1957, Traverse City, Michigan In my mind, I hear my mother’s footsteps echoing in the very corridor I’m standing in now. My adopted mother has taken me on a tour of Munson Hospital, formerly known as the Northern Michigan Insane Asylum. It is not the facility we’re looking at, but ghosts. I see my father in the shadows. He is a threatening force. And I see my mother in the way the light pours in through the windows.
Of course, I am not sure if I should even call Ama my mother. Isn’t a mother the person who raises you, who loves you, who tends to you? Is a mother purely biological, or is it a choice?
I run the palm of my hand over the smooth curve of my belly and within me my daughter shifts.
Something else shifts in me too. An idea, maybe. Something about life. How much of our lives, our happiness, is a choice? And how much is forced upon us? The woman who stands before me now, her shoulders hunched, her face lined with age and worry and the pain of giving birth to six children (only three who are still living), this woman…what choices has she made in life? I am almost afraid to ask her.
It turns out that I don’t have to.
“Come on, dear,” my mother says to me, her voice lilting with the brogue of her youth. “Let me grab my shawl and we can walk home and have a cup of tea. It will soothe the little one within you.” She smiles briefly and for a moment I catch a glimpse of the woman she was before my father died. “Perhaps it will soothe me too. Let us have the rest of the story. I will tell you what happened next.”
She tells the head nurse that she is leaving for the day. I follow her out the door, leaving both the darkness and the light of the asylum behind me.
As we walk down the long path that leads to the gate, I realize that even this place has undergone a transformation. There are no longer cries from crazed spirits, but the hollow silence of a hospital ward. Things are sterile now and humane. Some say it is on account of the frontal lobotomies practiced here. They say modern science has brought a great calm. I don’t know if that is true.
Sometimes when there is silence, trouble boils underneath.
I know this, because there is something boiling within me.
The gate is iron and twenty feet high. It is open. We walk through and turn the corner. My mother’s house, my old house, is only two blocks away. While we walk, I slip my arm into hers. We walk home in silence. I can wait a few minutes more for the rest of the story.
Not ‘the’ story. I can wait a few minutes more for ‘my’ story. That’s what this is about after all. It’s about me. The place where I began. Was I a choice or a curse? Did I begin with hope or with fear? Does it even matter? For me, it does. I am so close to deciding what I must do, but before I can think of the future, I have to fully understand my past.
It’s waiting for me. Just there. Shivering in the distance.
I can almost touch it.