My Mom Left When I Was A Little. Becoming A Mother Brought All That Pain Back

I come from a long line of mothers who left their children. What if there exists some sort of genetic family flaw, some kind of “leaving gene” that unexpectedly grabs hold of mothers like the ones in my family?

Mother and daughter holding hands shadow, on city street sidewalk in black and white—Melissa Cistaro Without My Mother book

Photo, iStock/Alex Linch

My sandals clap across the hardwood floor and into the blue room where my children sleep. There are school art projects that dangle from clothespins, Legos in every color, stuffed animals of every breed, and shelves full of books. A small night-light flickers in the corner of the room. My seven-y ear- old son is already asleep on the top bunk. My little girl has called me back in for the third time. I remind myself to be both patient and firm. She is four.

“Yes, Bella?”

“Mama, I keep thinking about the scary cat with red eyes.”

“Have you tried thinking of all things blue?” I ask, hoping she’ll be soothed by our nighttime ritual of naming all the things in the world that could possibly be blue.

“Yes. I tried that. I can’t sleep,” she says with a whimper. She reaches out and pulls at my arm. I do not feel the patience in me tonight.

“Mama, can you stay with me on my bed? Please?”

She doesn’t understand that I am goddamn tired. My husband is out of town, as he is so often these days. I know that if I lie down, I won’t be able to get back up. My mind is on the school lunches I haven’t yet made, the stacks of dishes lined up all the way around the kitchen counter, and the wet towels that are beginning to smell because they haven’t made it into the dryer yet. And then there are the twenty-four shamrock place mats that I promised to cut out for the preschool class tomorrow and the haircut appointment I need to cancel.

I look out to the yellow light in the hallway. The headache that began this afternoon in my neck is now settling in behind my eyes. I rub my left eyebrow back and forth, trying to chase the pain away. I can’t do this drawn-out routine with Bella. I can’t do the twenty questions, not tonight. Okay, I think, take a deep breath and count to ten. That’s what all the parenting books say to do. I need to come up with something— some kind of sleeping dust from the sandman, some magic spell from Wynken, Blynken, and Nod.

“How about if you close your eyes and think of great names for pets? And not just the name of the pet, but you also have to think of what the pet looks like—in detail.”

She stares up at me, her eyebrows furrowed. “But that might make me think of the cat.”

Her mind never settles. If she were like her big brother, the routine would be a bedtime story, a back scratch, and off to slumberland. But not Bella. She is a girl with an epic imagination. “Bella, please. It’s time to sleep.” “I’m trying,” she protests.

I watch her eyes blink, and tuck the covers snug around her body. I place her velvet bear underneath her chin and her shaggy cat in the crook of her arm. As I lean down to kiss her goodnight, her eyes pop open wide and stare at me.

Headshot of Without My Mother's author, Melissa Cistaro, in blue shirt

Photo, Adam Karsten

“Mama, what did your mom do when you were scared?” Her question catches me off guard. The room seems to tilt sideways. I don’t feel dizzy, but heavy— like I might not be able to stand on my own two feet. I recognize it, this feeling, this physical sensation of being pulled backward, like standing in the undertow at Stinson Beach.
I do not recall slipping off my sandals and lying down alongside Bella on her bed. But suddenly I am here next to her, staring up at the ceiling with its tiny glow-in-the-dark stars. Star light. Star bright. First star, I see tonight. Wish I may, wish I might, have this wish I wish tonight.

“Mama,” she asks again, “what did your mom do when you were scared?”

“I can’t remember, Bella.” My body is stiff on the bed. I am trying so hard to do the right things, to be a good mother. “I didn’t get scared much,” I say. That’s not the truth either. “I guess she tucked me in and said things to help me to feel safe. Sort of like the things I say to you.”

My mouth aches. I am a coward. I am afraid of the undertow. I don’t want her to know that sometimes a mother can’t stay. “Let’s close our eyes and go to sleep,” I whisper to her.

She smiles, pleased that I am lying on her bed, then whispers a reminder, “Don’t leave, Mama.” The room tilts again; the ceiling stars go blurry. The words I never once said.

I cannot tell Bella that my mom left when I was a little girl. And yet it was a simple fact, a well-memorized statement when I was growing up. “My mom doesn’t live with us,” I’d say in the same way I’d say, “Lilacs are my favorite flowers.” It didn’t occur to me that becoming a mother myself could wash to shore the wreckage of the past. To tell my daughter this truth is to tell myself the darkest truth. That I was leavable. Unkeepable.

I come from a long line of mothers who left their children. What if there exists some sort of genetic family flaw, some kind of “leaving gene” that unexpectedly grabs hold of mothers like the ones in my family? What if that leaving gene is lying dormant inside me? And what if my daughter, with her fretful imagination, worries that I might leave one day?

I picture my mom, a thousand miles away. She has always been a thousand or more miles away, except for the occasional visits. Each of us carried her leaving in different ways. When she left, it seemed she took all the colors with her. The world turned grey and itchy like a tight wool sweater pulled across my chest. In the early years, she didn’t call us or show up on our birthdays, which deeply upset my father. He hoped she would at least acknowledge us on those special occasions. Later, she began to drift in and out of our lives like our live-in sitters, always seeming just out of our reach. If we were lucky, we might see her once— occasionally twice—a year. And then we never knew when, or if, we would see her again. Perhaps she might have stayed to hold our small hands if she could have foreseen the directions our lives would go after that summer.

How would my daughter thrive if I leaned down to kiss her good-night right now and told her that I couldn’t live with her and her brother anymore? And that I wasn’t sure when I’d visit next or if I’d come back? How will I ever be able to answer my daughter’s questions— or my own?

I close my eyes, rearrange my unbearable thoughts, and tuck them away. I am a mother now. A good mother.

I rest my lips against Bella’s shoulder and breathe her in like sweet, warm bread. I want my daughter to feel safe. Every day I rebuild a scaffold inside myself in hopes that she will have something sturdy to hang on to.

It’s all I can do for now.

This has been excerpted from Without My Mother: A Memoir by Melissa Cistaro ©2015. Published in Canada by Collins in 2019. All rights reserved.

Cover of "Without My Mother" by Melissa Cistaro, featuring young girl holding toy