The room was packed with clinical therapists, counselors, educators, and graduate students silently waiting to begin a two day intensive/certification training on developmental trauma and the impact PTSD and trauma has on the brain. The gentleman leading the group, a well known expert on trauma and a self proclaimed traumatologist, was pacing in front of the group, checking his mic while waiting for the class to begin as late arrivals trickled in and seats were claimed to begin the first of two intense 8 hour days.
He looked at his watch, checked his mic again, and at exactly eight o’clock on the dot he began the class. He welcomed everyone, explained the process over the next 48 hours and cracked a few jokes. He began with a question.
What has the biggest influence on who we are?
No immediate show of hands flew up, no outbursts of laughter, no calling out of answers.
He asked the question again.
What has the biggest influence on who we are?
A room full of clinical, mindful, compassionate people and no one wanted to say it.
Our parents, I said.
Our parents. Our family of origin. Our family portrait, I said.
Other people chimed in with agreements. Yes. Of course!
Our mothers, our fathers, those who raised us, brought us into the world, those who did the best they could with us.
Yes, he said. Yessss,he said. C’mom people! Don’t be afraid to say it. Our parents!
An interesting ice breaker.
I was raised right, as we say down south. I am the oldest of four, and the only daughter. From the early sixties through the mid seventies we were raised in a thriving, hip, liberal college town in North Carolina. I had two loving parents. Both worked in the medical profession. My mother worked the graveyard shift at times so my father could complete his residency. He also taught at the university. Our parents kept us fed, clothed and engaged in cultural and local activities. We went to college football games and neighborhood bbq’s and block parties. It was idealic. Really. We always had interesting guests showing up at our house. Sometimes the guests were graduate students and sometimes the guests were advocates and activists. My mom did macrame and smoked Tarytons 100’s and worked a full time job as a nurse. My dad was completing his residency and drove a lime green carmengia. It was traded for a lime green VW bus. Mom drove a station wagon with faux wood paneling on the outside and a red naughyhyde interior. There was always music flowing through the house. I personally loved the Mama’s and the Papa’s and Motown. My father taught the first college level human sexuality course at the university, and my mother was head of the adult psychiatric unit at the hospital. My childhood was always interesting, rich and adventurous.
We were fortunate to have the help of a wonderful woman named Hattie. I never knew how my mother came to know Hattie, but once she became part of our family, she remained part of our family until the day she died. She added more spice to the layers of my childhood. I was lucky. In the summer we were sent out to play in the early morning only to return when the day light dwindled or we got hungry.If you heard your name being called as the street lights were coming on, you knew you had to make it quick. Some days I can still taste the sizzle of a fried baloney sandwich,(always on white bread with real mayonnaise, please)and I can feel the late afternoon sun with the breeze through an open car window tempting my eye lids to close, for just a minute, while we took the road trip to Hattie’s house on the weekends, so mom and dad could work, or do mom and dad stuff.
On the way to Hatties house we would stop at the country store to grab a moon-pie, a bottle of Pepsi and Lance salted peanuts. Hattie’s husband, James taught me how to drop the peanuts into the bottle slowly so the salt would settle and not cause the Pepsi to over flow. Then he would cover the opening of the bottle with one of his calloused hardworking hands and shake the bottle to mix the contents just so. When we arrived at Hatties house, we flung open the car door, and ran through the yard, the clothes still dancing and drying on the line, the row of hydrangeas in full bloom, the bluest of blue, bending to the earth, begging us to run between them, which upset the hunting dogs in the back. Hattie would yell from the kitchen to get them dogs to hush.I had already flung off my shoes, letting the fresh cut grass and red clay stain my footprints. Hattie would already be working on dinner, which almost always included fried chicken, some kind of greens, biscuits and for dessert, her famous chocolate pound cake. Hatties hands could strip a forsythia branch for switch’in and stir cake batter with the same mix of love and devotion.Every Sunday in her Sunday best, she would be at church, passing the plate and praising Jesus. Few things kept Hattie from church. Hattie taught me how to play heart and soul on the piano. I would sit in her lap and she would hit the notes with one finger on her left hand- while holding my finger in her right hand until I could play the notes on my own. I loved Miss Hattie. There was nothing she could not do. She once picked up a black king snake that had the misfortune of sunning itself in the middle of the drive way. I stood there frozen staring at the snake, screaming like it was the end of the earth. Hattie flung open the screen door, went right to the snake, grabbed it by the neck and flung it into the bushes.
