my mother’s family


The photos below have nothing to do with this post. I had no pictures to put with the post, so I just took a series that I was pretty sure would never make it to SkyWatch Friday. This is a sunrise about 3 weeks ago. The pictures were taken within about two minutes and I think include the view from every direction from my house.

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Before I started blogging, I hesitated quite a long time to do it, even though pressured to do it by two of my cousins. The main reason was time. I  knew I did not have time. I still do not, as evidenced by my irregular posting and visiting. But another reason is that I thought it was a bit narcissistic. I thought WHO CARES about the daily happenings of anyone else.  Before I dove in myself, I spent several months reading other blogs. I realized they are not all self-absorbed. (I do not read the ones that I think are.)

However, I have been thinking about my blog lately because one fairly regular reader and commenter once said something like “whatever your blog is about.”  I laughed (I often laugh at his comments; he has a wonderful sense of humor whether or not he means to be humorous.) because it is true.  My blog has no theme. I knew it would not, but it is glaringly apparent when compared to the blogs I visit. Most could be categorized as something. Mine cannot. It is about me. It does not get much more narcissistic than that. And this post will probably be the worst yet. Thank you to all you who come here even though the topics are so varied and there might be three sentences one visit and an epistle the next. And for putting up with me.

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Today I did not really want to say anything about September 11 because so many others have. I also find it irritating how something so tragic that drew a nation together for a few days (or an afternoon?) is now often used in a political sense to tear it apart. (Certainly not everyone, but I have seen plenty of  “Remember 9/11, and be sure you remember why this event makes me right in my political opinions.” I have seen this from opposing viewpoints. Can we just remember a tragedy without being disparaging?) I rarely mention politics in  this space because I hate politics. I hate extremes. I think all sides have extremes. I think the extreme left and the extreme right both want to take away freedom–just in different ways that appeal only to them. (My viewpoints make both sides upset, so if I really got into this, I would likely alienate my entire readership.)  I hate statements that have little other purpose than to be inflammatory. I hate it when people can dish it out but cannot take it.  So I choose to avoid the topic entirely–most of the time. Which is why I was going to avoid any mention of 9/11.  But something compelled me to tell my part of that day’s story. I was pregnant with Chic. I was at work. The tiny television in the Conference Room was on for people to watch the horrific scene over and over. (I am personally not a fan of watching the same tragedy over and over.) Then the Pentagon was hit. Just a couple of weeks before that Prince Charming had been doing an internship at the Pentagon. (Leaving my pregnant self home alone much of the summer.) What was horrible before was real then. But real for me was not, and will never be, what real was for the people who lived and worked  in New York City and Washington, D.C. on that day or who lost someone. They know real. The rest of us just speculate.

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In my car today, on the way to drop off some stamps and to pick up Chic, I suddenly started crying about my mother. There is  nothing special about today in relation to her, but maybe I was thinking about the 9/11 loss. Chicklet was talking to me, and I could not even speak. When I started blogging, I thought I would write a lot about my mother. About her life. About her death. About her 10-year dying process. But I have written very little. Some days I want to just unload it all. But part of me is afraid. The few times I  have discussed her before, the reactions have not been at all what I expected. My reason for wanting to share her story has to do with lessons learned. It is not about me at all. I do not want sympathy or consoling words. I want people to understand what happened and why. I guess I do not know how to say it in a way to make people understand, or else I am not ready. But today, I missed her.

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Last Friday (or Saturday, I don’t remember when it went up) I did a post and said I would see you on Monday. I did not. The day had several totally unexpected things happen (I spent most of the day in front of the computer working on things for Art Class), but ended well (and also unexpectedly) with an afternoon/evening with our “gaming friends” playing Settlers of  Catan–Cities and Knights. (And have been behind blogging since.)

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Now for some more random (and hopefully lighter than the first two sections) things…

1– I  have decided I do not like cooking much right now. Nothing has changed, really, but I get SO. MUCH. ACCOMPLISHED on days I do not cook. I am great at multi-tasking, but I think I hate it. When I cook, I want to focus on cooking. When I cannot focus on it, I think I would rather not do it at all.

2– Our electricity has been flashing lately for every thundercloud that goes over. I realize this is common in some parts of the country (southern Missouri, for example), but it is not common here. And it is starting to get on my nerves because I am at a computer so much of the time.

3– I have two times a day when I can think–really think. Those times are when I exercise and when I cook. (And cooking might involve so many other things that it does not count.) But I am thinking about a post relating to my aerobic activity which is biking (usually to school, but sometimes in the neighborhood). It will mostly be a rant, but I cannot get it out of my head.

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4– My husband is gone. He will be gone most of the weekend at a seminar related to his position at church. I hate it when he is gone. (For many reasons not the least of which he is not here to have water boiling on the stove to add to my bath when it gets cold–because I do not like running water in the tub because the wait for hot water is too long.)

5– Tonight’s bath is scented with Black Amethyst from Bath and Body Works. I was not into that scent much during the heat of summer, but I am liking it a lot again now. (Have I told you how absolutely glorious September is in this part of the country?)

6– My biggest project of the week has been doing my taxes. No, not estimated quarterlies, but the ones that were due on April 15. The last few years we have filed for extensions (even though we always get money back) because I do not have time to do them (and Prince Charming, forgive me, is useless in this area). But they have NEVER been this late. If I were married to Daryl (which I think is impossible because neither of us are lesbians, though neither of us oppose them and their relationships, and who also has a wonderful 9/11 post today), she would have divorced me by now for how long this has taken. Prince Charming is just happy he does not have to bother with financial things.

7– I really, really, REALLY do not like word verification on Blogspot. Really.

8– When I grow up, I want to be her.

