AFTER THE ARGUMENT with my mom, everything started spinning. Tilt-a-Whirl vertigo. Hoping a prescription for glasses would make the world appear the way it should again, I made an appointment with the optometrist for the morning of Friday, March 17, 2006.
The receptionist led me to a small examining room down the hall. The doctor had me read the eye chart, then asked me to identify a series of letters through various lenses. He dilated my pupils and checked the backs of my eyes. My vision, he declared, was twenty-twenty.
“Then why does everything keep spinning?” I asked.
“It’s probably neurological. You’d have to get more tests to know.”
I walked back to campus wondering what kind of disorders he had in mind. Turning off Waterman Street, I passed through the brick archway leading into Brown’s campus. Students were streaming to and from class, pouring out of buildings, playing Frisbee on the muddy quad. My cell phone started ringing and I hoped it was my mom calling me back. Normally I talked to her a few times a day. I thought of her as my best friend as much as my mother.
But everything had changed three months earlier: New Year’s Eve, my twentieth birthday. I’d chosen to spend the night with college friends instead of with my mom, and it had cost me. She’d thrown me out of her apartment the next day, and our argument had ended in my father’s driveway, where she stopped the car only long enough to toss my clothes onto his lawn and tell me that this was what I’d wanted. Since then she hadn’t answered my phone calls and I’d seen her only twice.
My sophomore spring had been marked by mysterious bouts of vertigo. I kept hoping my mom would stop being so stubborn and just call me back. I reached for my phone as I cut across the quad toward my art history class, which started in five minutes.
My brother’s name appeared on the caller ID.
“Have you talked to Mom today?” Brad asked.
“Her boss called and said she didn’t show up for work.”
“Maybe she went to New Hampshire. I have class now.”
“You have to get home.”
But he didn’t have to tell me twice. Immediately I knew something was wrong. My two older brothers and I always knew where our mom was. We talked to her morning, noon, and night; even at work, she never silenced or shut off her cell phone. While we were growing up, she’d attended every sporting event and school function, juggling a full-time teaching job as a divorcée with primary custody of my brothers and me. Until our overblown argument on New Year’s Eve, she’d been completely dependable and I could always reach her.
She was never late. If she needed to call in sick, she did so by six a.m. This was the first time in fifteen years that her boss had to dig up her emergency contact info, which listed Barbara Ann—our mother’s closest friend from the Massachusetts suburb where we’d grown up—as the person to call if something was wrong. Barbara Ann had called Brad, who immediately called our older brother, Chris, and me.
“Go now, Lindsay.”
My family refers to me by my full name only when there’s a problem.
“I have to take an exam at one. I’m leaving as soon as I finish,” he said.
A junior at Cornell, Brad was sequestered in upstate New York and his drive home was at least eight hours. I could make it from Rhode Island to Mom’s apartment in Massachusetts in two and a half hours by train. Considering I didn’t have a three-hour economics midterm to suffer through first, I knew I better get going.
Students strode by me as I stumbled to a nearby bench. I could feel another round of vertigo coming on, the ground swooping up to meet the sky. The four barrels lining the path started to spin: Trash, Paper, Bottles, and Mixed Containers. I shut my eyes to still the chaos. I gripped the edge of the bench and waited for my best friend Cassidy to meet me before class, like always.
“What’s wrong?” she said. “You look sick.”
The bells rang out, signaling twelve o’clock classes.
“I can’t go to class.”
The last of the stragglers disappeared into buildings around the main green as I told her about my mom not showing up for work. We hurried off toward our dorm. Cassidy and I had met a year and a half earlier in an art class. She’d arrived from Vermont with a unicycle and an old guitar, which was enough to impress me. Sophomore year we were sharing a dorm room and trading thrift store T-shirts and beaded necklaces.
I threw my toothbrush and a change of clothes into my backpack. Cassidy looked up the train schedule online.
“The next one leaves at one thirty. C’mon, you should eat first,” she said.
We went to the dining hall and I got my usual meal of salad and Diet Coke. The students around us were maddeningly carefree with their soft-serve cones and their campus newspapers. Instead of waiting around for the train, I felt like I should be hitting the road immediately, borrowing a friend’s car or hitchhiking. I stabbed a fork at my lettuce as the dread in my stomach turned to nausea. Cassidy kept saying it would all be fine. I pushed my plate away and looked up at the oversize clock on the wall. I wanted to believe her, but the minutes were moving toward one o’clock impossibly slowly.
