I don't know very much about how my mom grew up. She rarely ever talks about her childhood, and the few times I've dared to ask, have sent her into a devastating tailspin.
I don't ask anymore. Questions cause too many consequences.
She's from somewhere out in Tennessee. A ranch just outside Nashville, I think. She has a younger sister named Becca who she hasn't seen or spoken to since she was eighteen and left home. She won't tell me why. The only thing I've ever been able to get out of her was that her sister cut her out of her life, and wants nothing to do with her. Both her parents have passed away. She refuses to talk about her father and I know only the flimsiest details about her mother. Her life is a mysterious black hole to me.
I know something happened to her, something so horrible and frightening, she falls apart if the subject of her past is ever mentioned.
She's terrified of me leaving her. She's constantly making me promise I never will. I don't know where she's afraid I will go. I tell her over and over I won't, trying desperately to keep her from the next blackout. The addiction holds me captive, just as much as her.
The irony is that she's always leaving me. I have an invisible shell for a mother. The alcohol has gutted everything out of her. I've always felt too guilty to even think about leaving. What would my mom do? Who would take care of her? What if she couldn't make it? With my dad hiding at work all the time, my mom has no one.
I never realized the day would come when I would break my promise to her.
I found the letters by accident. My mom was passed out in her room and I was hiding her car keys in the locked drawer of my dad's study. We have a secret agreement to put them in the cigar box he keeps at the bottom of the drawer. I hide them so she won't sneak out to buy more vodka.
She thinks she's fooling us by putting it in water bottles or a thermos or taping a spare bottle under the toilet tank and behind the couch. She thinks I can't smell it on her, but I can. The alcohol oozes from her pores, her breath, her hair. I swear even her shadow is drunk. The stench covers every wall in our home.
When I unlock and open the desk drawer, I'm surprised to find a stack of letters bound in a rubber band on top of the box we normally hide the keys in. Confused, I stare down at them a moment. How come they're in here? Had my dad left them for me? Why would he do that?
As I pull out the envelopes, I suck in my breath and stare in complete shock at the name on the return address. Becca Ryan. My mom's sister. My aunt.
Lightheaded and dizzy, I sink weakly down to my knees on the floor, the stack of letters clutched in my lap. My hands are trembling as I remove the rubber band and flip through the envelopes. There have to be hundreds of them. The postmarks go back at least twenty years. They've all been opened and read. She's been writing to us all this time? But, that doesn't make any sense. My mom said Becca wanted nothing to do with us. Why would she contact us?
Quickly opening one, I frantically skim the pages. It was written three years ago. She writes of the death of their mother. My grandmother, I realize. Lily Mason. She'd been in a care home since the progression of Alzheimer's and had died of pneumonia. Becca writes of how much she misses my mom, how much she loves her, and hopes they can finally speak one day.
My gaze falls on a manilla envelope from a law firm in Tennessee. Pulling it out from the stack, I open it and see it's been notarized. As I scan the paperwork, I realize it's a deed to the ranch. My mom's signature was at the bottom alongside Becca's. We'd inherited the ranch in Tennessee? I never knew about any of this. Why wouldn't my mom tell me? Why have we never been there?
Another letter tells of Becca getting married to Ben Ryan and she sent a photo of their wedding. They had been married on the ranch twelve years ago. The wedding took place outside, under a canopy of thick oak trees. Mesmerized, I stare down at the picture of my aunt, beautiful and smiling, in flowing, filmy white, and my uncle, tall and handsome, in his tuxedo. They look so happy. So normal. They look like people I would want to know. My aunt looks like my mom, like me. It's an odd sensation to recognize so much of myself in someone I've never met.
Time seems to slow to a stop as I open every letter, read every word, and realize everything my mom ever told me about her sister and her past, was a complete and total lie.
The pages are soft, worn, creased, some of the words blurred, smeared, and stained, as if tears had fallen on them or from fingerprints holding and reading them over and over and over. My mom's eyes and hands and tears. Folded and refolded. Again and again and again. She had known about these for years. And each time, she'd made a choice not to tell me.
They even smell like her. Desperation, vodka, cherry almond lotion, fear, and loneliness. Of family history and the past and childhood secrets.
A jolt goes through me when I pick up a pink envelope and see my name on it. Checking the postmark, I see it's recent, dated only a few weeks ago. The seal is cut. My mom had read this one, too, I realize. She hadn't said a word and deliberately kept it from me.
Anger and betrayal surge through me, churning my stomach. I bite my lip to keep from screaming out in frustration. Not that it would matter. She won't hear me. She never does. She's not even conscious.
Opening it, I find a birthday card Becca had sent for my eighteenth birthday. I had no idea she even knew. She tells me how much she wishes she could say happy birthday in person, but she hopes I know she is thinking of me on such an important day. She writes of life on the ranch, the abandoned, abused horses they help rescue and take care of, how beautiful the land is. She'd included pictures and I flip through snapshots of lush, green pastures, the old white farmhouse, the stables, and the barn.
She ends the letter by telling me she would love to get to know me and hopes one day I will come to see her. She signed it, "Aunt Becca".
Tears blur my eyes and spill hotly down my cheeks, onto my hands and arms, and the pile of letters and lies still in my lap. I sit on the floor, holding the card close against my heart, and cry quietly as the last of the daylight fades.
My mind is reeling. How come I have never seen these letters? Why has my mom never shown them to me? What happened out on that ranch that made my mom want to leave and never speak to her family again? Why has she lied all this time?
I realize my dad must have put the letters here for me. He's the only one who knows about our hiding place. Does he understand what he just gave me? Does he know the door he just opened? I have so many questions that I'm terrified to ask. I already know what it's going to do to my mom when she finds out I've discovered her lies about her past and her family. All hell will break loose.
Becca sounds nothing like my mom said she was. She sounds beautiful and kind and loving. Nothing is matching up with the scattered bits and pieces I've been told. She's written to my mom for years. She's sent pictures and postcards. She hasn't missed one holiday, anniversary, or birthday. She's waited for her, for all of us. She still is.
As the reality starts to sink in, it dawns on me that there is barely any mention of their father. Only a small, short sentence telling of his death fifteen years before. I can't find any other information on what happened to him. It's as if the subject of him is too dangerous and traumatic and volatile, off-limits and painful. Cursed. Excluding him from the letters feels deliberate somehow, hushed, shrouded in shame and secrecy, as if neither of them dares speak of him. But I can't figure out why.
No wonder my mom has dreaded this. She must have known there would be a day when I would want to know the truth. Discovering the letters has made me even more determined to find out what happened to her. And maybe, even more than me leaving her, she's feared that most of all.