In the mantle space over the fake fireplace, where most people in the neighborhood would put their TV is the urn of mom’s ashes. Someday we’ll have to see about bringing them to a cemetery. But for now I like to look at them. She was homeless. I like to think that she’s home now. She’s with us. Next to the urn is a wooden plaque I had made up, with a black and white snapshot of her standing on the bank of a lake with a fishing pole in 1963 and she looks happy. The inscription is this thing from Robert Frost. It says:
"Home is that place where,
when you have to go there
They have to take you in."
Next to that is her wedding photo with Dad, looking like a young Al Pacino. He took the fishing pole picture with a Zeiss Ikon Twin Lens Reflex he bought in 1956 when he was a hot new photojournalist out of college. The old camera is upstairs on my bookcase. I like to look at that too.
There was a day, long ago, when I was watching a re run of the Twilight Zone. Mom came into the room and stood in front of the TV, which was annoying. She needed to talk. “Your father and I have made a decision. Just so you know. We’re getting divorced at the end of the month. You and David will stay with me. Your father is moving out.” Okay with me. I was fifteen years old.
This was the big news that I had feared and dreaded since I was a little kid. I’d actually had terrible nightmares about it. You love them both. You don’t want to hurt them by taking sides. So mom had made the decision for us and they were breaking up. I suppose it was one of those things that you see coming from a distance even when you’re a child, and when it happens, when the mushroom cloud finally flashes and blooms, somehow its not as bad as you thought it would be. But something happened. The trajectory of my life took a little jink sideways and then kept going that way. Though once a good student, I barely made it out of high school, I became a trouble maker. Mom died alone and insane. Dad died last November surrounded by friends, in the arms of a woman who loved him dearly. Gone, gone, all gone just the same.
Mom was crazy, mildly schizophrenic if there is such a thing as mildly. When its your mother, you don’t think she’s crazy, you think she’s normal. Just like when you’re a little kid you don’t know you’re poor, you think everybody eats oatmeal for dinner. Years later you start to figure it out. It scares you because you wonder if it can rub off on you, if crazy is contagious. I watch myself for signs of mental illness, but other than fiction writing my imagination seems benign. The problem is madness is transparent. A crazy person doesn’t know they’re crazy, refuses to believe it even when they’re being hauled off, or sleeping in a bus station like mom. They think the world is crazy. When its one of your own, its hard to be patient with them, because they disturb your plans.
When I moved out and Dave moved out, she was alone with the things in her head. She began her life of aimless traveling, chasing the ghosts in the fishing photo. She went back to Wyoming, to Rawlins, over and over even though she didn’t know anyone there anymore. When things got rough, she went to Atlanta to stay with her sister Joyce, who was not crazy. She would show up, and Joyce would take her in. After a while, they would quarrel and accuse and Mom would hit the road for Wyoming again. The ghosts were calling her there, the ghost of herself with the fishing pole, and Dad coming home at night, tired hungry and horny, and me at the kitchen table with my school books and a glass of Bosco. She was a home maker, a mother of boys, somebody’s red hot woman and sometimes a catcher of fish. The vital center of a world where people loved her and needed a piece of her magic and she needed our love to keep the evil ghosts in her head at bay. Where do the magicians go when they die?
If I were God, I would do a better job. The search for God has been the core of my life, since about the time my parents got divorced. I’ve chased my ghosts too, and haven’t had much luck. Ghosts will eat you alive if you let them. Mom let them.
For the time being, I’m not much impressed with God. I would have done things differently. In my world people would have what they want. Everyone would feel valuable. No one would be haunted. I don’t think I believe in Heaven, but if there is, if it were up to me, the magician would be there with the good ghosts that lived in her head. With her fishing pole, her two boys and her man, surrounded by love. Forever at home.