When Mum Left Home…
Diane Danvers Simmons was a carefree teen until her mother made a life shattering decision.
My mum was larger than life, a 4ft 11in Irish pistol who could cut you in two with a lash of her tongue, and in her next breath, charm you with her hospitality. She thrived on being the center of attention. In her mid 40s, she was a divorced mother of two when she unexpectedly fell pregnant and married dad, a dapper 60. In addition to her kids, she became a stepmother to his teen daughter, and within months a new baby – me.
It can’t have been easy to juggle her blended family. But she coped with it all until one Friday afternoon, a week after my 16th birthday, Mum told me she was leaving my father and me the next day. At age 60, she was moving directly next door into a house she’d bought a few years earlier to live with the three hot college lads she’d been renting it to. Looking back, I think the purchase – which she’d made without discussing with my dad – was part of her exit plan.
Mum said bluntly that I was ‘big and ugly enough’ to take care of Dad, the dog and myself. While that sounded hurtful, her endearing manner and wry smile told me she believed I could cope without her, or so she hoped – giving her the justified excuse to leave.
She craved independence, while Dad was a traditionalist. Their relationship was indifferent and if I’m honest, loveless. Between the arguments, threats to leave and mood swings, the marriage was over long before I had a clue. In the meantime, Mum’s temper flared more frequently, and I felt I was dodging bullets. My brother and I would ponder, ‘Whose turn is it to be in the doghouse?’
Yet even on the night she told me she was going; I didn’t believe she’d go through with it. But the next day I came home from my Saturday job to an empty house: no note, no number – no Mum. She’d really gone and done it. Scared and confused, I plucked up the courage to walk from the blue door of No. 49 to knock on the green door at No. 47 for answers.
Ushering me in with no sign of remorse or affection, Mum proclaimed, ‘I’ve already given you and your father 16 years of my life, and I’m done.’ She wanted her freedom back, without the encumbrance of an aging husband, or of me, her youngest child. Mum grew up in a repressive patriarchal, Irish Catholic society, weighed down with dogma and discipline. In retrospect I can see her choice for personal liberation reflected the push for freedom that was part of the 1970s women’s movement. But it felt like a hammer blow to my heart. My mother abandoned me without a qualm when I most needed her. Worst of all, she hadn’t told my father. That was left to me.
Having to tell him was my tipping point. It formed a bond between us, at a time when my relationship with Mum felt irrevocably broken. Overnight, I became the impromptu caretaker, family diplomat and cook – while Dad made breakfast, he rarely prepared an evening meal. Meanwhile my mum was having fun. As a teen, wasn’t a carefree life meant to be my role?
I couldn’t hide or run from my pain. Mother had chosen not to take me and her behavior was continually shoved in my face. I visited her most days, but her attention was focused on her needs and taking care of the boys, as if they were her family. She was so unapologetic about her new life that I felt I was unreasonable to question why she wanted to look after other people, but not her own family.
It was oddly uncomfortable that she lived next door. Mum was close enough to keep an eye on me, but far enough away to avoid dealing with day-to-day problems. It was as if she was monitoring our lives. Her being so near didn’t allow either of my parents to move on. Dad had admirers but made it clear that no one took the place of his daughters. Mum admitted she’d met a man on a cruise, but declared, ‘I’m done with men, telling me what I can and can’t do.’
Despite my conflicted feelings, I had to admit that Mum was swiftly transforming into the woman she wanted to be. She reclaimed her old audacious self. When and the college boys with never-before heard stories she hadn’t dared disclose in front of my father. Nothing shocked her and no topic was off the table.
She felt she’d missed out on so many dreams, and pushed me to follow my own. I had no choice, but to accept our unconventional situation, I kept it private, only sharing the grief with my best friend. Standing in the crossfire between two houses, I vowed never to do to my own children what my mother had done to me. But decades later, when my own daughter turned 16, I realized there were now parallels between us. I too had left my motherland for a fresh start and was the mother of a blended family: a teenage daughter and son of my own, and an older stepdaughter and son from my husband’s first marriage. As a stepmother, you’re always first in the firing line and I knew how quickly ‘blended’ can become broken.
While I couldn’t change the past, I understood the importance of listening to my children, and to be sure that they were a part of decisions that impacted them. My childhood shaped the person I am today. After my mother left, I went from child to adult in a heartbeat. Dad died of cancer, Mum died at 89, about 15 years ago. And now, sifting through the memories, I have come to a newfound appreciation of her.
We should not judge our mothers by the worst things they’ve done, but by the good. Maybe it’s my rose-colored glasses but I believe she felt being a mother next door would alleviate the friction within our family. Facing up to both my mothers and my past has been and continues to be an extraordinary journey, which has enabled me to feel a deeper level of compassion, understanding and even admiration.
What I know for sure; is that our mothers are human and flawed like the rest of us, but for all the pain mine caused; she gave me the gifts of resilience, curiosity, determination, and the courage to write my own story. Today I can honestly say that I love my life. And as, my idol, Diana Ross, whose music got me through those early years would sing, ‘I wouldn’t change a thing. Here I am, here I‘ll stay.”
May your heart, mind, and life always remain open to this crazy world and the people who brought you into it.
My Mother Next Door
by Diane Danvers Simmons
(available everywhere in print, digital and audio books )