"Music is the language of the spirit. It opens the secret of life bringing peace, abolishing strife."
– Kahlil Gibran
Someone told me, "Maybe you don't want to know." This might be true, but what could be more traumatic than I imagined? No one in the family will tell me why, but my parents left me with relatives for my first four years.
Dad wouldn't talk about it, and Mom said they left me with my paternal grandparents because she and Dad were building a house and couldn't find a place to rent that allowed children. I never believed her, so I'd read a book or sneak into the living room to watch my soaps to escape the 'Why'?
Books and the two soaps Grandma and I'd shared, first on the radio and then on blurry black and white television. The theme songs for Guiding Light and As The World Turns still play in my head when I think about her.
When I was four years old, without warning, Mom and Dad came to Pittsburgh, packed my things, and escorted me to their car. Gramps reached in and handed me a tiny, wooden, handmade cage with my pet Canary named Dickie Bird inside; Grandma gave me my dear tattered teddy bear that had gone missing soon after my parents arrived. Keeping up appearances was their first priority, and Teddy wasn't acceptable. He disappeared when we reached Michigan and never returned. I had no idea that was the last time I'd see my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and neighbor friends.
Daddy seemed to like me, and we did all sorts of things together; fishing, picking up rocks along rural roads to build a Bar-b-Cue pit, deadheading his beautiful Tea Roses, Cosmos and spicy-scented Nasturtiums and feeding the goldfish in the pond he'd made. He'd try to read bedtime stories to me, and Peter Pan is the only one I remember. Mom called him away, "Rich? I need your help!" He'd close the book, turn off the light and leave the room. Finally, he just stopped.
I don't remember Mom much unless she was chastising me for something. "Stand up straight!", "Rewash your hands; they're still not clean." "Why is there mud on your play shoes?" or for an order, "Elizabeth, make me a cup of coffee?" "Have you washed the dishes? What always takes you so long to do such a simple chore!" I'd stand on the little step stool and get lost in the back roads of my imagination in the bubbles. I'd put off scrubbing the toilet until last when cleaning the bathroom. I feared a monster with octopus tentacles or spider legs might grab me and pull me into the water and down the drain. I'd pretend the scrubbing powder was a magic dust that kept the toilet monsters away. I still remember the fake chemical 'clean' smell and the gritty feel of it under my fingers.
I never thought of her as my mother but as a nicely dressed woman with pink fingernails and blondish-red hair. I couldn't love her because she was such a stranger. Sometimes I'd amuse her with my peculiar questions, "Mom, I like this toothpaste, but why is it pink? It doesn't taste pink, and it tastes green." And she'd laugh.
Unfortunately for both of us, most of my questions made her stiff with anger, "Mom, when will I go back home? I miss Grandma and Gramps, and Aunt Ruth and Uncle Henry, and . . ."
"That's enough, Elizabeth! You live here with us, your Mother and Father, and that is how it will stay. We might visit in the summer, but it's just a visit! I knew a slap or paddling with her hair brush might follow, so I quit asking about it.
My baby brother entered our lives when I was eleven years old. My father was overjoyed in every sense of the word. He even ordered birth announcements with tiny black-and-white photos of Matthew Richard on the front. They took the picture in the hospital, which must have cost the earth back in the 1950s. I never saw it until one of my aunts gave me one many years later.
Back then, mothers and babies were hospitalized for a week, sometimes even more. Children weren't allowed to visit. Mom and Matthew came home when he was seven days old. His bassinet sat just inside my parent's bedroom door. I'd spent that week with a neighbor who had five kids. I didn't know them very well, and I remember watching them playing and feeling a little thrill knowing I'd also have a brother to play with.
Mom, Matthew, and Dad came home late on a Sunday afternoon, but I stayed with the neighbor until after dinner. I remember we ate spaghetti and rolls with butter. Foods I'd never eaten at home and tasted delicious, but I longed to see my new brother. The neighbor walked me home, and Dad answered the door; happiness filled his face and voice; I'd never known him like this; My chest swelled with unfamiliar joy I'd forgotten about.
We walked into the kitchen. Dad told me to go to bed, then went into their bedroom and closed the door. That left me feeling sad and confused. I left the bathroom door open, just across the hall from their room, while I washed my face and brushed my teeth. I kept hoping their door would open and they'd invite me in. But it didn't happen.
The next morning, I asked if I may see the baby, but Dad said, "Not now. Your mother is sleeping, and she needs her rest. You can see him after school."
"I'll be very quiet, I promise. I just want to see him."
"No, not now."
