American Family Values [book excerpt]
I can’t stop jumping up and down. My heart is racing with excitement. My cousins are coming over again and we can play in the giant house/business where I live with my parents, my grandparents and my little brother.
The building we get to play in is an adventure land and feels massive to a preschooler. The business is my grandpa’s chiropractic office. The office itself has a small reception area with chairs, magazines including Highlights for Children with the cartoon, Goofus and Gander, the desk where my grandma sits to greet patients, an x-ray room, and an adjustment table room. I am careful to avoid behaving like Goofus wherever I can to please Grandpa and Grandma. Or my aunts and uncles. Or the patients.
I still might not have seen my aunts and uncles and cousins except for holidays even if I did live with my grandparents. Family doesn’t get to see each other anymore with everyone working. Even in the mid-1970s.
But Grandma is going to die in a few months of a brain tumor and everyone knows it but the kids. In the meantime, family surround me and squeeze me with hugs. They tug gently on my pigtails which Mama tries to keep in bows, but my hair is fine, and they frequently slide out leaving missing bows all over the house. I am always getting snatched into an aunt or uncle’s lap.
I don’t even remember meeting my cousins. It was nothing like the awkward get-togethers I witnessed as an adult when I watched my own nieces and nephews meet each other for the first time over and over at holidays.
My cousins and I didn’t have that slow approach-and-assess period I witnessed before the little ones would become friends. We were close automatically because we saw each other all the time.
If we weren’t interacting with grandpa’s patients, my cousins and I might take off for the living area behind the office. This is where grandma and grandpa tried to find room to live among his inventions.
The most prominent invention was a chair that reclined bodies into a position perfect for deep diaphragmatic breathing with your legs supported in the air and your head rested at a declining angle.
In other words, the chair almost turned a person upside down. Grandpa’s greatest insights came from his study of Eastern medicine. He believed that deep and rhythmic breathing held benefits for the immune system and physical well-being generally, so he created a chair that optimized breathing.
It looked fun to make this chair move your head and chest downward, while your legs began to rise into the air. But it was not for children, because it was too big. We had to sneak onto it when the adults weren’t looking.
At our age even doing the laundry was fun. Because ouch. Be careful. Grandma had a wringer washer machine. We fed the clothes through the rollers with delighted giggles. Mama taught us to sing while we worked.
Then we hung clothes up on the sloping second floor deck that served as the perfect place to view fireworks set off only a block away on the 4th of July. My mother believed clothes were not handled with proper care unless they dried in fresh air and sunlight. She lowered the height of one of the clotheslines just for me.
When we do celebrate Independence Day on the patio, we just lay out lawn chairs everywhere. Nothing seemed finer than having three generations of our family sitting as a small tribe. The setting exuded the kind of security a strong, free country and a tight-knit family always promises to provide. The coziness of sitting together was intoxicating and I am the most patriotic person in the country. American flags are everywhere including in my hand as I wave it vigorously.
There is a door next to grandpa’s business office that goes up to the second floor apartment where we live. That’s where my cousins and I celebrate birthday parties, play with my toys, or watch TV.
Just a few shows are allowed like Sesame Street, Little House on the Prairie, and Star Trek. For some reason, Mama thinks even Electric Company is too racy. All the other kids I know get to watch it, but not matter how much I protest I can’t.
At bedtime, Aunt Penny read children’s stories she had written and illustrated herself with crayons on black construction paper. They were about Timothy, a little boy, who was afraid of monsters in his room at night. I hung on her every word as she read the stories. I wasn’t afraid of monsters. I was tucked in by a village.
Our arrangement wasn’t even typically American since the time of The Waltons. The Waltons being a television show about a multigenerational Depression-era family who all live together in a big house which aired during the 1970s so one wonders how much longer it can last as a cultural reference. But this was family as I thought it existed. And it was good.
Given that both my parents were suffering from a serious mental illness, this arrangement was helping me to thrive where I might have otherwise been falling behind.
My mother screamed, “Go downstairs and get your grandpa. Tell him we need him to call emergency.”
She was talking to me, but I froze at the sight of blood pooling around my father’s face. My little brother David heroically stepped up and ran downstairs. We didn’t have a phone, so mother was frantic to have Grandpa call for help. There wasn’t anything like 911 emergency line yet. You just had to call the ambulance line.
Mama kept muttering to Jesus and God to help my dad. She grabbed towels from the bathroom and pressed them against my father’s face as she cradled his head and shoulders in what was left of her lap since her tummy was inflated with a baby. She pulled the red bandana from her long straight blonde hair when the towels were soaked, and pressed it against his nose.
I carefully stepped over any blood and sat on the braided rug to take my father’s hand and give him a reassuring pat. “It’s alright.”
“Whhaa…t…Grraa…ahh,” He stirred, making gurgling cries of pain, blood spraying from his mouth. His black hair was matted and shiny crimson.
