In Lieu of Mom

Donna Brooks essays

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When I was 9-years-old, my mother placed a small statue with a tented note on my nightstand as I slept. It was a figurine of a woman about 10 inches tall made of onyx-glazed porcelain. She was expressionless, abstract and angular. Her face tucked toward a raised shoulder, her arms crossed at her torso and rested on opposite hips, one knee was lifted, sloping toward her base leg. Her body language conveyed elegant entrapment. A gold, large-link chain necklace was coiled from the statue’s neck to her toes.

The note read: “Never let a man leave you in chains.” I traced the swoops of my mother’s cursive handwriting and knew she was gone.


It was 1996. My mother was ill—mentally and physically. She’d spent the last decade grappling with a cocaine addiction and raising children. Her mood swings had become so severe, my siblings and I instinctively held our breath and walked on tiptoes in her presence. My parents fought for an entire year before she left. What began as midnight matches behind a closed door became riotous brawls in the middle of the kitchen. During one of their clashes, my sister, Annie, and I crouched behind the couch in the family room, holding hands and crying. Their anger made us invisible.

I learned to hate my father. Every time he came home, they fought. The rumble of the garage door made my stomach ache with anxiety. My dad owned his own law practice and played poker on the weekends, so he wasn’t around very much when I was young. My mother raised us for the first seven or so years. Her behavior was strange, and I knew that from a very young age. When my dad started coming home more, Annie and my brother, Dallas, clung to him. They didn’t see the side of my mom that I got to see. She’d wake me in the middle of the night to watch movies with her, and pull me out of school for shopping trips. I looked just like her.

I felt as though I was her child and Annie and Dallas were my dad’s kids. After my mom left, I locked myself in my room for the better part of two years, furious with everyone for letting her go. She’s gonna come back, I’d tell my brother and sister. You’ll see. My father raised us alone in an upper-middle class neighborhood during a time when Midwest suburban culture was righteous with conformity. Our neighbors branded us The Black Sheep Beerys. Fitting in, by all practical purposes, was impossible. Drugs, mental illness and divorce gleamed in contrast to our neighbors’ ideology of what was welcome in Johnston and what was not.

I got my period when I was 12 years old. Thankfully, I had Annie, who was 15 months older than me. Annie had had no one. We hadn’t seen my mom for over a year. She’d been arrested several times and gradually quit calling. The last time I’d seen her, she was living in her car and missing teeth. Unable to afford cocaine, meth filled the void. “Sometimes I wish she was dead,” Annie said once. “It would be easier to explain to people.”

Slowly, I let go of my mother the way everyone else had. Our family began to mend. As time passed, people forgot about the fights, the squad cars, the restraining orders. And our family flourished. My freshman year of high school, I was voted homecoming queen for my class. My dad beamed. He took me to a posh department store and bought me a $400 silk gown, excessive for a 14-year-old. It was a sleek, black dress with thin straps—far from the gaudy turquoise and orange princess gowns the other girls wore. He had to walk me across the football field on game night, an event I half-dreaded because I would be the only person without two parents. He wore an expensive dark suit, a full-length leather coat and carried a hunter green canvas umbrella. He looked powerful, and I felt proud to be on his arm.

My dad treated us like adults and taught us good taste. We went to bookstores, took lavish vacations and dined at five star restaurants. He taught me to pair calamari with chardonnay and always order hors d’oeuvres. He also struggled. A lot. Mainly with things mothers are good at, like dates and details. He made the local news for legal wins (a benchmark sexual harassment case against the Johnston Police Department) and legal woes (nine arrests for OWIs and involvement with a multi-state gambling ring). He was not an archetype father, but he was candid.

Being that he was a lawyer, he had a gift for giving excellent advice. He said things like, “Stop trying to find reason with unreasonable people,” when snotty girls bullied me about my mother in high school. And in college, while I was going through out-patient treatment for an eating disorder, he called me and said, “We know you can lose the weight, so why don’t you put a little on. You can always lose it again.”  I had a propensity to push myself too hard. “You get this from me and I hate that you do, but you’ve got to slow down or you are going to wear yourself out. Trust me, I know.”

My dad owned his own business, practiced law 60 hours a week and played poker on the weekends. He drank, he gambled and he ran himself ragged raising us. He did it alone. His heart gave out on his afternoon run on June 29, 2011. He was 57. My dad had many vices, but he was one hell of a man.


About the Author

Donna Brooks

Donna Brooks is an MFA candidate at Queens University of Charlotte. She was a finalist for the 2013 Iowa Review Award in nonfiction and a shortlist finalist for the 2013 SFWP Literary Award Program in nonfiction. She lives in Sioux City, IA with her husband and daughter.

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