Now, get in the house, she would say. That snake was more afraid of you than you were of it.
As the years went on, she would tend to scrapes, a gash or two when somebody’s head met the corner of a brick, or the corner of a TV stand. When we left the college town so my father could open his own practice in another town, Hattie stayed behind and remained a part of our lives, until the day she died, exactly one month after my mother died. That was 8 years ago. I met Hattie when I was 5. Me and my three brothers were her children. She would tell anyone who asked:
You see these fine chil’ren? These are my chil’ren and I love ’em to death.
Hattie was there through my fathers tortuous affair that led to my parents divorce. I suspect Hattie knew a lot more than she ever said.
He ain’t right in the head right now she would say. Devil got a hold of him, she would say.
Taken up with someone younger than three of ya’ll??, she would say. It won’t last, she would say. She was right.
Hattie was there through it all even though she lived in another part of the state. She called my mom from time to time and every Christmas morning, no matter where we were, Hattie called us. First thing on Christmas morning. The phone would ring and we would all say:
Hattie found us, even when Hurricane Fran took everything my mother had and we all traveled to be together in a rental on the far end of Topsail Island, Hattie found us. Even on that Christmas morning, surrounded by rental furniture in an unfamiliar house. She was the first to call.
Hattie was there through my mothers cancer, and through my mothers diagnosis of multi-infarct dementia that led to the ebb and flow of her mind and decline. On my drive home from college I would stop in and visit Hattie, still living in the same house with the mop-headed hydrangeas. Hattie met the man I would one day marry, Hattie met my daughter within the first year after she was born, and from afar Hattie watched as the portrait of our family gave way to the realities of life. Hattie watched as the long slow burn of addiction transformed my oldest brother. Hattie was there when we all shifted into our corners of the world when our family fell apart and to this day, never fell back together. Hattie would no longer recognize the family portrait she grew to love, helped raise and call her own. She would beg us to all come back together again and be the family she knew. It would never happen. I stopped hanging onto that image a long time ago, knowing we would never be in the same frame of any picture or portrait ever again. The last picture me and my brothers took was with my mom. It was September 2008. I stood outside on the steps of the courthouse waiting for all of us to gather. We were there to impose guidelines and legal regulations on my oldest brother to keep him and his current wife from stealing from my mother. It is one thing to become the legal guardian of your parent. It is quite another when you are forced to take legal action to prevent a sibling from causing your mother harm while she loses her mind. My mother was huddled inside with her court appointed attorney, and I stood outside in the southeastern heat and humidity, dreading the thought of what was about to unfold. It was not going to be pretty. It was sure to get downright ugly. It did.
Our family portrait had come to this.
At first I did not recognize my brother. Truth be told,I had not seen him in years and having to see him and enforce legalities in a court of law was, well, complicated. Our last encounter was in an emergency room. My father had been admitted to the hospital with a pulmonary embolism. While my husband and I were upstairs checking in on my father, a nurse entered the room and asked if we were related to the young man who was just brought in by ambulance for inhaling a bag of cocaine.
I mean, she said,ya’ll have the same last name.
It seems, she said, the young man had inhaled a bread tie while inhaling the baggie of cocaine. He is screaming, she said, about a bread tie being stuck in his throat.
My husband stayed with my father and I went down to the emergency room just in time to see the sheriff running after my brother who had taken off for the woods behind the hospital. That was in the summer of 2000.
When a bloated, half balding man approached me on the steps outside the courthouse 8 years later, it took me a good five minutes to realize who it was. We exchanged simple hellos without a blip of eye contact and there was no way we were going to hug it out. Nope. He went one way while I waited for my other brothers to arrive. Once everyone arrived, we made our way to the room number we were given. My mother sat on a bench outside that room reading the same book she had been reading for the past week, stuck on the same page, yet still loving the story. My mom had always been a ferocious reader, starting and finishing books week by week. Always have a good book, she would say. The gradual easing of her mind did not change that one bit.