Grandpa arrived with my brother. He was unable to take his eyes off of my father, transfixed by the report that he had fallen straight on his face. He could see there was lots of blood loss coming from my dad’s nose and mouth. Grandpa reassured my mama, “I called the ambulance. David said his daddy ‘fell down’ and didn’t wake up. Hope I understood that right.”
“Don’t just stand there staring, help him.” My mother’s pale blue eyes flashed anger. Grandpa stooped down, took my father’s hand from mine, and touched his wrist. “He’s got a steady pulse.” My dad’s groans grew louder.
There were sirens farther in the distance than anyone hoped. But, eventually, people in uniforms were whirling around trying to figure out how to get my father on a stretcher down the long flight of stairs. I ducked out of the way into my room. Noticing blood on my shorts gave me a shiver. I tore them off and kicked them toward a pile in the corner of my room.
When the varied noises of sirens, radios crackling, voices yelling, and feet stomping faded; I ventured back out to where my father had fallen. Grandpa had his camera out. Look at this, he says. When I glanced to where he was pointing, I saw the imprint of my father’s two front teeth embedded in the blood-smeared hardwood floor. I had to swallow a little throw-up. When Grandpa finished snapping pictures, he asked me to help him clean up; I didn’t move. David started to help. I wasn’t touching that blood. It made me queasy and light-headed just looking at it. I just walked away.
Mama came home alone when it was dark. She was quiet, but I wasn’t sleeping, so when she stole a look around the piano into our room, she saw my eyes were open.
“Is Daddy okay?”
“How about a bedtime story?” Mama thumbed through my collection of Dr. Seuss and Little Golden Books about tough little engines and dawdling little puppies.
“I pick Hop on Pop.” She winced. I chose that book a lot. But she started to read, “Up pup. Pup is up…Red bed. I am in bed…Sad dad… Dad is sad. Very, very sad. He had a bad day. What a day Dad had!” Mother slowed down, a little tear in the corner of her eye. “He sure did,” she said.
“When is he coming home?”
“I don’t know, sweetie. I just don’t know.” She didn’t finish the story, just curled up with me on my twin-sized bed and fell asleep. Her large belly pushed me through the night until I was dangling off the bed.
Weeks after they took my father away without bringing him back, Mama packed up the car trunk with blankets, a picnic basket, and a cooler. She put our favorite drinks, little grape juice cans with plastic pull tops, into fresh ice in the cooler. Mama pushed forward the driver’s seat of our Impala and told David, then me, to hop in the back. As she drove, we passed by billboards and signs with bright company logos that gave way to alternating patches of trees and farmland. We passed a few fields quite a few cows. We were going for a trip to the hospital where my father was staying.
David and I usually teased each other on car rides. Sometimes, I would poke or tickle him; anything to make him giggle. This time, we each looked out our windows in silence. Eventually, Mama turned into a long driveway surrounded by perfectly spaced large trees growing in flawlessly mowed thick green grass.
When we arrived at the large hospital for people with tuberculosis, Mama argued with the receptionist and the nurses. We were not allowed to go and see our father because Dad was under quarantine. The nurses said that the problem making my dad sick could also hurt children if we got near him. Mama was not pleased. The nurses were irritated. After Mama disappeared around a corner, I heard them whispering, “What was that woman thinking coming in here pregnant and with small children?”
The waiting room got boring after a long while, so I took David outside to roll down a hill behind the hospital. I ended up dizzy after turning and tumbling just once. I threw up a little in my mouth. David gurgled in bliss on his third trip down. Mama found us outside and hustled us back into the car. She smiled much more than she had on the way down to the hospital. She was relieved as she told us that our father would be coming home soon. The doctors had figured out he did not have tuberculosis as they had assumed, which was the whole reason he had been sent to a TB hospital in isolation. Instead, he had hepatitis and valley fever, also known as coccidioidomycosis, an infection in his lungs. He had originally contracted both conditions while serving in the Air Force. When his immune system weakened from working in a paint factory full of chemicals, both illnesses flared up.
We stopped at a park and had a picnic on the way home. I started to feel less sick to my stomach after a peanut butter sandwich and grape juice. There were many bushes in the picnic area with bright red berries. My brother and I brought samples of different berries back to Mama so she could look in a wildlife survival guide to check if the little fruits were edible. None of the berries we found that afternoon were potential food. But, Mama noticed that in the wild, dandelions were considered a source of food. After trying them, both David and I spat them back out. Bitter. Yuck. Nevertheless, with that book, in the event our family decided to hide away in the wilderness, we were ready to live off the land.
My father was back at home in a few days and spending a lot of time in his bed. David and I were not allowed to go into Mama and Dad’s room, so we didn’t see him much. When he came out at night to watch his favorite detective show about Jim Rockford and his dad, Rocky, I peeked around the piano to examine him. He had a yellow tint around his blue eyes where it should have been white and his skin was a sickly yellow, too.
“Red or yellow, black or white, they are precious in his sight… Jesus loves the little children of the World…” I sang the little tune to myself. So, this was a yellow person. Since he looked tired and grumpy, it was a good thing that God loved him.
