Big bumps, thuds, and thumps followed by booming sonorous snorts traveled through the wall that separated the den from the bedroom.
“What is that?” our friend would ask, looking at us with her mouth hanging open and her eyes as wide as Necco Wafers. We were in the den curled up in overstuffed corduroy chairs or sprawled on big pillows on the cork floor. We loved My Friend Flicka or Sky King or Betty Boop cartoons on Saturday morning on one of the three channels we got if the rabbit ears were angled just right and the tin foil stayed put.
“That’s our pet monkey.” My little sister Dicksey and I would look at each other and dissolve into laughter.
“You have a pet monkey? Can I see it?”
“No, it’s not very friendly.”
When the next round of noise hit our ears, Dicksey and I would look at the TV more intently, letting our friends know the subject was closed.
That pet monkey was our drunk mother. She was the binge mom of my growing-up years, loudly falling out of bed, crashing into walls or stumbling to the bathroom, usually not making it in time. She would stay drunk on vodka for a week or ten days in a row. Slowly she would emerge from her room, shower, and attempt to pretend nothing had happened. A continual cycle.
Looking in from the outside, we had a good life. My dad, at age nine, moved with his widowed mother to Los Angeles from Oklahoma in the Dust Bowls days. By the time I came along, he had “pulled himself up by his bootstraps” and had become a very successful businessman. Our family of five, soon to be six, lived in a suburb of Los Angeles in a sprawling, light green, five-bedroom, four-bathroom ranch house, set on over an acre of land with a swimming pool and tennis court. Myriad live oak trees shaded the perfectly mowed lawn. My dad’s construction company built our house and several others in the tree-filled neighborhood with streets that curved past well-tended yards. For better or worse, he developed tract housing where sweet-smelling orange groves had once flourished. He built affordable housing for returning servicemen and for families riding the boom of the early 1950s.
My parents belonged to several country clubs where Dad played golf twice a week. My little sister and I went to a private girls’ school. Dicksey was student body president; I was editor of the yearbook. My older brother earned a business degree at USC. My older sister was a go-go dancer in San Francisco. Since my dad owned the property that housed several car agencies, he got a new car every year and each of us four kids received a new car on our sixteenth birthday. Mine was a gray 1965 VW Bug. When we asked Dad for five dollars to go to the movies, he’d hand us a twenty.
We had a large, productive avocado ranch inland from San Diego. On vacations, we drove through the redwoods of Northern California and swam in the coldest water imaginable in Lake Tahoe. From the outside, it was a damn good life. But inside, things weren’t so rosy.
Mom’s debilitating drinking must have started in her forties, although she always insisted she started at age twelve. I remember when I was three years old standing on the multi-colored speckled linoleum floor in our kitchen, looking up at the edges of the blue tile countertops. Mom was pouring coffee from the shiny chrome percolator with the glass peak. I can’t say how I knew. I just knew she was drunk. Maybe I didn’t actually know “drunk,” but I knew something wasn’t as it should be, looking up at her from my three-year-old perspective. The image of her and her smeared face is as vivid today, nearly seventy years later, as that early morning in 1952.
I never knew a different mom, but there was a different woman inside her.
Mildred Jane Childress, Millie to her friends, was born in the small town of Wichita Falls, Texas, on May 29, 1909, the first of five children: two girls and three boys. Her parents, Nelle and John Childress, lived a simple but comfortable life in rural northern Texas, not far from the Oklahoma border. My grandmother attended Baylor College, but other than that, I know little of my grandparents’ early years. And now there’s no one left to ask.
In the early 1920s, when her five children, born in rapid succession, were still quite young, my grandmother had had enough of her good-for-nothing, alcoholic husband. She packed the kids into her black Model T and told John she was moving to California.
“You can come if you want, but I’m getting out of here,” the story goes. John stayed behind continuing to work as a used car salesman. It would be a number of years before he saw his family again.
