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When I think about the last weekends we spent with my mother in the city I think of her homemade lasagna, walking everywhere, and the movies she took us to, like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Starman, and Terms of Endearment, which was the first movie that made me cry. My throat tight, my nose running, I tried to dab my eyes dry in the dark as nonchalantly as I could so that she and my younger sister Nava wouldn’t see. I was embarrassed that a movie had gutted me. I didn’t yet understand why a fictional story of a mother and daughter’s tumultuous and ultimately loving relationship had left me wrecked.
One Saturday my mother took us bike riding for the first time, renting bicycles near the East River, where we could practice on the long, winding, wide path that ran along the water. Our father didn’t want to get us bikes. He didn’t even want to teach us how to ride. The several times we had asked, he said he was afraid we’d go too far and accidentally wander into the unsafe areas of Flushing. So my mother used one of her weekends to introduce us to something new, the way she had with roller-skating.
I don’t remember the learning part, only the hours of cycling afterward: the trees and people blowing by, the power I felt in being able to move as fast as I wanted. I rarely spent time in parks and never went hiking or traveled to new places like other kids my age seemed to. For the most part, my scenery never changed; apart from time in the summer at camp, city living was all I knew.
From where we cycled along the East River, I could look across and see Brooklyn, where two of my cousins lived with Uncle Bobby – the one who called me Miss Piggy – and Queens, where my father would be waiting for us in our quiet apartment when we got back home on Sunday. I pedaled harder and allowed myself to forget about them.
With the river on one side and my sister and mother on the other, I traveled away from the confines of my life, fast. I was uncatchable.
I could see a glint of who I would become, the distances I could go when I was no longer stuck in my Flushing childhood. Did my mother know she was offering me this kind of freedom?
Maybe this is how she’d felt when she moved to Israel, left for India, left my father, or dropped Nava and me off on Sunday nights.
I loved my body moving at high speed, the wind against my face and through my hair, my heart pounding in my chest. I had not felt this lightness, this kind of abandon, with my father. Perhaps when I was a toddler on the kibbutz and he took me swimming, but not for years and years. In fact, over the last year my father had become cranky and irritated more and more of the time. Being around him felt bad, like wearing a scratchy sweater, like having tired, burning eyes. I remember thinking he must be sexually frustrated, but I don’t recall where I had heard the term or how I knew it. His irritation seemed to bubble and seethe, his energy was jagged and angry, and his feelings escalated quickly. He had punched a hole in my bedroom door and had cracked a dustpan into several pieces when he threw it across the kitchen. He’d never hit me, but there was a palpable level of rage inside of him.
Even before this period with my father, I had always believed something was missing with him, and it was not his fault. How could he compare with my mother? She didn’t provide for our day-to-day needs, but she was the one I wanted. Being with my mother was like breathing again, being with my source. I belonged to her before I belonged to anyone else. She gave us experiences and freedom. She was the gift parent, the one who showed me new places, who fed me new foods, who I could be a girl around, and then later, a teenager comfortable with my changing body in a way I never was and would never be around my father.
I was twelve years old and over the last several months, Nava, my mother, and I had started talking about having us live with her again sometime soon. My mother said she was thinking of getting a farm upstate where the three of us would be together, have a couple of dogs and some cats and a garden and a cow. But then she stopped talking about a farm and said just a regular house upstate would be better. Shortly after that she told us that renting an apartment was more practical and even took Nava to look at one with her in Queens. I let myself imagine what our life would be like – waking up with her there every morning, seeing her after school each day, and having dinner together every night. It was what I had wanted for as long as we’d been apart. She had always felt out of reach. And soon, though I didn’t know it yet, she would be gone again.
On a Saturday night in early June, Nava and I were on our way to a restaurant with her when she said she wanted us to meet somebody, a new friend she’d made named Karma.
“Karma,” I said. “What kind of name is that? What does it mean?”
“It means destiny,” my mother said, still walking and looking ahead.
Karma was already at a table when we got there. A tall woman with fair skin and fluffy, light brown, shoulder-length hair, she smiled in a way I didn’t like, and though I didn’t realize why at the time, she had a familiar presence. She spoke to me from a remove, sitting back in her metal chair with her puffy halo of hair. There was a stillness to her, and she was watchful, as if she were assessing me. Maybe I was on edge because I knew to be wary of new people my mother brought into her life – like boyfriends and spiritual leaders. Or maybe my intuition was that good. Part of me already knew my mother’s judgment was suspect, and Karma struck me as fake, like she was hiding something.
“Ronit has a show coming up at school. She loves to sing,” my mother said, trying to fill the silence at the table.
“Oh?” Karma said nodding her head in my direction.
“Yep,” I said taking a sip of ice water. “I’m Rizzo in Grease.”
“Hmm,” she said with the same static smile stuck to her face, her eyes drifting to passersby.
Our dinner went on in much the same way, with Karma reclining in her chair and reacting to what the rest of us talked about but not saying much. I kept my eye on her.
My mother leaned over and moved Nava’s hair from where it was still tucked into the back of her T-shirt, and Nava giggled.
“That tickles,” she said, hiking her shoulders up.
“Do you want me to play with your hair?” Karma asked.
“Yes!” Nava said, her big green eyes twinkling.
“Scoot your chair over,” Karma said.
Nava moved closer to her and Karma began smoothing back her hair and massaging her head.
Nava closed her eyes and tilted her head forward.
I couldn’t believe Nava wanted this weirdo touching her – didn’t she see what I saw? It seemed like I was the only one who thought something was off with this lady. What was wrong with everyone?
Couples and people walking alone passed by on the other side of the restaurant’s rope, set out on the sidewalk to separate diners from foot traffic. I didn’t know what Karma was up to. I looked at my mother. She seemed to be doing fine but I was on guard from the beginning.
