My usual modus operandi while waiting for a plane is to find a seat far from the gate and any aisles, away from the eager beavers who jump up the minute they hear the first boarding instructions. I always have some sort of reading material, usually a couple of magazines I haven’t had time to get through at home. Something I can leave behind for the next person, my gift to the traveling crowd.
But this evening was different. I sat in the cozy Burbank airport next to my 73-year-old mother, waiting for the plane that would take us to the town in Connecticut where she spent most of her youth. Her brother-in-law was being laid to rest there and we would be staying at the home of his son, my cousin, who is just a few years younger than me and whom I had not seen in more than 25 years. We would be visiting with several other cousins I had last seen at the funeral for my mother’s mother. Death is apparently the only thing that can bring the members of this family together.
I was looking forward to seeing how these DNA relatives would look and act and speak.
What I wasn’t excited about was being trapped in a very confined space with my mom who has aches and pains that make her a cranky traveler. We were taking the redeye not just because it was cheaper and would allow me to work one more day, but because I would have the excuse of needing to sleep, to stave off the inane chitchat that is like stabbing needles into my eyeballs and makes me want to bang my head against the tray table.
But something happened as we waited at the very last gate for the final flight of the night, the two of us pretty close to alone in the waiting area, at least at first.
I started to ask my mother some questions about our past that have been lurking in corners, skulking under seat cushions. It's time, I thought. She said she was ready, though immediately I began to have doubts about whether I was.
When I was six, a plane took us in the opposite direction of where we were travelling that night. We flew with my father and little sister in a roomy, new plane staffed by pretty young stewardesses, to our new life in California. It was 1969.
For a few years, our life was as shiny and promise-filled as my first-ever flight, but things changed, my parents divorced and what happened after that is where the questions really begin.
“Why did you let us go?” I asked.
She considered the question, and then said she knew it’d been a long time in coming, that she’d asked herself the same thing every single day since taking my sister and me to live in the commune/cult that my father had joined. We were nine and 11 years old.
First she made a disclaimer of sorts. Things were different in 1974. It was harder for a divorced woman with few job skills and two young children. “It’s not an excuse, I don’t want you to think I am trying to cast myself as a victim or anything, but I have to give you some context.” Sure, I nodded.
She told me of the houses she tried to rent but were suddenly occupied when the landlords found out she was divorced and had children. Her voice never quavered; she’d been going over and over this in her mind for more than 30 years.
I told her that I could understand the initial impulse. I had really wanted to move into Synanon. The people seemed really happy and everything was clean and colorful, and kids were treated as special beings to be nurtured and enlightened. At least at first.
It was much more appealing than staying in the two-bedroom apartment where I had to share a room with my unhappy sister, where my mom was sad and frantic trying to become a career woman. Her parents had only harsh things to say, and her ex-husband was pressuring her and she never was a strong woman to begin with.
“But the bigger question, Mom, is why did you let us stay?” I asked bravely. “How is it that when you showed up for your weekly visit and your two little girls were standing there with bald heads [it was a cult thing], that you didn’t just drive them to wherever you were living and shout down your obnoxious husband [who thought the bald heads were empowering; that was the party line] and tell him that you were keeping your daughters.”
“I thought about it,” she said evenly. “I even had you girls pack up your things but then I made the biggest mistake of my life. I told your father what I was going to do. I didn’t want him to worry when we didn’t come back. I had full custody of you. Legally, I could have done it, but I didn’t and I have never forgiven myself for that.”
I believed her. I knew enough about her own family dynamic to accept that she just was not equipped to cope with the situation. But I still couldn’t understand it. I’m a mother myself: I can’t, not in a million years, imagine standing by while my son is taken from me.
By this time, we had boarded and buckled, the luggage had been stowed and the lights dimmed and we began to taxi. I turned my head and looked at my mother. “For whatever it’s worth, Mom, I forgive you.”
From age 11 until just after her 21st birthday, Linda Coburn lived in Synanon, a unique communal living experiment that operated primarily in California during the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. She is working on a memoir of her experience.