Nelle and her kids headed west along the old plank roads through the empty desert across the newly formed states of New Mexico and Arizona. With virtually no facilities available, I don’t know how she did it. But that was my grandmother, barely five feet tall, curly-haired, as feisty and determined as a woman who has had enough often is. She was a true Texas pioneer woman capable of making it on her own. And she did, even with five children in tow.
The Childress family minus one landed in Los Angeles and settled into a three-story, brown and tan, turn-of-the-century house on Union Street, just a couple of miles from downtown LA and a block from the streetcar line. Nelle was an excellent seamstress. She made glamorous clothes for Hollywood stars like Irene Dunne and others no one but film buffs remember today. Her skill and artistry supported the family.
The oldest children enrolled in Belmont High. My mother shone as a star student, and in her senior year was elected president of Girls’ League, the top social club of the day and the highest position a female could hold.
“I would have been student body president if they would have let me,” my mother always said with bitterness and tight thin lips. “But that was just for boys.” In fact, each of her three brothers was president of the school in succession. They were labeled “The Childress Dynasty.”
Mom’s Girl Graduate high school memory book was filled with praise and adoration in classic yearbook style:
“Your presence in school has been heaven to me.”
“To a wonderful, brave, strong, and cheerful girl.”
“With your personality, the world is yours for the asking.”
In her photo, with one leg up on the running board of her 1929 Model A Roadster, she exudes confidence with her bobbed hair, cloche hat, and midi sailor dress. She was the 1920s “bee’s knees.”
When I was about eleven, my mother told me she returned from high school one afternoon to find her dad sitting on the front stoop of their home in his striped three-piece suit and cocked fedora with a bottle of whiskey in his hand.
“Well, look at you,” he said, smirking. “Ain’t you all dolled up? Bet you think you’re pretty special, don’t you?”
“What are you doing here?”
“Well, I missed my family and I know you missed me, too.”
“Get out of here. Go back to Texas. We don’t miss you and we don’t want you here,” she said, passing him to go up the steps and into the house. He grabbed her arm. She spun around, pushing him off the step and into the bushes.
“Don’t ever touch me again,” she said. “You don’t scare me.” She went inside, leaving him to stagger back to his feet.
She and her dad never spoke again. Her parents divorced shortly after that incident. Alcohol killed my grandfather just a few months after I was born.
After graduating from high school with honors, Mom went to UCLA, eager for a new life. She was desperate to be a sorority sister, but the joining fees and the expense of room and board in the sorority house cost more money than the family had. She would have to be an ordinary day student and live at home, so she left school and never finished her education.
During her brief stay at UCLA, Mom met Dick Callaway, my future father. He was an effervescent man who made everyone his pal. At five foot eleven, he was all smiles with a snazzy blond crew cut, crystal blue eyes, and a letterman sweater. He was a member of the Yell Squad, a sort of male cheerleading team, and he had pledged Sigma Alpha Epsilon. “But most important,” my mother said, “he had a radio in his car. That’s why I married him.” I think there was a lot of truth in that statement.
They married in 1936 and moved to a little white stucco house in Culver City, outside LA. Judging by the meticulously kept photo albums with leather tooled covers and scrapbooks with newspaper clippings and party invitations, my parents lived a fun-filled life with lots of friends. They tent-camped by the falls at Yosemite, caught marlins while deep sea fishing on a big power boat off the coast of San Diego, rode horseback through the desert outlands of Mexico. In nearly every picture, someone was hoisting a beer or something in a glass.
Later, after several upwardly mobile moves to bigger houses in better neighborhoods, my mother felt they were near the top rungs of the social ladder. She reigned as president of the Friday Morning Club with self-styled nobility, adorned in elegant, custom-made dresses of imported silk, long twined strands of freshwater pearls, and big feathered hats purchased with care in the vast, windowed millinery section of Bullocks Department Store in Pasadena.
