After I had known her for several years, Jenna told me that she felt she never had a mother. Now at twenty-nine, Jenna had come to realize that she had raised herself. There was Veronica who slept in the apartment, who came and went, the one who tried her best to hold down waitressing jobs at cheap diners, but she wasn’t there as a mother might have been. Jenna knew this, even then, when she was a child.
Veronica was there, that small, bird-like creature, sometimes. She was actually in the apartment, in a manner of speaking. Veronica would lie in the tangled sheets of her bed, curled into a fetal position. Sometimes she would be sprawled oddly, as if she had just jumped from a high window of a nearby building and splatted and flayed out on the gray concrete. Jenna would slip quietly into the bedroom and watch her mother, listen for the regularity of her mother’s breath as she lay shrouded in sheets, retreating from life.
After her shift ended—or especially if she’d been fired — Veronica retreated from life. If she was there, in the apartment, she was sleeping off a drunk. She would lie, passed out for days from the intoxication of her vodka. Jenna would watch as Veronica slept, and she wondered if Veronica was really there then. Jenna didn’t understand “drunk,” but she knew Veronica was not there, just a body—a motionless corpse–entombed in the off-white sheets.
When she turned four, Jenna told me, she learned how to fix a bowl of milk and Cheerios. She could stand on a kitchen chair and reach the bowl in the cupboard and then the milk in the refrigerator. Before that, before she knew her age, she would just eat small handfuls of Cheerios from the large, open box. Cheerios were good, any time, Jenna found. She often had them for dinner, before she went to sleep. She had seen on TV how real families sat at the dining room table, and she carefully studied the way plates and dishes were laid out. Jenna would put her spoon and bowl and a napkin on the kitchen table. She reached inside the refrigerator and found the milk, poured the Cheerios into a bowl, and then remembered that a glass of milk would make the dinner setting complete. She put her napkin in her lap and felt proud that she had done it right.
When Jenna was finished with her Cheerios, she carried her bowl and spoon and the glass to the sink. She pulled up the chair so she could reach the faucet handles, found the dishwashing soap, and cleaned her bowl and glass until they sparkled. Before she went to bed, she opened the door to her mother’s room, and Veronica lay there, still as a corpse, shrouded as she had all weekend.
In her bedroom, before she went to sleep, Jenna slid into her bed and thought about her dad and brother Alex. She missed them and wondered if she would ever see them again.
Jenna carried herself with poise and intelligence, with no trace of having been a feral child. Her wide blue eyes were gentle, and her long light-caramel hair lay loose across her shoulders and moved gracefully when she broke into soft smiles and peals of laughter. Warmth and kindness radiated from her in gleams of gold. How she had survived without a real parent—or any family–in the house?
“Why were you left with your mother?” I asked.
“My parents divorced when I was three, and my father took Alex to live with him in Seattle, since Alex was a boy. I was left with my mother. I didn’t see Alex or my father for years. It was hard, but it was all I knew.” I couldn’t fathom how Jenna had made her way from day to day, but she had.
She explained, “Once I began to attend school, I found the way there. Several weeks before the beginning of the school year, I woke up early and walked back and forth until I had memorized it. I was able to get an alarm clock from my mother. I laid out my clothes at night. I just got up every morning. I always ate my cereal. Then, I’d walk to school, and back home later. I figured it out because no one else was there.”
Jenna came home in the afternoons and settled in to do homework. She washed her shirts and socks by hand in the sink and hung them up to dry on the bathroom towel rack. She set out her books, her shoes, her toothbrush and toothpaste. She even arranged her bowl on the bare kitchen table and set the box of Cheerios there. It crushed me inside that she had negotiated an entire world from a place of not knowing, without being given support or guidance.
After an especially violent and bloody crescendo, Jenna’s mother was finally taken away to recover from her life of drink. When she returned from her treatment, she announced that God had saved her, and that she had been born again. Jenna commented to me that her mother had traded one addiction for another. Nothing really had changed. Veronica was no more “present” with Christ as her co-pilot than she had been without him.
Now, on the cusp of thirty, Jenna was an A+ student, halfway through her graduate work. She was meticulous in her responsibilities. Every month she set out the exact amount of money for her budget. She adhered to it without fail.
“No surprises,” she once said to me. “I don’t like surprises.”
A year or so after Jenna and I became friends, she told me that her mother and stepfather had come from the northwest to visit her and her brother Alex. Would I like to join them for coffee? Her mother would like to meet me. This woman I had to see. I could not pass up the chance.
At the café, I met the three of them. Veronica was a tiny woman in her fifties. She wore a lightly quilted mauve jacket over her well-designed light blue dress. Seated beside her at the table was a tall, large blond man. Jenna’s face beamed, when I joined them, and she rose from her chair to introduce me to her mother and stepfather. I extended my hand to her mother, and she stood to greet me. Her fragile hand was like the wing of a tiny bird.
“I’m Veronica,” she said with a restrained voice. “I’m glad to meet you. Jenna’s told me so much about you. She says you are good friends, that she’s become close with your family.”
“Yes.” I smiled. “We’re very lucky to know her.”
“That’s so nice, Veronica said. “I know I’ll never have to worry about her again.”
I nodded and smiled.
Abigail Jardine has taught and written for many years. Her stories focus on gender, family dynamics, and American culture. She lives in California.