“Family abduction is the most prevalent form of child abduction in the United States. Regardless of the abductor’s motive, it is an illegal act that has lasting consequences for the abducted child, the custodial parent, and the abducting family member. It is a crime in all 50 states and in the District of Columbia.” *
The three of us were in the avocado kitchen and my mother was cooking something I would never eat: liver and onions. The crank window over the sink was open and what was in the pan was crackling and smoking as the blue light of the flame tickled its undersides and the sweet smell of caramelized onion and sour smell of liver overwhelmed the narrow kitchen. The room was not silent beyond the crackling. There may have been the sound of a dog’s nails pacing the floor. There was definitely talk. My mother was a nonstop talker. There was George, her boyfriend at the time. There was Killer, George’s dog at the time. There was Tippy, our dog, the one Mom had given my older brother Paul for his birthday a few years before, surprising Paul when Tippy’s puppy head popped out of Mom’s cobalt blue silky zip-up bomber jacket.
The back door was swung open. The screen door pixilated the covered porch, side yard, and chain-link fence from where I sat at a small wooden table, the heating grate that once held my brother’s whispered voices near my ankles, hidden in the shadows under the tabletop. School was out for the summer and Paul and my middle brother Sean were with Dad in the city, and our childhood house had a For Sale sign out front. Some of the furniture had already been sold at open house garage sales, but not the white bedroom set I loved that my mother had restored and painted for me, complete with vanity table and mirror. There was probably a breeze billowing the screen. I probably wore ankle socks. I often did. I am pretty sure I was wearing shorts. We were a little over a mile from the ocean, on the Eastern end of Long Island in a hamlet in Suffolk County in an almost new three-bedroom ranch on a potholed street, a short walking distance from the elementary school where I had just completed fourth grade.
Suddenly there was a blaring, screeching sound and I was covering my ears and wincing and it was coming from the wall and from my mother as she scrambled up on a wobbly kitchen chair, her long, thin, pinkish arms reaching and then beating at the howling round disc.
After my mother had silenced the fire alarm, the argument she was having with George escalated. I have no idea what they were arguing about—I’d hardly been paying attention, as I was often lost in my own thoughts—but in the middle of it, the blue flame on the stove went out. The stove was out of gas and it was “Fucking Frank, Goddamn Fucking Frank” who was responsible. “Jeezus, Fucking Christ, George” had to just “GET THE HELL OUT!” and so he did, with his white-haired Cockapoo, Killer.
Exasperated, my mother said in her not-messing-around voice: “Deirdre, go get the suitcases out of the closet. You can bring two. One for clothes and one for toys.” Suitcases? Now we were talking.
I packed quickly, and I guess so did Mom, before she went to talk to the neighbors about Tippy. Then my mother tied Tippy to the weeping willow tree in the front yard that was still standing, despite the tidal wave from Hurricane Belle that had done considerable damage to it in 1976 while my mom and brothers and I sheltered in my elementary school cafeteria, and then we were loaded and off in Mom’s gold Honda Civic, heading toward Montauk Highway and a destination it hadn’t occurred to my nine-year-old brain to consider.
I was sitting in the front seat next to Mom, my favorite place to be, when we spotted George walking with leashed Killer on the side of the road.
“Roll down your window and ask George if he wants to go with you and your mom to Arizona to see your Aunt Phyllis,” Mom said.
Much of my enthusiasm for this latest adventure was deflated as I climbed into the backseat with Killer, and George got in, ejecting me from what I saw as my rightful place.
Several hours later, we were parked on a circle drive in Queens before a towering apartment building, waiting in the car and on the steps intermittently as the sun set, Mom periodically checking with the doorman to see if her friend had arrived home from work yet. I was born in Queens, though we moved to the island when I was still a baby, and this friend was from back when we lived there, and we needed a place to spend the night. The dog was already on its way to Arizona, with a chocolate bar I slipped through the grate of its carrier at the airport.
We didn’t have enough money for all of us to fly to Arizona, but Killer couldn’t go by train, so we found a vet near the airport, Killer got her requisite shots, and her traveling dog crate, and the next day, we would return the car to the airport and take a shuttle to Grand Central.
“Hi, Paul, it’s me. Is Dad there?” My sixteen-year-old eldest brother was the only one home. “We are going to Arizona to see Aunt Phyllis!” I exclaimed. I was holding a pay phone to my ear near the center concourse of Grand Central. Train comings and goings came over the speaker system as people bustled about me.
“Tell your father the car is at LaGuardia and Tippy is at the house,” my mother said into the phone when it was her turn. I hope she said, “I love you, I’m not leaving you,” but I have no idea whether she did. It’s possible that in a rush to catch our train, she only barked orders. It’s possible she didn’t realize she wasn’t ever coming back.