In the 1960s, Annie, a well-worn, loving Black woman, came several times a week to do our ironing. Then Mom decided we needed a live-in housekeeper. Yolanda, a shy, twenty-something from Guatemala who barely spoke English, was hired. It became her job not only to clean the house and cook dinner, but to serve the courses as we sat at the dining room table. No more kitchen table for my mother.
To beckon Yolanda, Mother would raise her red-polish manicured right hand with slow deliberation, her wrist slightly curved, her little finger deliberately sticking out, and delicately, but firmly, grasp the doll-sized bell lurking at the tip of her dinner knife. Her face would follow suit…head slightly tilted back with her green eyes looking down what we all knew as the Childress nose.
Ring, ring, the bell would sound. Yolanda would open the pocket door that divided the kitchen and dining room and carry in platters of sliced ham or bowls of lightly cooked frozen green peas. Nothing fancy, but delivered as Mother deemed proper. The rest of us kept our eyes down, looking at the neatly creased off-white damask tablecloth. We couldn’t face looking at Yolanda.
“Thank you. That will be all,” Mother would say, dismissing Yolanda without looking up. Luckily that phase didn’t last long and we went back to hollering “Yolanda” if we needed anything. Still ridiculous and still in the dining room, but a few steps down from ring, ring.
Those were Mom’s sober days. Then there were the not so sober days. I remember her bridge club showing up at our house one Thursday morning, ready for a day of cards and lunch. Mother answered the door in her filthy sheer nightgown, unwashed, disheveled and drunk, oblivious as to what day it was.
“Why, how good to see you. Won’t you come in?” she said in her high-pitched, breathy, isn’t-everything-grand voice. I cringed in embarrassment and disgust. There were no tables with starched pastel linen tablecloths or new decks of cards set up. No crustless cucumber sandwiches on china plates waited in the kitchen. Her friends said something on the order of “Poor Millie. She isn’t feeling well. We’re so sorry she’s sick. We’ll come back another time.”
It was years before I realized they all knew what was going on. Just like our neighbors did.
In hope of shortening the days of her inebriation, I emptied Mom’s vodka bottles and refilled them with water. When she discovered the swap, she became enraged. She would scream, “Who did this?” I wouldn’t answer. I’d hide in the bathroom up the hall and laugh to myself. The madder she got, the louder she’d yell. “Who did this and where are you. Ginny? Dicksey?” It was all I could do to not burst out laughing and give myself away.
Mom had a backup plan. She would turn to the neighbors. After a phone call from Millie, they would secretly stash bottles of vodka for her in the garage or the front seat of her Cadillac. We begged them to stop, but they continued. Even the local liquor store made hidden deliveries.
I never knew why the drinking for fun in her twenties and thirties became drinking for numb in her forties and fifties. In my mind, the underlying dissatisfaction with her life must have become so unbearable that the fog of alcohol was the only antidote.
Throughout my growing-up years, this chameleon of a mother kept me on full alert. The antennae that started budding that morning in the kitchen at age three when I knew something wasn’t right, grew. Like the antennae on an ant, they constantly swiveled around, sensing safety or danger. Would she pick up the carpool at school all smiles with a new hairdo and a lovely dress or would we find a disgusting mess behind the wheel still wearing her robe and slippers, stinking of booze seeping from her pores, speaking in a high-pitched voice like Marilyn Monroe?
“Why girls, how lovely to see you.” Good god, that voice. I hated her. How could she embarrass me like this? And even risk our lives by driving? Perhaps the other girls in the car didn’t notice. Fat chance.
When I turned sixteen, Dicksey and I drove to school together. On the way home, our conversation hopped all over the map, usually involving boys, homework, or making fun of some girl. But as soon as we turned the last corner before home, we would fall silent. Both of us quietly wondering what we would find when we reached our house. Would the curtains still be drawn tight or would the house be flooded with light? Would the paper still be on the driveway by the mailbox or would the sprinklers be watering the lawn? But even on an open-curtain day, the house never smelled of chocolate chip cookies when we walked in, nor were we greeted with big hugs and praise for our accomplishments of the day. I once proudly showed Mom a paper with a big red A at the top, and her response was “Why wasn’t that A an A+?” If daggers could have shot from my eyes, it would have been all over for her.
