Tuesday, July 03, 2012

put aside your skepticism

For just a moment, turn away from your understandable suspicion, your disbelief in things you cannot see, and let me tell you a story. Listen to me with the openness we had as children, an age when we all willingly believed in what is mysterious and magical, for this tale, while true, is hard to accept.

I've told you before about my mother, who vanished on a cold Sunday morning, a few days before Christmas of 1969. It was a singular event in my life and in the lives of my family members. There is tragedy and heartbreak in losing one so loved to death. And it is a different kind of tragedy, an endless heartbreak, for someone to go missing for over 40 years.

There was before, and there is after. In more than forty years of after, we've never been able to really let go, to grieve and move on, and we've marked the transitions of life and the passage of our ordinary days always wondering. What happened? Where could she have gone?

Often, I would look at my father, now nearly 95, and think "it's not possible she could still be living." She would be so old, and surely in ill health, alone and lonely, and troubled by the same demons that drove her out the door that frigid December morning. But if not alive, then where could she be? Where is her body? Wouldn't her secrets be finally revealed in death? For 20 years, I've fought to keep her on my state's missing persons list, the oldest case in Oklahoma, but nothing has come of it. Nothing.

Two years ago, my very smart, rational, science-minded Republican sister, 66 years old, happened into a small encampment in Florida called Cassadaga. There, she encountered mediums and psychics, first one, and then another, for this was a small village devoted to the mysterious arts and whether you believe or do not believe, they are there, a flock of working spiritualists, and they are busy.

I know. Their busy-ness is no indicator of truth, just in the willingness ~ sometimes desperation ~ of people to believe in something that soothes their pain, or illuminates an uncertain future in a way that engenders hope. And isn't that what we all want? A bit of soothing, some certainty, something to hope for? And might that cause us to believe the unbelievable? Of course.

And yet, a skeptical Karen entered the medium's lair, was seated, and before she could even speak, the medium drew back, looking alarmed, and exclaimed, "oh, oh, there is someone rushing at me, she is pushing everyone aside."

Everyone. Yes. I know the images that will evince for most of you, the very idea that we are surrounded by the spirits of those long gone, that they can be invoked simply by a willingness to believe they are there. And yet it is possible, I now know this. It is possible even if we cannot set aside the flood of disbelief that wells when someone says these things aloud. Sometimes, as with Karen, we have only to show up, skepticism in tow. But even if we cannot believe ~ if you cannot ~ it changes nothing. It happened. It is true, and disbelief, yours or mine, does not change the fact of it.

I must continue, so come along with me, and if you can, push it aside, that sense you have that I've gone a little mad, succumbed to the kind of new age craziness that sometimes afflicts women and men in their middle years. Listen. Because the spirit who rushed the medium to get to my sister, the one who pushed "everyone" aside, gave us answers to the questions we've had since that ghastly day in 1969.

What happened to Audrey? Why did she leave? How could she have stayed away, never to have reached out, not once?

If you've been here before, you will know that, like my sister, I am also reasonably smart, and science-minded, but also artsy and romantic, so you will naturally suspect my interpretation of events. I want to believe, I admit it. I love the idea of the unknown becoming known and I inhabit my own imagination as if it's another, very real, world.

So do not believe me, as I am suspect, but believe Karen, who conversed with our lost mother 41 years after she vanished. Because you do not know them, either Karen or Audrey, you can't know how unsettling it was, how difficult to accept, but that it was my mother, I have no doubt.

There were dozens of proofs, dozens. A complete stranger in a part of the country where none of us have lived before knew details of my mother's pre-internet disappearance she could never have known. Karen's appearance before the medium was not preceded by an appointment, or signing in, or any of the myriad ways a bit of information can be given and research obtained. The trip to Cassadaga was done on a whim.

Karen's appearance was unheralded and the medium a stranger. It seems impossible that one can speak to the dead, but this happened and it is real, though unbelievable, I admit. The medium revealed everything: where she left from and why, what was happening to her at the time, where she went and with whom, and most importantly, that she had died in 1993.

Listen. I know you are scoffing, having gathered back into yourself your skepticism and unwillingness to believe in things unseen because it's more comfortable that way, to believe only in truth we can verify, touch, or experience ourselves.

But listen, and know this is true. It was my mother, of that I am certain, as certain as I am that my eyes are brown and my once red hair has gone silver, that I am living and breathing in Tulsa on a hot Thursday in July. As certain as I am that most of you will not believe, though a childlike part of you, before you fall asleep tonight, may whisper "what if?"

Believe this: my mother, her spirit, had to make amends to move on, and more importantly, she needed to know that we could forgive her for walking out that chill morning in 1969, that we could let go of our pain and anger and years and years of wondering, of not knowing, of never being able to grieve for her. She needed our release and we gave it.