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Since I took a blogging break to do some catching up (wise I was, because I got my annual March “crud” and would be too exhausted to move if I were still in catch-up mode) I have been thinking about what my first non-meme post would be. All kinds of ideas have been through my head, and most of them will probably make it to posts, but as usual, something hit me out of the blue. I was visiting another blog when I found this post:

http://whispering-hope.blogspot.com/2009/03/another-dont-make-me-slap-you-with-my.html

This post made me decide to write a little about my mother’s family. (A small part of this post is what I wrote in the comment I left for her post.) For those of you who have been readers of my blog for a while, you know that my mother died too young and that I want to tell her story.  But the story is long, and it is complicated, and it is mostly not pretty. And sometimes I do not even know why I want to tell it, but it seems to me there are lessons to be learned from it. I know that all through my own life, I have learned a lot about human behavior (mostly things to avoid) from my mother’s family.

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The first solid memories I have of my grandmother were when I was 4 or 5. She and my grandfather lived in the mountains in Colorado in a house that was mostly underground. I lived with my parents and younger brother in Missouri. I know my grandparents must have visited other than when my brother and I were born, but I do not remember. And I do not remember any earlier trips to Colorado. Maybe there were some, but it is possible there were not.  During that first memory, I have almost no recollection of my grandfather. He was quiet and patient, and I think mostly stayed out of the way because the hen of the house pecked him whenever he came too near.

My memory is of my brother and I helping bake Christmas cookies. It is almost as if I could stand across the room and see my brother and myself pressing the pink and green cookie dough with our chubby hands. We were standing on chrome-framed chairs,  silhouetted against the kitchen window which was high above the sink because it was at ground level.  I remember my grandmother’s voice that grated even then telling us to do this different and don’t do that. She had prepared the dough ahead of time and cut it into pieces for us, but not one piece that we touched was “right” to her.

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My grandmother was never a person who was loving to me. Even from this first memory, there is nothing stored in my mind about her being kind or doting–only correcting. The other main memory from this visit was of her dogs. She had two Chihuahuas, one blond and one black. The black one was my aunt’s dog when she lived at home. She had trained him to be mean. I remember walking with my back to the wall the entire visit, as far away from the dog as I could be so he would not bite me. But he still did. He ran across the room and grabbed two of my fingers and ripped flesh right off of them when I was possibly not being quite cautious enough. At this point my grandmother chastised me for getting too close. I can understand being severe if I were getting too close to the dog as a warning, but after being bitten (by a dog that probably should have been locked up says this animal lover), I think comforting, not chastisement would have been more appropriate. I never remember a single feeling of warmth and love coming from her.

When I was nine, my grandparents moved near us. My “other grandmother” had always been so kind, and I was hoping that my maternal grandmother living near us would make us close. It did not. I felt like I could never please her. (I later learned I was right about that.) But I had friends who had the BEST grandmother. My best friend was part of a giant family that spent weekends and holidays together at one another’s homes or at their lake retreats.  Everyone adored the grandmother to whom they affectionately referred as “Granny.” I so wanted to have a family like that. I loved that my friend and her siblings and cousins had a pet name for their grandmother. I called my grandmother “Grandma.” I thought about this for a while, and decided I would start calling her “Granny” as an affectionate term. I had a label maker. (You know, the ones in the 70’s that embossed sticky tape with white letters and numbers? I had to squeeze it to make the letters, not key them in and wait for them to print out.) I made a sticky label for my grandmother that said, “World’s Greatest Granny.” Looking back I have no idea why I thought to put “World’s Greatest,” but it was probably to win her affection.  I guess I was trying to repair something that I knew was terribly broken, but that I had no skills to fix. It was my 9-year-old attempt at covering her trespasses against me and completely forgiving and starting fresh, although until I was 30, I would always think the trespasses were my own fault.

My grandmother accepted my childish gift with all chilliness. I remember feeling deflated at her reaction, and knowing that yet again I had done something wrong, but not understanding it at all. In all fairness she stuck it to the dashboard of her car for a while, but I think that only served to remind her how much she resented it. She did not want to be called “Granny.” She did not like it. How could I say such a thing to her?  She told all her family who would listen and all her friends (who I knew from church) how disrespectful I was. I know this because this was one of the many times my aunts and people from church came to me demanding to know why I treated my grandmother so poorly.

MY GRANDMOTHER HELD THIS INCIDENT (AMONG OTHERS) AGAINST ME THE REST OF HER LIFE, which was 31 more years. My motives were pure and innocent, but she only resented my gift. She brought it up from time to time until she died. No, not always to me. My relationship with her ended much before her death, but her complaints about me sometimes would filter their way back to my ears. When she died, two of her daughters were present. My mother was not because she had already died. A couple of my cousins were present.  But most of the family was not. She did not die (or live, for that matter) surrounded by people who loved her. This was because she did not love people.

Is there a point to this story? Yes. But it is not about me. You do not need to leave me comments of sympathy about her treatment of me because I have dealt with that and put it aside long, long ago. But as I have said, there are things to learn from this. What I think can be learned here is that if children love you enough to call you anything that is kind in their hearts, let them do it! So what if it is not your favorite word! Because it is from a child or grandchild should MAKE it your favorite word! I never liked the word “Mama.” My brother and I called my mom that; I am sure that is what she called herself as we grew up. But I never liked it. I called her “Mom” when I was older. I taught my girls to call me “Mommy” and hoped that when they felt too old for that, it would go to “Mom,” or even “Mother.” But they call me “Mama.” I do not know why, but coming out of their lips, it is beautiful. They say it in all sweetness, and it is endearing to me.

A Sunday morning "Mama Sandwich."

A Sunday morning "Mama Sandwich."

So if a person decides to be so picky as to choose what s/he is called by a child and be hateful about it, then s/he should be willing to accept the consequences of alienating the child. It will not happen overnight, but that attitude will not stop there. It will pelt the child until they are so battered that they have to get away to recover and find out who they are.  And if the child is not strong enough to get out from that oppressive personality, then morbid selfishness will be passed to another generation.

