragons and wizards, books about Amazonian warriors on strange planets, books by C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein.
She particularly loved The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, a treatise that confirmed my view of life as a bureaucratic accident[,] and also my opinion that there was something fundamentally wrong with the universe. The book didn’t inspire me to dream of the stars, but instead of England, a country where irony, sarcasm, and self-deprecation might be appreciated.
When I emigrated to England I settled first in Cambridge, the site of an 800-year-old university that has given the world words like “scientist” and where nearly every famous philosopher or poet you’ve ever heard of studied or was studied. Cambridge is where the hole in the ozone layer was identified, where Watson and Crick and their forgotten female collaborator identified the structure of DNA, and where Bertrand Russell was scared to ask for the toilet before his undergraduate interview.
I could show you E.M. Forster’s rooms, and the courtyard where Lord Byron supposedly lived with his bear. I can point out the window behind which Sylvia Plath suffered with her sinuses, and where Rupert Brooke took tea with Virginia Woolf. I could explain John Maynard Keynes’s interest in the theater on Peas Hill, and point out where exactly Guy Burgess attended political meetings. I know where Wittgenstein is buried.
But those are just bits of trivia picked up along the way. Living in Cambridge, the places that seemed most important to me were those my aunt would have recognized. I visited the pubs where early incarnations of Pink Floyd played their first gigs; I shopped in the same stores as Syd Barrett, who was still alive—an old man with short cropped gray hair and a denim jacket, shuffling around trying not to make eye contact with people who saw him as a martyr and burnout. I walked through the Grantchester Meadows and had tea at The Orchard, thrilled not by the association with the Bloomsbury Group but rather by the fact that C.S. Lewis and Douglas Adams had both walked across the same fields.
Temperament determines who and what we love; personality defines our influences. But adults decide what children are exposed to. When my aunt handed me those tattered paperbacks she probably had no clear intent except to help a sick kid kill some time. Mary didn’t know it, but the books she gave me cultivated an abiding fascination with escapism, in all meanings of the word. Her life provided a cautionary tale to warn against the dangers I would encounter along the way.
Mary viewed her addiction as an incurable disease. I grew up with cancer, and I am still sick. There is no way to quantify suffering, and no point assigning blame. We both tried to run away from home using whatever resources our impoverished family and town could offer. We carried with us the visible evidence of damage: on our bodies, and on our faces, warping relationships, twisting perception. We both hurt other people in the rush to get away.
The main difference between us is that I took my children with me.
On the way to drop Mary off that night my father drove through the public housing projects we lived in when I was small. The units were built on the cheap as temporary housing for shipyard workers in WWII, and had not been maintained after they were converted for low-income residents. The entire neighborhood was scheduled for demolition.
My father pulled up in front of the duplex we lived in when I was a baby; Mary’s most recent place was across the street. I looked out at all of the decrepit homes, paint peeling and green with mold, roofs sagging under fir needles and moss.
Now that it was time to say goodbye I wanted the evening to continue, wanted to ask Mary a hundred questions. I wanted to invite her to visit me in England, and take her to Brixton, to walk the streets where David Jones became David Bowie on his path toward Ziggy Stardust. I wanted to show her all the places across the world where her favorite authors lived and worked and were buried.
Mary would be the best kind of traveling companion, if she could stay sober and stay alive. But it was too late, and we are not that kind of family: she was opening the door, and stepping out of the car.
My mother pointed to the concrete steps in front of our old home and said to me, “Look, that’s where your skull was fractured.”
Mary leaned in the car window and said “The first time.”
Read more from Bee Lavender on her aunt, Gore Vidal, and Disneyland.
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It had all started about five or six years earlier, around the first time I fell in love. I didn’t know when it would end.