MY MOTHER, MYSELF

When I was a little girl, I endeavored to stay out of my mother’s way as much as I could. Sometimes it was unavoidable—meal times, for instance. My mother cooked a lot of organ meats (offal) in the early days and it was useless to say you didn’t like or wouldn’t eat something like – brains. I didn’t mind liver and onions or my mother’s kidney stew (that was before any of us really understood the function of kidneys). I hated her library-paste rice and cabbage that had cooked from 9 in the morning until 6 at night. Well, eventually—when I became an adult and interested in cooking, I realized that it wasn’t the food I hated; it was the way my m other cooked it. Virtually everything was overcooked—cabbage bore no resemblance to a vegetable after being cooked nine hours. All of us loathed something on the kitchen table at meal time. I know my brother Bill hated brains, too, and  my sister, Becky, could throw up at the sight of butter beans or lima beans. My worst enemy was Hasenpfeffer. This was sweet and sour rabbit that has marinated for 3 days before being cooked. We had it maybe once a year when my father went rabbit hunting. He would clean the rabbit at the kitchen sink—that probably added to my horror. I knew we’d have rabbit and I would have to eat it. You had to sit at the table until you ate whatever was laying there cold and unappetizing on your plate.

As an adult who lived many years with a husband who often didn’t work and our income was always uncertain, I came to realize that my mother did the best she could with a $10 a week grocery allowance. I also understand that she overcooked everything. (I imagine HER mother overcooked everything too) – but mealtimes were often the bane of my existence.

My mother had a temper. You didn’t want to cross her. I tried to stay under her radar – my two younger brothers were always in trouble, especially at bedtime. They would horse around until my mother tired of warning them from the bottom of the stairs. Then she’d call in the troops – my father would take off his bedroom slipper and go upstairs and to smack  both of them with it. Then they’d cry. I tried, as a young child, to keep them out of trouble by having one of them sleep in my room with me. My sister Becky and brother Jim were only 15 months apart so they were often fighting each other too – once, my mother broke a plate over Becky’s head because she and Jim were arguing and my mother was trying to talk on the phone. I think she was hardest on Becky—to add fuel to the fire, Becky had a temper TOO and would not cave in. She fought our mother tooth and nail. I have memories of seeing my mother pulling my sister’s hair—I have no idea or memory of what for. My mother could get really physical with any of us.

Bill probably suffered the least because a) he was born on mom’s birthday in 1946 and b) he was mom’s favorite, and c) he was terribly sick when he was 4 or 5 years old and in the hospital for a long time. (*they thought he had polio but he didn’t. He was never actually diagnosed – eventually he just got better but was always slight and thin after that.)

Usually my father whipped the boys and my mother whipped us girls—with a belt. (My father’s temper was also something to behold and beware of – once he smacked me so hard I went flying across the room…but this isn’t about him, it’s about her).

I only have one memory of being whipped, hard, with the belt—I had taken some change off my father’s dresser when he was sleeping…and I put it into my piggy bank! (duh) – somehow they knew I had taken the money; possibly one of my parents saw me do it – but I would NOT admit it…the beating went on until Becky found the money in my piggy bank.

When I was about thirteen (and now right smack on my mother’s radar) – we had argued over some issue–I think it was over my choice of friends—and she came towards me to smack me…I said “if you hit me I will hit you back”. Oh, boy. That was the beginning of a firestorm that wasn’t put out until I was 17 or 18 years old.

She didn’t hit me again, I don’t think – but that incident led eventually to the smack from my father that sent me flying across the dining room. For the most part, however, Becky fought with Jim and Biff fought with Bill – so I steered clear and if I had any battles they were with my two best friends, Carol Sue & Patti. We’d fight and make up on a daily basis (and are still friends today). I tried my best, as a little girl, to look after my two younger brothers and was left in charge of them from an early age on.

Becky got married when she was 15 but I don’t think she was in charge of them as much as I was. (*She undoubtedly WAS when I was too young to be left in charge of them – I just don’t remember it). My parents went out a lot. They had his bowling league, her bowling league and their bowling league. I think they were both usually the league secretaries as well – it was a really big deal in our household.

I am sure that by the time I was eleven (and Becky would have been 15 by then) I was babysitting my younger brothers. Gradually I began babysitting for neighbor families as well as my sister, when she became a mother. I was 14 when Tina was born so Becky had to be only 18. Babysitting was my only source of income—not income from my parents; they never paid me to watch my brothers. Babysitting for others was the only way I could get any money. My mother begrudged every penny you could get out of her. I seldom had any money to buy school paper and was always borrowing things like paper from classmates. (It’s probably why I almost always have reams of lined school paper on hand to this day. It’s an obsession.)

