Return to sender
I knew of a man who filed from divorce from his wife on the eve of her 45th birthday. No one seemed to see the cruelty in this. The mental illness somehow made it okay. The man was well respected; the woman, smart and sophisticated. They had always been the envied couple. The end of the marriage was tragic, yet unsurprising. People would whisper about what happened. But they didn’t know the whole story. No one knew the whole story.
He’d cheated on before. He was cheating on her then. The woman knew this, but she needed him desperately. And this is precisely why he left her. She needed him too much. A year later, he was remarried as though the two of them had never intersected paths, as though they’d never known each other at all.
That woman was my mother.
There’s a photo. In the photo I’m smiling, wearing bright purple overalls, my hair in ponytails tied with white ribbons. I’m standing next to my grandma, but my eyes look to my mother as she poses expectedly above a mocha-colored birthday cake decorated with blue wax candles that look like swizzle sticks. She’s beautiful, I think— full of exuberance, poetry in motion.
Curly black hair frames her face as though it’s a centerpiece. And in so many ways, it is. I’d always wanted little black curls like that, but my hair was mousy brown and stick straight. This is before I discovered that my mom dyed her naturally brown locks. Before I knew that every other Sunday after she dropped me off at Sunday school, she’d go to the beauty shop for a perm. These were mysteries that would be revealed later, along with so much more.
In the photo, there’s a group of six of us hovered around a restaurant table somewhere in New York. My mother is standing next to two of her closest friends. Their faces glow with happiness. Neon blue frosting on the cake announces, “Lordy, Lordy. Margo’s forty!”
That was my mother’s name. Margo.
My father is nowhere. I assume he’s taking the photo, telling everyone to say ‘Cheese’ in that boisterous tone of his, capturing a piece of fiction he knows better than all of us. Fiction in a photograph. Happiness in a frame. He knows that my mother has begun to have episodes. Times when she isn’t quite like herself, moments when she has trouble functioning in a normal way, bouts of crying unattended or staring off into space as though haunted by herself. He knows that behind her smile, there’s anxiety and fear and neediness that he will not be prepared to take on. He knows this is a milestone, a crossroads.
A bridge to nowhere.
But me, I don’t know of any of this. She’s just my mom. And he’s my dad. Together, they’re my world. At ten years old, memories are just starting to stick like gum to my shoe. I’m too young to pick up on subtleties, but old enough to recognize that my parents are the roots of who I am.
In the next few years, I watch and listen and feel more than any child should. I become old enough to recognize that the pristine life I had always known was dissolving slowly like a sugar cube in a glass of water.
It’s my mother who leaves, not because she wants to, but because it’s necessary.
“She has to go some place that knows how to help her,” my father says.
Some place where she can heal and tame the noisy thoughts bouncing around in her head, he could have said. I don’t know exactly why she needs help. I only know that sometimes she’s vibrant and playful and loving. Other times, I can hear her crying. I see her staring into space, haunted by the world around her and fearful of the world inside her.
There were times when she’d go to fix me lunch, but later I’d go into the kitchen to discover she’d abandoned the task entirely. A plate with two slices of bread. A block of cheese on the counter. A pan of melted butter on the stove, the burner still on. And my mother would be off in the other room, huddled into herself—just staring. I’d back away quietly and re-enter the kitchen to turn off the burner, to make things safe. And then I’d make myself plain peanut butter and jelly because peanut butter and jelly is safe, comforting.
My mother took to sleeping most of the day, interrupted by short spurts of activity when she’d be a spitting image of the mother I’d known all my life. Times when she’d chase me around the yard and make me laugh. We’d make blueberry pancakes, play Sorry or Scattergories or read Sideway Stories From Wayside School, my favorite book, but those times didn’t last nearly long enough.
The summer I turned twelve, my mother went someplace else and by then my father was involved with someone else. In a sense, I was losing them both. In the middle of all that, there was me, trying to be a child while failing at it miserably. The adult world had oozed its way through a crack in my childhood. That crack would only grow wider until there’d be no child of me left and only the adult world would remain. Under the circumstances, it didn’t take as long as one might think—
Turns out, my father didn’t know how to raise a daughter. Turns out, he’d been cheating on my mother long before her ‘episodes.’ His cheating revealed itself in potent ways. He got sloppy, forgot to pick me up from school. The other woman was how he escaped the one woman he’d had at home and the daughter he didn’t know what to do with.
I moved in with my grandparents after my parent’s split, after they discovered that my father had been cheating on their daughter. Their precious daughter, my mother. I wondered why I was leaving my childhood home, what I’d done wrong. Why was I living with my grandparents now and not my mom and dad?
These questions lingered because I never spoke of them aloud and questions can’t be answered if you never give them a voice. But I didn’t trust the outside world. It was this world, the adult world—that had stolen my childhood in unfair ways. It was the world that had stolen my mother from the beautiful being I once knew and changed my father into someone who wanted to forget us both because it reminded him of failures he had no chance of reversing.