Cassidy reached for my hand as we walked downtown to the train station, her fingers glinting with the silver rings she always wore. My backpack thumped against my spine. I wanted to be overreacting, wanted this to be a false alarm, but something in Brad’s voice had faltered from his usual tough-guy stoicism.
I hugged Cassidy and bought a ticket for the northbound train.
“I’m sure it’s just a misunderstanding,” she called across the terminal.
The train was packed with people leaving Providence for the weekend. I took the window seat beside a blue-suited businessman and began scrolling through the contacts saved in my cell phone. Starting with the A’s and working my way through the alphabet, I called friends and relatives—many of whom I hadn’t spoken to in months, if not years—to ask if they’d heard from my mother lately or happened to know where she was. I tried to sound casual. I phoned old friends we’d sailed with every summer in Rhode Island, soccer moms from our hometown of North Andover, and the neighbor across the hall in Mom’s apartment building in Newburyport. I called information to track down more numbers. Her friends were quick to assure me that she probably just needed a long weekend away. I thanked them and moved down the list, feeling dizzy and trapped on the slow-moving train. My phone started to beep. I called my brother Chris and told him to pick me up at the Newburyport station. He’d left his office job in Boston and rushed to Mom’s apartment as soon as Brad had called a few hours earlier.
I sat pinned against the window, restless at every stop. My phone battery died halfway down the list of people who might have said, “Your mother is right here.” After an hour the train reached South Station in Boston: the end of the line. I got off and transferred to the Newburyport line, anxious to keep going. Another hour ticked by as the second train slid up along the coast, finally pulling into Newburyport. I was the first one off the platform.
Chris honked from the parking lot and I ran over and got into his Ford Explorer. He’d been pacing our mom’s apartment for the past few hours, trying to figure out where she’d gone. The driveway was empty; her car wasn’t there. Chris said he’d even called the police, but they told him a person wasn’t officially considered missing until seventy-two hours had passed, unless we had reason to suspect a crime had been committed. Even after Chris explained that skipping work was extremely unusual of our mother, the police officer said there was nothing he could do until Monday. We should try to relax; she probably just went away for the weekend.
But even as Chris told me that he’d called the police, I resisted the idea of involving them. As scary as it was to not know our mother’s whereabouts, I had no doubt that my brothers and I would find her. We knew her patterns and all the likely places she might have gone. Beyond her unswerving reliability, Mom had raised us in an air of intense privacy; as kids we weren’t supposed to tell anyone that our parents were divorced. Calling old friends to ask if they’d recently seen her made me feel like I was breaking her rules, but already I could sense that something more important had snapped.
As soon as I got in the car, Chris handed me our mom’s red suede purse, saying he’d found it in her apartment. Mom had given me this bag for Christmas two years earlier, and I’d returned it to her when I grew tired of it.
“Start looking through there,” Chris said.
“She always takes her purse.”
“What am I looking for?”
“Just look, Lindsay!”
At twenty-four, Chris was four years older than me, old enough to boss me around. He resembled our mom more than Brad and I did, with his narrow nose and chestnut hair, his kindness and quick temper. I started digging. Mom’s Wet n Wild lipstick was down to a dark red stub. I sifted through her drugstore reading glasses, a scattering of receipts and blank sticky notes, a handful of spare change, a hairbrush tangled with strands of dyed brown hair, a bottle of beige foundation, and her black wallet, bulging with credit cards, small bills, and creased photographs of my brothers and me. I couldn’t imagine where she would be going without all her essentials. I threw the bag on the floor and told Chris to drive faster.
A few minutes later we pulled into the driveway of the white clapboard house on High Street. Mom had been living in an apartment on the third floor for the past year and a half. I’d been preparing to leave for my first semester of college when she announced that she was done with North Andover.
“The boys are gone and you’re leaving too. Why would I want this big old house anymore?” she’d said at the time.
