I have a confession to make. I have occasionally given way to imagining horrible scenarios, such as my mother or father dying and how I might react to the news. I’d be on the subway back in the late ’90s when I was in my 20s, zooming underground toward the at-that-moment-uncool-yet-extremely-cheap Greenpoint artist collective I lived in, and I’d imagine standing in the kitchen of my temp job. While making a hot green tea, I’d receive the news that my mother or father had died in a car accident. I’d faint into the saving arms of a cute co-worker, sobbing. I would always feel terribly ashamed of these fantasies. I once confessed them to a shrink, who assured me that we all fantasize about calamity, and that visualization prepares us for eventual loss. So if one of those dark thoughts ever crept up again, I’d shake it off and tell myself: it’s just your brain preparing for something inevitable and terrible that’s far, far into the future.
Unfortunately, I recently learned that no amount of fantasy role-playing actually prepares you for unexpected tragedy. When I received the call last year that my 73-year-old mother had dropped dead of a heart attack, all I know is that I pounded the kitchen counter screaming “No” at the top of my lungs until my husband held my arms down. I stopped screaming only when I had exhausted myself, red-faced, shaking, vision blurry and having trouble breathing. I didn’t faint prettily into anyone’s arms. There was no way to save me in that moment.
It was ugly, terrifying, as alone as I’ve ever been, and so very, very final.
On May 3 of this year we buried my mother next to her parents in her hometown of Prairie City, Iowa. I love Iowa in the spring. I miss its green flatness, how clean and sharp the air can be before the suffocating summer humidity hits. I always feel slightly overwhelmed in NYC, a feeling that left me inspired for the last 20 years but now a bit tired as I navigate my professional 40s with our new baby daughter, Mona. She is 18 months old now. She will never know her Iowa Grandmother.
After the burial, my two older brothers and I went to my mother’s house to continue clearing out her personal stuff—papers, jewelry, mementos, photos and some sentimental folksy art pieces that none of us quite knew what to do with yet. I was inside with Mona when my brother Jim motioned for me to join him outside on the stoop, which I did. He silently handed me a letter and said, “I think you’d better read this.”
My name is Jay Sweet, or birth name Larry Duane Schlosser. I was born Jan 21st 1960 at Broadlawns Hospital in Des Moines. If all the information is correct you are my birth mother. I have been searching for you on and off for nearly 30 years.
I read the rest of the letter, which she had received in 2012. It detailed how he had found her, that he had found my brothers and myself on Facebook and how much he wanted to just meet her. He told her about his family, how he was raised by loving, adoptive parents who were now deceased. He told her about his wife of 22 years and his three great kids. He was raised in Iowa and lived there still. He left his number and asked her to reach out if she wanted to honor his request for a meeting. Immediately, I knew it was true.
I picked up my phone. My hands were shaking. And I called the brother who had been lost to us.
Thus began a whole new chapter of my mother’s death, one I might entitle: Here’s a Whole Bunch of Shit Your Mother Who You Thought You Were Very Close To Never Told You.
How well do you really know your parents? Their passions, their disappointments, what drugs they actually did or how many people they slept with? I thought I knew my mother very well. My mom was what some people might describe as “a character” or “a pistol.” She had this incredible, relentless energy. She was a born talker, an avid socializer, the first to jump up and dance and then yell in your face until you, too, joined her on the dance floor. She had a hatful of ridiculous sayings, a constant habit of twirling her hair (I don’t think she ever stopped moving except for when she slept, and even then she had a bit of a restless leg thing going on), and was my friends’ Favorite Mom Ever. “Your mom is so cool!” they’d say, “your mom is so much fun!” gorging on Oreos with her as she taught them to jitterbug in our living room.
She was also a survivor—the abused child of a cold, domineering and neglectful mother—who tried so very hard to not hand down that abuse to her own kids. She didn’t always succeed. But she tried. She kissed us and hugged us (while letting us know that her own mother never touched or hugged her). She made everything fun for us, she drove me to dance classes and pushed me to have all the opportunities life had not given her. But she also had a darkness—a self-loathing that would emerge and a hair-trigger temper, an immediate way of taking someone down verbally that occasionally tipped into violence when I was younger. She worked her whole life on controlling that snap, and on regaining a bit of self-esteem. She watched a lot of Oprah and took her advice so seriously. Gradually, the backhand out of nowhere I feared as a child slowly ceased, the yelling and unreasonable reactions to tiny stresses got better, and each decade I saw her grow, deepen, and our relationship reflected that (thanks, Oprah!). In her last years I loved her totally and unconditionally, with less and less of the hurt and blame I had always nursed.
But as a child, I loved her madly and fearfully. “Anxious attachment,” I believe they now call it. I slept on the floor next to her side of my parents’ bed until I was 12, and then when my parents divorced at 14, she gave up and let me simply sleep next to her in our post-divorce home in Pleasantville, Iowa. She had taken a second job to help us make ends meet and she’d get home late, crawl into bed, and we’d sleep back to back, each of us twirling our respective hair (a legacy I am now bequeathing to my own daughter), and we’d catch up and talk ourselves to sleep. She’s the one who taught me the tenacity to be the first person in my family to graduate from college. Because of her, I had the moxie (and stupidity) to pack up and head for New York City with all of $300 in my pocket.
In short: I thought I knew her. Really knew her. But in the weeks and months that followed our finding Jay’s letter, I learned that one of the most pivotal and painful episodes of her life had been kept secret from all of us, including my father, for our entire lives.
