Juletta

I sat in the big, green, lumpy, comfortable chair where my dad usually sat evenings after dinner and watched my mother pull another hunk of hair from her head. That it hurt was obvious&#151her grimace said as much&#151but less than her headache, I guess. It wasn’t anything new; I’d seen her do it several times when her migraines were especially bad, but she seemed more desperate than usual that day, as if quickly reaching her maniacal crescendo was better than having it come on bit by bit. She moaned and made small whimpers like a hamster might if caught in a door, her eyes squeezed shut so tightly her lashes invisible. Dad was at work, so I was free to sit in his favorite chair and watch boring, mid-morning television: Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour, The Andy Griffith Show, Dick Van Dykeit sure beat going to school. Besides, the night before I’d dropped my only pair of blue school pants right where I took them off and they were a wrinkled mess and I didn’t feel like ironing. In the morning, rather than tell Mom the truth&#151she’d just get pissed and start throwing stuff at me&#151I told her I was sick; she looked at me, squinted her eyes and pretended to suspect me of lying, but let me stay home anyway. I knew she would; having me home served her purposes. In fact, it served us both well: I hadn’t done my homework (seldom did) and hated when my fifth-grade teacher, Sister Mary Vincent, called for everyone to hand their work forward and I had to pass the pile without adding mine. And, too, Mom liked having me home to help with the babysitting kids. I missed a lot of school.

The day had started off pretty much the same as most others: I’d already put Cindy and Beth, the toddlers Mom babysat, upstairs in the extra bedroom where they’d remain for the entire day, except when we brought them down for lunch. Sometime around two o’clock, before any parents came, Mom would have me bring them down so it would appear they’d had attention paid them and hadn’t been all day alone in a semi-dark, silent room. Before putting Beth down, I peeked in her diaper and wasn’t surprised to see a fairly old turd&#151most of the mothers, if they possibly could, typically left it to Mom to do the changing. I figured I could just as soon do it and save Mom the trip; hauling her two-hundred-seventy-five pounds upstairs made her legs hurt and that made her surly. I discovered at an early age, the longer we kept Mom from getting upset the better; once she started ranting she seldom let up until bedtime&#151and even that didn’t guarantee one of us wouldn’t be woken to some insomnia-fueled encore performance. Waking to someone screaming at you about something you forgot to do the night before, while warding off slaps, is something of which nightmares are made.

What made living with Mom all the more frustrating was that often, just about the time I had her clearly pictured strapped to a barbeque spit with me at the rotisserie handle, there’d be those times during the night when she’d lightly shake me awake and say in a soft motherly voice, Billy, wanna walk with me to Gatto’s to get some goodies? I’d always say yes, but still, I’d have preferred simply to sleep through the night without wondering if I was being roused by Jekyll, or the other guy. Those walks to the all-night drugstore&#151Mom venting frustrations over being married to Dad, her weight or some other life threatening plight, tears streaming down her plump face, then mercurially segueing into hilarious anecdotes about one of the mothers or an old barmaid experience, then abruptly back to life’s insurmountable woes&#151still seem like entertaining times to me. I could have sold tickets too those performances. It was during those late night walks through sleeping Midwest neighborhoods, with Mom’s cigarette end flashing through the air like an angry lightning bug, that I actually felt sort of loved&#151her confidant. And, looking back, I’m fairly certain she felt the same. As for the pants, even if they weren’t a wrinkled heap, the hole just below the crotch where my legs rubbed together had again worn through and needed to be sewn and I couldn’t remember where I’d left the thread the last time I sewed them. It was just much easier to claim I was sick and stay home. For Mom, my being home gave her someone to bitch at, to talk to (I was the first one she told about Dad sleeping with Patricia Barnes, a family friend) to scream at, and listen to her cry.

“Mom, stop it,” I said, keeping my voice level and non-aggressive, so I wouldn’t piss her off. At that, her moaning ceased for a bit, but soon started. Her lunacy was so much a part of her that I was used to her self-abuse; it was simply…Mom. But it was upsetting and felt wrong, and I knew her frustrations would eventually focus on me. When I look back, self-abuse may be the wrong way of looking at it. What my mother went through those days was inflicted on her by something; she was just reacting to it. I remember wanting to leave the room, but I knew moving would draw her attention&#151as long as I remained fairly still she’d have no reason to turn on me. Besides, having me there was her way of making sure she didn’t get too out of hand and do something really crazy, like take too many sleeping pills again, or bang her head against the wall. I still laugh to myself when I picture her explaining to one the of the mothers how she got the scrapes on her forehead. When the gullible mother left, Mom and I laughed our butts off about it. We were like Frankenstein and his assistant, Fritz&#151the madman and his co-conspirator in the 1931 film Frankenstein.

This headache was a bad one, I could tell. She rocked back and forth, her fat arms around her middle in a grotesque Ed Sullivan imitation, crying and cursing, leaning forward on the worn, avocado-green Salvation Army chair where she typically sat&#151the same chair she used when she was “Nice Mom,” or “Funny Mom,” or “Depressed Mom,” or “Psycho Mom.”