Today is my birthday, number forty-five. Forty had come and gone without as much as a whisper. It hadn’t bothered me then, but this one—
Forty-five is a birthday that affects me in ways I’d predicted as well as ways I’d tried to ignore. This is middle age. This is my mother being told it’s over by my father who says he can’t cope with it anymore, as though her illness was a separate being who had broken up their marriage. As if her life wasn’t already unraveling.
This is me. Forty-five and alone, sitting in an apartment in Williamsburg that should’ve been a house on Long Island if I’d planned better. If I’d stayed with that guy who took me for granted and never saw me for the intelligent being I most definitely am. I have thoughts of getting all dressed up and taking myself out for a drink. I fantasize about walking in stiletto heels, clickety-clack, to a barstool, sitting there prettily until a guy buys me a drink. But I’m forty-five. This is forty-five.
My mother passed away a year or so ago. To the very end, she dyed her hair black and permed curls into her naturally straight locks. When I’d visit, she’d smile a familiar smile and look at me with vacant eyes, the windows to her soul beyond cleansing. She spoke of my father as though they were still together. She said she couldn’t function without him, that she was scared of making the simplest decisions without his approval. But he didn’t approve of any of this.
She’d look to me like I was still a child when I hadn’t been a child since forever— since that day my mother turned forty-five. And now, here I am, at this milestone. This crossroads. This bridge to nowhere.
I want to move forward, but I can’t. I want to celebrate, but I feel guilty because this was the birthday when my mother lost everything—her marriage, my father, the life she knew, the last of what she’d had. This was when her inner world eclipsed the last of the light her spirit had once known. This was the day everything changed.
Instead of getting guzzied up and taking advantage of a birthday drink bought by a handsome stranger or calling an old friend, I sit on the couch drinking a glass of wine by myself and I think of my mother. Eventually, I bring myself to go through a small stack of birthday cards. Bright and beautiful envelopes with cheerful greetings, promises to keep in better touch, wishes for a wonderful year. The corners of my lips turn up into a smile, while my eyes moisten with tears I can’t control. And then—
A business envelope, unusual in its plainness, catches my eye. At first, I think it’s a bill erroneously caught up in birthday cards, but when I turn it over, I see my address, shakily handwritten in black pen. Beneath it, there is an electronically printed yellow sticker that says ‘Return to sender. Unable to deliver as addressed.’
I glance at my address; it’s perfectly correct. I scan it twice just to make sure I’m not mistaken. Return to sender? I didn’t send this to myself. That’s when I notice there’s no return address, not on the left hand corner, nor on the back of the envelope. Not anywhere.
I tear open the envelope cautiously, but clumsily. Inside, there’s a 3x5 index card. It states—
Big, typewritten bold letters, underlined. Below that, a date (tomorrow) a place (Claudio’s) and a time (7pm).
I set the card aside. My mind fills itself with curiosity and skepticism mixed with wonder. Is this a trick? Shall I go?
Claudio’s is a restaurant in Greenport, right by the harbor. Perhaps I’d been there before, but I couldn’t remember. Like my childhood, it was a place long forgotten, a place I’d felt like I’d never been, yet longed to visit. My grandfather used to go there. I remember he always used to tell stories about the trap door behind the bar and the secret passageways that led down to the basement that people had used during the years of Prohibition. But mostly, he’d rave about their lobster rolls.
I’d crinkle my nose and giggle. “Who wants to eat a lobster?” I’d ask.
He’d lean in close and tell me how succulent lobster was, how that was the meal he’d want to have on the day he died. As a kid, I was skeptical about eating lobster; it looked like a big bug to me, but his passion and storytelling had always intrigued me.
I doubt he got lobster rolls the day he died. Holding the 3x5 card, I think of this and suddenly I feel a little sad for him. As that moment passes, the next moment whispers to me that I have to go there. I have to accept this proposal, whatever it is. There’s no way around it, no choice involved. The next night I find myself driving to Claudio’s, unsure of what I’ll find there.
The old, wood doors are heavy and intimidating but I enter anyway. Inside, everything is dark and smoky and it smells of old wood mixed with buttery scotch.
“Welcome to Claudio’s,” a syrupy voice says from the hostess stand.
I look up to see a petite woman with a bob of shiny black hair and a milky white complexion. She hands me a cocktail menu and announces that her name is Ruby.
“Have you been here before?” Ruby asks me with a lipstick-accentuated, heart-shaped mouth.
Her smile is waiting for an answer when I finally mumble that no, I didn’t think I’d ever been there before.
“Well, you’re in for a treat!” she says, genuinely excited for me. “Claudio’s has such a deep history. We’ve been in this exact location since 1910. Would you like a tour?”
“No, I’m— meeting someone. I was told to present this to you.” I reach into my tote and hand her the 3x5 card.
She glances at it and nods knowingly. Then she smiles. “Follow me.”
She’s wearing a black flapper dress with red fringe. In her hair is a red-and-black butterfly barrette. My mother would’ve liked that pin, I think as Ruby leads me into a larger dining area. Mother loved butterflies.