We performed a ritual goodbye, Audrey's three daughters, committing a last loving act of forgiveness and letting go. For two years, we have had a sense of peace that's been missing for the previous forty. And her spirit, my mother's, was healed. You're frowning, I suspect, thinking "how could she know?" but that, that knowing, is for another day. About the 40 year mystery of my mother, though, I finally know, and I believe. I am at peace and so, at last, is Audrey.

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Monday, December 21, 2009

apple of her eye

On the phone last night, my sister said "you know tomorrow it will be 40 years." I knew, of course. How could I not? Forty years since my mother vanished. Forty years of not knowing. Forty years of dissecting, imagining, crying, raging, wondering where on earth she could have gone, how anyone could vanish so completely.

Karen told me that after mom disappeared, Daddy called her every morning well before dawn to ask the same questions: What do you think happened? Do you think they missed her when they dragged the lake? the river? Could she have driven that Fairlane into the stone quarry out north of town and stayed hidden all these years? This daily dissection went on for years. Even when she was having Tony, her middle son, laid up after a C-section, the early morning call: What do you think happened?

People used to call us in the middle of the night. Whispered voices in the dark: "I know where she is, she's being held against her will." "She's in Grand Lake, just next to Ketchum Cove, in the deep water."

The calls were torture, and we finally stopped answering the midnight ringing phone. She was gone. No one knew where. The FBI couldn't find her, the OSBI either. Ponca City police convinced themselves Daddy did something to her, and they managed to misplace the two polygraph tests he passed with the FBI.

Karen and I went back over all of it last night, start to finish. What we'd done the night before (home, with visiting friends), what happened that morning (building a fire together, early Sunday morning), the missing gun, the fact of her leaving her glasses, her purse, hell, even her clothes. How could a 51 year old woman drive away half blind, with no money, in her nightgown and robe, and not be observed somewhere along the way?

That line of thought takes us back to the quarry, or the river, or one of Oklahoma's many lakes. But then there were the cards: hand-typed advertisements from a boutique in Chicago none of us had been to. We were so certain it was her that my father flew to Illinois. Wild-eyed and shaking, he confronted the boutique owner with the cards that had so oddly appeared in the mail. Still no answers.

Karen and I have convinced ourselves that it was her, that she was involved in the process of mailing those cards somewhere along the line, at the printer's shop, the typing service, mailing, something. It was the only clue, the only indication we ever had that she hadn't died the day she left, a victim of suicidal despair she'd fought for years.

We talked about her life, my mother's, how she'd changed herself to fit my father's expectations, how she'd survived the most hideous sexual abuse as a child, gone to college, met my Dad, and married him, the love of her life, in the 1940s. Marriage was probably a disappointment. I think it often is in small ways and big. It's just life. Nothing's perfect.

My 64 year old sister choked up as we were talking, remembering how mouthy she'd been as a teenager, wondering what would have happened had she been a little less so 50 years ago. And Margene ~ 14 months older than I, 10 years younger than Karen ~ she was starting to get a little mouthy too. "But you," she said. "You were the apple of her eye. She adored you, and you were so sweet. You spent so much time together. How could she leave you?" And I can only think how could she leave any of us? For forty years? How is that even possible?

It is the defining event of our lives. One day my mother vanished and our lives were never the same. And though we've long since moved on, made good lives, become productive citizens, it never goes away. Always, always, the nagging questions: what happened? where did she go? Why? Always and forever, why.

And you? Do you live with some mystery, some unresolvable thing that is always with you? Tell ~ or don't, because those mysteries can be very personal, can't they? Just yes, or no, and whether you wonder every day how such a thing could happen. It helps to believe there are others out there waiting for an answer.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

the end of Christmas

It was 9:00 a.m., four days before Christmas in 1969, when I woke to find my life irrevocably changed.

Lying in bed an hour earlier, I had drifted in and out of sleep listening to my parents' low voices. I heard the familiar and comforting sounds of breakfast preparations, of my father banking the fire in the family room.

At nine o'clock, I came instantly awake, but there was no comfort and nothing familiar. This time the thing that woke me was the sound of my father's voice on the phone and it filled me with apprehension.

"My wife left, she just drove away. I think she took a gun."

My father was speaking to the police, his voice loud and shaky. What he said was unimaginable. I can hear it as clearly today as if it were 1969, yet I can never remember the rest of what he said. It was as if something in my mind shattered when I heard those words -- "she took a gun" -- leaving me incapable of further comprehension.

In my pink painted room, the one my mother and I decorated together, I pulled the covers tight around my chin and peeked at my sleeping sister. Could I be dreaming? Please let this be a nightmare. Let me go to sleep and wake to hear my mother's voice calling me to breakfast, urging me to hurry so we're not late for church. Let me wake up to find her by my bed, saying "Get up, sleepyhead." I want her to tousle my hair and kiss my cheek like always, tell me "scoot, baby, you'll have to be quick," like always.

