“It’s incredible,” a man I’ll call Charles murmured, “how much you remind me of your mother. You’re her incarnation. You are her.” He winked, picked up his champagne glass, and toasted my mom, whom he called “his Anita,” and that we were finally meeting after a lengthy correspondence in one of the many rooms of London’s famed Oriental Club.
I didn’t want to be anything like my mother, but I couldn’t tell Charles that. She’d died a few years earlier from alcoholism, and her worst attributes — her self-pity, quenchless thirst, and the strong smells of her fragile body — were what I remembered most vividly.
She hadn’t always been a drunk; she’d had a career in environmental policy, traveled the world, and bucked many of the expectations put on women of her generation. She’d also endured many losses, including the death of a child and husband, and she had used these tragedies as excuses for drinking, invoking them so often as bids for unconditional sympathy that they lost any gravity. I was angry with her for throwing her life away and mine into chaos.
Charles had met my mother in the 1970s, when she was living in London with my father and working for the Sierra Club and he was working for another conservation group. My birth, and her addiction, were still a long way off. In 2012, he’d Googled her and instead of finding a Facebook page populated by pictures of grandchildren had found her obituary.
When he reached out to share his condolences, he told me that my mother had “captivated his attention. She had glamour and warmth, intelligence and humor.” He also told me they were soul mates. His sentiments were startling, not only because they were so extreme, but because a year before, another man I’d never heard of, I’ll call him John, had told me the exact same things.
John entered my life as Charles did, by contacting me after looking up my mom and learning she’d died. He was a few years older than her, while Charles was a few younger, and though Charles had a fine education and pedigree, John had neither. But their sentiments were eerily similar. John also said that he and my mother were soul mates and told me that she’d been “an amazing and wonderful woman. So full of curiosity, so engaging.”
What they shared was intriguing, but I wondered how seriously I should take it, and them. It seemed impossible that my mother had once been as extraordinary as they said, so beguiling that she had bewitched two men for most of their lives. I told myself that my mother wasn’t the woman they’d known, but someone created from memories and fantasies they’d visited again and again until she became someone bigger, more perfect, more theirs. We traded emails for months until I finally decided to meet them so I could determine if they were lonely old kooks or people I could trust — Charles in that posh London club, John at a diner near his home in rural Pennsylvania.
After telling me about the work he’d done with my mother, Charles poured more champagne and took a long sip. “I suppose you’re wondering if there was any sort of intimacy between us.”
“It’s OK if you had an affair,” I told him. “No judgment.” I meant it. I knew my mother had had affairs when I was young, so it was easy to believe she’d also had them before I was born. I hadn’t liked my father and took her extramarital activities as a bit of comfort. She hadn’t liked him either.