As a positive way to end this, a little story about Grandma D. When she was first introduced to our family–on her honeymoon with my father–she walked in the door and hugged us all as if we were her long, lost family. We sat down and chatted. She treated my daughters like I am sure she treats her own grandchildren. She told them they could call her “Nana” because that is what all her other grandchildren call her. My oldest daughter (age 5 at the time) got my attention to take me away from the hubbub. She told me privately that she did not want to call her new grandmother “Nana,” but “Grandma D.” I asked why. She said because she did not have “Grandma Kate” anymore, and she wanted to feel like it was her grandmother. “Nana” did not seem like a grandmother’s name to her. I told her to tell my dad’s wife this. She did, and “Grandma D” graciously accepted the child’s love and has been know as such since.  When she dies, it will be as she has lived,  surrounded by those who love her, from old and new families.

Chicklet and Grandma D feeding the donkeys

Chicklet and Grandma D feeding the donkeys

Girl, Chic and Boy at the Salt River, AZ.

Girl, Chic and Boy at the Salt River, AZ.

My paternal grandparents had 24 grandchildren. My maternal grandparents had 7 grandchildren. (Or 8? Depending on how one viewed it. I never met the 8th one in any event.)  I have one brother, so that means I have 27 first cousins. That is nothing for some people, but it seemed quite a lot when I was growing up.

These first cousins span currently span ages from 18 years old to 55-ish. (An interesting note is that the oldest and youngest are from the same sibling of my father.) Although there is a giant age range, most of them are close to my age or older (up to 12ish years older).

Chic, Chicklet and Girl at Saguaro Lake

Chic, Chicklet and Girl at Saguaro Lake

On my father’s side of the family, the cousins I saw the most when I was really little were the oldest ones because those uncles/aunts were significantly older than my parents and well-established in life. My parents were poor, and my dad’s generous siblings had us over all the time for food and entertainment.  Those cousins were idolized by me. Most were in high school or beyond in those days before I was even in school, but I fondly remember some of the things they did with me.  (Not-so-fondly I still have a scar from my leg touching the exhaust pipe while riding behind one of my cousins on his motorcycle. Come to think of it, I have no idea why my parents even allowed that!)

First Cousins making Christmas cookies

First Cousins making Christmas cookies

As I got older, my paternal cousins changed. My oldest uncle divorced, remarried and adopted his new wife’s three children.  This new generation of cousins was closer to my age, and OH, how much fun my brother and I had playing with them. My uncle by this time had a swimming pool and acres of land. There was nothing more fun than going to their house.

When I played with my cousins, we always paired up or had teams. There was always an odd number, and someone was always left out and probably offended. That person was never me! When the boys played with the boys and the girls played with the girls, I was fine because there were only two girls. When we all played together I was fine because being the cousin instead of the sister, I was a novelty to the boys who sometimes fought to be paired with me in whatever we played.

First cousins at Incredible Pizza

First cousins at Incredible Pizza

I remember sitting at home and hearing my parents say the smallest thing that might indicate a visit to a cousin’s, house. My brother and I would exhange excited glances. Our ears would prick up for further information. Our bodies were on edge as our nerves were hoping against hope we could go play with our cousins.

On my mother’s side of the family things were  a little different. I will not go into that in detail  here because I did quite a bit in this post. What I will say is that neither my brother nor I were as excited to go visit those cousins, but it was not the fault of the cousins as much as it was the family rift that made it so unpleasant to be there. When we got there, we had fun with those cousins.  There was always a price to pay, however, so we would dread it until we actually got there.

My other maternal cousins were about ten years younger than me, and they lived in another country; we saw them about every three years. I used to really love it when they came because they probably idolized me the same way I had idolized my older cousins when I was little, and they were novel. Although they were from the same family from where came all the misery in our lives, they were far removed and not like that–at least then.

Girl, Chic and Boy dancing at the marshmallow roast

Girl, Chic and Boy dancing at the marshmallow roast

So now I am grown up, and it is interesting to me to know to which cousins I am now closest and are “my favorites.” It is not my childhood favorites, for sure! Most of my oldest cousins went their own ways and care very little what happens to me. That is not true for all of them, but most.  My younger cousins from another country now live in the United States, but they do not make the “favorite” cut, either. In fact, I am mostly of a mind that I do not care if I ever talk to them again. (Hopefully I will cover some of this later, but now is not the time.)

Chic, Girl and Boy in Salt River

Chic, Girl and Boy in Salt River

The cousins that mean the most to me now are the ones about whom I was most ambivalent in childhood.  They have been the loyal ones. They suffered through the same family (but in a much worse way than I did). They understand why I would not go to my grandmother’s funeral (and why we will all go to their step-mother’s funeral wearing party clothes).  They have always loved me. Even when we were little and I KNOW I could have been nicer, they loved me. Maybe then it was because I represented something so far from their own lives that they could only dream about it, but they could have resented me for that. (I have had plenty of friends who have resented my seemingly charmed life.) Not only did they never resent me, but they have stood with me in my own troubles. They have never judged me for the problems that have come my way or for my viewpoints that may not be like their own. (Though most of our viewpoints are amazingly similar–probably due to the unbelievable stupidity around/in which we were raised. I was raised witnessing it; they were raised in the midst of it.) And they are even nice, EXTRA nice to Prince  Charming even though there could not be found on this planet more polar opposites politically!   They are almost the sisters I never had. I say “almost” because they are sisters themselves, and I can never be to them exactly what they are to each other, but they are to me what I imagine sisters would be.

