When she was pregnant with my sister and I, my father spent a lot of time away from the house.
He worked long hours, and my mother stayed at home; that was her place as his housewife.
One night, he came home late from a bar, and my mother, ever strong and sassy, confronted him. Why couldn’t he have invited her along?
She wanted to get out of the house, too. She missed socializing, and the simple company of others.
In response, my father sat on her chest and slapped her, hard as he could, across the face, more times than she can remember.
She was hospitalized. There were broken bones in her face, bruises on both cheeks, the marks of a deranged and controlling man.
She didn’t press charges, though the police were sympathetic to her situation. They lived in Virginia, near to his family and far from hers.
There was no support for her there, and she was embarrassed to have courted a man for close to 10 years, secured him in marriage even though he kept a woman in every city he traveled to for business and then carried his children.
Escape came later, after I was born, and after my twin sister died by umbilical cord strangulation.
We fled in the middle of the day, when he was at work, and later, she served him divorce papers from the safety of her parents’ house in New Hampshire.
She was a high school graduate who married young, and was divorced by 25.
This was her first love, a man I never knew, and when he left, she fell for the charms of the handsome man across the street, a serial bachelor with a high-paying job in engineering and enough charm to seduce and abuse a vulnerable divorcée.
When it came to their own divorce, he fought it, using every weapon in his arsenal to drag it out and complicate matters.
However, the judge presiding over their case could see the tension in his jaw when matters of the court did not reflect well on him, and the divorce finally went through, with a cash bonus of many thousands of dollars for my mother.
She used it to buy the house I grew up in, the house we lived in all my life.
One day he came to that house and demanded his parental rights. He was going to take me away somewhere, and he made an attempt to do so.
My mother called the police and he was intercepted. I was returned to my mother and he was kept in custody overnight.
After that, she filed a restraining order, which she keeps up-to-date to this day, nearly 25 years after their divorce.
I never knew any of this until I was grown. She retained sole custody of me, but believed that I deserved to know my father, and to make my own decision about what our relationship might be.
I remember very little of my childhood visits with him: sleeping in the basement of the house he shared with his girlfriend instead of the guest room — presumably so they could have sex without being overheard.
I was afraid of the hot water heater, of the dark, of being kept so far away from a parent who was supposed to love me.
I remember playing in the woods behind that house by myself for hours, venturing further and further into the twisted trees that grow near the ocean, even then wondering why I was allowed such freedom when my age was still in the single digits.
I remember not being able to sleep, and being forced to march around the room or stand in a corner until I was too tired to stand.
Mostly, I remember returning to my mother and hugging her tightly, feeling like I was home again.
Teenage years are a complicated time for every mother and daughter, but more so for a woman parenting almost completely on her own.
She taught me to be strong in my convictions; I used that advice to undermine her every rule.
She taught me not to stand for abuse of any kind; when she slapped my face (only once, and for being blatantly, obstinately rude), I slapped her back.
These were the difficult years and out of desperation, a need for a break and to regain her motherly sanity, she sent me to live with my father for about five months during my senior year.
I hated her. I didn’t understand what could possibly drive a mother to seemingly disown her child, and I grieved every day I lived with my father.
What I did not understand until later was that she made the decision out of love, to keep me from the toxicity that had built up around us, and that she whole-heartedly believed my father — in his quest to be the “better parent” in my eyes — would do a passable job of raising me.
After all, I was nearly grown. What harm could be done?
Then he hit me, over something as trivial as a phone call. When I pushed his hand aside to answer a call that I knew was for me, he punched me on the side of my knee, leaving a bruise that lingered for weeks.
That night, I told my mother what had happened, probably to strike out at her, and punish her for abandoning me.
She vowed that I would never go back to his house again, and I never did, except to collect my things with my mother by my side.
We went while he was at work, a mirror image of the day we escaped, and we never returned again.
A year later, I confronted him about the abuse he had committed against me, my mother and the other women he dated, many of whom had taken out restraining orders of their own.
He had beaten them, raped them, cut them down with vicious words and refused to apologize, even as his only daughter was giving him the opportunity to do so.
I never saw him again after that day in April 2007, eight years ago now. The first phone call I made after deciding to become a fatherless daughter was to my mother, who let me grieve the loss without a word of disapproval or anger against him.
And now I’m 26, treading water in a sea of mental illness that has yet to be properly medicated.
It’s hard to work, to make it through a day without needing a nap, to go to the grocery store without popping a Klonopin first, to appease my anxiety.
Apart from my husband, my biggest supporter is my mother. She listened as I explained what drove me to self-harm, asking what it felt like, never burdening me with shame.
She gathers all the information she can about bipolar disorder, the “bug in my brain,” as I call it, and offers up every manner of love that a mother can.
Even when she gives advice, she lets me know I can always tell her to “shut the f*ck up” (always with laughter in her voice, always with the understanding that she can never fully understand what my days are like).
When I oppose her suggestions, she accepts what I say with grace.
All mothers and daughters have their own stories, most of them less peppered with turmoil and pain than ours. But that’s not what I remember about my childhood.
I remember Easter morning scavenger hunts, each plastic egg containing a clue as to where the next would be found.
I remember going to Disney World and riding all the roller coasters together, in spite of her fear of them.
I remember her telling me nearly every day that she knew I would be a writer, that I would publish many books and make a difference with my words. That one’s not hard to recall; she does it even now.
I wouldn’t change our story for the world, in spite of the potholes we bumped and sloshed our way through.
We made the journey together, me and my mom. She is my rescuer, my protector, my confidante, my safety net, my teacher and now my friend.
This Mother’s Day, she’ll fly out to see me and her “grand-kittens” in the first apartment I’ve selected to share with my husband, and I’ll be overjoyed to show her the home I’ve made.
But I’ll also remember her in June on Father’s Day, when I send her a card and some token of love to thank her for being two parents in one, something only the greatest of mothers can do.