A few weeks later, Mama dislocated her knee while moving furniture around, so two of her sisters came to stay with us. At the time, I didn’t realize that my mama was sending out pleas for help, because everything was falling apart, especially for my grandma. From a preschooler point of view, life was carefree: preschool, books, puzzles, toys, and television. But, much later on, owing to our extended family’s pack-rat tendencies, I was able to read a February 1975 letter from my mother to my aunt revealing a very different picture:
“If you knew what an effort it is sometimes merely to get up out of a chair, or to bend over from what I can figure out, the organs and tissues don’t get an adequate supply of blood, and it’s sort of like when the juice goes down, the lights everywhere don’t burn as brightly, the iron doesn’t get as hot, the radio slows down, etc. to be MENTALLY DEPRESSED; and to have DIGESTIVE DISTURBANCES, COLD HANDS AND FEET, and VAGUE PAINS. Boy, is that me, eh?”
Our visiting aunts cooked and helped us with our baths. Feeling happier with some help, Mama would frequently sit at the old upright piano in our living room playing songs until her wrists hurt. She also knew how to play the accordion. The whole family, including my grandparents, would often gather around her to dance and sing. They especially liked a rousing polka number.
Soon, Mama complained that her crutches made her underarms hurt, especially since she was bursting with the baby almost ready to be born. She stayed in bed lying next to my father while he slept and slept. Mama suddenly left one day in September not long after her birthday to go to the hospital. She was angry about it. She wanted to give birth to all of her children at home, but her sisters said they weren’t helping her give birth at home with a messed-up leg. Mama was convinced the hospital would be horrible, and it turned out to be exactly that. They didn’t even let her kiss Samuel when she went to hold him for the first time. It was too unsanitary, they said.
She came back after being gone to the hospital for a few days. Mama was happy Samuel was born when he was because her mama got to hold him a couple of times before she died. David and I got to visit Daddy in his bedroom because Mama had brought home a baby boy. Daddy was snuggling Samuel on his bed. Mama planned a sneak attack outside their bedroom door warning David and me to surprise them carefully because babies are delicate, and Daddy was still sick. She rushed in with us and her camera shouting, “Pig pile next to Daddy and the baby.” Adding, “Carefully now.” Every picture she took had big smiles, including my father’s funny-toothed grin.
Not long after that my brother David’s screams pierced the night. He had to go to the hospital after he developed spinal meningitis. I wasn’t there to see the him hooked up to the tubes and machines. I wasn’t there to see him in a large iron crib crying in pain. Mama cried a lot. I felt guilty for all the times that I had left my little brother out of my play activities. I made a vow to change when he returned from the hospital.
Still, Mama was not done dealing with major stressors. We expected my grandmother to die within weeks. Watching her mother deteriorate saddened my mama. I, however, was uplifted, in my oblivious youth, by the parade of visitors who came to see my grandmother. Most of the visitors were family; my aunts, uncles, and cousins who stayed around for musical sessions with my mama at the piano or on the accordion.
Grandma died about a month after Samuel was born. They took her to Minnesota to bury her. I was too young to go. I missed my mama and my grandpa while they were gone, so, when I saw their car pull up, I ran to greet them. They barely noticed me. Instead, they seemed to be having a disagreement. It scared me since I had never heard them argue.
“He is not lazy. He is sick. I can’t believe you would say something so despicable,” my mama cried. She had overheard Grandpa telling a patient from church that Daddy was lazy.
“He doesn’t have the luxury of being sick when he has to take care of his family, including a new baby,” my grandpa snapped.
“And just where is he supposed to go to work? He can’t go back to that toxic chemical factory. Do you want to claim that his yellow skin is also made up? Did you not see the same bloody floorboards I did? What about the tooth marks in our wood floor?”
“It’s up to him to find something.”
“That’s perfect. Just perfect. You have wonderful timing. Very loving, especially considering you were supposed to give him a job. You promised him a job,” my mama’s voice trailed off.
“What’s the matter?” I called out feeling brave enough to make myself known and to interrupt.
“Nothing,” said Mama, and she pulled me upstairs for the night.
Because Independence is Ideal
It was either the strain on my neck from turning around and staring out the back window for a over a hundred miles or it was the crying. Or likely it was both that gave me a multi-day headache when we arrived in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, the length of a state away from Sheboygan where we had lived.
My grandpa had made his feelings clear. He didn’t respect my father anymore as he laid in bed. My father was suffering from a mental illness. He had schizoaffective disorder. He had been diagnosed while in the Air Force when he enlisted during the Vietnam War. They gave him an Honorable Discharge. But he was also physically sick. Doctors recommended he move away from Lake Michigan because the sea air was believed to be bad for his lungs.
We went to visit no one. No one came to visit us. Family disappeared. It was just my depressed, delusional father. It was also my mother with bipolar disorder. She wasn’t well either. They were untreated. They were unsupported. We were on our own.
The story continues in this piece: