I wasn't alive. For as long as I could remember, the family had told hilarious stories of hijinks and mayhem that did not involve me. They always went something like this:
Older sister: Mom, Dad, remember that time when we had all those jars of pennies, and we counted the pennies, and there were so many that we had enough for all four of us go to Six Flags together?
Mom: Of course!
Dad: That was so fun!
Older brother: Haha, yeah!
Me: When was that? I don't remember.
Everyone in unison (turning to me): YOU WEREN'T ALIVE.
I was six years behind my sister, seven behind my brother. For all the really epic family stories, I was never alive.
The story of my mother leaving was epic. We know it was epic because it only came out on special occasions, and was always told as if it was funny. It often came out at Thanksgiving, right after my mom had re-emerged from the marathon of dish-doing that had followed the swift blur of eating that had been the pivotal target of hours of turkey-making, which started at six a.m. on Thanksgiving Day, just before we kids got up for the marathon of interminable, inexplicable, dependably dull Parade Watching.
As we handed around the pie and coffee, Older Sister or Older Brother would inevitably say, "Mom, mom, tell the story about when you left home." And my mom would tell it. Every time she told it, the details were essentially the same. Every time, all of us laughed. Every time, I was not alive.
The story of my mother leaving was not funny at all. This I have only learned in the years since I heard it, amid those peals of relief-laden family laughter at Thanksgiving. I know now that my mother's story was not funny, because I have lived it. Many times. So has my Older Sister. Together we, the two remaining women in our once-nuclear family, understand how serious a day that was.
We know it was serious because we have never since discussed it. Never once, that I recall, have my sister or I mentioned this story to the other. Our mother is gone, and what can it prove? Only what we already know.
My mother was gone for less than 24 hours. One day, the story goes, she got so fed up that she left my dad a note, left the two toddlers who were not me in the care of a neighbor, and took the bus downtown. She checked in to the Fairmont Hotel. She booked a hair appointment for the next day at a salon. She took a bath, slept soundly, dressed with care the next day, ate a leisurely breakfast, strolled through the aisles of expensive clothing and perfumes, got her hair did, and then...
...checked out of the hotel and came home in time to make dinner.
Did she hesitate? Did she consider never returning? Did stranger, harder, distinctly more permanent solutions cross her mind, then or ever? We will never know. We enshrined the story of her brief rebellion in hilarity, as though it had been made only for our amusement. Like everything else our mother did, it was all about us.
Never once did any of us ask her a single serious question about that day.
So we will never know what made her return. We know perfectly well what made her leave.