“Give me that back,” I said, grabbing the paper out of her hand, wadding it up into a tight ball and throwing it at her. “Forget it.” I ran to my bedroom, picked up my hairbrush and slammed it into the wooden windowsill in my bathroom. The deep indentions it made were there until the house was torn down thirty years later.
Over the years, my dad had Mom admitted to various rehab centers. She would stay a week or a month. She would come home filled with resentment, never remorse, never rehabbed. The AA meetings she sampled following rehab places were out of the question.
“Everyone is so common,” she would say with her trademark guttural “ugh.”
“And they all smoke.”
Before long, the drinking would start again.
My little sister and I became very independent and self-reliant from a young age: fixing meals, washing clothes and dishes, tending the cats, cleaning the bathrooms, making Dad’s bed, all the things a mom should do in those days. We also made sure the house looked nice when Dad returned from work.
We never breathed a word about what was going on at home. I was stunned when I was in the tenth grade and the school counselor stopped me as I was walking to algebra. Mrs. Steiner was always lurking, looking for any infraction in the school code, any skirt too short, lipstick of any color, any laugh too loud. She clinched my arm above the elbow and shuttled me into her windowless cubicle of an office. The only light came from the obnoxious humming fluorescent light on the ceiling.
“What?” I said. I was a good girl. I hadn’t done anything wrong, but leave it to Mrs. Steiner to uncover something.
I looked at her like she was from Mars, only without the curiosity. Her beaky nose, like a small hawk’s, protruded from her thin face. Her mousy-brown turning-gray hair was starkly swept up on each side, held in place with plastic barrettes. Her pale eyes assured anything but confidence and warmth and trust, qualities usually associated with a counselor. Her cat-eye glasses hung on a fake gold chain around her neck, layering over the chain with alligator clips that clamped ahold of the sweater that hung from her shoulders. She had a way of keeping her head slightly angled to the left like it was going to leave without the rest of her.
“I’m so sorry for what is going on at home,” she said. “If I can help in any way, please ask me.”
My heart started pounding. The heat was rising up my neck, to my cheeks. My entire face was soon covered in one giant red splotch.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I jerked my arm from her grip, turned around and walked out the door, which she hadn’t bothered to close. My vision was blurry as I made my way through the hall full of girls going to class. Not tears. Fury. Rage. I was stunned. Did everyone know? All my teachers? How did they know? I never looked Mrs. Steiner in the eye again.
Through the years, Dicksey and I wished we could disappear or go live somewhere else so Dad could be free. We felt so responsible for this wretched life he had to live with a drunk-half-the- time wife. I knew we were the reason Dad was in this miserable marriage, why he put up with Mom’s binge drinking. He stayed because of us, for us. That’s what he told us. If Dicksey and I could just leave, disappear, Dad could go his own way and be happy. But we had no way out, nowhere to go.
Dad decided we should see a family therapist. This was the 1960s, so I guess therapy was gaining momentum in the mainstream. Somehow Dad found a Dr. Bell. The three of us decided to meet at his office one day after school.
Dicksey and I arrived first. We opened the outside heavy wood door with the cold wrought iron handle expecting to be met by a receptionist, a nurse, someone behind a sliding glass window with an inquiring, “May I help you?” But the room was empty.
It was a rather formal room with a couple of wingbacks upholstered in muted blues and grays, a well-worn almost soggy-looking leather chair—brown, just brown. There was also the obligatory low table with lightly curved legs and knobs for feet. And on top was the obligatory assortment of thumbed-through magazines. Probably not actually read because who can really concentrate on reading an insipid magazine while waiting to see a psychiatrist.
