My Fifteenth Summer
At fifteen years of age, a few days after a secret was revealed, my life, and that of my mother, changed dramatically. It changed in terms of geography, acquisitions, and community standing, shifting from a relatively innocent childhood to a more caretaker way of daily living. I began to take care of my mother instead of looking to her for parenting my adolescent self.
Before the secret came out, I had lived in a fairly typical middle class neighborhood in a west Texas oil town with two siblings and two parents. My father was a verbally abusive man who damaged others with his anger and his need to be right at all costs. He especially berated my older brother with, “Why the hell did you do that?” or “You idiot! Get the hell out of my sight!”
We all four learned to stay clear of him, but still managed to get along with him while under one roof. My second brother later said he mellowed somewhat in later years but I still wondered about this change in behavior. I marveled at the benevolence on the part of my brother.
A revelation of our mother's affair with another man was revealed to my father during a week long vacation when she and I were in Ruidoso, New Mexico. What was an affair? What did that mean? A third party disclosed this relationship to my father, who held on to his quiet rage until mother and I returned from Ruidoso with my aunt's family. Within minutes after returning to Odessa, we were greeted by my older brother telling the adults that my father wanted to see mother alone in the back yard. Hushed conversations by and between adults were held outside or in closed off rooms over the next hours. What in the world are they talking about? What is happening? Was there some sort of violent crime that happened while we were away on vacation ? My questions were unanswered and remained so until a few months later.
The day after we returned to Odessa, mother met the wife of her male friend, Bing, to try and make amends with her. Mother went to meet her in a nearby parking lot so that they could talk. My uncle, a dignified Baptist minister with a doctoral degree in Divinity, was to be the mediator while they talked in his wooden sided station wagon. He drove mother to meet the woman, Aggie, and thought he would be using his pastoral counseling skills to help bring about peace and reconciliation for the two of them. Instead, Aggie, a German woman who had survived the Holocaust and was brought to Texas as a war bride in the 1940's, had only vengeance on her mind. She had been egregiously wronged by my mother! The end result of that conversation among the three of them resulted in Aggie slugging my demure, diminutive mother in her face, also loosening one of her teeth.
My uncle was horrified when the two returned home from the parking lot, and mother's face was already beginning to bruise from the impact of Aggie's fist. Poor Uncle Ed was not able to achieve reconciliation or forgiveness for mother. He was amazed at the wrath Aggie displayed, and had never been a part of violence as a pastor, even until his dying day.
I looked at my mother coming through the door with Uncle Ed, crumpled up and bruised, knowing the conversation with Aggie had not gone well. Seeing someone hit, or gazing on the after effects of a knock out, had only been observed by my innocent self when weekly ring fights were occasionally viewed on TV. Having someone physically harmed in my family had never happened before. To say I was flabbergasted was not an exaggeration.
The next morning, after a cold breakfast of cereal and milk, I was told my father decided mother and I were to leave Odessa and live with her parents, my grandparents. He would be divorcing my mother and they would not live together anymore. I was instructed to pack up everything I wanted to take with me to live in Stephenville, Texas. The two of us, just about penniless, were then moved with help of the aunt and uncle into a strict Southern Baptist home in Stephenville. My grandparents lived in that town across state, five long hours away from what I had always called home.
That evening before we were moved, I overheard my grandfather say to my father over the telephone that this would break their hearts, but that we could move in with them. My grandfather's manic depressive moods would only deepen; but this fact played out only after our move there.
So my bruised, sorrowful, ashamed mother and I were packed into an already crowded vehicle with extra clothing that would fit into my relation's wooden sided station wagon. People, suitcases, tearful faces and a few boxes of our items were jammed into the vehicle as the journey toward a strange new life began on that sweltering August day. I later referred to this sad journey eastward across the boiling hot Texas interstate as having been displaced overnight with “just the clothes on my back.” I left friends, my boyfriend, my brothers and father, my home, my school, my bedroom, my closely knit girls' church group, and all but a few possessions. As I left Odessa, never to return to my life as I had known it, those rear view mirror images from the woody station wagon haunted me for years.
My aunt Mamie looked back from the front seat and patted my leg and said, “You must feel like your world has been turned upside down.” She was the only person who said what I was actually feeling, and I was grateful to her for that, so grateful that I still remember it fifty years after she spoke that sentence. My sad symbolic wave good-bye and what it meant for me could not be clearly articulated until five decades after we sped toward Stephenville that day in 1965.
Our abrupt move also meant that I no longer would have my own bedroom like I had occupied in our 1950 style tract home in Odessa, a booming, dry, dusty oil town. From that safe haven of my very own room, I went overnight to sharing a single bedroom and one half of a closet with my mother. Worse yet, I had to also share one half of the double bed, since I was now to sleep and quarter with my mother in my grandparents' “guest room.” It was a stifling change. Mother and I were now semi-permanent guests in the home of my grandparents. Turning on the TV or taking a slice of cheese always was prefaced with a, “May I?”
I was to later learn my entire future would be shaped by living with grandparents and a mentally ill mother who was sleeping through most of her life in a semi-catatonic state. She followed in the genetic footprints of her father, my grandfather, with her deep depressive disorder. Depression is in our genes, I was told by mother. Many times over the next few years I heard my grandfather say, “I just don't know how much more I can take.” Even then, I could not empathize with him in this moral abyss he felt that he and my grandfather had fallen into. He had a home, a job, Social Security and a car. Why did he feel he was so imposed upon? Mother and I obeyed every unsaid rule of the house, including giving my grandmother and him time alone each evening in the den so they could talk between themselves.