My two sisters and I had started using labels to make it easier to describe her moods&#151a sort of code. Some mornings, one of us would come around the corner, not as yet spotted by Mom, and whisper, “What’s she like today?”

“She’s Depressed Mom today. I’d sneak out the side door if I were you,” I’d whisper to my eight-year-old sister. “She asked me earlier if you were up and I said I didn’t know; she’s in the basement putting clothes in the dryer. I’ll say I didn’t talk to you, but just heard the side door close. Go”! It wasn’t that I was all that altruistic; it was more like—my being the oldest and only boy—I figured it was my job to deal with Mom. Besides, I was used to it and could move faster. In spite of Mom’s having fairly good aim with whatever was handy—a tall, azure, glass vase I bought from Kresge’s Department Store for her birthday, her favorite Hamm’s beer ashtray she took when she stomped out of the Del-ray Tavern and quit when a guy she was serving got out of hand (“The son-of-a-bitch tried to cop a feel, so I let him have it!”), the lid to the eight-quart pressure cooker Dad got her one Christmas, that hadn’t been used since the regulator (that little piece on the top that lets out steam) was lost to a bad aim—she hadn’t hit me with anything in some time.

On weekend mornings, when I got to stay longer in bed, I had gotten into a sort of routine: I’d lie listening to the old house’s floorboards creak under Mom’s weight as she lumbered down the hallway to the only bathroom. After a bit, I’d hear the toilet flush and the bathroom door open. I’d concentrate and imagine each step’s creaking dread knowing it was next in line as she stepped on it and wonder if, as she trudged downstairs each day, she already knew which mom she was going to be, “Funny Mom,” “Psycho Mom,” or one of the other cast of characters. I have to admit, if given the choice, I think she’d have chosen Funny Mom. At least I like to think so.

I’d hear one of the wooden kitchen chairs slide on the linoleum and then hear it creak as Mom lowered herself on it. Dad had reinforced all four chairs with thick, metal rods, not bothering to disguise the effort. He simply came home one day with several steel rods with threads on the ends. He set the rods on the floor next to the kitchen table along with a little bag of bolts. He didn’t say anything, just went to the basement for his drill and drill bits. When he returned, he knelt on the floor and drilled holes through each of the chair legs. He finished drilling, then pushed the rods through the holes and tightened the bolts. The chair legs were crisscrossed with rods; the spindly, feminine looking, French provincial chairs looking like props for a sword trick where the audience is made to believe a scantily clad woman in a box perishes to sharp blades stuck in her every which way. I thought, as I watched him, that if Mom suddenly appeared all hell was going to break loose. Looking back, I don’t think Dad would have cared. I’m pretty sure he’d stopped caring what Mom thought long before. Besides, we were safe; Mom was taking one of her several daily naps—those times when we would all relax knowing she wasn’t thinking up something to make her or our lives more miserable.

Bipolar didn’t become the buzzword it is today until around 1990. Until then it was commonly referred to as manic-depressive psychosis&#151the term I prefer because it sounds scarier and, I think, more accurately describes my mother. Also, the somewhat inaccurate “Bipolar” prefix ‘bi’ suggests something half-and-half…50% one way, 50% the other. Mom was more like 80/20&#15180% crazed bitch, 20% fun and loving mother. When she was being the twenty-percent, no one was kinder, or funnier. We’d laugh until our sides hurt.

Whenever I picture my childhood under Mom’s reign, the first image that comes to mind is of me, and sometimes one of my sisters&#151though, they were younger and not usually enlisted as co-conspirators—standing absolutely still, watching Michael, one of Mom’s favorite targets, being physically and mentally abused. I realize now, Mom knew that by having one of us there she wouldn’t go too far…but then, far is a relative term. When in her bipolar-induced maniacal state her anger was fierce and desperate, as if she had to get it all out before her time was up. Not to go into detail for the mere gruesomeness of it all, but to differentiate my mother’s kind of horror from that of the more mundane beating or slapping, I’ll describe, as I have to my psychiatrist, a common scenario.

Mom babysat eight to ten kids every day&#151three or four infants or toddlers during the day and the rest after five in the evening. According to state regulations, she was allowed to watch fewer than that, so when someone from family services would come by Mom would have me grab a couple of the kids and take them to the attic until it was clear. A few of the kids stayed with us until two or three in the morning, when their mothers would creep silently into our living room (we didn’t lock doors in those days) where the little ones slept on cots. Their mothers would tiptoe in and take them home after closing the bar where they worked. Juletta&#151my mom&#151had worked as a short-order-cook and barmaid before she became a stay-at-home mom (read: too fat to leave the house). As such, she had several friends and people in the business with whom she had worked that would ask her to take care of their children. They provided a good referral network of night shift mothers (I seldom saw a father). Yes, without question, there are good people and good mothers out there that work in bars at night; however, the kind of mother my mom attracted was not typically all that warm and fuzzy. They were the kind that would hang around after dropping off their child and talk on and on about this guy and that guy and how they were getting shafted, screwed or somehow done wrong by the world. It took that kind of person—desperate for an inexpensive sitter and someone willing to work with their strange hours—to overlook picking up a child, getting them home, and seeing black and blue marks on their butt and thighs. Mom, when the mother came, would explain how they had fallen or had gotten in a fight with another child, as if someone else had spanked them. I could tell, though, sometimes Mom didn’t remember how they’d gotten the marks either. She had a way of forgetting anger. For whatever reason, the mothers typically chose to believe her. They themselves were constantly swatting their kids on the butt or cuffing them on the back of the head, so I guess it didn’t really shock them. If they didn’t believe her, they left and Mom got a replacement.