Second cousins in Salt River

Second cousins in Salt River

Something else about these cousins is that they are not my flesh and blood; they were adopted into my family. Their wicked step-mother was my aunt.  (I have always thought she adopted them because my father’s brother adopted children from a later marriage. She was always trying to keep up with people who were esteemed in some circles.) I would not even bring this up, but recently there was a question about why we were so close, and our children are so close, when we are “not blood.” To me this is a ludicrous question, but the answer, given by one of them was, “Because we grew up together!” To me it is more than that. I grew up with other cousins, too. But the three of us had shared experiences that were often unpleasant (definitely more so for them than me), and the three of us have a strength of character that maybe not all the other cousins have. The trials brought us together, gave us solidarity and gave us love and understanding for one another.

Chicklet, Girl and Chic in Salt River

Chicklet, Girl and Chic in Salt River

Now our kids are the best of friends whenever they are together, but thankfully without all the tenseness, struggles and abuse that we had. Maybe it is the word “cousins” that makes people close, not blood.

Note: The title of this post has been in my head for weeks. It was originally meant to be about my children and their cousins, and how although they do not live near any of their cousins, when they get together, they act as if they are best friends and have the best times. My kids play well with most kids, but it is different with their cousins; it is magic. (I was also going to briefly discuss 2nd and 3rd cousins and “removed’s.”) But when I started typing, the story above came out. I do not know why; it must have been meant to be.

And another note: All the river pictures were taken mid-December when we visited Arizona. It was not exactly warm, but it was nice!

 

Moon when we arrived at my dad's house on December 4, 2006

Moon when we arrived at my dad's house December 4, 2006

I have warned you that there is a 10-day (actually 11 if you count the first day) of family events in my life about which I will post. Today’s is the fourth of five. Tomorrow will be the last one.

This one is the toughest because it is not a happy topic, and most of the time I am a pretty happy person. I tend to look on the bright side of things and make the best of the worst circumstances. This story does not really have a bright side–or at least I have not been able to find much of one. And also, there is no way to tell the whole story at once which is why I do not know how to say it; there is way too much to say.

This is about my mother’s death. I have thought long and hard about why I want to tell her story, and I have come up with some reasons; however, I am not positive they are reasons to tell it. I believe there are things to be learned from her illness and death on many, many levels for any type of person, and that someone needs to tell her story because she could not.

My mother died on December 3, 2006, 9 days after her 65th birthday. She had been in Hospice care since October of the same year. My husband, my girls and I visited for a few days in October, then I returned with the girls for two weeks in November. Had she survived, I would have returned in mid-December.

When she died, she weighed about 80 pounds. During her “good years” and even during most of her illness, she had been overweight. She was tall and big-boned, so she carried her weight well. She was active, too, so that helped, but she was never thin in my memory of her. For her to be reduced to 80 pounds was a horrendous thing to see. She also had several bedsores, the largest of which was more than an inch deep and was about 10″ long and 5″ wide. (Once we brought Hospice into our lives, they provided a different mattress that we could  not procure before, and there was slight improvement in the bedsores before her death.) She had little ability to show emotion, and when these awful wounds were dressed two or three times daily, she could not cry or moan or move away. She sometimes flinched almost imperceptibly.  My worst memories may always be the witnessing of the changing of dressings. I never personally did it because I did not live there and was not accustomed to it and did not want to learn how to do it when I might hurt her more than those with experience.

So what killed her? I have mentioned before that she had been declining for ten years prior to her death. About 8-1/2 years before she died, she was hospitalized with seizures. This event was a turning point downward for her. It would be weeks before we knew what caused the seizures, but she never got better after that. For a while we believed she would get better. Some days were better than others, and we clung to those threads of hope as if they were our lives. I do not remember when it happened, but one day we all sort of realized that she would not get better, that we had to enjoy each day for what it was and make the best of it, because that might be the best day we ever got with her.

So the seizures did not kill her, though sometimes I wondered why they did not and wished they would have so her life could have ended quickly and painlessly rather than the many years she suffered afterwards. But we did realize along the way that although her quality of life was not what she wanted or would have chosen, it might have not been as bad as it seemed at times.

After the seizures, she began talking less and less, and within three years, she did not talk at all. Either the seizures or what caused them affected the part of her brain that houses the “executive functions.” That means she could not decide to do something. She could not decide to respond and could not decide to get up and walk to the bathroom and could not decide to pick up food with a fork and move it to her mouth. She was “all there” mentally, and we could see that in her eyes, but she could not communicate much at all. Once in a while we could see a slight smile at the corner of her lips, but usually the only type of emotion she showed was in tears, either happy or sad.

Because of my mother’s changed demeanor, most of her friends ditched her. In fact, pretty much all of my parents’ friends ditched both of them because “We just can’t stand to see Kate in this condition.” For ten years almost all of my parents’ dearest friends avoided them because they could not handle seeing my mother. This is one of the lessons I have tried to gain from this experience. It does not matter how uncomfortable a situation might be to ME, I must think of the person in the situation and how much more uncomfortable it might be for them. I could see the pain in my mother’s eyes when I took her to church with me and people walked hurriedly as far away as possible, as if they did not see us.

To avoid sounding too saintly here, I must say that there is no one… NO ONE… associated with my mother’s illness and death that handled everything gracefully all the time. I know I had my own frustrating moments. One I remember vividly (and with significant shame) was when she was staying with me (I used to keep her at my house one or two weekends a month to give my dad a break), and I was brushing her teeth. She clenched her mouth shut over the toothbrush, and I could not get it out. I tried to get her to open her mouth, but she wouldn’t/couldn’t. I finally pulled very hard and yanked it out. Handling that gracefully might have meant sitting down beside her and talking about something funny or just waiting until whatever it was that told her to open her mouth happened. But full-time care of anyone can wear on a person’s nerves and patience. It showed in everyone from time to time, some more than others.