Each time he voiced his “I Just Don't Know How Much More I Can Take” phrase, I inwardly rolled my eyes, incredulous that he thought he was the victim in this sordid little soap opera concerning his daughter and granddaughter. But mother always defended him, saying she had brought shame on him by her actions and after all, he had taken us in when we had no where else to go.
Granddaddy imposed a nine o'clock evening curfew on me the two years we lived with him, almost until my eigthtteenth birthday. I almost hated him for that. But what I really disliked was that, in my mind, he wimped out, not acting as an emotional stronghold for mother or me. To give him some credit for not completely ostracizing me from his sad inner life, he suggested we play tennis together at the nearby college courts. We did hit balls back and forth together for a while, but I always managed to hit the ball in a place on the tarmac that would not require him to move too quickly. After all, he is pretty old to try and do this with and for me.
But having gone through those two years, experiencing life in a multi-generational home, taught me life lessons: frugality, the value of mental health, and realizing that acquisitions are merely ephemeral. As an adolescent, relying on myself for most of my emotional needs, and taking on the task of becoming my mother's primary caretaker were other burdens accepted and undertaken, likely in not the most effective of manners. I would ask a current boyfriend if we could include mother on a trip to the local Dairy Queen to get a Coca Cola just so she would get out of the bedroom, away from sleeping and that depressive house. I wondered if there was this depressive gene in me, too.
It was only three months after our move to my grandparents, when I was in my sophomore year of high school, that I learned what mother's affair actually meant. Until then, I did not know why an affair brought about the destruction of our nuclear family. This full disclosure, an adult definition of an affair, occurred when my dad, whom I had not seen since the previous summer, picked me up for an overnight visit. We drove to Dallas to spend his working weekend there. We checked into a downtown hotel and were in the assigned room when he explained why we were moved out of the house and why he was divorcing my mother.
Dad said, “Nancy, your mother had sex with Bing over several years. I found out this summer and will not forgive her for doing this to me. She humiliated me. I am through with her and this marriage, but I am sorry that you have to be put in the position of living with your grandparents.”
I was very uncomfortable with his saying all this, partly because he never had conversations with me. Thinking I was worldly at fifteen, I really did not know that having an affair meant having sex with another person. What a revelation that was, and how embarrassing for my dad to tell me that. But at least he had shed light on those hushed conversations over the prior summer. An affair was about sex with another person and the adults did not want me to know about this sordid sexual detail, nor did they have the guts to talk about it with me.
All the years we had lived in Odessa, I knew that mother had male friends in the workplace, as a substitute for affection that my father could not seem to give, but I had never considered that sex was also included in her friendships with male associates. Was there more than one man? Was this just the one that came to surface to break up the family? Is my mother a slut?
Dad clearly laid all the blame on my mother for the breakup of the family. He was fed up, humiliated by having been married to her while this affair went on, and there would never be a reconciliation on his part. I was changed after this conversation with my dad. I started looking at mother as a woman with real psychiatric problems. She had previously told me she was having an affair in order to make life more exciting, and to help her from getting depressed, and that an affair was a tonic, for her, to keep depression at bay. She failed to tell me that her affair involved sex with Bing. I wondered if her behavior would affect my future behavior, because I was moving through boy friends pretty quickly during the first months after we had moved to Stephenville. Did this mean I might have the tendency toward sexual looseness? was that why I kept breaking up with boys, finding a new one to date every month or so? was this proclivity in my genes, too?
When the west Texas house was sold a year or two after mother and I were moved out, I no longer wanted to look into my prior closets or save any item from the accretion of my childhood. For I had been forced to start a new life and certainly did not need a raggedy baby doll from my younger years, taking life head-on without looking backward. (After the divorce, mother took her measly portion of profit accrued from the sale of that house and held on to it with tight fists for the remainder of her life.) Dad had a garage sale the following spring and sold all furniture and possessions that he and she had owned together, including all my brothers' and my baby clothes. One trunk full of papers and other minor accoutrements were shipped to us later in Stephenville after the rummage sale.
That summer of 1965 also heralded drastic changes for my mother. Within one week in August my genteel, petite, mother in her early 40's became a person I hardly recognized. She was no longer the chatty, pretty lady who always wore red lipstick and fussed with her hair. She had lost her husband, family, friends, lover, the family business, her home and everything she had made in Odessa over the prior decade, including social and church standing in the community. Like Hester Prynne, she wore the scarlet letter, a deep embarrassment. She became severly depressed again. She knew she was the guilty party, and felt deep sorrow for what she had reigned down on all concerned. Her depressive episode during that time period required neither the harsh ECT treatments she had undergone in the early 1950's, nor the required hospitalizations. At least she was in Stephenville with me. Even if I had to share a room and bed with her, at least she was not hospitalized in an institution in Dallas.
That summer of my fifteenth year came to a close in a new town. I put together a new wardrobe, a few dresses I had sewn in late August while waiting for the first day of high school to open. Having grown somewhat over the summer and needing clothes when there was no money for ready purchase, I began to learn to use my grandmother's old treadle sewing machine she had salvaged from the turn of the century. The cloth was bought from J.C. Penney's where I could use my grandfather's discount as a forty year manager of that chain. Fussing and fiddling with both the old sewing apparatus and teaching myself how to cut patterns for my developing body, I learned to sew and proudly wear my newly homemade dresses.
But my skirts were now layered with ruffles of adult concerns, sewn in a strangely confining environment where church attendance was mandatory three times a week. This place was where I was supposed to call home for the next two years. I never felt at home again until I had established my own place in the world, moving away from Stephenville, toward goals other than caring for my mother.
In the end, mother never married again, gaining back her mental health, working and making her own way financially, and always being true to herself. Those were lessons hard earned for her, invaluable to me.