So Mom sold the house we’d grown up in amid talk of starting over. She rented an apartment in Newburyport, a picturesque coastal town forty minutes from North Andover, where she planned to make new friends, find romance, lose weight, and do the things that amount to a second chance. We didn’t know anyone in Newburyport and weren’t sure why she was moving to a town that would double her commute to Woburn, where she worked as a special education teacher. My brothers and I didn’t question her motives, though. With the ocean just down the road, her wood-beamed apartment seemed like a fitting place to start over. If Mom had any fears about a new beginning, she kept them to herself.
I took the stairs two at a time, up three flights, and reached for the spare key above the door frame. I threw open the door wanting to believe that Mom would be waiting on the other side, ready to put this whole misunderstanding behind us. The apartment was cluttered, same as always—books stacked beside the couch, an empty coffee mug on the table, and Mom’s brown corduroy blazer draped over the back of a chair. It looked like she had just run out to the store. Needed eggs, maybe milk. Like she’d be right back.
But her key chain was hanging on the hook in the kitchen, crammed with at least ten keys, including the one for the Subaru Outback she’d bought a few months earlier. I never understood why she toted so many keys—I couldn’t imagine what they all opened—but along with her purse, Mom took this hefty ring wherever she went.
“Chris, did you see this?” I said.
“She must’ve taken her spare car key.”
“Then she won’t be gone long.”
After plugging my cell phone in to charge it, I emptied the purse and made a paper trail of receipts and sticky notes, trying to retrace our mom’s footsteps. A crumpled receipt from an Irving gas station near her office in Woburn, her Visa card swiped at seven fifteen a.m. on Thursday, March 16. This implied that she’d gotten to work the day before about a half hour earlier than the other teachers, who came in at eight. My mother was always punctual and often early, but never late. Her boss was alarmed enough to dig up her emergency contact info when she didn’t show up by midmorning.
A receipt for groceries purchased at Market Basket four days earlier: milk, cheese, hummus, and French bread. Photos developed at CVS, a whole roll shot on the sand dunes of Plum Island, a barrier island between Newburyport Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean: sunsets, driftwood, and fishermen casting offshore. It all fit into her routine. I was about to give up and hurl the empty purse across the room when I noticed one more receipt, folded and tucked in an inner pocket.
“What’d you find?”
“A receipt for a Budget rental truck.”
The yellow copy, dated Wednesday, March 15, made more sense to my brother than it did to me. Apparently the moving truck was all part of the plan. Mom had recently bought a house in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, fifteen minutes south of the ski condo where we’d vacationed for years. After almost two decades of working as a special education teaching associate, our mother was looking forward to an early retirement within a few years. The apartment in Newburyport was never supposed to be permanent; she was just taking some time to figure out where she wanted to settle down. Brad had planned to drive home on his upcoming spring break to help Mom transport a storage unit full of furniture to her new house. The truck was scheduled to be picked up the following week.
I had always envisioned my mother by the sea—she had dreamed of running a bed-and-breakfast on a Rhode Island bluff we sailed past every summer—but she took a turn for the mountains instead. Normally she included me in every decision, right down to making the grocery list. But things had changed since our New Year’s Eve fight. We’d barely spoken since, and I knew next to nothing about the house she’d bought. Still, I hoped that’s where she had gone.
Chris called Budget rental and learned that Mom hadn’t picked up the truck early. My next thought was that she’d gotten in her car and driven north, wanting to map out the furniture arrangement in her new house or shop at the nearby outlet stores. Maybe her cell phone had run out of battery power en route. She would plug it in and call one of my brothers or me when she got there, but the worry was in the waiting. She phoned at least one of us every morning by the time she got to work. She was my morning alarm, and instead of saying prayers at night, I talked to her.
Chris had already called 411 and requested the phone number of our mother’s future neighbors in New Hampshire. Once connected, he introduced himself and asked if they’d seen any cars in the dirt driveway beyond their barn. Any lights on in the windows? They said the property looked deserted but promised to keep a lookout. The Budget receipt implied that Mom was following a plan, one she’d eagerly shared with my brothers and the details of which she’d stubbornly kept from me in the wake of our argument. Even if I didn’t know where the house was located or what it looked like, a house in the mountains made enough sense. For the past few years Mom had been saying she needed to simplify. Glancing up at the wooden plaque above her bedroom door that said just that, I held on to the yellow scrap of paper as if it were proof that everything was still moving toward a straightforward explanation.