In the midst of all of this we had my mother’s family to deal with. Most of them have been antagonistic toward my father, and then me, for all the time of their acquaintance with us. There was no support from them during all of this, only insults and accusations. I learned as a child to avoid them because they did so much damage to how I felt, but my father did not learn the same lesson and succumbed to their attacks. He always tried to make them happy, knowing that there was nothing he could do, for his mere existence made them unhappy. The relationships with my mother’s family made my mother’s situation, and dealing with it, so much worse.

So what actually killed my mother? She starved to death. How undignified is that? And what is worse, the family (including me) had to make the decision for that to happen. She was going to die anyway. She could not swallow food without aspirating on it for the last few weeks. We had to decide to let her choke to death or sedate her and starve to death. We thought sedation was more humane. (This decision was made with the help of our Hospice staff that was invaluable to us during this time.) Deep down in our hearts, I believe we all wanted her to just not wake up one day so we would not have to make such a horrible decision, but it was not meant to be. There was a time 1-1/2 years earlier where she nearly died from an infection. My family was driving to Missouri, and she was not expected to live until we got there. When we got close, we learned she was still alive so went straight to the hospital at 4 a.m. She not only lived, but lived normally (for her state of decline) for another 15 months. I often wonder why she did not die then. Her life by this point was devoid of much of anything good, but she could still walk and go places. I do not know how much she enjoyed that, but I have to think there were still lessons to be learned from her being with us longer. It just seems that she was meant to die in a terrible way.

In the end, we were glad for her death because we know she was in terrible pain the last few months. And really, I am not sure of what was supposed to be learned from such a miserable, drawn-out dying process, but I think everyone in my childhood nuclear family somehow gained a little strength and character from the experience. I wish those lessons would not have been so tough to learn, especially at my mother’s expense, but I refuse to believe they were in vain.

I want to write about why she had the seizures in the first place and what was going on in her life before that, but apparently I am not ready to do that yet. From my perspective, my mother’s death could have been prevented. There were no natural causes. She was physically healthy her whole life and barely ever had colds, let alone anything life-threatening. Her illness was inflicted upon her, and there were so many places in her life where it could have been stopped, but it was not, either from selfishness, maliciousness or ignorance. Truth be told, it was a group effort to kill her. Definitely not intentional on probably anyone’s part (though some did not care if they damaged her with their selfish agendas), but all of us close to her, and my mother herself, probably played some part (big or small) her illness and death.

Come back tomorrow for something a little more cheerful!

This post is in response to a prompt from Kelly at *Weekly Anamnesis.*  I like Kelly’s word prompts to help me think of something to write.  She is not picky about when someone uses a word.  It can be a word from previous weeks, which I have done before.  But today I am using “Realized” which is actually this week’s word. Anyone is welcome to use her prompts.  Just go there and follow the instructions. I love to see what different people write about the same word prompt.

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Ducky and Jennifer came into my life when I was six, I think. That would have made them four and three. (My brother was five, so we were all about a year apart in age.) Their father married my aunt, my mother’s sister. I do not remember being introduced. I do not remember wondering if I would like them or not. I only remember them being there.

The youngest specific memories I have of them was probably when I was seven. Ducky and my brother were in Kindergarten and in the same class at the local public school. I remember not having school one day, and I went to their Kindergarten. (We made snow ice cream that day.) I also remember going to their trailer when they both had chicken pox or measles. They were wearing socks on their hands and had on sunglasses. I never got any of the common childhood diseases, and my brother’s cases of them were mild, so I really could not empathize with their misery. I thought they were lucky to each have a pair of sunglasses. At that time I never realized how unlucky they were.

My aunt, Sue, who was Ducky and Jennifer’s stepmother lived with my family for a few months, or a year, or something before she met their father. I wanted to like her. She was nine years younger than my parents and quite worldly. But I did not like her.  She lived with us when I was six, and all I remember is her being loud and laughing loud and being the reason for the only time in my life I ever got my mouth washed out with soap. She was not a doting aunt. I think she actually did not spend much time at our house, but was out “hunting.” (That would be looking for men. I’ll leave it at that.)

When Sue inherited step daughters, I had two new cousins close to my age. I should have loved that, but it was rarely that much fun to be at their house. Although it was a little more fun for them to be at my house, I still liked spending time with cousins from my dad’s family better. There was always tension in the house when my mother’s family was together. Even at six and seven I realized the tension. Ducky and Jennifer and I played, and we got along most of the time, but the tension in the background never made it the most pleasant experience for me. And I will admit to not always being a very good cousin to them. Three is a crowd. Being the oldest, I  was in the position of power. I was not completely aware how this all played out, but I know that I was never the “3rd Girl Out.” One of them was always my buddy. Which one would change, but the other was often left out. Although I knew what was happening (or could at least understand it when not playing with them), I never realized how much it might hurt the one that was left out.

None of  us were “big” girls. I was tiny, and apparently they both were as well, for they got my old clothes. Or maybe by the time they got to Jennifer, the clothes did not really fit, but she had to wear them anyway. I do not know. I remember one of them saying once, “Hand me downs. Hand me downs. All we ever get to wear are hand me downs.” This bothered me. My parents were not rich; they were poor, but I never thought of my clothes as being something miserable. In fact, I loved some of them and hated passing them on. It  upset me so much that I begged my mother to not pass a dress to them that was my favorite. I have no idea what happened to that dress, but I think they did not get it. I never realized how horrible their life was and why they would say such a thing.

My family knew things were not good in Ducky and Jennifer’s house. We knew Sue was a tyrant. We knew Sue would make them weed their garden for hours on end as punishment. We knew that Sue would make them copy chapters out of religious books over and over as punishment. (Passages about children being obedient and respectful.) We knew that Sue was as bad or worse a person as she had always been. But we never realized just how bad. I remember driving places on many occasions when my parents would be talking about the situation and Jennifer and Ducky’s house. They said Sue “mentally” abused Jennifer and Ducky. They did not believe that there was physical abuse; we could see no evidence of it. I cannot count how many times both of my parents would say, “I wish mental abuse was easier to prove in court. Since there is no physical abuse, there is little we can do about this.” (And for the record, there were some ugly family dynamics going on here besides. Sue’s mother, my grandmother, was much like Sue, but in different ways. I plan to write about her someday. She held more power over my own parents, especially my mother, than I ever realized until years later. My parents getting involved in this when there was no hard evidence would have had devastating effects on our own family. It would have had devastating effects anyway, but it was not a risk they were willing to take when the outcome would likely be nothing.)