I would go without rather than ask either one of my parents for ANYthing. I’m sure they must have given me bus fare when I was in high school – I just don’t remember it. When I was about 11 or 12, the two women who rented rooms from my grandmother began paying me $5 a week to clean their apartment. That was so fantastic—most people underpaid me for babysitting; it was supposed to be 50c an hour but I would babysit for hours on end and then get something like $2. I was buying my own clothes, shoes, underwear and school supplies at an early age.know how I ever managed to buy books too—I do know that what I bought, I found in thrift shops for 25c each.

My mother’s attitude about money was – SHE never had anything growing up so why should we? SHE did without so, so could we. My mother was never one to think or feel that she was in a position to make her children’s lives better than hers was. She was a begrudger. I remember one time in Florida—Bunny and Jim and I were there, along with Julie—Jim’s youngest child…and mom – so it was after my father died. Maybe at that same time. Anyway, Julie took a lot of cottage cheese on her plate and my mother commented on it. Jim said “what does it matter, mom, if she EATS all of it?” – and I think mom backed down but she resented Julie, I think, more than most of the other grandchildren, because of Jim. Jim looked after mom after dad died and was more involved in her life than the rest of us.

But getting back to my childhood…I have dig deep to remember things; I think I began blocking a lot out of my mind from an early age on because there were so many incidents that – when I hear about them from a sibling – I am astonished; I just don’t have any memory of it. I hid in my room or in the cherry tree in the back yard or on the landing at the top of the basement stairs. Reading, always reading. Once my mother followed me upstairs where I sat in tears, reading Nancy Drew, after some argument with my mother. She said “Real life is not like those books you read, Sandy. You need to find that out”.

Well, I didn’t want my real life. I wanted Nancy Drew’s with a housekeeper making cinnamon toast. (cinnamon toast became one of my comfort foods well into my adult life. I would even make cinnamon toast for my bosses when they were having a bad day. I often imagined myself running away, when I was very, very young. I’d daydream about where I would hide and live on my own in the woods, totally unrealistic – but that was an escape tool.

It seems to me—my childhood as I recall it—my mother was always screaming or yelling about something…NOT with my father – just with us kids. Whatever battles they had were fought pretty much in private. My mother also resented—deeply—our relationship and love for my father’s mother, our Grandma Schmidt. We all adored grandma—in reflecting on that, I think it was because this was one person in our lives who gave you unconditional love. We’d go to grandma’s at every opportunity. My mother didn’t like that either. She RESENTED our love for grandma but wouldn’t do anything to change it or make us want to be around HER.

My mother spent a lot of time in St Francis Hospital – there was an annual get-away—she would have a nervous breakdown – or (I suspect) some were miscarriages. Once after a miscarriage (some of which may have been deliberate attempts to end a pregnancy) she had a blood transfusion which led to her having hepatitis. I think it was generally referred to as “yellow jaundice” back then – she was in and out of the hospital many times, one winter. Sometimes my grandmother was there to tend to us, sometimes it was an aunt. (I used my mother’s illness to get out of trouble at school for not having my homework done). I think I did a lot of the babysitting and maybe some of the cooking that winter. I know by the time I was 12 I could cook meals.

Time passed. My mother became an alcoholic (her father had been an alcoholic—I think possibly some of her siblings as well. My mother was a beer alcoholic but it was well hidden if it started when I was still a child—she was an out and out alcoholic by the time they were raising Scott & Susie, whose memories of that were really bad. Susie wouldn’t bring girlfriends home; once she entreated dad to intervene because Susie was embarrassed about mom being drunk in the middle of the day; he refused. They both drank especially at bowling (I know from experience how that works) – my father had a wake-up call from a policeman who knew him stopping him one night on his way home. He told dad either give up the bowling or give up the drinking. I only know about this second-hand from my brother Jim. My mother was pretty much drunk throughout my father’s funeral and the aftermath. What STOPPED her was a car accident she was in, when she went to buy more beer—this was some time after dad died. She quit drinking and didn’t start up again until Ron came along and introduced her to fuzzy navels and other mixed drinks. Either way, her alcoholism contributed heavily to her dementia – all of which is another story. You can see from photographs taken at my father’s funeral, et al, that mom was six sheets to the wind.

I have to say, though – what was our salvation, as children—is that we had each other. We may have been a lot closer to one another than many large families of our time. We always had one another especially as we got a little older. My brother Jim and I double dated and hung out with the same friends until he went into the air force. I babysat for Becky and we became closer – I had my own room in her house on Trevor Street, where she was living with her husband Sam at the time they split up. I would take my two younger brothers with me wherever I went—even on dates to the drive in! I took them downtown once a year for us to do our Christmas shopping – I was the big sister, always looking out for them. As a unit, we were very close to one another. I can tell you dozens of stories of the things we did together, places we went to – I traveled with my brother Jim on his business trips for years…would take vacation time from work to go with him. I traveled with Becky & her second husband Bill on a few occasions – once in particular was from LA to San Francisco – that was the year Becky & I became interested in lighthouses. In the late 1990s Becky & I flew to Michigan and drove around Lake Michigan looking for lighthouses. I discovered – what is great about traveling with a sibling is – you are interested in the same things. Traveling with Jim was a luxury – he booked the hotels and motels and did all the grunt work. I just went along for the ride and/or sometimes to do some of the driving. Those trips were some of the best experiences of my adult life. But I digress.