The wooden floor showed around the edges of a fringed area rug, also in muted blues and browns with a vague pattern. There was another door on the left wall. More of an interior door, not as heavy.
Tilting my head toward the door, I said, “He must be in there.” Dicksey agreed with a slight nod.
The front door opened, and Dad walked in. At the same time, the inside door opened. A tall man with black-framed glasses stood in the doorway.
“You must be the Callaways. Please come in. I’m Dr. Bell.”
His manner verged on friendly, but a reserved friendly. Just polite and professional. No extended arm for a handshake, no ear-to-ear smile, unlike Dad’s customary shit-eating grin, twinkling blue eyes, and never-met-a-stranger vibe. The doctor’s dark, graying hair was thick and wavy, quite the contrast to Dad’s platinum blond crewcut. Below furry eyebrows, his face was smooth and clean shaven, even though it was the middle of the afternoon. He wore a long-sleeved crisp white shirt with French cuffs and a conservative striped tie. The gold cufflinks were embossed with an image I didn’t recognize. But, oddly, no jacket.
“Sit wherever you like.” His arm vaguely swept around the room. The chairs, more wingbacks, had been placed in a semicircle facing what was obviously Dr. Bell’s chair, the one with a yellow pad and pen on the top of the end table. A box of Kleenex beckoned from the glass top of the low oval table that was between us and Dr. Bell. Kleenex. I’m not using those no matter what, I thought.
Dad removed his tweed jacket and draped it on the back of the chair where he was to sit. I sat in the middle, Dicksey on the other side. Dad looked Dad in his white short-sleeved shirt and bolo tie with the avocado on it, his favorite. I smiled at him.
“Please tell me your names,” Dr. Bell said with a slight smile, his head slightly tilted back as if looking through the bottom half of bifocals. His eyes landed on Dicksey.
She cleared her throat. “Dicksey.” Boy, do I know this girl, I thought. She is so scared. Look at that bright red nervous rash streaming up from the top of her uniform covering her neck. Hang in there. You got this.
“Hi, Dicksey,” Dr. Bell said with a slight nod of his head. Definitely not overly friendly, actually a bit too formal for my likes. Dicksey didn’t respond. Just lightly bit her lower lip.
His eyes shifted to me. His eyebrows arched in expectation. No words. His face a question mark.
“Ginny.” I heard my voice solid, assured. I wasn’t going to let this man intimidate me. Bring it on, I thought.
“No, G-I-nny, not J-E-nny.”
Oh, for Pete’s sake. If he can’t hear that difference between a short i and a short e, what will he be able to hear when we tell him what the hell is going on? Got my doubts now.
Like an owl, his head and eyes moved to Dad. Again with the arched eyebrows and question-mark face, no words.
My dad said, “Mr. Callaway.” For a man who was always the life of the party, I had never seen Dad more serious. Not stern faced, exactly, just serious. A little out of his familiar territory. He didn’t shift in his chair. Just met Dr. Bell’s look.
A brief pause.
“Mr. Callaway?” Dr. Bell said.
“Yes, Mr. Callaway.”
“Okay then, Mr. Callaway.” Dr. Bell looked toward his lap with perhaps a bit of a smirk. Stalling for time. Letting the “Mr. Callaway” sink in. Dicksey and I glanced at each other, shoulders raised in a light shrug, eyes widening with “What was that all about?” Dr. Bell then uncrossed his legs and crossed them in the opposite direction, signaling it was time to get down to business.
“Please tell me what brings you three here today.”
“My wife, their mother, is a bad drunk. A binge drinker. She’ll stay drunk for a week or more at a time, in her darkened bedroom, basically abandoning Ginny and Dicksey. I have to work, so they fix their own meals, feed the cats, iron their clothes, you know, the things a mother should do. Never a meal on the table when I come home. Just animal snores bellowing from her room. It’s not fair to these two.” He glanced briefly in our direction. “We want help figuring out what to do.”
