Parenting

The Stranger I Call Mother: Reconnecting After Parental Alienation

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When my mother called me last September, I was surprised by how easily I still recognized the sound of her voice. When I was 4, my father had thrown her out of our home and out of my life.

My mother became like a family myth, an outcast who people only whispered about when they thought I couldn’t hear.

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I saw her once when I was a teen. I didn’t dare tell my father.

I saw her again when I was in my 20s, a mother myself. She met my daughters who were babies then. For the next year, we engaged in an awkward attempt at reconnection. We looked so much alike, yet we were strangers.

I had no idea how I would integrate her into my life, the life that did not include her, that in fact was very much built on her absence.

Besides, my father was still in my life, and I didn’t know how to tell him I was reconnecting with my mother. I could not find the words.

So I had pushed my mother away because it seemed like the safest thing to do.

Devastated, she said, “I think your father is controlling you just like he controlled me.”

“Well, you’re the one who left me with him,” I snapped back.

Not long after this aborted attempt at a reconnection, she moved to Arizona

And then 20 years slipped by, just like that.

But last September, she flew up to Massachusetts because her mother, my grandmother, was dying.

On the Wednesday before Labor Day weekend, she called me. I asked about my grandmother and about my mother’s flight from Arizona. I was eager to settle on a day that I would come see her, knowing this might be our last chance to reconnect. If not now, when?

I offered to drive to my grandmother’s house the very next day, on Cape Cod where my mother was staying. She agreed, and then we hung up.

The next morning I went through my closet. What does one wear when they haven’t seen their mother in 20 years?

It was a beautiful, sunny day driving to my grandmother’s house. When my mother answered the door, I thought how lovely she still was. And she was real, not a myth, not my imagination, not someone to forget. She is my mother.

I saw my grandmother that day too, and my aunt, also casualties of my parents’ divorce — that whole family had been erased from my life. Now they embraced me, welcomed me as if I had finally come home.

My mother and I walked and talked of the weather and of my grandmother’s end of life. We talked of my daughters, all grown up now, and family resemblances, and of the ocean, and of her quiet life in Arizona.

I wanted to talk about the stolen years, to face everything head on, but I knew that even after all this time, her pain was still raw. I saw it in her eyes that filled with tears at the slightest mention of the past.

I can feel her regret that is so vast it could swallow her. I think her grief might turn her to particles, to the dust in the desert she lives in.

I want to tell her I wish she would move back to Massachusetts. I want to spend time with her, to make up for all the lost years. I want her to know my husband and our daughters.

I want my mother back. I don’t want her to live 2,572 miles away for one more day. But I don’t say this. Instead I ask, “Don’t you miss the ocean?”

When it was time for me to go, we hugged goodbye and both said how happy we were to have had this day. We agreed that we both wanted to stay in touch, but we made no promises, no unrealistic mentions of all the time we would spend together, knowing she would fly back to Arizona, to her life there.

We talk on the phone sometimes now. We are still getting to know each other. I usually keep the conversation light because I know that’s what she needs.

But the last time we talked, I did bring up the past. I told her I needed her to know something. I said, “I know you meant to bring me with you when I was 4. I know that was your plan. You told me so back then. You were preparing me to leave with you. I remember.”

There was a long pause — and some tears. She was relieved that I knew this.

“I love you,” she said. “I always have.”

I said, “I love you too.” And then I ask about her day.

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