Not quite the cuckoo’s nest
Counterpointing my father’s rages was my mother’s mental problems. On this subject, clouds of secrecy have prevailed and I learned the full story, or a more full story, only after she died. Outwardly the most proper and respectable of women, even by Baptist standards, she was at home as unpredictable and terrifying, in her own way, as my father. In spite of the secrecy surrounding it, I managed to learn early from my grandmother that my mother had been hospitalized in the Florida state mental hospital in Chattahoochee for six months as a young woman, before I was born.
The official story is that the family was so poor during her first pregnancy that she suffered from complications related to malnutrition and having no access to prenatal care. For some reason, perhaps because all the state regular hospitals were full, the state put her into the state mental hospital. I certainly have problems with that version of the story, though it is true that it happened during the Depression and who knows what the state might have done with a poor sick woman in those troubled times.
Later and somewhat desperately, I pieced together a different version of my mother’s mental history than the official one, from remembered overheard scraps, when I experienced my own mental problems as a young woman. It was important to me to know how genetic my mother’s problems might have been so that I could assess whether I might have inherited any tendency toward mental illness and what were the chances that I would also be committed, especially since one can be or could be then, involuntarily committed. At the time I thought to pursue the question of my mother’s sanity, I was experiencing auditory hallucinations I now attribute to my own malnutrition.
My early scrabbled together version was not all that encouraging but it was far less discouraging than my final version. My grandmother had once said to a neighbor, in my hearing as a small child, that my mother had had a nervous breakdown after the birth of my brother. I knew from other overheard conversations, that my brother had spent the first six months of his life in the care of my Aunt Bonnie and I had, by then, figured out that my mother had been pregnant when she got married. I assumed the shame had caused the nervous breakdown, an assumption supported by my mother’s inexplicable deference to her older sister when any of their conversations led in the direction of my mother’s young womanhood.
I had my own experiences of my mother’s unpredictable behavior to go by, but I also had a particular memory I had never been able to explain without reference to the rumors about her mental condition. I was a strange little child and had many psychological experiences I feared to mention to others. I went through periods of unrelenting nightmares. I thought I heard God calling me. I sometimes felt as though I could remember being out of my body. One day I stood behind my mother as she brushed her hair and looked in the mirror over the dresser. I dared not look into mirrors too long because they seemed to precipitate my odd feelings, but this day I did. She seemed in a good mood, so I dared to ask her, “Mama, do you sometimes feel like your soul is not quite in your body?” She stopped brushing immediately, took a sudden breath and stared at my reflection in the mirror for a very long time and I knew, I knew, I had struck gold. Then, she shrugged, as if it had been a silly question, and said, “Of course not.”
I once asked my father what the action had been that caused my mother to be sent to Chattahoochee and he gave me some story about her drinking a glass of water and not stopping when she got to the bottom. The implication was that she had had some kind of hallucination. That story sounded fishy to me at the time, an insufficient reason for a six-month stay at Chattahoochee. What I learned from my sister after my mother’s death, however, made much more sense. I had asked my sister about it in the past but she had refused to tell me anything, claiming that Aunt Bonnie had told her the story but made her promise never to tell anyone. Evidently, Aunt Bonnie had not been thinking about me at the time.
This time I was determined to know everything there was to know and our mother was dead as well as our father so what possible difference, I thought, could it make. I was truly sick and tired of being constantly excluded from knowing everything my siblings knew. My brother had contributed his little piece to this feeling of exclusion, as well. There had been a notable fight when he was visiting home during my childhood in which my brother had said to my father, “Stop, Daddy, or you’ll say something you don’t want Barbara to hear.” When I asked him about it much later he had pretended ignorance. “Gee,” he had said with his smuggest face, “wonder what it was?” It was infuriating to always be the odd one out.
This time, my sister yielded and I learned that the precipitating incident was that my mother had attacked my father during a fight with a shovel aimed at his head and, according to Aunt Bonnie, nearly killed him. That was the secret Aunt Bonnie told my sister and my sister had refused to tell me, even when I told her I was worried about my own mental status and needed all the information I could get on my mother’s mental history. I have never forgiven her for not giving me that information when I so badly needed it.
My version now is that, whether because of problems during her pregnancy or not, my mother may have experienced postpartum psychosis. On the other hand, she certainly had reason enough to be righteously pissed at my father, there were probably a lot of shovels lying around handy in Ft. Green, and based on my father’s later violence that I myself experienced, who knows but what she was defending herself. And, if my Aunt Bonnie meant that she had hurt him enough to have nearly killed him, rather than that she swung the shovel and missed, the pressure from his family to involuntarily commit her was likely to have been intense. This version, generated much too late to be of any use to me, took inherited mental conditions off the table. Had I not already come to that conclusion in my own case, I would have been relieved.
