I always knew my family was dysfunctional, even when I was too young to know what that word meant. I think it was something I felt more than understood. My dad would sleep all day and his breath would smell. Sometimes, he'd forget to shower or shave. My mom was constantly on the phone, whispering to some guy she called "baby". Grandmother would visit the graveyard every day. Sometimes she'd take me with her. She actually sat there and talked to my grandfather and baby sister, like they both were alive. I never knew either of them and it was years before I could comprehend the significance of their deaths.
By the time I came along, my family had already been damaged for years. I have to give my parents credit though. At least they tried to give me a good childhood. The last memory I have of the three of us was a couple of weeks before my mother left. It was a warm Saturday morning and we had walked to the park.
My father, my best friend, had pushed me on the swings as we laughed and played together. I was blissfully unaware that only the two of us were enjoying ourselves.
He was sober that day and smelled of soap and clean laundry. They had been fighting more lately and I guess that this particular outing was more for my sake than their own. Whatever it was that had first brought them together had been gone for years. I had appreciated the effort.
My mother wasn't even swinging. She sat next to us in silence as if she was completely oblivious to my squeals of delight, begging my dad to push me "faster, Daddy! I want to go faster! I'm going to touch the clouds!" She might as well have been in another world. For all I knew, she was.
There's only one way to get off a swing: jumping. I flew through the air and landed on my feet as solidly as a gymnast. My father cheered and then I ran to the jungle gym, by that time sensing that they might need a moment alone.
"C'mon, Farryn, it's just one day! You can't even give her that?!" roared Dad.
"I'm sorry, Go," she shook her head sadly.
From my vantage point, I saw everything. Their faces were full of anger and pain. To look at them, a stranger would never be able to tell that once they loved each other. But I knew better. When I came down, they had smoothed things over. At least by that time, both of them were pretending.
"Ramona," my father turned to me, "do you like ice cream?"
"Yes!" I shouted in delight. I had wanted us to be a family so badly, I just played along. I knew my role and it wasn't recalcitrant child.
"Ha," he laughed, " I was just asking."
"Daddy!," I squealed. My role was to be the dutiful daughter in this charade, this play in which we were all actors, and if it made us a family, it was a part I would play to a tee.
"Oh did you want some?" my mother turned, smiling wider than she had in months. "What do you say, Go? Want to stop by the ice cream shop on our way home?"
Each day was a struggle and the facade was wearing thin on each of us. But still, we had made it one more day.
* * * * * * *
The night my mother left, I stood outside of their bedroom door like I always did when they were fighting. Something was different this time. For one, I didn't hear shouting. My father had gotten dressed up and cooked her dinner and she had just now gotten home. I had expected him to raise absolute hell, but there was no yelling that night. He was crying.
"Farryn, please don't leave. My mom and I had a talk and she made me realize some things. I haven't been a good boyfriend or a father...but I want to be! That's what tonight was for. I want to give you everything you deserve, to be better for you and Ramona."
"I'm sorry baby, but I just don't think it's going to work," my mother said.
"We haven't been a couple for years now. I kept waiting around, hoping that things would get better and they never did."
"But," he protested, "I really think if you just give me one more chance, I can prove myself to you."
"Baby," she said, her voice thick with emotion, "I love you so much, but I just...I just don't have anything left to give you. We used to have fun. This used to be fun...and then Olivia and your dad...I can't do it anymore."
"So this is it?" he asked. "You're going to leave us for him?" I didn't know he knew about my mother's affair, but even in his inebriated state, he had somehow detected the other man in her life.
She had nothing to say to that.
"What about Ramona? What about our daughter?" he wanted to know.
"You and I both know that neither one of us is really capable of being a good parent to her. She'll be better off staying here with your mother," she choked out.
He thought for a moment. "Okay then," he said resignedly, "I know you're miserable and I'm miserable. One of us should have the chance to be happy and it won't be me. If you really want to go, I can't stand in your way."
"I will always love you," she said softly.
Mom picked up her bags and slowly carried them to her car. Then she came back inside, where I was waiting for her.
"Ramona, Mommy is going to go away but I need you to be a big girl and look after Daddy and Grandma. Can you do that?"
I nodded, staring up at her, wondering if this was the last time I would ever see my mother.
"If you ever need anything, it doesn't matter what time, you call me, okay?"
Another nod. I was still in shock, my mind being pulled in a million different directions. Was this really happening? Was she really leaving us to go live with that man? What about my father? What about me? What would we do without her? Was it my fault? Was I too much of a burden? Would she have stayed if I had been a better girl?
She kissed my head. "I love you so much, Ramona."
I knew she loved me. But she also loved Daddy. And two people who loved each other belonged together. This wasn't a job! She couldn't just quit. Sure, they fought. But they always made up. Why couldn't she just go back upstairs like always and cry on my dad's shoulder and tell him "Baby, I don't want to fight anymore. Let's make up". If you messed up, you said you were sorry and the person forgave you. Apologizing always worked. Right?
I watched her walk out of the door, down the sidewalk, and out to her car.
Once in her car, she sat there for five minutes, tears streaming down her face. But then determined, she put the key in the ignition and started the engine. Very slowly, she backed out of the driveway and eased her car on the street. I was still watching even when the car had disappeared from my sight, unable to believe that she never once looked back.
* * * * * * *
After Go died, there was only Marilyn and Ramona left. Marilyn was worried that her granddaughter would be devastated with her mother leaving and her father committing suicide. After all, Ramona had been the one to find the body. But the little girl was an absolute doll. She set the table for dinner every night, helped with her chores on the weekend and completed her homework without being told to. Her teachers said that she was a model student in all of her classes and she had a sweet disposition that just made people want to be her friend.
"How is school, sweetheart?" asked Marilyn.
"I won first place in the spelling bee today," Ramona replied, finishing the last of her essay. "Tomorrow we're going on a field trip to Scrumptious Nibbles Cafe."
"Oh?" said Marilyn casually, sipping her bedtime tea, not wanting to sound concerned. "Well if you need any money for a souvenir, just let me know."
Ramona always enunciated her words and spoke very clearly, like she had taken the etiquette classes that Marilyn had hated so much in her own childhood. "My homework is done. May I go to bed now?"
"Of course darling, but first you must give your old granny a hug."
She hugged Marilyn with the sweetness of a child, although she carried herself with the solemnity of one who had lived far longer than eleven years.
"Ramona," Marilyn smiled indulgently at her oldest grandbaby, "would you like me to tuck you in?"
"No thank you, Grandmother," was the girl's prim response.
"I love you sweetheart."
"I love you too, Grandmother." And with that, Ramona headed to her room. When her father had been alive, he had tucked her in with a bedtime story, but since Go's death, she had insisted on putting herself to bed. Still, Marilyn asked her every night, hoping against hope that tonight would be different.
The elderly lady frowned. Ramona had already been through too much. She had seen things that would scar most adults. Her granddaughter was an old woman in a little girl's body. She feared for Ramona's future.
* * * * * * *