Acts of Faith
I had always suspected that I was a love child but I didn’t find out for sure until my aunt told me at my grandmother’s funeral fifteen years ago. At first the thought thrilled me. Rather than being conceived in the marriage bed, I was the product of a wild and unruly passion. My accidental conception was the lost puzzle piece in what I already knew about my mom. I’d always suspected there was a missing element to her story. I knew about her early life, that her father drank, that her mother was often depressed, that there was never much money. At ten, looking for a better life, she’d gone alone to the church around the corner. This was where my father, the minister’s son, first saw her, sitting by herself in the pew. They began dating nine years later.
By that time my mother was coming off an illustrious career as a local glamour girl. She had been Tulip Queen, Miss Albany, runner up in the Miss New York State Pageant. She had a weekly radio show where she talked about fashion and was a mainstay at the local department store fashion shows Saturday afternoons. In the spring of 1961, though, her life had stalled out. She was still living at home, working at the phone company. A serious relationship with a Catholic man her parents disapproved of had broken off. By the time she started to go out with my dad she was in a holding pattern.
My father filled me in on what happened next. Though my parents had long been contentiously divorced, his voice was raw with tenderness. He had been madly in love with my mother. He’d pestered her for months before she finally agreed to go out with him that spring. By the time he went back to seminary at the end of the summer, she was pregnant. He’d been at school only a few weeks when she told him the news. He took a bus back to Albany and married my mother in front of a justice of the peace. Keeping the marriage and pregnancy a secret, he went back to seminary and she to her parent’s house. During these months, my father told me, my mother had terrible morning sickness and was worried about the future. At Christmas, when he came home on break, they told their parents. Both sets were unhappy; my mother’s were devastated. A second wedding was hastily arranged at my grandfather’s church. The photo I’d seen showed my parents against a painted cement block wall, my father in his black shirt and white clerical collar and my mother in a brown everyday dress. Their smiles are wide but their eyes anxious.
Getting pregnant with me sealed my mother’s fate. She had my younger brother David thirteen months after I was born. At first my mother worked at being a responsible mother and a cheerful pastor’s wife. She baked birthday cakes for Jesus and took us to free cultural events. Eventually though, endless moves, little money and having to share her husband with a congregation of seventy-five wore on her. My first memory of my mother as a person separate from my self was seeing her in her nightgown sitting on the floor beside a box of old love letters, crying.
Her sadness grew worse through out my childhood; it was not unusual to find her, when I got home from school, gazing red-eyed out the window. In my teen years her melancholy turned to misery. My parents had never been well-matched. My mother wanted an upper-middle-class life, not the rag-tag bohemian one she found herself in. She was angry my dad did not make enough money. She stomped around the house in her bathrobe, exhausted by her own repressed rage. When my father tried to talk to her about anything serious—her weight, her depression, his own unhappiness—she got hysterical and would rush out of the house, staying away for hours.
Once Dad left, her temperament grew darker still. While there was never a single breakdown, over the years she turned slowly away from the light. She became obsessed with rabid dogs, vicious dolphins, flesh-eating viruses, earthquakes and tsunamis. She even talked about a murderer who had cut out, cooked, and ate his victim’s heart.
By the time I discovered the details around my conception and my parent’s hasty marriage I was a mother myself. I had my daughter Abbie at thirty-three. She was longed for, waited for, and when she arrived I was ecstatic. Her birth was painful, quick, and fantastic.
I like to think I am different than my mother; I did not succumb to a fate outside my choosing. But if I am honest, I have to admit that while my daughter was not an accident, I also had an unplanned pregnancy in my early twenties, and that the situation was very similar to my mom’s. After a junior year abroad I worked at a restaurant on Ocracoke Island in North Carolina. I had just broken up with my boyfriend, a charming Irish actor. I was sad, floating, confused about what to do next. I fell into a rebound relationship with the restaurant bartender and got pregnant. I did not love the bartender and I was in no way ready to be a mother.
I didn’t tell my mother about my predicament or my subsequent abortion. Any hint of my sexual activity was forbidden. My mother’s worst fear was that I would get pregnant. While dropping me off at college and helping me unpack, she’d found my diaphragm in a box and had rushed out of my dorm room without even saying goodbye. At the time I thought she was prudish, uncomfortable talking about sex, but I know now that the stakes were higher; she wanted my life to be different.
It haunts me that I didn’t have to follow through with my unplanned pregnancy, while my mother felt forced to. If it hadn’t been for me, would she have married a man more compatible, finished college, been happy? All these questions have worried me intermittently, none more than whether she blamed me for the trajectory of her life. During my parents’ divorce, she told me more than once that she would not have had children if she’d known that my dad would leave her. Even twenty-five years after the divorce, the wound was still raw, the blood uncongealed. She’d rant about what a terrible person my father was, how us kids abandoned her. Every conversation had only one trajectory—down into darkness and down further into hell.
Her negativity got in the way of my thanking her. Each time I saw her, whether at the train station where I’d meet her when she’d visit, or at the door of her little house in Albany, I’d take in her tall frame, long grey hair held back elegantly with combs, her serious, intelligent face. I’ll tell her this time, I’d think to myself, this time I’ll thank her for not aborting me, for taking the leap of faith that led to my birth. But always within a few minutes of our meeting, she’d say my boots were clunky and that I had a bad haircut. She’d tell me she had two subjects she wanted to discuss: serial killers and brain-eating amoebas, and then launch into an anecdote about a cat that ate its owner’s toe off. I’d protest, saying the story disturbed me, but she’d insist that the story had a happy ending. The toe, it turned out, had been cancerous.
My mother died in January. The police found her lying dead of a heart attack on her living-room floor. I never did get up the courage to thank her. If I’m honest with myself, it’s not only because of her fury. I also wanted a certain kind of scene. Cue the soft music. I thank her. She embraces me and says she loves me and that it was all worth it, that she wouldn’t have changed a thing. But from everything I know about her disappointment and bitterness, there was a strong chance that, rather than affirm my existence, she would have only regret.
Now that she’s gone I’ll never know, but maybe that’s just as well. I use to have fantasies that my mother was in a coma, unable to speak, and I’d sit beside her. Holding her cool hand in my warm one, I’d stroke her hair and slip ice chips between her lips. I’d stay with her all through the dark night, mesmerized by her beautiful, peaceful face. With her rage dormant I could love her the way I always longed to. Her being dead is a little like that; I have her silent form always before me so I can love her fiercely without her misery getting between us. If I had thanked her and been rebuffed, I don’t think I could have held on to my intense love for her. Though maybe I am wrong; maybe I’d be even more lovesick.
Darcey Steinke is the author of the memoir Easter Everywhere (Bloomsbury 2007, A New York Times Notable book) and the novels Milk (Bloomsbury 2005), Jesus Saves (Grove/Atlantic, 1997), Suicide Blonde (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1992), and Up Through the Water (Doubleday, 1989, A New York Times Notable book). Her new novel, Sister Golden Hair, will come out in Fall 2014 from Tin House. With Rick Moody, she edited Joyful Noise: The New Testament Revisited(Little, Brown 1997). Her books have been translated into ten languages, and her nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Boston Review, Vogue, Spin Magazine, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and The Guardian. Her web-story "Blindspot" was a part of the 2000 Whitney Biennial. She has been both a Henry Hoyns and a Stegner Fellow and Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi, and has taught at the Columbia University School of the Arts, Barnard, The American University of Paris, and Princeton.