That’s the first Dicksey and I knew we wanted help. We were trucking along just fine. Used to it since that was the way it was for most of our lives. We all looked at Dr. Bell. What was he going to say? I leaned in.
Dr. Bell sat perfectly still when Dad finished. He looked at Dad, again without moving more than his head and eyes. What was he made of, concrete? I thought.
He looked at Dicksey who squirmed under his penetrating eyes. She looked down at the wrinkles in her uniform, her hands tucked under her legs.
Next he looked at me. I looked back at him. I could feel my defenses rising. Defending myself? Defending my dad?
The silence was thick, uncomfortable, loaded with anticipation. What was this man going to say to solve our problem? Offer one sentence that would clean up the entire mess? Then we could go on our way. I sure hoped so. We sat. We waited. No one moved, not even a fidget. Was this going to be a deciding moment? Life-changing words about to be uttered? Come on, man. Let’s get on with it. It seemed like hours before he broke the silence.
“Mr. Callaway, why don’t you get a divorce?”
My dad didn’t miss a beat.
“For two good reasons: Ginny and Dicksey.” He smiled as he again glanced in our direction.
Again with the silence.
Dr. Bell uncrossed his legs, shifted back in his chair so he was ramrod straight. His hands rested on the arms of his wingback. He faced us full on.
“I don’t think so.” Pause. Looking Dad in the eye, he said, “I think you’re a chicken shit.”
Wait, what did I just hear? Did this man call my dad a chicken shit? My dad? I turned to look at his face. It was turning bright red. The muscles on his fat neck pulsed. His eyes had a fire I had never seen. His thin lips thinner. Please don’t have another heart attack. Please don’t have a heart attack, was all I could think.
Dad froze, staring at Dr. Bell. Dr. Bell returned the stare, his mouth set in a smug “the ball’s in your court,” a self-delighted “gotcha” look.
Abruptly Dad stood up, nearly knocking over the low table at his knees.
“Well, maybe I am,” Dad said. “Well, maybe I am.”
He grabbed his jacket from the back of the chair, walked behind our chairs without a “see you at home” or “kiss my ass” and left the office, leaving the door wide open. We heard his heavy footsteps walk through the waiting room, first on wood, then carpet, then wood. The heavy front door opened, then slammed shut. Hard.
Dicksey and I just sat there, not knowing what to say or what to do. Something had just happened. It still hung in the air like the invisible stink of diesel fumes. I pushed back in my seat. I sat a little taller. My eyes stared off, unaware of what I was looking at. It wasn’t just that the doctor had called my dad a chicken shit, but something else happened, too. I could feel it inside my head.
Without knowing it, the doctor changed my life. He let me see what was really going on at home. None of it was my fault. Dad sticking around. Mom’s drinking. I understood for the first time that Dicksey and I weren’t responsible for Dad’s unhappiness. He was. One sentence really had cleaned up the entire mess.
In 1970 when I was going to college in Santa Barbara, Dad, sixty-one, died suddenly of a heart attack while playing golf. He had survived an earlier serious heart attack, but nothing prepared us for something this unexpected. What my sisters discovered the next day was even more unexpected.
Being very thoughtful, they visited Dad’s longtime secretary to see how she was doing. They were met by a woman in deep grief, sobbing uncontrollably. They soon understood why. Her coffee table was piled high with photo albums. Each album captured days of the two of them on smile-filled vacations with her children and enjoying intimate dinners alone. One photo, my sisters told me, shocked them to the core. It revealed Dad walking her daughter down the aisle on her wedding day.
My sisters were stunned. His secretary continued to tell them personal details of her relationship with Dad before they could flee in stunned disbelief. As if the photos hadn’t made it clear enough, this woman seemed determined to leave no doubt in my sisters’ minds that Dad had lived a second life.