Dad went into the bathroom, and I heard the shower water run. Now was my chance. I opened their door, Mom was asleep, and there he was, so small, perfect, and awake! He had blue eyes like Mom. I touched his tiny hand. To my delighted surprise, he grabbed my finger and held on. I swear he smiled at me with recognition, but that might be what I want to remember. It was one of those perfect moments a person never forgets. I heard the shower turn off and hurried out of the room, softly closed the door, and went to school.
I ran all the way home that day, leaving my friends behind, wanting to get home and see Matthew. I turned the corner onto our block, five houses before ours, and saw my Grandmother standing at the end of our driveway. How could life be any more perfect than this day?
I ran even faster and threw my arms around her, smelling Dial soap and face powder. She hugged me, but she didn't laugh or speak. I let go and took a step back. Tears cut little paths through the powder on her cheeks. She removed her glasses and wiped her eyes with a hanky, already wet and crumpled.
"Lizzy (her name for me, not Elizabeth), your brother is in the hospital. He died a few hours ago, and your Mom and Dad are there with him., So I came to stay with you for a few days."
After that, our lives grew even darker and more confusing.
Mom didn't come out of their bedroom for a long time. Dad turned from being kind and funny into an angry, mean, abusive stranger. "Look at you! You're fat!" "Why are you so lazy?" "Your grades are terrible. C's and a D! Why are you so stupid?" Slap!"
No more fishing trips, rock finding, or garden buddy. I was the one who lived and shouldn't have. And I worried that my disobeying my father and touching Matthew had something to do with his death.
I became a wild child in my teens, at least as wild as anyone in the 1960s was. I smoked, lost my virginity at fourteen, skipped school, and did crazy dangerous things that never broke the law but might have gotten me expelled or killed. I had a breakdown when I was thirteen, and the doctor put me on phenobarbital. The pharmacist told me I was too young to take it, but I took it, and it kept me in a sort of walking coma. I still smoked, had sex, and skipped school, but was able to sleep at night and toned my wildness a little.
Mom and I began sharing an uneasy truce and a new, closer relationship. My own babies were in preschool. Then Mom called to say they were moving to Oklahoma to be with Mom's family. She said she never really liked Detroit anyway, so, Mom, Dad, and Joanne, age twelve at that time, were gone within a month.
That triggered my second breakdown. My doctor wanted to hospitalize me, but I had two small children, and my husband worked six days a week, ten hours a day. There was no one to take care of my babies. Instead, came more meds and inpatient therapy three days a week. My poor kids were confused, but the secretary entertained them while I was in treatment. I slowly came out of the searing emotional pain and sadness enough to pick up my life and did the best I could as a wife and a mother.
Over time, and after a lot of therapy, I realized how heartbroken and angry my parents were when Matthew died. And I knew they didn't want to take their pain, rage, and loss out on each other, so I became the target. It wasn't intentional or purposefully mean, but their anguish spewed over me like intense emotional vomit.
Mom and I wrote letters. Dad visited us a few times and always wanted to go to the cemetery and take flowers to Matthew.
One day, many years later, my sister called to tell me Mom had brain cancer and was dying. I'm ashamed to say that I felt nothing, nothing at all, which was more frightening than anything I'd experienced. I was a zombie.
Mom was home, lying, so small, in a hospital bed next to a window. It was a shock to see her white hair, and no makeup or nail polish. This made her even more of a stranger.
Several bird feeders hung outside, and sparrows, finches, and a bluebird fluttered around it. Mom turned her head, looked at me, and said, "What are You doing here?" in an accusatory, unhappy tone. It felt like another slap.
"I came to visit you, Mom," I said, trying to be upbeat.
She turned her head and watched the birds. I sat there for a while. My sister hoped I'd stay the night, so she and Dad could have a break, but I couldn't. The thought terrified me. What if I touched her, and she died right then? Panic rose in me that a triple dose of Xanax couldn't dent, and I raced back to the hotel, feeling like a horrible daughter, sister, and person.
I cried so long and hard that I had no voice when the phone rang. My husband called from back home and asked, "Are you okay?" He knew me, knew what I was feeling, so he talked to me in his gentle, sweet way, telling me about how the kids were and about the antics of our two rescue pups, how the garden had perked up after a rain storm. Finally, my breath and voice returned. I said, "I love you," and went to bed.
Dread squeezing my heart, my throat ached, and my head throbbed with a migraine, but I went back to see Mom the following day.
This time I walked into her room and said, in the softest, kindest tone I could, "Hi, Mom."
She didn't turn her head and seemed to sleep. I began to softly sing, "You are my sunshine," and was happy and surprised when she joined in with, "My only sunshine. You make me happy when skies are grey. You'll never know, dear, how much I love you. Please don't take my sunshine away."