Sunday, January 25, 2015

My Fifteenth Summer

At fifteen years of age, within a few days after having a secret revealed, my life, and that of my mother, changed dramatically. It changed in terms of geography, acquisitions, and community standing while shifting from a relatively innocent childhood to a more adult and caretaker way of daily living.

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. But we managed to get along under one roof.

The secret, a revelation of our mother's sexual liaison with another man was revealed during a week long vacation when she and I were in Ruidoso, New Mexico. A third party disclosed this relationship to my father, who held on to his 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. Hushed conversations by and between adults were held outside or in closed off rooms over the next hours. My father decided my mother and I were to go away and live with her parents, my grandparents, and that he would be divorcing my mother. 

So mother and I were packed into a crowded station wagon with clothing we could fit into the aunt's wooden sided 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 hot Texas interstates and boiling asphalt streets 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, and all but a few possessions. Our one car now belonged to my father. 

The two of us, just about penniless, were moved with help of the aunt and her vehicle into a three generational and strict Southern Baptist home with my grandparents in a town across state, five long hours away from what I had always called home. 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 back. (After the divorce, mother took her measly portion of profit accrued from the sale of the Ancestral Home, and held on to it with tight fists for the remainder of her life.) 

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. But the worst thing about living in that shared bedroom was that 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 preferaced with a, “May I?” 

I was to later learn my 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. Frugality, the value of mental health, and realizing that acquisitions are ethereal were just a few life lessons well learned from that experience. Relying on myself for most needs, and taking on the task of becoming my mother's primary caretaker was another lesson not lightly learned.

That summer also heralded drastic changes for my mother. Within one week in August of 1965, 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, and was severely depressed.

Thus began my high school years: wearing a newly layered life ruffled with adult concerns.

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