My mother walked out on us once — threw up her hands, turned her back, and hit the road. We didn’t blame her since we’d driven her to it; there were no more buttons left to push. She came back eventually, but there were several long tense hours when her return was not a given. But let me start over.
I needed a break this week — just a random, purposeless, “sit still and do nothing” break. In motherhood, these times can roll up on you until they’re suddenly breathing hotly down your neck, buzzing in your ear like a relentless mosquito. After a couple of weeks of bringing meals to school for teacher appreciation, notarizing permission slips, attacking the mound of papers on my desk for work, trying to tame the jungle yard, and keeping everyone fed, the late afternoon headaches would hit and no amount of caffeine would quench the monster.
As if on cue, some sadistic, hateful person posted a serene beach picture featuring their pedicured toes in the sand, which brought on the heavy woe-is-me sighs. I’m sure this is only me; you’re probably breezily zipping along in the fast lane. But if one of the balls I’ve been juggling drops, or I eat one too many meals on the go, or I haven’t had a meaningful conversation with my spouse in three days, and if I have to scrape up one more nasty hairball from the floor, I’m going to lose it.
I thought back to when the kids were little, days when a clean house was relative, applesauce and ice cream sounded like a good dinner plan, and I’d be lurching around the house like Quasimodo, carrying one teething baby on my hip while dragging a whiny toddler who seemed to be permanently stapled to my leg. Some days, the morning hours until nap time would drag by in a blur of broken crayons and diapers, and god bless my husband who dragged in at the witching hour before dinner on days like that. Let’s just say I didn’t greet him at the door wearing pearls and a smile.
Those days weren’t always pretty. I’d stare out the Window of Despair, asking what had I done, seriously considering how much gas I had in the car, and wondering how far I could get. They call these black moods postpartum depression and happily there’s help for that. But in the days of my own childhood, they just called it motherhood, and you were expected to soldier on unaided.
Which brings me to the night my mother left. My father was on a year-long tour of duty out of the country, leaving my mother alone in the house with three teenage girls and two young kids. This is a cruel and unusual predicament for all but the most unflappable. These were the ingredients for a perfect storm: three teenagers with synced PMS, a demanding 5-year-old, and a busy toddler with a penchant for injury and going AWOL.
After 18 years of marriage and a family, my mother had finally given herself permission to take a couple of college classes, so she was trying to read actual literature and write coherent papers in between the demands of five children. Perhaps she thought she’d been a little distracted lately, but whatever the reason, she decided to take time away from her books to make a special Sunday roast beef dinner for the six of us. The table was set with the main dish, mashed potatoes, steaming hot gravy, rolls, and vegetables. Glasses were filled with iced tea, and we had all gathered around the dining room table to spend some quality family time together before the busyness of a new week started.
No one remembers what started it. One of my sisters uttered some snarky teenage remark aimed below the belt. Another sister took offense, aiming right back, and it escalated — escalated in the sense of Hurricane Katrina starting out as a cool ocean breeze. The noxious cocktail of female hormones, a long week, and some innate death wish fermented to the point of fission. The first shot fired was a spoonful of mashed potatoes. Before my mother could scream, “What is the matter with you people?!” it was all-out war, with hot sloshing gravy, flying green beans, vicious screaming girls, and finally, the coup de grâce: The entire pitcher of iced tea hit the wall.
My third sister snatched up my younger brother from his high chair where he screamed, wide-eyed at the mayhem. She yanked me by the hand, dragging me into the hallway, away from the flying feast, her only thought to “save the children.”
At some point during the melee, someone must have noticed an absence. There was no parental intervention. No parent, period. Mother had left. The driveway was empty, and an eerie and remorseful silence had befallen the dining room. Uh-oh.
Had my father been home, that would have been the end of the story. Our family would have had two fewer children as the two at fault would have been summarily executed in the backyard. As it was, they swallowed hard and cleaned up every inch of the dining room with heads hung low. My brother and I were quietly put to bed where we went without protest. The three older sisters sat somberly in their room, probably discussing options for how to pay the mortgage until dad came back.
When we woke up in the morning, she was in the kitchen making breakfast before school as usual. We found out later she’d driven to the beach and sat on the dunes — no telling how many hours she spent there, letting the sound of the waves soothe her nerves, watching the little crabs scurry in and out of their holes while she chain-smoked Tareyton 100s. She’d had it up to here and needed to remember that she loved us.
We didn’t speak of that day until years later. And it would be many more years later before my father was told, after my sisters had moved out and could ostensibly arrange their own witness protection.
On days when I, too, have had it up to here with whatever fill-in-the-blank calamity takes over, I remember the time my mother left and recognize the mental red flags that signal that it’s time to step back to salvage some sanity.
It will not always be this way or feel like this. New mercies arrive at the doorstep of motherhood each day, as regularly as the morning paper. I’m far enough away from the beach now that I can’t rely on the tides, but I can close the bathroom door and breathe for a few minutes. And when worse comes to worst, I’m heading out for dinner.
This post originally appeared on Medium.