Ducky and Jennifer and I grew into teenagers getting along. We always mostly got along, but we got along more as we grew older. We were never best friends, though. The time spent together just was never that enjoyable for me because of the family tension. But my getting older did make me appreciate their plight a little more and realize that they were in no way in control of their own circumstances.

When I was seventeen the entire family was gathered at my grandmother’s house. It was summer, and the “foreign relatives,” who visited the United States about every three years, were there as well. Their children were about ten years younger than me, and although I loved them, when everyone was together, I hung out with Ducky and Jennifer. It was a typical time of family tension, but Ducky, Jennifer and I went to my grandmother’s bedroom to talk. We were teenage girls and had plenty to talk about. I had been attending a boarding school for high school. Ducky had spent her freshman year at the local high school. She wanted to call some people she knew from school, but both girls were terrified (my perspective) of using the phone without permission. I understood needing permission to make a long-distance phone call, but did not at all understand permission to call a friend for a few minutes. So I dialed the phone, and let her talk.  Apparently while on the phone, someone in the “adult quarters” wanted to make a phone call. I think it was my grandmother. She made a big scene about the phone having people on it. I really do not remember how it all went down, but Ducky and Jennifer were in big trouble, and I was the culprit as always. (Sue and my grandmother always considered goody-two-shoes me as a bad influence.) I do not remember a single word of censure that either my grandmother or Sue said, but I remember we were leaving, and things were very heated. My parents and brother and I were standing in front of my grandmother’s house, and some kind of bickering or nit-picking was going on, and I turned around and yelled at my grandmother and Sue collectively. I do not remember exactly what I said, but I know it had to do with how stupid they were and how I was tired of all the family tension and they needed to get over themselves, etc. I did not look at anyone else, but I am sure the rest of the witnesses were shocked and ashen. NO ONE confronted Sue and my grandmother. Oh, my dad did periodically,  but he tried to curb it for the sake of my mother. (Which I did not realize at the time.)

That was a wise move in many ways on my part, not the least of which meant that it would be five years before my family had anything at all to do with my grandmother or Sue’s family–other than Ducky and Jennifer. Sue would have prevented their contact with us, but the “foreign relatives” who were there made sure there was time that summer we spent together. And the next year Ducky, by a stroke of blessing from somewhere, attended the same boarding school that I did.

It was after the family blow-up that I learned all of those years there had been physical abuse–a lot of it–and things too horrible to imagine.  Sue was sly enough to make sure it was not visible, and both girls had been warned and bullied into keeping quiet. And apparently there had been questions before about it from places of authority, in which my father had even been involved, but it came to nothing. The things I learned will not be repeated here; they are the stories of Jennifer and Ducky to tell as they see fit. And as the years have unfolded, I have learned even more. There is just too much to learn, or remember, all at once.  And in the passing years, they have both become dear friends, among my dearest. And I regret some of my childish behavior toward them. My life was happy and good. When leaving the family gatherings that brought me emotional misery, I got to go home to a happy house with parents who treated me like a child should be treated; they did not. There is no way I could have understood their situation, but what is worse, I never realized how bad it was. If I had, if my parents had, I wonder what might have been different. I am quite sure my own behavior would have been different. But the question I ask myself it why was my behavior not different anyway? True compassion and kindness would have been evident whether or not I knew how bad their lives were. I was young, so some of that may possibly forgiven, but I definitely try to teach my children that there are lots of things in life we never realize.

This post is in response to a prompt from Kelly at *Weekly Anamnesis.*  I like Kelly’s word prompts to help me think of something to write.  She is not picky about when someone uses a word.  It can be an old word, which I have used before.  But today I am using “Smoke” which is actually this week’s word. Anyone is welcome to use her prompts.  Just go there and follow the instructions. I love to see what different people write about the same word prompt.

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June 18, 1980. 

No photo. I made this with stamping supplies.

My mother and I had spent the day “hauling Jo.”  That is what my mother used to call it. 

When I was less than a year old, my parents moved from a rented house in the country to a tiny rented house in the city. It was in the not-so-nice part of the city, but in 1966, it wasn’t that bad.  Very soon after moving they met their across-the-street neighbors, Jo and Roy.  They were a childless couple that were old enough to be my grandparents.  Their house had been in the country when they had built it who-knows-how-many-years ago, and it was the nicest house in the area.  They were also the nicest people.  They became family to us.  Jo made every single birthday cake of mine from age 1 through age 30.  (And for my brother through his 29th birthday.)  We moved away when I was six, but always kept contact with Jo and Roy.  Roy passed away in my late elementary school years, and after that my mother “took care of” Jo.  Jo never learned to drive, so my mother took her to the grocery store and the beauty parlor and to lunch every week.  Every. single. week.  That is what “hauling Jo” was.  It was not a negative thing; that was just the way my mother phrased things sometimes. 

So it being summer, I had gone along on the weekly excursion.  It is possible my brother was with us, but I do not remember him at all in this story.  And I did not always go on these outings with my mother, but my 15th birthday had been the previous week, so I went if for no other reason than to return the plate on which my cake had been and give Jo special thanks for it.