There was also the possibility that she hadn’t gone north yet. Maybe she was just playing hooky and would come walking into the apartment any second. She would apologize for making us worry and relay an amusing story about her day off. Since this seemed just as likely, we decided to wait it out. Instead of chasing after her, it made more sense to remain at home base and wait for her to come back.
Brad got on the road at four, right after finishing his midterm. He had transferred from Boston College—Mom’s alma mater—to Cornell for his junior year. He called Chris and me at least ten times during his ride. We leaped for our cell phones, thinking Brad was about to say that he’d gotten hold of Mom, while he was hoping to hear that she’d just walked into the apartment. As the hours wore on, the calls became our way to keep Brad awake on his drive. After feeling exhausted for weeks, he had finally gone to the doctor a few days before. Tests revealed that he had mono, which explained his fatigue, fever, and sore throat. We were worried that he would fall asleep at the wheel and end up in a field full of cows.
On his sixth or seventh call, Brad told us to go to every gas station that Mom might stop at on her way out of town. He was hoping they’d have security cameras, hoping for a video clip showing a white station wagon pulling into the frame and a fifty-three-year-old woman pumping gas. How it would tell us what direction Mom took or where she was heading, we didn’t know. She’d bought a half tank the day before at the Irving station near her office, but we figured she’d top off if she were planning a getaway.
We left a note on the kitchen table before leaving:
We came home to see you. Call us.
C, B, and L
Mobil, Shell, Texaco, Getty—we checked all the Newburyport stations without any luck. The pumps were old and the signs displaying the prices had not yet gone digital. The thought of security cameras in such a quaint suburb was absurd. We got on I-95 north and looked for gas station symbols on the blue service signs that lined the road every few miles. Six p.m. and the sun had set without our noticing. The interstate pulsed with yellow headlights. We followed an exit toward a Getty station and entered the adjacent convenience store, where the clerk on duty was a few years younger than me. He flipped through the day’s receipts to see if he could find one that matched our mother’s credit card number, but we grew impatient watching him dig through the fat stack of paper slips.
“She drives a white Subaru Outback. Midfifties, five-four, chin-length brown hair, probably wearing jeans, looks like a mom. Anyone like that come through?” Chris asked.
“Lots of people come and go,” he said.
“Do you videotape the pumps?”
“The tape’s locked in the office, but the manager comes in at eleven.”
“Think he’ll be able to show us the tape?”
“Don’t see why not.”
“Okay, we’ll come back then.”
“Actually I might’ve seen someone who fit that description this afternoon.”
Music to our ears. But even if our mother had passed through, it told us nothing about where she’d gone next. Still, it was something.
Chris and I got back in the car. We knew it was time to call our father. In the seventeen years since their divorce, our parents had never learned how to get along. Mom had done her best over the years to convince my brothers and me that her ex-husband was not a good man, and even less of a father.
“We have to tell him,” Chris said.
“Fine. You call.”
He was probably in the middle of dinner, but like our mother, Dad always answered the phone.
“Dad, it’s Chris. Something’s wrong.”
“It’s our mom.”
“What about her?”
“We can’t find her.”
“Can’t find her?”
“She didn’t show up for work. We’ve been looking for her all day.”
“She’s probably up at your ski condo.”
“She’s not there,” Chris said. “Brad’s driving home from Cornell and Lindsay’s with me.”
“Call me tomorrow. I’m sure you’ll hear from her by then,” Dad said before hanging up.
Chris slammed his fist on the dashboard. “He thinks we’re overreacting.”
“What did you expect?”
Chris swallowed whatever he was about to say and looked out the window. I knew Dad wouldn’t share our immediate alarm. Our mother was hardly his favorite person. It baffled me that my parents had been married for almost two decades. Mom acted out of emotion, Dad out of logic. He was a Princeton man, an engineer, and then president and CEO of a high-tech company until selling it at the age of fifty. He had also married another woman whose name was the same as my mother’s: Michele. An unfortunate coincidence as well as a constant reminder to my mom that she had been replaced.
Dad and his new wife lived in a beachfront mansion along with their beautiful towheaded child, Maggie. At fourteen years old, I suddenly had a new sibling. In my mother’s eyes, this was against the rules. A man was supposed to have only one wife, one set of kids. Even as my mom was so keen on starting over, it seemed she had never forgiven her ex-husband for seizing his own second chance.
