Fall 2019 Contest Nonfiction Winner: Mother and the Heart Stones

My mother used to read to me when I was little, mostly at bedtime but sometimes in the afternoons on the couch. My favorite thing was climbing up into her lap with a book. Back then, she was always above me. She’d take the book I’d come with and hold it out in front of us. I remember the way the light came in from the balcony. With her arms around me, it felt as if I was wearing the warmth of her body, as if her beautiful face above me was mine.

I wasn’t going to write about my mother today, except I came across this line by Neem Karoli Baba: “Never put anyone out of your heart.” And I thought, yes, of course, my mother has always been there, in my heart, even after she left me in the middle of the night when I was six. But sometimes I feel my heart is a stone in my chest, and my mother is cemented there.

*

I’ll be 46 soon. I live in Hermosa Beach and often walk with the man in my life down the long strip of sand, picking up shells and stones, stones good for skipping across the sea, stones good for sinking to the bottom of the ocean floor. Let me fill my pockets and sink.

A few weeks after one of our walks, I ask the man in my life if we have stones lying around the house somewhere. I know we had brought some up from the beach but didn’t know where they had gone.

“I put some in a bucket, out on the balcony,” he says.

My mind immediately conjures the image of the stones of my youth back in Hawai’i: black and volcanic, worn smooth by the waves, the constant motion of the sea, the endless tumbling of stone upon stone, heart over heart.

“Be careful. There may be spiders,” he adds, as I step outside.

I’ve seen the spiders he’s warning me of, red brands on their backs, legs like the ends of pick axes.

On the balcony, I find it’s not a bucket, but a clay pot for plants, and he’s placed shells on top – tulip, conch, sand dollar and sea urchin. Gingerly, I move the shells so not to break them and finally unveil several stones underneath. They are damp and sandy, made of lime stone and sandstone, nothing like the black basalt stones of my youth. I lay them out on the grated seat of a nearby chair. I dust off the sand clinging to their sides.

When I look down at the stones, they resemble the shape of a heart, but broken into pieces. Humpty fucking dumpty, we can’t put this back together again. I leave them out on the patio chair to air dry. I’m not exactly sure why I wanted them, and so I leave them. And now I remember the stones are four, and my mother had four children, and we’re all flung apart. There are four stones for the four chambers of the heart, but these stones are broken and scattered. She wanted them, but she left them. Sink or swim.

*

Later, I go back out to check on the stones, touch them and see that they’re warm, inspect them to see if they need washing. One is browner than the rest. It is this third stone I worry over. It is over this third child that my mother and I last fought, the stone my mother birthed while she was in prison, back behind bars because a man got her strung out on drugs, got her strung out on him.

My mother had been in and out of prison all my life. I imagined her locked up, this time with the big belly of pregnancy. After the baby was born, it was taken from my mother’s arms and sent to live with a relative, any relative who would take her. It happened to be our maternal grandmother. But, later, the child was taken by her father, molested by her father. Then the father died of drug overdose. By the time of his death, my mother was out of prison and had a fourth stone, this one her only son, and she had no place for the third stone. I was horrified she’d let this stone sink, into a stranger’s home rather than claim her as her own.

*

I haven’t yet had children myself. Perhaps it’s too late. Maybe that’s why I place the four stones on my desk, nestled in a brown baby’s washcloth. Some days, I caress their cool surface and wonder where the others are and hope they’re okay. I hold them in my heart even though we’re flung apart. I wonder if one day we’ll be reunited in a way I cannot yet imagine.

On a Sunday, I walk out on the beach with the man in my life. He finds a stone and picks it up. “You want to add this one to your collection?”

I realize he’s seen the cluster I keep near me as I work. He doesn’t understand what they’ve come to represent, but it dawns on me that this one could be the mother of my assembled stone family.

I haven’t spoken to my mother in over 20 years now. Thirteen years ago, I heard from a relative that my maternal grandmother had died, and my mother had done something to get herself thrown back in jail, which meant she had to leave her fourth stone, at least for a time. 

I take the stone the man in my life presents to me and lay it back on the sand. He knows about my mother, that she’s spent time in prison and that I don’t speak to her anymore. But as a man who’s always had his mother’s love and takes her to dinner every Sunday, he doesn’t need to know all the details of how I left mine, how I imagine leaving her again, there on the shore, as we walk away. 

*

I was 26 when my mother started calling me on a weekly basis to tell me about her life, how she was buying a condo, how she was trying to study to be medical coder, how she could do this type of work from home. “Aren’t you proud of Mama?”

I told her I was. But she never asked about my life. And all of this could have been just fine. We could have gone on in this way for quite a while, except one day, she told me the third stone had rolled up on shore.

This third stone, her namesake, the one she birthed in prison, the one that came after me, when I presumed no more children would come. The third stone needed a home; her child needed a home. That the child had been molested by her father, my mother considered ugly.

“I don’t want to bring that kind of thing into my home,” she said.

And I couldn’t help but be triggered because I’d been molested, too, during my mother’s neglect. I held my anger under the stone of my heart and let her go on: “I know the kind of thing that can bring, and I don’t want to expose my son to it.”

What kind of thing? I wondered. She seemed to be implying that a molested nine-year-old would drag lasciviousness right through her front door. Her backwards way of thinking made me wonder at something I had always suspected: maybe my mother had been molested as a child. Perhaps she was judging her own past and not the child?