After months of sleuthing, calls with relatives and her old high school friends, we pieced together the story. Her senior year of high school, my mom was dumped by her longtime high school boyfriend Gene Lust. No, I did not make that up. His name was Gene Lust for real. She had hoped to marry him, and was heartbroken they were through.
She began dating a new fella, mostly to make Gene jealous (according to her sister)—a 24-year old high school dropout and full-time, gainfully employed plumber named Harlan. Her strict, well-to-do for Prairie City parents did not approve. So my mom had decided to break it off, but things got out of control during their last make-out session and whoops, they did it.
Getting pregnant in 1959 in rural Iowa generally meant one thing: Congratulations! You’re also getting married. Harlan the young plumber, mindful of doing the right thing, offered to marry her. But my mom’s parents rejected this offer. They forced her to carry the child in secret, and to give him up for adoption. My grandmother, who could at best be described as cold and judgmental, was furious at my mother, forcing her to hide inside for months and admonishing her daily with the directive to Never Speak a Word of This Awful Shame You Have Brought Upon Us. So it’s not a huge surprise that my mom met my dad six months after giving birth, married him six months later, and was pregnant with their first child two months after that. She wanted out. And she did want a family, but she wanted it on her own terms.
She never told a soul. Plenty of people in Prairie City, Iowa, knew. It’s small-town rural Iowa—something like that isn’t going to stay quiet for long. But no one in her new life with my father knew. She had moved all of 45 minutes away to a small town called Pleasantville, but it was far enough. No one knew, no one asked—she was Judi Galpin, no longer Schlosser, and the three kids she had with my father Norman (myself the youngest) were her own family now.
But she had done one weird, telling thing. She had named him Larry Duane Schlosser and put it on his birth certificate. She had given him her last name, and with that, a way of finding her. I don’t know why she did that, because in the end, she never answered Jay’s letter. He never got his chance to meet her, and then she died.
I know this because last August, my husband and I flew to Iowa and met Jay and his wife Renae. We met at a local sports bar, because although Iowa is beautiful, it’s also the land of breaded and fried everything with a side of blaring flat-screen TV. I was shaking in the car on the drive—my heart pounding. I was afraid to meet them, of what I can’t say. But when I saw Jay I burst into tears and we hugged each other immediately. He looks so much like my brother Jim and so also like me. He had the same jittery energy as my mother—some kind of manic gene handed down to all four of her children. He had questions. He had beautiful baby pictures of himself to share, plus pictures of his expanding family now that he’s a grandpa. He also had a sadness and anger he couldn’t quite hide. Why wouldn’t she meet him? Why?
This is the question that haunts us all. My mother loved her family—caring for her elderly aunts until their deaths, and even caring for her own mother, painfully but dutifully, until her death at 96, one year prior to the heart attack that would take her own life. She was ecstatic at becoming a grandmother, completely in love with my little girl Mona, and when she came for a two-week visit in the fall of 2013, I honestly didn’t want her to leave.
But she was already a grandmother—and a great-grandmother. A fact that she knew in 2012.
My brother Jim is still angry with her. He mostly just misses her, but is still having trouble processing why she wouldn’t have trusted us enough to tell us. How could someone as big hearted as she, someone who organized charity drives and was so involved with her family and friends … How could you not have answered him, Mom? How could you have lied to us for all those years?
Having your heart and mind constantly split between New York City and Iowa is a bit challenging sometimes. Last week I went to a birthday party for a dear, very fabulous friend held at her incredibly swanky apartment in Battery Park City. It was a pretty elite crowd even for NYC, a famous director or two, a newly elected politician, and many glamorous women of a certain age (provided that age is around 40). My friend is infamous for always throwing a party curveball, so she had a psychic/medium ensconced in a back room and we were all invited to have sessions with her. I immediately got in line for my turn. I don’t particularly believe in psychic abilities, but within five minutes of our reading, the medium was channeling my mother. The medium’s first words were “Wow. Your mom has a lot of energy … and she’s really pushy!” In that moment, I was pretty sold. So I asked her: Mom, why didn’t you tell us?
The medium said, and this is pretty close to verbatim: “Your mom wants you to know that she couldn’t tell you because it was just too painful. What happened was terrifying and painful. No one had ever told her what having the baby would be like. She had the baby in a hospital with doctors and nurses she’d never met before, who were cold and judgmental of her situation. She went into labor quickly and had no painkillers of any sort. It was painful, scary, she thought she was dying … and then he was born. She got to hold him for just a few seconds. Then they took him away and she was left in that room all by herself. Her milk came in and no one told her what to do. She was in pain, confused and she wanted to hold him but they had taken him away. She hated her parents for putting her through that. After she got home she just wanted to forget it had ever happened and wanted out from under their roof. She blocked it out; she never let herself ever think of it because it was just too painful. After she died she made sure you found the letter. She’s happy now that you’ve met and she’d like to know why you didn’t invite him to your Thanksgiving dinner this Saturday?”
So, again, I don’t really believe in psychics. Or even an after-life for that matter. But my mom had precipitous births each pregnancy, and there’s really no way the psychic could have known that—and I just held an early Thanksgiving dinner on Saturday, which she also could not have known. So I wanted badly to believe that somehow it was true. That somehow, my mother got this message to me.
Because when I imagine you, Mom, still just a kid yourself, cold, alone and frightened, having just given painful birth, with your first son in your arms for just a few seconds before they took him away? I understand, Mom. How a thing could be so painful that the only way to go forward is to just make yourself believe it didn’t happen.
I forgive you. I miss you. I promise to invite Jay and his family to Thanksgiving next year.