Did I sense my mother was making plans without Nava and me? Or did I simply dislike the intrusion this woman posed on my time with my mother? Whatever it was, the next day my mother revealed that Karma was involved with her old guru, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. The disinterested smile on her face when she’d sat with Nava and me made sense then. I had seen that smile back in Seattle at the Rajneeshee center when I was five years old. It reminded me that when it came to my mother, I couldn’t ever be sure what was about to happen, that she was uniquely capable of disrupting my world.
I could think of only one time when I had liked how she surprised me. A couple of years earlier, she told us to pack something nice in our overnight bags because we had a special plan on Saturday night. When she picked us up on Friday, she wouldn’t tell us where we were going that weekend. By early Saturday evening when she and Nava and I headed toward midtown together – me wearing my favorite black dress with pink flowers and a ruffle on the bottom, white tights, and patent leather shoes – she still wouldn’t say.
We walked to 49th Street, then 52nd, Nava and I continuing to guess what it was we were doing. My mind zigged and zagged, trying to figure it out. I kept asking my mother where we were headed and she kept saying, “Hmmm…I don’t know.” I hadn’t seen my mother act coy like that before. I hoped the surprise was good. I believed it was, but I wasn’t ruling out that it was something I didn’t actually want to do, like going to one of her parties or visiting one of her friends.
At 52nd Street, she stopped and told us we were waiting for someone. Nava and I kept asking her questions, and my mother looked like she was trying to hold back a smile. The less she said, the more incredible I imagined the surprise was. I thought maybe she was getting married and wanted us to meet the guy. Maybe we were going on a trip together. Or, I thought, the closer we got to midtown and the theater district, maybe I was going to meet my favorite star, Christopher Reeve. Only a year or two had passed since I’d sent off my fan letter soaked in the tears I’d shed out of my desperation to meet him.
We stood back from the street near a brick building. Taxicabs clogged the road and honked, their headlights glowing brighter and brighter in the darkening night. The smell of hot pretzels and hot dogs from the carts nearby wafted by in the chilly air. Adults and a few families passed us on their way to different Broadway shows. Twenty feet away lots of little girls and their mothers walked into the Alvin Theatre, whose marquees advertised the musical Annie.
After we had waited about five minutes, my incessant, “What is it? What is it?” punctuating the time, my mother looked at Nava and me and said, “Oh, well, we might as well see Annie.”
Nava and I stood there looking at her.
“Come on,” she said, “let’s go in!” and she led the way.
I had never seen a show with my mother, only with my father and Nava once, and one time with Tracy. I followed my mother as she wove her way into the lobby. This was really happening. A true, good surprise with no complications. But it was only after we’d moved past the throngs crowding the concession and souvenir stands and made it to our assigned aisle that I began to believe there wasn’t any part of the plan I needed to second-guess.
My mother sat between Nava and me, and I marveled at the velvet seats, the ornate proscenium, the twinkling chandeliers in the impossibly high ceiling. I was flipping through the program when the lights went down. The overture played and when it ended, Annie’s voice rung out through the theatre. I hadn’t heard someone young sing like that, with a voice so strong and certain. Soon the rest of the orphans romped across the stage, their voices blending and rising together. My mouth agape, goosebumps running down my arms, I could think of nothing better than this. It was as if the cells of my body were vibrating, my insides stirred up and buzzing from the sounds pouring over me from these actresses – these girls my age.
That night I realized I wanted to be like them. I wanted to not only be in school choruses but sing leading roles in musicals. I wondered how my voice compared to theirs, if I could ever have enough of what it took to be like them. I wasn’t jealous exactly but enthralled and aching to do what they did. To mesmerize an audience with my talent and to be seen. To be surrounded by castmates – friends, even – performing together on stage night after night only pretending to be orphaned, in real life far from forsaken. In real life a star.
I didn’t question my mother’s choice of shows, the fact that Annie might be a painful story for me and Nava. All that mattered was the happy ending. Watching this performance, I was the most content I could recall having ever been. My mother had thought of us, known what we would like, and had gone ahead and organized this night for us. This was what I wanted above all else, the story I wanted to tell myself more than anything: that my mother loved us so much she was willing to arrange her life around Nava and me.
But now, a year later, she was leaving. I have no memory of whether or not she did this on the phone or in person, but a few weeks after we met Karma, just before Nava and I left for sleepaway camp, my mother told us she was going out for a few weeks to Rancho Rajneesh, the 64,000-acre ranch Bhagwan had established in Antelope, Oregon. She said she’d be back by midsummer. I wonder if she knew then she’d be gone longer than that. I don’t know how much she lied to herself and how much she lied to us.
I blamed Karma. If she hadn’t come into my mother’s life and reminded her about Bhagwan, she wouldn’t have wanted to leave us. Once again, I didn’t hold my mother responsible.
For many years I wanted to believe my relationship with my mother was like that of most kids, just broken up into weekends. I didn’t want to acknowledge the obvious, that I was growing up without her. I don’t think I could have tolerated knowing my sister and I would never be enough to keep her rooted.
Ronit is a writer, teacher, & podcaster with work in the The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The Rumpus, The Iowa Review, and American Literary Review among others. She is host & producer of the award-winning podcast And Then Everything Changed featuring interviews with survivors, authors, thought leaders, and people in recovery about pivotal moments in their lives & decisions that have defined them. When She Comes Back, her memoir about the loss of her mother to the guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, from which "Far From Forsaken" is excerpted is her first book. Her short story collection Home Is A Made-Up Place won Hidden River Arts’ 2020 Eludia Award and will be published in 2022. For more about Ronit and a complete list of work visit: https://ronitplank.com/