The day had a specific routine.  We would go to Jo’s house (still in the same place as my childhood) and chat with her for a while. Then we would take her to the beauty shop and leave her for about 1-1/2 hours while my mother and I ran other errands.  We would return to pick up Jo and go to lunch.  We always ate at a cafeteria in town.  We always sat at the same table.  Then it was off to the grocery store.  This was the part I liked the least because grocery stores were always so cold.  Groceries packed in, we would take Jo home and unload the groceries for her, then help her put them away.  Then more chatting.  This second chatting session could last for HOURS if we did not find a way to excuse ourselves.  Jo had not had the happiest of lives, and she was lonely and old now, and she loved to talk. 

On this day, I do not remember how long we stayed, but I remember it being a long time.  And I remember the phone ringing.  It was the old kind that really “rang” and had a dial on it.  It rang several times.  She never answered it.  She was talking with us, and she had no reason to think the phone ringing was more important than the time she was spending with us. 

We finally headed home.  It probably pleased my mother we were so late because it left no time for her to make dinner.  She hated cooking and pretty much all things domestic.  We would be eating out that night.

As we drove south toward home (about a 25-minute drive), we were nearing the edge of the “big” city when we saw a giant plume of coal black smoke towering ahead of us.  It looked as if it were in the next town, which is where we lived, though our house was not “in” town.  I remember wondering what could be burning to create such a tall pillar of smoke and so black.  We drove on, probably trying to decide where we would go to eat when my dad got home.

As we got near to where we lived, the smoke was still a giant ahead of us, but it was clear it was not in our neighborhood.  We still wondered about it, but not enough to be concerned.  As we got to our driveway, we saw a lot of cars parked in our yard.  We saw people outside the cars milling around and talking to one another.  That seemed strange.  Very strange.  We wondered if something was wrong.  Mom carefully maneuvered the car to where to in front of the garage and got out.  My grandmother, who had an unattractive flare for drama, raced up to the car as my mother opened her door.  She wanted to know if we were OK.  Why wouldn’t we be?  I am sure I was rolling my eyes where no one could see me.  She then chastised my mother because we had spent so much time at Jo’s and complained that she had “called and called” but no one at Jo’s answered the phone.

Then everyone was there at once.  To me it was only confusion, but they wanted to greet us to tell us the news before we heard it on “the news.”  That plume of smoke we had seen was a local manufacturing facility.  It was the place that my father had worked since 1969 and in which he had purchased ownership not long after that.  That smoke was coming from a company, OUR company.  It was our lifeblood. It was burning, and by the looks of it, there was not going to be anything left.

I remember going inside to watch television.  The news coverage was unbelievable.  (Really, it was like news coverage usually is.  Dramatic.  Maybe my grandmother should have been a journalist.)  The news was saying that there were poisonous chemicals being burned and released into the air and that people should evacuate.  I had grown up with this company.  I remember being four-years-old and sitting in a corner of the then small manufacturing floor while my dad worked because there was too much to do for him to go home, and my mother was working at the hospital as a nurse.  I knew there were no poisonous chemicals.  Then I saw my dad on television.  He looked like I had never seen him before.  He was shaken.  My dad was strong.  He was never shaken.  I heard the words “total loss.”  I heard the word “rebuild.” 

My mother politely thanked everyone for coming, but sent them home.  We had to go find my dad.  He needed us.  My dramatic grandmother said she should drive because my mother was too excited to do so herself.  Thankfully, my mother declined. 

When we got there, the smoke was not the giant plume anymore, but it would be days before it was all gone.  There were giant steel beams lying in twisted heaps on the cement floor.  The destruction was complete.  I do not think I had ever been so afraid in my life.  When I was little, our family was poor. We were no longer poor, but we certainly were not “rich,” either.  I was 15.  I was supposed to go away to a parochial boarding school that fall.  I knew right then that it may not happen.  My father’s business was completely gone.  Only twisted metal and some smoke remained.  How could he afford to send me to school?  And we were getting ready to move.  Would we still be able to afford the house with ten acres? 

Before that summer I remember seeing my dad cry one time–when his mother died.  When we got home that night (I do not even remember what we ate for dinner, if we ate at all), my dad cried.  If I had been frightened before, I REALLY was then.  As horrible as all this was for me, I could not imagine how much worse for him.  He was only part-owner of the business, but it was his life.  It was OUR life.  He had been the one who worked day and night to build it to its present success.  It was all gone.  Up in smoke.

I spent the rest of that summer in a motor home parked on a concrete pad at the site of the fire while they were rebuilding.  The office staff had moved into the offices of another building, but someone had to answer the phone at the building site.  My dad said I would do it. I had “worked” for the company almost as long as I could remember.  And most of it had been gratis, as was this, so I did not mind.  There were no speakers or intercom systems, so when someone had a call, I had to trudge through the debris and building to find people.  Being a somewhat prissy Girly Girl, I was always wearing clothes fit for an office, not a building site.  The heels probably were not a good idea.  There was an IBM electric typewriter in the motor home.  I found my mother’s old high school typing book and taught myself to type that summer.  That turned out to be a mistake because in typing class that autumn (at the boarding school), I had a manual typewriter.  Though I eventually got to 93 words per minute on the manual, I cried in private the first two weeks at school because after using the electric, it was so painful to push the pinky keys on the manual.

By summer’s end, there was a place in the new building for the office staff, so I was no longer needed.  My uncle (another owner of the company) gave me $100 for my working there all summer.  I was shocked. And elated.  I used it carefully to buy my wardrobe for the next school year.  No one has ever made $100 stretch any further!

Today when I see smoke, I am transported immediately back to that day.  But it is rare to see such black smoke.  More frequently I see brown smoke.  That is a sickening site as well, because it usually means a house is burning.  I have seen that three times since living here fore six years.  When it is white smoke, the water has gotten most of the fire out.  But no matter what color the smoke, when I see it, my heart freezes, then it aches for the people whose lives the smoke is affecting.