Michael’s mother would walk him to the front porch steps, kiss him on the head and send him inside, while she’d go on to Mom about her miserable life, bitching about her latest boyfriend and how unfair life is. Michael would keep his head down—he’d learned crying only made my mom angrier—scoot by, and go directly to his “spot” in front of the television to watch Benny the Clown (Benny’s striking resemblance to the Channel 5 weatherman was, I guess in those days, easy to overlook). He would sit cross-legged on the carpet in front of the television and look straight ahead, intent on being invisible. When Mom finished chatting, she’d walk by him like there was nothing wrong…but we’d all be waiting. Sometimes as much as an hour or two would go by and everything would seem okay, but we knew better. There weren’t many good bipolar days.

Finally, she’d say something about getting washed up for supper and Michael, still in low-profile mode, would make a beeline for the kitchen sink to wash (as if he was a really well- mannered kid and not just scared shitless). He’d pull a kitchen chair over to the sink and wash and dry his hands, then scoot to the table. Sometime soon after, something would happen. It was as if she was biding her time…waiting. Michael would keep his head down, not wanting to present himself as even there. I remember thinking, to make Michael eat dinner with us&#151seated right next to Mom&#151was like forcing a POW to eat with his captor. I knew when she was getting worked up&#151after each drag on her cigarette, she’d tap it several times on the ashtray with a stiff forefinger, the ash already gone, staring at it like there was something stuck to the end. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford rolled into one…only scarier.

Then it would start. Something would set her off. Michael would do something that bothered her and without warning she’d slam her beefy hand down on the table and send whatever milk was left in Michael’s cup flying, and say something like, “All right you little bastard, I guess you want the Vicks!” Well…that would set Michael off crying and that would really piss off Mom; and that would make him cry harder, because he knew what was coming.

Mom was at her meanest in the late-50s, early-60s. We didn’t know the term bipolar. Hell, nobody did. My sisters and I—especially me, being the oldest and the object of most of her hate (craziness?) just figured she was a bitch…a psychotic bitch. Little did we know that we were pretty much on the mark—we just weren’t using the correct medical terminology.

Okay, I’ll make this quick: In those days, many parents believed that it helped clear a child’s nasal passages to smear Vicks Vapor Rub on a cloth and put it around his or her neck when they went to bed; that way, they’d breath in the vapor while sleeping. Strangely, I can attest to this actually working; however, having seen it abused, I never used it for my kids. Having used this once or twice on Michael when in her “Caring Sitter” persona—and seeing how much he despised the smell—when angry, she’d smear a bunch of the greasy stuff on a rag, tie it around Michael’s face, and make him stand in the corner of the dining room inhaling it until bedtime…sometimes several hours. To this day, when I picture that kid standing there whimpering while he watched Mom smear the acrid ooze on the cloth, I have to go someplace quiet and listen to soothing music until the memory passes. I don’t know what was worse for him, the Vicks or standing for that long. From her chair, she could see whenever Michael slouched or tried to change positions and she’d bark, “Stand up!” and he’d bolt upright for a bit until again weak. We three kids would sit uncomfortably in the living room, knowing Michael was in as helpless a situation as could be, hoping Mom would tire of Johnny Carson and go to bed. When she finally did, she’d tell Michael to get ready for bed. He’d quickly pull the sticky cloth over his head, lay it neatly on the table next to where he stood, and shoot for his sleepover bag to change. Once done, he would go the hall closet, fetch his foldaway canvas cot and bed linen, make it up, then climb on it and pretend to be asleep. Then we would all head upstairs&#151relieved.

To this day, I don’t know exactly why I didn’t go upstairs earlier and escape it all, but I guess it was sort of like a car wreck: you don’t want to look, but if you don’t, something worse might happen. I sometimes think I’d like the opportunity to tell Michael how sorry I am that we didn’t do something to help. Then, I realize, it’s little Michael to whom I want to apologize, not an adult Michael. I’d tell him, No one calls the police on their Mom. Anyway, I figure, if he’s forgotten, he’s lucky&#151if not, he’s probably as messed up as I and not someone I want in my life.

On more than one occasion, Mom would forget one of her movie magazines and go back downstairs to get it. As she’d again lumber upstairs, I’d sometimes hear her say in her high, kindly “Nice Mom” voice, as she walked by Michael’s cot, “Good-night little guy….sleep tight.”