I offer only one story to illustrate how my mother’s instability, whatever it was, affected me, though there are many from which to choose. Florida is the lightning capital of North America and when we moved from Cleveland, aside from my father, only the spiders and scorpions scared me more than the lightning. I had been close to lightning on a day trip we once took from Cleveland to Pennsylvania. It had begun to rain and we had run under a shelter in the park, where my mother was washing my hands from a dishpan when lightning struck a tree nearby. I believe I may have experienced some shock from that and I certainly experienced great fear. My relationship to electricity has been problematic ever since. I am shocked in situations that would shock no one else.
Once, when I was about eight, my father came home from work during a strong storm. My mother had just told me to take out the garbage, involving a walk through our large backyard to the metal garbage cans next to the wash house. Lightning was flashing everywhere, thunder was rolling almost constantly, the mango tree was being whipped savagely by the wind and I was old enough to know that metal draws lightning. The rain had not yet started.
As my father came into the kitchen, I was holding onto the sides of the back door screaming while my mother pushed on my back yelling, “I told you to take out the garbage and I mean you to take it out now.” Meanwhile, my sister was yelling at my mother, “Mama, Mama, stop it.” My father grabbed my mother, yanked her away from me and yelled at her, “Pearl, can’t you see the child is terrified? Are you crazy?” At the word “crazy,” a sudden silence prevailed. All argument ceased. I ran and hid in the closet and the garbage did not get taken out until after the storm had passed.
Years later, my father told me that he had considered divorcing my mother after my sister married and left home. He did not, he said, because he knew he could not take me and work as well and he could not bear to leave me alone with my mother. I did not think to ask him what the difference would have been between him working and my mother working but, upon reflection, I am grateful my prayers that they would divorce went unanswered.
On the Orange Blossom Special
My mother, suffering mightily from chilblains and arthritis, hated the cold in Cleveland and longed for the warm breezes of Florida. Born in Plant City, she had been a child in Little Rock, Arkansas, the home of her ancestors, clans upon clans of Gentrys, Prices and Kaufmans. But, she had hated Little Rock, as well, the mountains and the cold, and the Florida of her adolescence, flat and warm, was where she wanted to be.
In Cleveland, the early morning talk I remember was about Florida—my mother’s hatred of cold, my father’s fear of what kind of job he would have to take in the absence of a union. In the end, my mother won and we left our two-story house, where some income came from renting the upper floor, left my father’s union job, left the good schools and the neighborhood where we were probably the only working class family among, as my sister used to say, “doctors and lawyers,” left Audrey’s Girl Scout Troop, left the school where I had just entered kindergarten and loved it, and moved to our tiny house in greater Miami.
As satisfying as the move from Cleveland to Miami was for my parents in some ways, I remember it as the first major emotional trauma in my life and I suspect that the trauma part started before we even got out of Ohio. We were involved in a traffic accident. On icy streets, a woman swerved to avoid a dog and hit us head-on. I was riding in the front seat, between my father, driving, and my mother, in a time long before seat belts. My mother was the person most injured. Her face went through the windshield, made from the kind of pre-safety glass material that instead of splattering into flying shards, made a hole instead, a hole that would then shrink, closing in on whatever made the hole, such as a face.
I have no memory of the accident itself, and have wondered if my lack of memory of the impact suggests a concussion, but that blank spot in my recollection can also be explained by the fact that I was too small to see over the dashboard. My first memory is waking up in the front seat of the ambulance, seeing strangers on either side of me, hearing the siren and asking if I was inside a fire engine. The driver told me, “No. You were in a car accident and this is an ambulance.” Then I was in the emergency room on a gurney while my mother was being treated a few feet away. I heard a male voice say, “Keep the little girl in here, near her mother.”
My sister had a broken bone in her foot, and it was put in a cast. I was always told that I was not injured, but no one has ever explained to me why I remember waking up in an ambulance. Why would the medics have taken me along instead of leaving me with my unhurt father and brother if they did not think I might also be hurt? I now think that I may have suffered a pressure concussion, something unknown at that time, or that I saw my mother’s bloody face and fainted from shock, surely a psychological trauma. Either way, I did not believe at the time that I was unhurt and I have believed it less and less since then.
As an adult, I have been diagnosed by more than one psychologist as having post-traumatic stress syndrome. It is now thought by experts that a lifetime of smaller traumatic incidents can produce symptoms of PTSD in the same way that one or two major traumatic incidents can. There can be no doubt that my childhood was filled with terrifying moments and that my basic attitude growing up was one of fear, but I also think that whatever happened to me in the accident might be where the PTSD started.