Like always, like always, I want things to be as they've always been. These thoughts have run through my mind as my father's been on the phone. When he hangs up, it's infinitely worse: my father ~ my daddy ~ the quiet, capable, strong man I've counted on my entire life is weeping.

What has happened is inconceivable. It is Sunday morning. The house smells of cedar and the rich chocolate of fudge we made last night. It is four days til Christmas. My mother is gone, my father is crying, and I know nothing will ever be the same.

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Friday, June 13, 2008

barry and audrey

In 1964, my mother, Audrey, turned rabid on the subject of Barry Goldwater. Goldwater was launching his doomed run for the presidency on the basis of what was considered at the time a far right wing agenda. Being 7 years old, I don't remember why Audrey was so adamant that Barry was the savior of this country, but I remember how deeply his failure to win the presidency affected her.

It was shortly thereafter that my mother began experiencing depression, the first hint of bipolar disorder which led to mood swings of astonishing intensity. I have to wonder if the loss of the campaign played into the many other losses in her life: her mother died when she was two years old; she lived in a foster home with distant relatives; was victimized by a child molester of the worst kind; between my oldest sister and me, she had six stillborn baby boys, each of which she carried to the 7th or 8th month before they died.

But Barry enchanted her that year, 1964. For Barry, she campaigned tirelessly, attended conventions, fundraisers, walked the streets. She was relentless in her advocacy. When he lost, she lost something too: the sparkle in her eyes, the note of excitement and anticipation that had sounded in her voice that year.

I am, of course, horrified by this because Goldwater was one of the most virulently conservative men to have ever seriously run for president to that point. I can't reconcile what I think of far right wing zealots with what I think of my mother. They are callous, indifferent to the plight of regular folks, religious crackpots, greedy, corrupt, conscienceless. My mother was kind, loving, accepting, open of heart and mind, religious in the best way, smart and capable.

How could Audrey be seduced by Barry? What did he say, stand for, believe in that enchanted her, that won her heart and her mind? Here in the south, even in the upper left hand corner of it, we generally plant our crazy people right on the front porch for all to see, but this, honestly, embarrasses me, my mother as this kind of conservative.

I am comforted somewhat in reading the Wikipedia entry on Goldwater. It seems there was a huge push in his campaign to vanquish communism, to protect from potential nuclear war. This was surely a response to the widespread fear in the '60s that the hateful commies were going to blow us to mist and the world would end in a horror of radiation poisoning and suffering. Audrey always urged me to take seriously the bomb drills we had weekly at First Lutheran. Those drills found us grade schoolers tucked up against each other like biscuits in a pan, hands clenched tightly over our necks, ready as we could ever be for the bombs to fall.

To say that it was a culture of fear is almost laughable; it was so much more than that. In that time, in that school, that religious community, the fear of communism was alive. We were constantly reminded by our teachers in morning devotions that they were coming and we must be strong in our faith.

The worst fearmonger, Stanton Hoffmeier, the cadaverous and frightening music teacher, assured us that the communists were well on the way, lurking even now, perhaps, in the cloakroom. Upon arrival, they would quiz every child as to their religious leanings and then all Christians would be killed. His sadism was evident in his gleeful assurance that we would have to face the bayonet and admit to our Lutheranism, else we'd burn in hell for eternity. Immediate gutting, death and glory, or life lived as a slave to the Russians, with the absolute promise of hell for denying our faith.

That decade was frightening in so many ways: Vietnam, riots, cities burning, the Cold War, assassinations, more assassinations, pollution out of control, the fear of nuclear war. There was death and mayhem at every turn and it was overwhelming, but 1964 was just the beginning. If I felt this, in my relative innocence, perhaps my mother, even in 1964 and standing at the threshold of mental illness, also felt overwhelmed and afraid. Maybe the strong voice of Barry Goldwater, assured and confident, as right wing zealots so often are, gave her comfort.

I wonder how she would have felt, had she stuck around, to know of my growing radicalism, my political activism in the '70s and '80s, of my Marxist leanings and the feminism that transformed me. Would she shudder in horror that I've become a socialist in response to the right wing madness that began with Goldwater? On some level, I think ~ I hope ~ she would have applauded, would have cheered me on, this brilliant, educated woman whose life was so tightly circumscribed by the expectations of women of her time, by her children, her traditional man, her place in society.

I wish I could have known her as an adult. I wish I could have given her what Barry gave her for those brief months, and that it would have been enough. I wish she were here so I could ask her these questions. I wish for so much, for my mother, even now.

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