“Our” fire turned out OK.  Not one person was killed or injured in the fire. The company had another plant, and they had saved most of the molds.  They did not miss one shipment of goods while waiting for the new plant to be built.  They built a bigger and better facility.  Every time I see smoke, I hope that the people involved have as good an ending to the tragedy as we had.

Mom's Donkey

Mom's Donkey

Yesterday I went to a funeral.  It was for a man from my church who suffered from a stroke about three weeks ago while recovering from a long illness.  He was a funny old man. 

It was the second funeral I have attended since my mother passed away in early December of 2006.  The other funeral was for a dear friend who passed away unexpectedly.  He was like a grandfather to Chic and Chicklet, especially Chicklet (who we have previous established has special relationships with men).  His funeral was in our church.  The one yesterday was in a funeral home.

Yesterday’s funeral had a couple of things that I thought were unusual.  The first was that there was a social time afterwards in the funeral home (which is what was completely new to me) that had appetizers–potluck style.  Chicklet was with me, and the service had already cut severely into her nap time, so I dropped off my dainty tidbits and left.  The other thing was that the during the service, the funeral director pulled every card from every floral arrangement and had the greetings read to the entire group sitting there.  Although I was not offended by this, I can think of a few reasons why that might not be a good idea.  It also took a very long time (cards were being pulled as the reading was happening).  We were already well past an hour of actual service, and Chicklet (age 4) was about fed up with quietly sitting still.

But through all of this, I did not mind being at the funeral home…

Funerals are not something I like.  OK, who likes them?  But I detest funerals.  By the time I turned eleven years old, I had been to well over 25 funerals that I could remember.  My father’s aunts and uncles were old.  My parents helped out old people.  We just seemed to be connected to a lot of people that died, and I had my fill of funerals at an early age.  Personally, the necessity of funerals had escaped me.  I have never thought I needed a funeral for closure.  To me they are mostly a time of misery.  A few forced laughs to check the flow of tears periodically, but overall not something necessary in my world.

Funerals are, however, necessary for most Americans, so whether you like it or not, when someone dies, there is usually going to be a funeral.

When my mom died the funeral was three days after her death.  Due to the circumstances of her death, and knowing what she would have wanted, my father, my brother and I decided to do it quickly and simply with no fanfare.  My mother’s family did not appreciate this at all and made the whole thing a big ordeal by their interference.  Their wishes were not granted.  (This is a completely different story, but they spent a lifetime making my mother’s and father’s lives miserable, so I was pretty firm about not bowing to their desires.  It was just their desires, and I knew it was against everything in which my mother believed.)  Since that time they have on their own done things to make my mother’s passing more to their liking, but at the time it was not at all to their liking. 

I was not with my mother when she died.  I knew she was going to die, and I had been there eight days before.  Had she lived I would have returned four days later, but I did not live close, and it was not possible for me to be there the entire time.  As we were driving back to Missouri after we learned of her passing, we got countless phone calls from my mother’s family, my mother’s caretaker and my father’s family all telling their side of whatever story and why we should do this or this or that, or complaining about some other party that had been calling us.  As was often the case before her death (years before), everyone was mad at everyone, and I was supposed to fix it.  At this time I probably was the logical person because my father and brother had been in the thick of things until the end, and neither of them had the emotional stamina to deal with selfish people.  Because selfish is what they were.  The reasons given why we should do this or that was never in consideration of my mother, her husband or her children.

Apparently, these people will never learn that it is unwise to order me around.  Making absurd demands of me, especially at a time like this, meant that I would do the exact opposite, if that was possible.  The only reason those people got anything the way they wanted was that I was on the road when my dad was at the funeral home, and he caved to one demand–to have a funeral.  (I would have had a private graveside service, which is what my mother wanted.)

Funerals are never pleasant events, and they tend to bring out the worst in people.  I do not think that was the case with my mother’s funeral because her family always has their worst on display.  For some crazy reason my mouth would still drop open at their unbelievable selfish behavior (shouldn’t I have been used to that after 41 years living around them?), but they were no different at the funeral than in daily life. 

Since I hated funerals, I was truly dreading this one.  I did not want a bunch of people comforting me.  The circumstances of my mother’s death (she had a 9-year illness that rendered her unable to take care of herself all those years) meant that I would have to put on the fake smile to many insincere people offering condolences.  Maybe some were truly sorry about our loss, but many ditched both of my parents when my mother’s illness began.  I have always been honest (brutally honest in the opinion of some), not false.  Politeness in this case would call for being deceptive, which I not only dislike, but think is wrong. 

The funeral went better than expected.  The family room at the funeral home was open to my dad, my brother, my mother’s caretaker, me and my family.  The other family was irritated that they were prohibited from being there, but their irritation was more than fine with me.  When it was over, I was relieved and just happy to be done with it…

Back to yesterday.  As I sat in the funeral home, I was comfortable.  It was not anything about it specifically (the sound system was bad, the decor was extremely dated, the service was too long and had odd additions to it), but just being there.  I thought about it the whole time I sat there and finally came to the conclusion that it was comfortable because I connected it to my mother.  The last time I had been in a funeral home, it was for my mother’s funeral.  It was after her life ended, which had not been so wonderful for many years, and she was finally at peace.  The last time I saw her face (with WAY too much make-up; she did not wear makeup at all) was in a funeral home.  Seeing her lifeless form was not a comforting experience, but the last time I saw her face before that, it was wracked with pain and pleading eyes.  She could not talk for several years before her death, but her eyes communicated quite clearly.  Near the end her eyes spoke of fear, pain and “PLEASE LET THIS END!”  So I guess when I saw her again, she was at least in a restful state.  No more pain.  No more family garbage.  Just rest. 

So as I sat there yesterday, I suppose my reflections were what they should have been at my mother’s funeral, had that time not been laced with so much emotion and family political posturing.  I had time to process and be comforted.  It was nice.

by Louise Cannon