My mother’s face was stitched up, leaving her with some scars that never disappeared but did fade over time. In reviewing my mother’s mothering, something none of the three of us children were able to avoid doing, probably off and on for the rest of our lives, the accident does provide me with one shining example of her good instincts as a mother, one that can counter some of the more horrifying memories. That is that she probably got that scarred face by instinctively throwing an arm across me when she saw the accident starting to happen, instead of bracing and protecting herself.
Every mother who has driven or ridden with small children in the days before seat belts knows that instinct. Fathers may, too, but I have never seen a father do this. If you are driving and have to suddenly brake, you straighten one arm over the child next to you to counter inertia and try to prevent the child’s face from smashing into the dashboard. If you are not driving and feel the brakes suddenly engaged, you do the same thing.
I was once driving a pickup truck full of small children in the cab with me on a heavily rutted mountain road when I got the front wheel caught in a deep rut and had to slam on the brakes before the rut directed us sideways into the canyon. I was unable to do the arm straightening maneuver because I was struggling with the steering wheel trying to get out of the rut. The child next to me went straight into the dashboard and got a bloody nose, thankfully not a broken one. I now believe that that or worse would have been my fate, except for my mother. My brain may have slammed into my brain case, but my face did not slam into the dashboard and there was no visible damage to my head or face. The only reason I can think of for that is that my mother held me back and became the victim of inertia, instead of me.
In any case, it seemed to me that my whole world came apart as a result of the accident. I had not really understood that we were leaving the only home I could remember, my kindergarten I loved, the plum tree, the streetcars, everything, forever. But, after the accident, that all began to become crystal clear as the family split up and life became chaotic. My mother and the three of us children continued the journey by train, the first train I remember riding. I guess it was the Orange Blossom Special made famous by the song of that name.
My father just disappeared, I had no idea where or why. In fact, he was going ahead of us to Miami, perhaps in a new car, since the old one must have been totalled, to find us a house and look for a job. What the accident might have done to our finances, I can only guess. There must have been hospital bills, the cost of a new car or repair to the old, the train fare. I have no idea what the insurance situation might have been, but it was fairly obvious to me from everyone’s behavior that this was a major unforeseen circumstance and that everyone had been shaken by it. It certainly must have put a clunker into whatever was the original plan.
My first memory of Florida is not Miami, but Ft. Green, the ancient owner-built house of my paternal grandparents. It consisted of several rooms and porches that had been built onto a central room according to no obvious plan whatsoever. It was rambling, had a tin roof, no sign of paint, no inside walls and no ceiling. You could look right up at the roof beams holding up the tin. When it rained, the sound of raindrops on the tin roof was so loud it made conversation difficult. There was no yard, only sand. There was no bathroom, only a falling down outhouse and to get water to cook with, you had to go to the back porch and use a hand-pump. I don’t remember ever seeing a bathtub and I cannot remember how anyone bathed. Perhaps it was with a washtub. I had never seen or imagined such a house.
I remember being there with many people, aunts and uncles, all strangers to me. My Uncle Buck must not have been there because I had met and loved him in Cleveland when he visited after the war and brought me a magical toy, a kaleidoscope, which was soon to be taken from me by my big brother by force and dismantled because he “wanted to see what was inside it.” I was the youngest person there and was the object of some interest to those relatives who had never seen me, Dink’s baby, the “Yankee,” born up north.
My grandfather, one of the strangest looking people I, and maybe a lot of people, had ever seen or have ever seen since was especially interested in me. True to his character, described to me later by my mother as having a “streak of meanness” in it, he began to torment me. Grabbing my arm and not letting me go, to see, I think now, what I would do. One of the earliest phrases I had learned in Cleveland was “get off my property,” something that had been yelled at me by a neighbor as I went down the street at age four pulling up yard decorations and putting them in my new red wagon because I could find nothing else to put in my wagon and I was as yet unclear on the concept of private property.
As I fought and wiggled and looked to my parents to help me, Grandaddy just held on and laughed at me. Finally, I stopped fighting him, planted both feet firmly on the floor and yelled at him, “Get off my property,” having no idea at all what that meant, only that it expressed anger. Everyone in the room, of course, cracked up, Grandaddy in particular. I was close to tears, tormented and humiliated in a way I never had been before. I was to endure a great deal of this from my extended cracker family as I grew up, an indifference to my needs as a small child that I never got over, but, in this instance, I stood my ground and glared at my grandfather and refused to actually cry.
I like to think that in that moment, I became his favorite grandchild. He had tested me for will, for independent spirit, for something like that, for whatever it was my mother did her damndest to eradicate from me later, but I had passed Grandaddy’s test with flying colors. He never saw me after that without saying, “Git off my propitty” and then laughing delightedly. He released me, cackling and slapping his knee, while I ran, probably to my father. It became a family story and I heard it told often later when relatives spoke about me, but the family story is not what I remember.