It was in the 1980s that we adult children began to notice mom’s memory lapses but Ron managed to cover up for her and Jim refused to see what Becky and Susie & I were seeing – until it was so bad that Jim HAD to step in and do something. By then mom’s mind was pretty much gone. Eventually she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Perhaps there is a little poetic justice for her memory loss. I remember once, when I had done something wrong – my mother told me you know, Sandy, parents forgive their children for what they do but we never forget. She was telling me I was forgiven for what I had done but she was never going to forget it. She DID forget it once her memory was gone.

My mother had to be put into a nursing home when Bunny & Jim—and hired help—could no longer control some of her behavior – hiding feces, smearing them on herself – things Bunny could not handle. Mom spent about 4 years at Luther home; as Jim was driving her there, she began to cry and said in a flash of clarity, “so, it’s come to this, has it?” (*Ron had terrorized her for years that she would end up in a home). She was very well treated at Luther Home and Jim & Bunny always saw to it that she had weekly shampoos and hair styling, and had her nails done. Becky and I went to see her once – she said “Oh the girls are here” but didn’t know who we were or could talk to us after that. Susie & I went to see her once, and she did the same thing – she said “oh, my baby is here”– but looked blankly at us for the rest of that visit. I’m sure that the staff at Luther Home often wondered why, out of seven children, she seldom had visitors other than Jim, Bunny, and Julie. Well for one thing none of the rest of us were in Michigan but it goes so much deeper than that. My brother Scott could never forgive her for the damage she did to his soul and his psyche. Susie and Scott should never have been born. What WERE they thinking? I was 17 when Scott was born (and his primary caregiver until I got married) and I was 21 when Susie was born. My mother was 40, when Scott was born – my father 42. Mom was 44 when Susie was born, my father 46. (my mother once said to me “I can’t imagine a home without children in it” in reference to having Scott & Susie. But it was such a lie – they didn’t want to put the TIME in to take care of their two youngest children. I don’t think Susie has the scars that Scott has – and my mother was an alcoholic by then. It’s a wonder neither one of them had fetal alcohol syndrome…Scott did become an alcoholic himself and ended up in jail many times until his girlfriend Carlotta got him under control. (She is a lot older than he – I think he needed a mother, not a wife.)   Jim and I moved to California when I was 21 and in part that was to escape my mother.   When my parents visited us – in 1965 and a couple of other times – everything was peaches and cream. I had learned to get along with my mother. Having children of your own makes that possible, I think. And as an adult, I discovered I enjoyed my father’s company.

In retrospect, a lot of this doesn’t sound grievous enough to think of my mother as a hateful or difficult person. I think she resented all of us. She resented our love for grandma Schmidt. She resented our existence. There were never any hugs or kisses until we became adults and WE initiated it after Dad’s first heart attack. I don’t recall ever being hugged or kissed by either parent, when I was a child.

After my father passed away, Jim asked her one day what she wanted to do. She said she wanted to learn how to dance – and so she did. The dancing also led to her relationship with Ron, unfortunately. I think my mother could have led a rich and rewarding life if she had never married, never had children. Maybe if she had BECOME a dancer at an early age. We were always in the way.

Damage to a person’s psyche can take many different forms, I think. The knowledge that you were not or are not wanted, that you are just a body to keep around to help with the cleaning and the ironing. I was doing the family ironing by the time I was 12, standing on a cold cement floor. I spent hours doing the ironing – which probably contributed towards my bad legs today. I couldn’t go anywhere or do anything unless I had all of the ironing (except dad’s bowling shirts) done. Pre-permapress! Virtually everything had to be ironed. I also was expected to mop the floors and dust and look after my younger brothers. I was cooking meals after the age of 12 (if they went out) and taking care of Scott after he was born. When I finally got a full time job my mother announced now you can pay board. I REALLY resented that – I was still doing the ironing, cleaning, taking care of younger brothers—and now had to pay room and board? I felt like I might as well be married – and when I said as much to JIM, that’s what we ended up doing. (My brother Jim, years later, said he never understood why I did that – marry when I did – he thought he and I would get a place together when he got out of the AF. I said it was too bad he never shared that thought with me. It might have changed my entire life—for better or worse? Who can say?)

We all got away as soon as we could, to escape my mother. Becky got married at 15. Jim went into the air force at 18. I married at 18. Biff went into the navy.   Bill went to college but not in Cincinnati. Scott began breaking the law and ending up in jail. Susie went through some troublesome years and  then married Dave and had three children – one girl and two boys–and has been happy being a better mother than the one we grew up with.  ****

 

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