I couldn’t remember the date of my mother’s birthday. I needed to find out because the U.S. State Department wanted to know. Otherwise, they wouldn’t issue me a new passport. My mother had been dead for over thirty years, and I had stopped speaking to her a decade earlier. No wonder I couldn’t recall.

To save time, I signed up for a free trial on Ancestry.com. Moments after typing my mother’s maiden name in the Ancestry site, I found her. I quickly located her birth certificate, which gave me the date I needed. Right after that, a photograph of a high school marching band in my mother’s native city of Cleveland, Ohio, popped up. Underneath the photo, my mother’s name appeared in the list of band members.

Suddenly, this thought came to my mind. I barely knew my mother. But thinking a bit more about her being in the high school band, I remembered that, yes, I had known my mother once played the clarinet. That must have been why when needing to choose an instrument to learn in the fourth grade, I didn’t just pick any old instrument but settled on the clarinet.

The clarinet we rented could be taken apart and stored in an accompanying case. I remembered now that the interior was purple, faded and stained, and smelled of dampness gone sour. Did I ever talk to my mother about when she played? I can’t recall. Neither do I know if she had a desire to be a professional musician. Had she ever said?

The truth is, no matter how much I try to dredge up a single conversation I ever had about my mother’s life, I can’t. Interestingly, of all the photographs I’ve collected over the years, there is only one in which my mother appears. In that photograph, she is sitting next to me on the floor. I am an adorable toddler, my fine blond hair a whirl atop my head, ripping into the wrapping around what must have been a Christmas present. Watching me, my mother is smiling.

As a teenager, I hated my mother, which adolescents often do. This was during the Vietnam War. My father, the commander of an air evacuation squadron, was serving in that terrible war, stationed at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, in Saigon. Looking back, I’m certain my mother must have been lonely and probably overwhelmed. A military spouse, she’d been left alone countless times, to raise three daughters on her own.

She consoled herself with alcohol, Seagram’s Seven whiskey mixed with ginger ale. We lived in a small town where nothing of interest ever happened. After dinner, my mother parked herself in the den, the only light a small black and white TV blinking in the corner. She drank and smoked by herself, all night long. I wanted a real mother, like my best friend Sherry’s elegant mom, to take me shopping for clothes that were in style and talk about where I should apply to college. Instead of Sherry’s mom, I got a sad and solitary drunk.

The image of my mother sitting alone in the den, drinking and smoking every night, is the only one that comes to mind when I think of her. I do not picture her playing the clarinet or smiling, as that younger woman was doing in the one photo I have.

I didn’t attend her funeral, even after my father, who’d divorced her years before and married someone else, offered to pay for my flight. My next oldest sister went and told me later that she didn’t recognize her own mother when she viewed her body in the casket. I rarely share the fact that I hadn’t seen or spoken to my mother for ten years before her death because most people can’t understand. When you don’t know a person, even if she happens to be your mother, not talking to her for ten years doesn’t make much difference in your life.

No surprise, I didn’t become a mother myself. For years, the last thing I wanted was to be married. I fell in love, or what I considered love at the time, which I later understood to be lust mixed with a yearning not to be alone. What kept me from craving what most people desired, marriage and family, a home and all that, was the fierce belief that if I stepped into that world, becoming dependent on a man, I would suffer my mother’s fate and be abandoned.

Growing up, I experienced the ground to be as it has felt during earthquakes in my seismically active state of California. The moves my family made every year, or every other year, occurred without warning. A life that seemed comfortable and familiar would suddenly be ripped apart, pulled off shelves and out of closets, packed into large cardboard boxes, and toted out to the moving van. We would land days or a week or two later in a town or military base none of us had seen before. There, I could get lost in the neighborhood, on the way to and from school, or in our new house. Nothing, I came to understand, could be depended upon, other than abrupt and unexpected change.