What to do with this information? Did Mother know? Should she know? We never told Mom, but I always wondered if she knew. Was his secretary the first for Dad or had that always been his pattern? Were Mom’s feelings of never having what she needed triggered and reinforced by Dad’s infidelity? Did her drinking push Dad to stray?
Not long after Dad’s death, Dicksey got married. Mom was left to live alone in our big sprawling ranch house. I called from time to time, always braced for what voice would answer the phone, sober mom or drunk mom. I hung up when drunk mom answered.
When Mom was seventy-eight years old, I received a phone call from my older sister Myra. I was living on the east coast at the time. She was in California.
“This morning, Uncle Buck found Mom passed out in the living room completely unresponsive. He called an ambulance and they took her to the hospital.”
“What? What happened? Is she okay?” My heart was pounding, waiting for her answer.
“She’s in the detox ward. I talked briefly to the doctor on the phone. He said it’s the worst case of depression he’s ever seen. She’s catatonic.”
“Depression? No one ever mentioned depression before.” My eyes darted around the room, unfocused. Depression. What does that mean?
“What happens now?”
“I don’t know. I’m heading over to the hospital now. The nurses won’t tell me anything on the phone. Can you fly out here?”
Dicksey met me at LAX under the big familiar double arch always that said “Los Angeles” to me. Normally chatty and laughing, we were quiet on the drive to the hospital. How was your flight? Hungry? Myra’s waiting for us at the hospital was the extent of our conversation. There was nothing new to report since we talked on the phone earlier that morning. There were no answers to whatever questions I might have had anyway. Looking out the car window, I watched the endless rows of small shops, gas stations, and bus stops, each block blending into the next.
Myra met us in the lobby. We hugged, again no words. She led us to Mom’s room just down the main hall in our small local hospital, past the nurses’ station where the ladies in white were busy filling out charts or whatever occupied nurses do at their desks.
The mom I saw in that hospital bed was not a mom I had ever seen before. Even in her drunkest moments, she wasn’t like a primal animal. I think she recognized me because her mouth moved slightly in a lopsided angle. Maybe a smile. And some sort of sound came up from her throat and passed over her lips. Splotches of black mascara formed under her eyes. Her always perfectly coiffed hair, done every Friday at Petite Salon, was flattened against the left side of her head and wild as a scarecrow’s straw on the right side and top.
Mom had always prided herself on her beautiful, long fingernails precisely manicured with the color of the day. Now the polish was chipped and pieces of the chocolate cake she must have been served at lunch were smashed under each nail, like a toddler’s hands at his first birthday party. It looked like maybe it had pink frosting. Black chocolate crumbs spotted her white sheet, too.
The worst part of seeing Mom was not how she looked, but the sounds she was making. Grunts, deep, throaty grunts. She was trying to talk, to communicate, but only grunts came out. I could tell by the strained look in her eyes that she was struggling to say something, but all that came out were grunts. I left the room and took a deep breath.
Okay, legs. Hold me up. They did.
Shortly after our arrival, her doctor showed up. Depression, he said again along with some other doctor speak that failed to penetrate my brain.
“What can you do for her?” I asked.
“You have two choices. We can try electroshock therapy to see if that helps or she can be moved to a nursing home and see if she becomes responsive again, eventually. Talk about it and let me know what you decide. I’ll be on the floor another hour.”
We stood at the end of Mom’s bed and looked at each other. Were we going to have her undergo what Frankenstein experienced and fry her brain? Were we going to let her come out of it (or not) in a nursing home? We had no one to turn to for advice. We decided to have Mom shocked. It worked. She was eventually freed of her debilitating depression and the need to self-medicate. She never became a happy person, but she was at last able to get that alcohol-fueled simian off her back.
