A few years ago, I got a phone call.
It was about my mother. She had died suddenly. Her next door neighbor found her slumped in the doorway of her apartment in Roanoke, Virginia. Although it had been 20 years since I last saw my mother, I was the next of kin, so it was up to me to decide what to do. I called the local mortuary, Oakey's. I chose cremation (it was the cheapest option). I didn't go to Virginia. I didn’t attend the funeral. Someone else cleaned out her apartment.
See, I never really knew my mother. She was a schizophrenic who ran off to join a cult — the Moonies — when I was a two-year-old.
I only saw my mother a couple times after she left. She became little more than a concept to me—a disembodied voice on the phone. A ghost, even when she was alive.
We didn’t even really start talking on the phone until I was 18, and out of the house. Our conversations usually had apocalyptic overtones—she warned me about the evils of sex, and the end of the world. She’d call me at five o’clock in the morning, unaware of the time zone difference between East and West coasts, and she’d start out by quoting a bible verse about the perils of nursing a baby during Armageddon.
“Julie,” she’d say. “This is your mother. Woe to the woman who gives suck in the end times, Julie.”
My mother’s name was Patricia Caine. But she was so into the Moonie doctrine that she legally changed her name so she wouldn’t have the “mark of Caine” on her. She wanted me to do the same.
She wanted me to get married in one of the Reverend Sun Yun Moon's mass weddings in Madison Square Garden, and she begged me never to have an abortion.
After many years with the Moonies, they eventually kicked her out. She was too crazy for them to handle. She wandered around the deep South, still prostelytizing door to door. An elderly couple recognized that she was in trouble, and took her in, and eventually got her back in touch with her family, some of whom were living in Roanoke, Virginia.
She lived out the remainder of her life (30 some years) in a Section 8 apartment in a poor section of Roanoke. Her voice took on a Southern lilt. She was paranoid and agoraphobic. She almost never left the house.
A couple years after my mother died, I ended up in Roanoke, with a microphone. I was looking for my missing link. I wanted to find out who my mother was.
I went to her old apartment, and met up with her next door neighbor, Carol Augabright.
“Your mama was a great friend to me, “ Carol told me, standing in her kitchen next to a laboring window air conditioner. “We was always together and I was always taking her places and she was real good. She was a real good person. I really miss your mom a whole lot.”
“Did you go and visit, did you sit with her and visit?” I asked.
“We drank tea together and sometimes she would fix me a steak dinner and stuff like that,” Carol told me. “Just had a little dinner together because, uh, she didn’t like going out much. I miss having her next door.”
“Were you home on the day that she passed?” I wanted to know.
“Yeah, I was upstairs and I heard the sirens,” Carol remembered. “I saw them pull up in front. And I said, ‘well something’s happened.’ I didn’t even take a shower, I just slipped on some clothes and I went over there. And, some woman that was helping her out, she was crying on the porch. She says, ‘Something’s happened to Pat,’ and told me about it. And I just set over there with her until Oakey’s and the police come and everything. And I stayed, I was the only one that stayed over there with her until Oakey’s took her away because I thought she needed that. I wanted to stay with her. I was her only friend, mostly, at the time. So I stayed with her. I wanted to. And that’s why I miss her so much. I know you do, too.”
That’s the thing. I didn’t miss her. Or maybe her absence was so normal to me that her death just felt like more of the same. I don’t know. But I liked Carol Augabright. I liked it that she’d known my mother, as a real person, as a friend. I liked it that they’d had steak dinners together.
Carol and I went to pick up her daughter, Jennifer, and we drove out to spend the afternoon with my mother’s long-time companion, Fred.
We sat down in Fred’s living room. My mother’s cat, Tuxie, so named because she looked like she was wearing a tuxedo, sat by his side. My mother and Fred were a couple for 27 years. They met from a personal ad my mother put in the paper.
“She got several calls,” Fred told me, laughing bashfully. “Chose me.”
Fred pulled out a box of photographs to show me, and we sat with Carol and Jennifer, looking at pictures.
“When she was younger and she told me once she was a...one of them beauty queens out of high school.”
Carol remembered that, too. “She sat on the back of the car, she was telling me all about that.”
My mother. A beauty queen on display on the back of a convertible. I don’t have any pictures from that time in her life.
But there was something more I wanted to know. Did she ever mention me?
“You was on her mind constantly,” Carol said, laughing. “She used to tell me, ‘I don’t think I’m ever going have any grandchildren from Julie.’ She would say that. She says, ‘I don’t think she’ll ever have me one, Carolyn.’”
Fred spoke up, “She would say, “I love my Julie.”
“And she’d talk about you being talkative on the...well she called it Christian radio,” Carol said. “That’s what she told me. She says, “That’s my daughter.” She’d turn it up when we’d go over there. She’d make me set and listen, you know, she’s like, “That’s my daughter, I’m so proud of her.”
Well, not Christian radio, exactly, but still…
“Did she ever say why she...why I didn’t live with her or why she didn’t live with me?” I asked. “Did she ever talk about that?”
“Oh, she told me it’s that,” Carol said, tenderly. “She went in a hospital when you was two years old because she couldn’t handle you or something, because it was on her nerves or something. She said she hated to leave, but she had to leave because she just couldn’t take a two-year-old.”
I’d thought none of this mattered to me. I’m an only child. I’d always thought of myself as someone without any real biological family, as if I were adopted, or was hatched from an egg.
But my mother was the oldest of six kids. Her younger brother, Tommy Provo,a born-again Christian, was living with his wife in a trailer in the moonshine hills outside Roanoke.
I went to visit them next. They had a small family cemetery on their land, and Tommy had just finished my mother’s marker the day before I arrived.
“I did that yesterday,” Tommy told me, proudly. “I finally finished it.”
Tommy and his wife took me inside, and pulled out some photos and papers for me.
She was getting better at the end, they told me.
“I really, truly believe she had a, like a mental illness, you know,” Tommy said. “Like a schizophrenia.”
“Oh I’m not downplaying that at all,” his wife replied. “I just think it was brought on by the birth of the baby.”
The birth of the baby. That was me.
Later that afternoon, on my way back to my motel, I got lost. I pulled over so I could consult a map. When I looked up, I realized that I was parked exactly in front of Oakey’s Funeral Home—where I’d sent my mother to be cremated.
There was no one around. I got out and took a picture. “Hi, Mom,” I said, out loud.
I got back into my car and headed down the highway. Again, I got lost, and again, I pulled over. When I got out of the car to stretch my legs, I looked up. I saw that I had stopped right under a giant billboard that said: “Aren’t You Glad Your Mother Didn’t Choose Abortion?”
It was just like those phone calls I used to get from her at five in the morning — bizarre and relentlessly on-message. It was my mother’s voice, loud and clear, a message from her to me from the great beyond.
“Yeah,” I said. “I am glad. Thanks, Mom.”