Added to the uncertainty were two people supposedly in charge. But especially as I edged into those terrible teenage years, I knew full well they were not. My father could be gone for days or months. When home, he was sullen and silent or loud and explosive, depending on how much he’d had to drink by that point. There was a period in which he took us out for Sunday drives. I don’t have a single memory of the scenery or any destination at which my family arrived. All I recall is that moment when my father admitted we’d gotten lost and how he easily ruined the afternoon in one single eruption.

My last years of high school when he was gone, my mother refused to be home alone at night. By then, my oldest sister was married and had her own child. The sister that remained and I were forced to choose which of us would stay home with my mother on a weekend night. This was the rule. It made no sense, as we girls didn’t spend a moment of our home time in the same room as my mom.

Nights I did go out, she waited up for me, to see if the car I came home in was the same as the one in which I’d left. This was another rule, whose purpose I didn’t comprehend. For some reason, my mother believed I was letting boys do things to me I shouldn’t have allowed. I didn’t bother to reveal that since she’d never explained the mechanisms of sex to me, I had no idea what might be involved.

A miraculous day arrived, though, when I managed to get out the door on my way to a new life. I had packed the clothes I was taking, bought with carefully saved babysitting funds, into the olive-green Samsonite luggage my mother had bestowed upon me as a graduation present. My brother-in-law drove the three hours from our dull New Jersey town to Washington, D.C.

I can still picture us walking across what I would later know as the Quad, the wide concrete expanse linking American University’s two women’s dorms. Putting myself into the scene, I once again feel a burning shame, my belly aching, as I notice all the other kids with their well-dressed moms. My mother has on some bargain basement dress whose horizontal stripes don’t line up and sandals that could never have been in style.

The next two years, my interactions with my mother consisted of listening to her never-ending complaints about the money she spent for my education. At school, my kind roommates agreed to take the calls, giving me a needed break from my mother, by lying that I was out. When I went home to her house, there were no roommates to save me. Eventually, I reached a breaking point. “I’m not going back,” I shouted at my mother; “You can keep your money.”

Before I’d turned twenty-one, I vowed to never take another nickel from my mom. I not only kept that promise. I left her house in that small New Jersey town, never to enter it again.

My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer nearly ten years later. My oldest sister let me know and asked if I cared to visit her in the hospital. I considered the request, for the first time feeling a bit of empathy for my mom, understanding that as a military spouse she’d had a tough life. Then I said no. Some months after that, she died.

I have reached an age where people almost never ask about my mother. Hardly anyone my age has a living parent now. It’s a relief not to have to explain that I can’t remember ever loving the woman who gave me life, as I feel certain she never loved me. It’s a relief not to have to say that when it came to parents, I effectively had none, the major reason I didn’t become a parent myself.

After finding my mother’s birthdate and filling it in on the form, I wanted to suggest that the government leave room for those of us with parents like mine to tell our stories. I would have liked to explain that I didn’t know my mother’s birthdate, me who jots friends’ birthdays in my calendar so I won’t forget to buy a gift or card, because I might never have known it. I want to say that people have children for all sorts of reasons, not always the best ones.

I would also like to say that while some people believe a village is needed to raise a child, I never lived in a village like that growing up. Instead, I lived in small towns and on military bases, where I arrived not knowing anyone outside my immediate family. I left those places, saying goodbye to the handful of people I’d come to know, understanding I would never see them again.

The story, of course, is longer than what could possibly fit on a government form. It is longer than anyone cares to hear, even when they ask questions like, “Where are you from?” or “Are you ready for Christmas?” The questions have no easy answers in my life, and so I am grateful each and every time they would have come up in the past but don’t now arise.

So, I’ll leave it at this. My mother’s maiden name is such-and-such. She was born on X date in a midwestern city. For a time in high school, she played the clarinet.

Patty Somlo’s books, Hairway to Heaven Stories (Cherry Castle Publishing), The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil) and Even When Trapped Behind Clouds: A Memoir of Quiet Grace (WiDo Publishing), have been Finalists in the International Book, Best Book, National Indie Excellence, American Fiction and Reader Views Literary Awards.