Whatever the case, her precious fourth stone couldn’t be tainted by the other stones she had cast out to sea.

“Isn’t there a way you could take her in?” I pressed.

“No. But I’ll always be here for her. She can always call her mama,” she said.

Like I called her? I never did. She was the one trying to build a relationship, trying to get me to step into my old role of mothering her, yet when I spoke to her, all I wanted was a mother myself. Distraught, I had the urge to set the receiver down into its cradle and back away from the phone. It felt like she was leaving me all over again. I wondered what justifications she made when it had been me. I have an important man in my life. This child can always find me later. I’m her mama, as if that meant something.

“Can’t you just take her for a little while?” I asked, thinking her heart would warm to her own daughter once she was there. But she couldn’t be convinced, and I saw then how fixed she was in her course of action. Even after she’d been sent to prison, even after she’d supposedly been rehabilitated and let out on “good behavior,” she couldn’t be persuaded to see things another way. There was only her way and it was this: she wouldn’t take the child.

She would either have the child sent to live with her mother (our grandmother, who was still alive at the time) or sent to live with the father’s mother—and there was the third option of foster care.

I was disappointed in her choices, disappointed she was being selfish or judgmental of a child who had done nothing but been born into a world in which she’d have to stone her heart to a father who would molest her and a mother who would give her up, not once but twice.

“Where do you think I should send her?” my mother asked.

I thought about the mother who had made my mother. All I remembered of my grandmother was her quick hands that liked to slap mine and how she liked to play favorites, doting all her affection on the grandchild she deemed best, and so I said, maybe the father’s mother. But on the phone, I hadn’t had time to consider the type of mother who would make a man capable of molesting his own daughter. I resented my mother for pressing me for an opinion; resented her for not taking her child, which I had made in my mind to be me.

*

There was also the other option, the one I never voiced, although I had thought it: I will take her. I will take the child. I will cherish the child. Although I did not say it, I thought it. And maybe I made justifications no better than my mother’s – how am I equipped to take a child, my mother’s daughter? At 26, I didn’t feel mature enough. Hell, I didn’t have my shit together. Every sick day taken off from work was because I was strung out over some guy. Once I followed a guy to a construction site because we had fought all night and now the only way to make-up was to stay plastered against him the next day.

I was no woman to model oneself after. In many ways, I had ended up being just like my mother. And in this one way, I could never be like her: abandoning a child. Except by trying to avoid it, perhaps I had done just that.

I was the second stone, the one I thought my mother would love because she read me books, because I felt her face was mine, because she called me precious, like a gem she would always treasure. 

At 26, I was barely making it, some nights lying with my back against a dinghy carpet in a bare living room because I couldn’t afford furniture, staring up at the ceiling, feeling nothing but the cold stone in my chest.

I was not the one to take the child. I was just a stone not good enough to keep.

*

When my mother called back a couple days later, I was in a Brentwood boutique looking at things I had no plan of buying; everything carried too high a price tag.

I answered my cell and walked out of the store, walked out into the dreary shadow of an overcast day. I knew I was being cold and distant. All the things I should tell her stuck there in my throat.

“What’s wrong? You mad at Mama?” she said.

And the way she asked the question made me feel like I was six again. I thought of all the grievances I could lay at her feet: letting my older sister get carted off by Child Protective Services; abandoning me in the middle of the night to chase after some ne’er-do-well; leaving her third daughter to a drug-addled father who would molest her, then sending her off to live with that man’s mother. And the fourth stone not yet left but one day would be.

All of us hunger for a mother’s love. I can never know for sure, but I suspect my mother longed, too, for a mother she never had. She wouldn’t tell me this, but it’s just something I intuit. All of this to say I think my mother did the best she could. She carried us for as long as her own stone heart could bear.

I used to think you left someone because you didn’t care about the person anymore. It’s not necessarily true. I know this from leaving my mother: you can leave someone and still love that person, something fierce, still want all the love and happiness for that person, even if you’re incapable of being the one to provide it.  

Our relationship ended there on a Brentwood sidewalk. I don’t remember what I said. I wanted to say: I don’t want to be complicit in your decision to abandon your daughter. Maybe I managed, I can’t continue to not say all the things I should say. Or maybe I confessed that my stone heart was irreparably cracked. But at the prospect of losing my mother again I think: Let me fill my pockets; let me sink to the bottom of the sea. Let me drown in want of my mother’s love.  

And she said, like she had said before, in leaving me, “Well, you take care of yourself, girl,” as if she had never known my name.

“Mother and the Heart Stones” by Tammy Delatorre is the Nonfiction Winner in Columbia Journal’s 2019 Fall Contest, judged by Emily Bernard.

About the author

Tammy Delatorre is a writer living in Los Angeles. Her essay, “Out of the Swollen Sea,” was selected by author Cheryl Strayed as the winner of the 2015 Payton Prize, and her essay, “Diving Lessons,” was recognized as a Notable Essay in the 2016 Best American Essays. Her writing has also appeared in Los Angeles Times, Good Housekeeping, Salon, The Rumpus, and Many Mountains Moving. More of her stories and essays can be found at www.tammydelatorre.com.

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