Dad’s version of starting over included undertaking the restoration of an enormous old house as well as an early retirement so that he could be a stay-at-home parent. When he wasn’t occupied with Maggie, Dad was building cabinets, gutting bedrooms, landscaping, and otherwise trying to restore his property to a Gatsbyesque splendor it hadn’t seen in decades. He was a Renaissance man, still as fit and handsome as he was when my mother met him in college. His eyes were the same deep blue as the waves that broke on West Beach, right outside his bedroom window. By all outward appearances, his second chance had panned out quite nicely.
Chris and I drove around Newburyport for a while, checking parking lots for a white Subaru while speculating about where our mom could have gone. We went back and checked her apartment for any clues we might have overlooked. We called her cell phone several more times, but it continued to go straight to voice mail. Even though we still had at least an hour before we could view the gas station video, we got back in the car. Being on the move was easier on our nerves than sitting in the apartment; we were hoping to spot Mom’s station wagon or even pass her on the road.
But it was hard to tell what kinds of cars we were passing. March in New England meant the sun went down by six p.m. and the only light thereafter came from headlights, an indifferent moon, and a smattering of stars. Chris pulled into a liquor store parking lot off the highway. The adrenaline-pumped afternoon had collapsed into utter fatigue. Worrying was tiring. We reclined our seats, hoping to rest until eleven o’clock or until Brad called again, whichever came first. He’d been driving straight for the past six hours and had about two more to go. I shut my eyes, but I was no closer to sleep when a policeman rapped on the driver’s-side window and beamed a flashlight in our eyes. Chris rolled down the window and we both sat up a little straighter.
We knew the officer would be of no use until several more hours passed, so there seemed little point in explaining our predicament. Easier to just let him assume we were causing trouble outside a liquor store on a Friday night. We rolled up the windows and got back on the road, and for a few minutes I hated the cop, even though he’d done nothing wrong. It never crossed my mind to turn my frustrations on my mother, who had put us in this situation in the first place.
Ten thirty. We cruised through Newburyport, past the boardwalk and the waterfront restaurants, looping through the brick-faced center of town for the fifth or sixth time. Everything was closed. Coming up on eleven, we drove back to the Getty station. The same kid was sitting behind the counter, no manager in sight. Apparently the manager was taking the night off and had forgotten to press the Record button on the camera that morning. The attendant told us this without looking up from his magazine. We got back to Mom’s apartment just before midnight.
We did our best to not wake the neighbors, but the wooden stairs groaned and our footsteps echoed up through the halls. We opened the front door, willing Mom to be dozing in her easy chair, feet up on the ottoman, wineglass on the end table. But the lights were just the lamps we had turned on before leaving.
We called Brad to tell him about the dead ends we’d run into at the gas stations. He was still a half hour away, and I pictured him cruising in the fast lane, palming the steering wheel while going over the possibilities for the hundredth time: her new house, a weekend getaway, a dead cell phone battery, an explanation that would make perfect sense when she returned. Even as he told himself to stay calm, I knew he was as scared as he’d ever been, a fire-alarm fear difficult to explain to anyone but Chris and me—because we felt it too. It was completely out of character for our mom to take off without telling us. Her mood swings could be brutal, but her temper always cooled quickly, and she was nothing if not consistent in phone calls, care packages, and visits. She was the glue that held us all together.
I crawled into my mother’s bed, searching for her body’s indentation. Chris lay on the couch, a trail of receipts stretching across the floor in front of him. We called out to each other in the dark.
“She probably just went away for the weekend,” I said.
“It’ll make sense in the morning,” he replied.
Neither of us sounded convinced. I pulled the blankets up under my chin. Minutes or hours passed with the faint whoosh of cars on High Street and the dim beam of headlights across the ceiling, like signals from an erratic lighthouse. I finally fell asleep, tangled in the roses of my mother’s sheets.
© 2011 Lindsay Harrison
Missing is at first a page-turning account of those first forty days, as it chronicles dealings with detectives, false sightings, wild hope, and deep despair. The balance of the story is a candid, emotional exploration of a daughter’s search for solace after tragedy as she tries to understand who her mother truly was, makes peace with her grief, and becomes closer to her father and brothers as her mother’s death forces her to learn more about her mother than she ever knew before.
- Scribner |
- 240 pages |
- ISBN 9781451611984 |
- August 2011