This book is so gooood, she would say.
Who cared if she read the same page over and over and over again?
Her eyes lit up as the four of us made our way to her. In her true bliss, in the true bliss of seeing all four of her children walking towards her, she did not reflect on the ways my brothers addiction had torn away at the family portrait.She did not recall the way the brutal divorce and the behavior of my father has damaged each of us in our own ways, further dismantling the family portrait. My mother did not see the ways we disagreed as siblings, as adults, nor did she really comprehend why we were all there. I was about to head into a courtroom and declare my mother incompetent and implement ways to legally protect her as her mind continued to fade. My mother was one of the most competent, strong willed, sharp minded women I ever knew, and I was about to declare her incompetent of taking care of herself. Never mind that. Her eyes lit up when she saw the four of us. She only saw the four of us. She only saw her children. Her first born the daughter, and the three sons that followed. She did not see the pain. She only saw her children. She smiled. She was even gleeful, in the way she would get when all of us were together under one roof, and the refrigerator was full of our favorites and she would just want to sit and be around us, listen to us, laugh with us, just like it was when the family portrait was complete and rich with color and content.
Oh please, she asked the attendant outside the door.
Can you get a picture of us?
Putting aside the years of hurt and anger, and as four children who knew well what my mother had sacrificed to raise us, who knew she saw every football and soccer game, trudged through mud to see every motorcross race, sat through graduations, plays and musicals, more graduations, weddings, births, hospital stays and unexpected surprise visits when she missed us. We who knew more than anyone what my mother did every Christmas, every birthday, not just for us, but for the children of strangers, who knew what my mother endured through a brutal and nasty divorce after 33 years of living with a narcissist of a man who, on orders from his soon to be new wife, locked my mother out of the house we called home, leaving only her purse on the front step, threw away the family possessions at the request of his soon to be new wife, and with the help of his soon to be new wife, forged my mothers signature to sell off properties and paintings, we who knew as her children what my mom put first and always: us. So there, in silence, we put our mom in the middle and put our arms around her and each other and took a picture.
Our last family portrait.
We did this for her. To the day she died, my mother rarely knew what day it was,or what year it was. She was wise enough to let the bitter memories fade with the other parts of her mind and she held onto the memories that included her children. I was privvy to some of those memories, when it was just the two of us, usually late at night, when the only sound was the hum of the oxygen machine. She let me into some of her best memories. Until the very end, when her last breath was taken she held onto two things that never changed. These two things never went out with the ebb and flow of her mind. Ever. To the day she died, she knew she was in her beloved beach house, looking out onto the Atlantic, and she never forgot her children. She never forgot her children.
Soon after my mother died, my drug brother and my mothers sister accused me and my two other brothers of killing my mother for her money. My mother had no money. No attorney would take the case.
Earlier this year my drug brother, his current wife and my fathers ex-wife, whom he divorced nearly 23 years ago, filed false charges against me for elderly abuse as my fathers health declines. Their claim indicated I was hoarding all his money and not getting him the health care he needed. My father has no money. He has someone in his life who is caring for him daily, hourly, as he declines. I live in a different state than my father. Yet, there was a full blown investigation. It was humiliating and hurtful. Two months later,I was cleared of all charges, and the state sent me a letter of apology. Recently, my drug brother has taken to social media with pictures of me, linking me to a New York slum lord who once owed hotels. I have no idea why he is doing this. Traditionally, the holidays are tricky for him.
My family of origin stopped being my family portrait a very long time ago. It was too much to hold onto. It did not define who I am and no longer does. I have my own family, and that family portrait has changed too taking with it more I no longer want to hold onto. What forced me into changing the way I look at family, is also what has forced me into looking deeper at what family means. I have done the father daughter dance-and made peace with it. I have also made peace with the dance we daughters do with our mothers. I let go of the weight of the family portrait. I let go of the normal and the ideal. I have no regrets. None. And like my mother, I am certain no matter the circumstance, the diagnosis, or the conditions. I will always know my daughter. I will always know my child.
An end note: Hattie had a daughter. She was my first childhood friend. To this day, on every birthday, and every holiday, especially Christmas, she calls or texts. It is usually the first call or text of the day.
Our mothers are looking down on us.