In her middle eighties, Mom developed congestive heart failure and found it hard to take care of herself. We hired Helen, who visited Mom daily. Helen cooked, helped with bathing, and generally took care of the house. Helen loved driving Mom’s Cadillac while they did errands, kept doctors’ appointments and enjoyed hamburgers from the local joint. After dinner and a couple of TV shows, Helen would go home, leaving Mom cozy in her recliner, TV remote in her hand. Mom often stayed in her recliner all night, TV on or off, ready to resume her routine as soon as Helen turned the key in the lock in the morning.
Sunday, May 11, 1997, was Mother’s Day. My husband David and my son Zeb happened to be in Los Angeles that day and, along with ten other members of the family, took Mom out for lunch. I only got to see photos of the group from that day, but David told me how Mom just radiated. Wearing a new pastel pink silk dress, her favorite long rope of white pearls and matching sensible pumps, she reigned over her brood, ever the center of attention, her favorite place to be.
Just as I was sitting down to eat lunch on the following day, the phone rang. I almost let it go to the answering machine but picked it up at the last minute. It was my mother.
“I had the most wonderful Mother’s Day. Having Zeb and David there made it perfect. They are two wonderful people.” We talked about the day, how everyone had “swooned” over her dress and pearl necklace and how they got to see Tom Selleck having ice cream with his kids.
“As I was driving away,” she said, “I looked back and there was Zeb. He was the only one waving goodbye. Such a sweet, thoughtful young man. That made my day.”
After we hung up, I realized I had enjoyed a conversation with my mother. I was struck by the thought. And I was thankful.
The next day, Tuesday, May 13, 1997, I received a different kind of call. I had driven early that morning to the office of our record producer, sound engineer and, most important, one of our oldest and most loved friends. Steve had been our rock when our daughter Sara Jane died nearly ten years earlier.
He and I were sitting on the couch in his office. His assistant Carol was at her desk when the phone rang. I left to go to the bathroom. When I returned Steve and Carol were both standing. They looked at me with serious looks, no smiles.
“What?” I said, looking from unblinking eye to unblinking eye.
“It’s Joni on the phone.” Joni was my assistant back in my office.
Carol and Steve both started to leave the room, nearly stepping on each other to get out the door first.
“It’s just Joni,” I said. “You don’t need to leave the room.” They didn’t say anything. They just kept walking. I looked up at the only windows, high up one wall, and reached for the phone.
“What’s up?” I asked Joni.
“Ginny, I don’t know how to say this. Your mom died last night. Helen unlocked the front door and found your mom dead in her recliner, the TV on, the remote still in her hand. Helen said it looked like she just died in her sleep. Ginny, I am so sorry. What can I do?”
I held on to the phone, heard Joni’s words, but said nothing. My knees buckled. I collapsed onto the floor. Sobs surged from I don’t know where. I was crumpled still holding the phone when Steve came back in. He took it from my hand, said something to Joni and hung it up.
He squatted down next to me and hugged me tight. His chest became my pillow. His shirt was wet with my tears. He helped me up to the couch where we sat in silence. I was stunned that my mother was suddenly dead. But I was more stunned by my own reaction. I didn’t even like this woman. What was going on?
At Mom’s funeral, friends both old and new spoke of what a great friend she was, what a refined and proper lady she was, always elegant and impeccably dressed. They would miss her terribly.
Her youngest brother Hubert, so filled with grief he could barely speak, gave the eulogy. He told about another side of his big sister, a side I never knew.
“Our dad was a mean drunk,” Hubert said. “For no reason apparent to us, he would become enraged. He would rip off his leather belt and come after whichever kid was closest. Without fail, Millie would step between him and his terrified target. She would either make him stop or take the blows he was going to give out. She gave the rest of us time to escape until Dad’s rage subsided or the booze caused him to collapse. She was always there for us. God, I love her.”
My uncle had fought in World War II as a fighter pilot, been shot down and seriously injured. Though hardly able to continue speaking in front of our family and scores of Mom’s friends, my uncle’s last words that day were, “To me, she was the bravest person I ever knew.”