Near the back bar, we reach one of the few bright tables in an otherwise dimly lit room. There’s a man in an overcoat sitting there, his back facing us. This is where Ruby leaves me.
“Happy birthday, Chloe” she whispers. I turn just as her shiny dark hair bounces into blackness.
I look down on the man in the overcoat and recognize something in the silvery swirl of hair at the top of his head.
The man stiffly turns to look up at me and his thin lips curl into a smile.
“Chloe. You came.” He pauses and glances down at his glass of scotch. “ I didn’t think you would.”
I stand frozen, unsure of what to make of this. He looks mostly the same, yet a bit more portly since the last time I’d seen him. The last time, being a year ago today, at my mother’s funeral.
“Sit, sit,” he beckons, patting his hand on the table.
I pull out a wooden chair as sturdy and heavy as the front doors of this place and sit down across from him.
“Drink?’ he asks.
“I didn’t know you were a vodka girl?”
“I’ve always liked vodka, Dad. When I drink, which isn’t often.”
He flags a cocktail server from the bar behind me. I’m hoping it’s Ruby so I can escape like a butterfly into her shiny, black hair but it’s not. This woman is blonde, much older and seasoned like a piece of fish, cooked until toughened.
A moment later, she plunks down my drink, says nothing. I can smell the salt on her skin, the pepper in her hair.
For a length of time, my father and I sip our drinks silently like Ernest Hemingway and a novel he’s pondering. I don’t have anything much to say to him. I barely know him anymore and this thought alone makes me feel even more uncomfortable in his presence. As he sits there, my father looks relatively forlorn— an old man I sense has much to say but no words to speak for him.
At my mother’s funeral, my father arrived accompanied by Annette, his second wife. By then, I didn’t know my father anymore and I knew Annette even less. After I moved in with my grandparents, my father remarried and I rarely saw him anymore. As I’d grown into adulthood, our lives had splintered off and quietly floated away like driftwood destined for separate waters.
The salty blonde comes back to take our order. My father looks to me.
“I’ll have the lobster roll,” I say without even looking at the menu.
“I’ll have the same,” my father says, handing both of our menus to the woman. “And a bowl of clam chowder.” He looks up at me, “Clam chowder?”
I shake my head and the blonde disappears. My father grazes the stubble above his upper lip. Then, he pauses and takes a good, long sip of Scotch. He places the glass back on the wood table and looks at me.
“ I never meant to leave you. Or your mother,” he says. “I just didn’t know how to— I would handle it differently now.”
I nod and take this in. So many years have passed that it doesn’t seem real or fictional. It’s as though it never happened at all. His being a part of things, his leaving. Was I hurt? Was I angry?
“I’m sorry,” he says heaving his shoulders with the weight of those words.
“I know you are,” I say as though I’m comforting a stranger because in a way, I am.
“I was a coward, when I should’ve been a man and a father.”
The two of us exchange quiet acknowledgment with our eyes. After a few moments pass, my father leans over and grabs something from the seat beside him. It’s a shoebox wrapped in green and white-striped paper and decorated with red glittered hearts. He sets it in the middle of the table.
“I saved this for you.”
I open the box cautiously. Inside I find a heaping stack of letters and cards, all things that I’d written to my mother as a child. Cards I never remember writing. Childhood drawings that are so much a part of myself that I can’t believe they came from me. Trees and flowers I’d drawn on Mother’s Day cards in colored markers, dried flowers I’d picked myself. Thank-you notes I’d written to the tooth fairy. All the things she’d kept. And then, my mother’s writings: journals I didn’t know she kept, poetry I didn’t know she’d written. Glimpses into the intricacies of her inner being before it overtook her.
“Happy Birthday, love,” my father says in that boisterous tone of his and for a moment, I’m a child again, playing with finger paints, jumping into puddles and skipping rope. And my mother is making funny faces at me, chasing me around the yard and making me laugh. She’s beautiful, I think— full of exuberance, poetry in motion.
I watch my parents dance in the living room as my mother’s curly black hair bounces against her shoulders. There are blueberry pancakes, afternoons of Scattergories and readings from Sideway Stories From Wayside School. There’s grilled cheese with plenty of butter and oozing cheese I lick from my fingers as my father laughs at me. As I dig deeper in the box, I find a childhood to call my own, a place where we all fit in the picture.
I smile and think of my mother. When I look up, I see my father’s eyes and realize he’s thinking of her too.
“Thank you,” I say.
My father says nothing but when I look into his hazel eyes, I see myself and I think of my mother and the three of us are all in that moment together. We sit in silence, steaming lobster rolls between us with memories that stretch beyond any distances and all is right with the world.
Kendra Liedle holds a journalism degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her writing has appeared in Chicago Literati, The Gambler Magazine, Dual Coast Magazine, Nebraska Life Magazine, Metro L.A., NoHo L.A., and The Valley Social. She is also the author of ‘The Best Days Of Mabel Gordon’ and ‘This Is How We End’ (available on Amazon and Kindle.) She lives in Los Angeles, CA where she works in the entertainment industry.