Today is Mother’s Day in the United States, and whether they be alive or dead, we do our best to honor them. I lost my mother 14 years ago, and though I tried to find her during a recent trip to my old hometown, she was nowhere to be found.
When my sister learned I would be coming to Texas for a visit, she asked what I wanted to do when I got there. I said I wanted to drive across town to see our old neighborhood on San Antonio’s South Side. What I wanted more than anything was to go home.
So Susan, my brother-in-law and I — three old fogies — climbed into my rental car and headed south on highways I first drove as a teenager. After exiting the freeway, we drove past the old homestead where we both grew up.
Mama, of course, wasn’t there.
The trim house she cleaned so meticulously is still standing, but the neat white clapboard is now covered by a tacky facade of fake stone, and a ramshackle aluminum carport sits in the end zone of what used to be our football field. I wanted to get out and snap a picture, but honestly, our first home now looks like the kind of place gun-wielding crackheads would come tumbling out from the front door as soon as they saw a stranger pointing a camera. Common sense prevails, and I drive away.
A couple of turns and a few blocks later, we find Nana and Pawpaw’s house. Mama would bring us here to spend the night whenever Daddy was out of town on business, and I remember the sound of rain on the old tin roof. For a young boy, the golden blades of the oscillating fan, suspended in one corner of the kitchen, was a source of endless fascination. At night, Mama would tell us it was time for bed, and I’d set out the cupped glass floor protectors and position them while Pawpaw pulled open the sleeper sofa in the living room.
All of it’s gone. The beige-painted house of my memory is replaced by sad reality in a garish hue, and Pawpaw’s porchulaca-filled flowerbeds are choked with weeds. But oddly, it’s the thought of those nights away from home and the where-did-that-come-from memory of the glass floor protectors that make me teary-eyed.
In the car, we circle back and head down Southcross Boulevard toward our old elementary school. For six years Mama would drive me to school every day. Strangely, I have no recollection of those car trips, but muscle memory takes over, and I know exactly where to turn on Lyric Street, despite the fact that it’s been decades since I was here.
I remember the street corners where I stood on safety patrol, wearing a white web belt with a silver badge, but drawing closer to the school I feel lost, because nothing looks familiar.
Gone is the two-story, red-bricked rectangle of my youth, replaced by a much larger campus. It’s Easter Sunday and I proclaim that no one is here, so we might as well park the car and look around. I follow the driveway around to the back of the school.
The new buildings have swallowed some of the old playground. A new playscape sits near the spot where a classmate with the unlikely name of Grant Foster once poured a cupful of black dirt down my back and was later forced to write an apology in a child’s block printing. For years I kept that letter, but now don’t know what’s become of it. I wonder if later in life, Grant might have turned his name around and become a sunglasses magnate. A better question might be how, after almost 60 years, I can still remember his name.
Walking around in back of the school, something else has jogged my memory. It’s “The Ditch,” which formed the rear boundary of the playground and was forbidden ground for students. Venturing into The Ditch was a sure way to get in trouble, and sure enough, as my sister and I stare at our surroundings and lose ourselves in memories, a voice jerks us back to the present. Looking up, we see a woman approaching, and despite her casual attire, she carries the air of authority.
Oh god, we’re in trouble now!
The woman turned out to be the school principal, just trying to do a little work on her day off when she saw us on her security cameras. She came outside, apparently deciding that two brittle old men and an old woman don’t pose much of a threat.
She talked with us awhile, listening to our long-ago memories of her school, its playground, and of course The Ditch, spanned by a rusting metal bridge that I vaguely recalled children of my era walking across on their way home from school.
My family didn’t live in that direction, however, so Mama would have parked her car along the street to pick me up. But just like the trips going to school, I can’t recall being picked up afterward either, except for that one occasion when I fell while running across the playground toward the car, my metal lunchbox flying, the glass-lined Thermos shattering as it came unlatched from the box and went skittering across the blacktop.
Mama would have bought that lunch box for me, along with other first-grade school supplies — crayons, blunt-tipped scissors, pencils, glue, box of tissue. The lunchbox still sits in an upstairs closet, serving no purpose in life other than to make me cry whenever I see it.
The next day in San Antonio, my wife joins us and we venture on another South Side excursion, this time to the cemetery to see my people. Mama wasn’t at our old house yesterday, and she wasn’t parked outside my first school either. Surely she will be here in the cemetery, but after a protracted and unfruitful search, we cannot find her grave.
I feel ashamed. Like a salmon who doesn’t know to swim upstream, or the swallow who can’t find his way back to Capistrano, I cannot find my own mother’s grave. We finally enlist the aid of a worker in the cemetery office, who draws us a map.
At last, the main reason I wanted to come on this trip, the one moment I’ve been waiting for, but now that I’m here, it all feels wrong. After all this time and after all these miles, I feel unprepared. Here are the stones — Mama, Daddy, Nana, Pawpaw and all the others — but of course none of them are here. What did I expect?
Standing over the bones of my long-dead parents, I don’t know what to do. How am I supposed to feel? I was programmed by parents and grandparents to visit the graves of my ancestors, but now that I’m here . . . what?
I suddenly realize I’ve forgotten the flowers I told myself to bring. I know that no one will want to go with me to buy some and then come back. I wished I was alone. I wished I could just stand in this spot until providence told me what to do, but as usual, I say nothing to the living people standing beside me.
My silence should not be unexpected. I’m a writer after all, not much of a talker. But even after returning home and sitting in front of my keyboard for days, I have nothing left to say. My words are stuck somewhere, deep inside.
Hours become days and days become weeks. Finally, Mother’s Day provides the spur that forces me to pump meaningless words into an empty chasm that cannot be filled.
The gulf between life and death is long, wide and deep, forbidden ground that unlike The Ditch behind my old elementary school, has no rusty bridge to help you cross — not until it’s time.
During my trip home, many sights looked familiar, but like faux stone on a clapboard house, or a different school with the same old name, everything had subtly shifted while I wasn’t looking, and I felt I no longer belonged. I was an unwelcome visitor from the past, no longer in tune with the present, and with a future that is not yet known.
I write today with more feeling about an old metal lunchbox, or antique glass floor protectors than I can muster about my own mother on Mother’s Day. Those things are tangible, but Mama is a set of GPS coordinates, hastily entered into my iPhone so I won’t ever lose her grave again.
Yes, today is Mother’s Day, and I hope you’ll call your mom or write. Go see her if you can. And if your mother has given you something — like an old metal lunchbox — for god’s sake keep it, even if you can’t say why.
As for me, I won’t visit, write or call my mom today. All I can do is stare at my phone and tell you that she’s 1,556 miles from where I sit, on a bearing of 238 degrees. It’s all just numbers, meaningless, because even though I can pinpoint her location, she’s still more lost than found.
If your mother’s alive, my advice is simple: Treasure the time you have left, because I’m telling you that a time is coming when you’ll know: You really can’t go home again.