I was nine when I was taken to Arizona by train. It was 1979. My parents’ divorce was not yet final, but they did share joint custody at the time. It took me more than half of my life to realize that since I was taken without permission, technically, I had been abducted. My brothers had simultaneously been abandoned. The abduction, as far as I know, was not premeditated, nor do I believe that my mother ever considered her decision to take me that day “abduction” or “kidnapping.” My mother had been a foster child, who in an act of desperation, enlisted in the Army at 18 because she was being stalked by the father of children she once nannied. While in the military, she met my father and became pregnant. My father’s superior insisted my father marry her so as not to “disgrace the U.S. Army.” In an act of further desperation, or maybe because she loved him, my mother married my father.
Honorably discharged from the military** , Mom became a stay-at-home mother in 1963, as most women did, so when my father left her for another woman in 1977, she had no means to support herself. At the moment of said abduction, my mother was living in a house in my father’s name that was for sale. My father was no longer paying the bills. And then, the last of the gas was out. Mom had one sister she was close to, Phyllis, a year older who had begged for her baby sister, my mom, who was only six months old when she was removed from her own biological family, to be placed into the same foster home Phyllis had been: The Robinsons. This is how my Aunt Phyllis’s home in Arizona became the one place to seek refuge in a crisis, she the one family member to turn to when the gas was out and there seemed nowhere else to go.
My mother died when I was twenty-three. At twenty-three, I had not yet considered the term abduction as applying to me. I also had not yet fully realized the effects of abandonment on my brothers, even though one had already died by suicide when he was twenty-five, I eighteen. When my mother was diagnosed with cancer two months before her own death in 1993, it was I who urged my middle brother, Sean, to come see her. This was going to be his last chance. Mom was still living in Arizona, she and George had long since married and had forever lived below the poverty line inhibiting any form of travel on her part, and Sean had only seen her once since the day the gas went out—he had not seen her in twelve years. Sean came, reluctantly, but could not express his anger and sorrow towards her in her now frail state, so instead he took George out behind the trailer and gestured and gesticulated wildly, telling him everything he could not say to my mother. Then, he shouted it all at me, many times until he worked his anger out, at least as much as he could. Thirteen years later, he would drink himself to death for reasons not entirely unrelated.
The day I moved to Arizona was a spontaneous adventure for a nine-year-old, but as I write this at fifty, the last survivor of the family, I now know that adventure was an act of unpremeditated desperation. It was also abduction. It was also abandonment.
Having been raised in poverty myself, education became my own way out of desperation. I became a college professor who had children with another college professor who had two vasectomy reversals so we could have children. I had a son when I was thirty-three and a daughter when I was thirty-eight. When I was forty-one, my husband was diagnosed with a terminal illness, , Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). When I was forty-two, he died. I have since remarried, a man with the last name of Robinson, ironically, who is now father to the children, and as I swim laps in my first swimming pool, one erected to summer at home during the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020, I pretend I smell the saltwater of the Atlantic off the coast of Long Island, and imagine the clams at my toes as they once were in the bay where I took swimming lessons as a young child.
I recall the life I once had by water before the desert took me, and before I created my own home as an adult, and then created another, emerging as my mother once had from ashes. I grieve the life my mother was not gifted, nor chose, but the one she lived, often in desperation, frequently determined primarily by her being female, but always summoning the courage to meet life as an adventure. Without either of us knowing it, my mother in some distant way taught me how to find joy in the laps I now swim across this above ground 22-foot pool in the shade of birch, oak, and pine trees in Northern Michigan. My mother, without full consideration, committed a crime, and not one without grave consequences. My father, too, committed a crime. He stopped paying child support three months after the abduction. The consequences of these crimes were great, even while they did not involve the legal system.
While I swim laps, working to keep my head and the heads of my children and husband above water during a worldwide pandemic, I try to remain hopeful as I consider the lengths we are all willing to go, often in desperation, to survive.
Remember This: ***
On this Memorial Day, remember my mother,
kicked out of the Army for having sex.
Or was it for being female?
No, not for being female, but for sex,
No, not for sex, but for the result of sex:
my eldest brother.
I can’t visit Mom’s Army-issued plaque –
it is miles away on a hilltop on the edge of an abyss.
That brother, the first, lies nameless next to her
creating pine cones that litter the ashed bones of each of them
because no such plaque could be issued for a boy, aged 25,
dead, by his own hand, to a mother poor and living on a mountain,
to a father also poor, living on a different mountain, also miles away.
The commander told the father he had better marry that girl,
better make it right
better to not shame the military than to not love the girl.
Two more children and fifteen years later the marriage was still not right,
not made right.
Fifty-five years later all those good soldiers now dead,
except the daughter, the youngest, me,
the last to be made by the Army-issued family,
the Army-issued not love that begot no peace, only war.
Only she remembers,
only I, only I
remember them all.
Holder, Jr., Eric H. “Message from Attorney General Eric. H. Holder, Jr.” The Crime of Family Abduction: A Child and Parent’s Perspective. U.S. Department of Justice. Office of Justice Programs. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Protection. 1st ed., May 2010. https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/229933.pdf Accessed July 2020.
* Per Executive Order 10240, signed by President Harry S. Truman in 1951, the termination of pregnant women from the U.S. military was permitted regardless of rank or length of service.
***Published in Autumn Sky Daily, 2019.