What I remember is a toothless, ancient, skinny old man with thin wisps of white hair and eyes so black they looked like tunnels if you looked right into them, an impression aided by the fact that they were sunken into deep sockets in his skull. I remember that he said little and was barely understandable when he did speak, something I had never seen before. And I remember his hanging onto me in a way I had never experienced before and not letting me go, laughing all the while, while my parents, inexplicably, looked on and did nothing to help me. And, I remember the surge of anger and rebellion and determination not to cry, even though I was constantly accused of being a crybaby by my older siblings, and then casting about mentally for the meanest thing I could think of to say and mustering the courage to say it right into his face. My grandfather, whether he consciously meant to or not, had forced me to show him resilience I did not at that time know I had.
We stayed for a while with my grandparents in Ft. Green, while my father searched for a house and a job in Miami. He found the latter as “maintenance man” in a paper mill, non-union because almost nothing, as he had predicted, was unionized in Miami. His salary dived, he was on call 24/7, worked overtime many nights and weekends at a normal rate of pay, I imagine, and the early morning conversations now contained complaints about the safety at the plant.
He also found the former, a “shell” house, that is, one with no interior walls, only studs, on a larger-than-average lot in an unincorporated area near the Marine base. You bought the shell and then finished the inside yourself. I remember sleeping on a “pallet” on top of a stack of sheet rock. My sister stayed with my grandparents for the next six months, while the rest of us went on to Miami to live in the new house while it was being finished. Apropos of the Depression, the most exciting part of the new house for my parents was that it contained a number of maturing fruit trees and plenty of room for a vegetable garden. Whatever happened, we could eat.
There were two mature avocado trees and two newly planted; a newly planted mango tree, a old grapefruit tree and two old guava trees. They soon planted a loquat tree and a papaya tree. My parents never got far from the idea that if my father lost his job, ever, as long as I knew them, they would always have food growing or a way to grow food. When, in the 70s, I dropped out of grad school and became a back-to-the-lander in Humboldt County, California, I was way ahead of most of my contemporaries by having spent so much time growing up transplanting tomatoes, picking and planting beans and pruning orange trees. I grew strawberries in a barrel for my 4-H project and I had a gardening badge in Girl Scouts. Few of my dropout contemporaries could best me in the food growing experience.
After Cleveland, I experienced Miami as pure hell. There were no girls my age in my neighborhood except for one with whom I had little in common, so I had no real friends. Down the street was a barn full of Doberman pinschers, inadequately confined so that there was always the danger that they would escape and attack whomever was walking down the street. One of the earliest things that happened to me was getting bitten on the ass by one of the dogs when I tried to follow my sister and her girlfriend to wherever they were going. Luckily, some neighbors ran out and chased the dog away. It turned out to be only a nip but it broke the skin through my clothes and was quite frightening, since the dog was as tall as I was. I was afraid of strange dogs for a very long time after that and my nightmares were filled with the feeling of the Doberman’s breath on my neck just before his teeth sank in.
There were inch-long flying cockroaches, enormous spiders and unrelenting mosquitoes. There were poisonous plants I was warned not to touch. I was urged to go barefoot, probably to save on shoe leather, thereby exposing my feet to sandspurs, cactus and ground itch. Almost the first thing that happened to me, after the dog bite, was stepping on a scorpion in my bare feet and being stung. I thought I had stepped on a lit cigarette discarded by my father, who was a chain smoker, but no such luck. My foot swelled so badly that the arch became convex and I was in bed for days. I remember some discussion between my parents as to whether it merited taking me to the hospital, but they were both Florida crackers and dismissed this and all of the evils as just something I would have to learn to live with. I was instructed, as always, not to be such a crybaby.
There was, however, a brief interval between the time of our arrival and the time my mother started working which I remember as a golden time when I had my mother’s full attention and companionship. This may have been the remainder of the school year that was in progress when we got there. Although I had been in kindergarten before the move, there was no kindergarten available in Miami, at least a public one. Since I was always the youngest person in any class I was in I believe that my mother must have somehow persuaded school officials to let me into first grade even though my birthday landed just on the wrong side of the cut-off date. I would enter first grade the following school term, but for the remainder of that one I stayed at home with my mother.
My mother was so happy during this period that I have wondered if she was placed on some kind of medication after the accident but perhaps it was just the return to the South that did it. She read me stories and taught me to read. She made cakes and ice cream from scratch, using the abundance of fruit growing around us. We did the wash together, me handing her the clothes from the basket to hang on the line. We listened to the radio together, Art Linkletter, a children’s show, the soaps. It was a golden time that was never repeated. As soon as I started school, she went to maid school and started working as a maid.
© Jentri Anders, 2016