Loss In a photo from 1984, a mother with large glasses rests her chin on the shoulder of her young pigtailed daughter, looking at her warmly

Published on January 25th, 2022 | by Anna Villegas


A Long, Long Way from Home

When you grow up with a dead mother, a mother with no home in your memory because you were four days old on the last day she held you against her breast, you never genuinely learn to claim your place in the world. Only once, your father tells you that your mother, a stunning Greek goddess herself, explained to him that the dimples on the cheeks of your fat baby face were carved by the Gods.

The Gods abandon you thereafter. Of course you cannot remember your toddler years, but the emotional cast of your childhood is sculpted as deftly as the dimples on your cheeks, still evident at sixty-eight years. Sixty-eight is thirty more years than your mother managed to live. So you are grateful for that gift of fate, even as the conviction that you do not belong in this world deepens.

You don’t mistake your emotional alienation from the madding crowd as suicidal ideation. It is not. You don’t crave oblivion, although for some years before menopause afflicts you with insomnia, you do relish your sleep. You understand that what displaces you from full citizenship on the earth is the loss of an attachment you never had.  Your father, the widower, expressed to you his own grief, less consciously life-threatening: He confessed that once, driving up the 101 on the California coast while you wailed in your basket in the back seat, he’d wished that his parachute had not deployed in 1943 when his bomber was shot down over the Ploesti Oil Field. His wish, granted, would have erased his marriage and you. What you suffer, what calcifies as your bones do, is the loss of something you never had, a paradox but not a mystery.

A photo from the 1940s depicts a woman in a polka dot skirt and coordinated blazer looking at a man in a military uniform. They are seated on a lawn chair in a fenced yard.

For most of your young life, you tightrope the circumference of your social groups. You watch from afar without engagement. Oh, you don’t lack the social graces; you just pretend the comfort others claim as a birthright.  That you belong in the world is a pretense, but one at which you become expert. Motherless from birth, you are unanchored. Unanchored, you become a chameleon at feigning trust in attachments. You marvel at the sturdiness of those lucky fools who take their mothers for granted, those for whom a mother’s presence leavens existence with an unconscious sureness. As they begin to age and their mothers to die, your acquaintances receive letters of condolence, letters fraught with your own grief, a grief you will never know but know already, a lifelong grief laced with longing and despair.

Unremarkable moments in the ordinary lives of those you observe captivate you: the little boy half asleep on his mother’s shoulder in line at the 7-Eleven, the CNN host who pays tribute to his much-loved mother on Mother’s Day, even the coworker who struggles with the care and placement of her demented mom. These attachments and their eventual breakage will never be yours, so you study them with envy in your atrophied heart. You marvel at the sureness of those who have slept in their mothers’ laps, even those whose monumental grief at the loss of an aged mother cannot measure up to your loss, the loss of a mother you never had.

In a photo from 1990, a mother with large glasses, tank top, and shorts, crouches behind her young daughter, who smiles at the camera and holds a small furry dog.

You give up your seat on the subway or in the waiting room; you rebuff offers of help; you expect that, in the end, things will not turn out all right.  Only one person on earth recognizes how you make yourself small, how you don’t take up space, even the space you have earned. Your daughter tells you firmly, take your place. You want to please her because she is the love of your life, so you try.

Trying doesn’t make it so.

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About the Author

For forty-one years, Anna Villegas happily taught college English in the San Joaquin Valley.  Her published work includes many short stories, essays, poems, newspaper columns, and three novels.  She lives in Nevada City, California, where five generations of family ghosts inspire her writing.

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