Trauma is a vampire, but light, as any student of folklore or Freud knows, will kill it. The problem is, when the shell-shocked try to exhume their memories — to bring them into the light — the result can be a death struggle so fierce they may fear it’s them, not the suckling pain that’s about to die.
Katherine Russell Rich
A chilly fall day in southern Iowa. Colored foliage covered the ground like the hues in my mother’s patchwork quilts. I arrived at her home, a small two-bedroom house appropriately located in a low to middle-income community known as Orlen, Iowa. Farming and a job at the World Color Press (WCP) supported a substantial number of residents living in Orlen. While most jobs at WCP provided a livable wage for its employees, supporting a family of four was a stretch. The factory printed comic books, magazines, brochures, newspaper inserts and was located in Newberry, Iowa some twenty-five miles north of my mother’s house. If you wanted to see a movie or visit a shopping center, Newberry was the place to go. And if you traveled one-hundred miles north to Dumont, Iowa you could even see an indoor, shopping mall. While one-thousand residents were a collection of hardworking, honest people, it was a typical small town where hidden secrets sometimes challenged your soul.
I arrived at her house and was greeted by the usual, “Hi, how are you doing? The weather has changed. You’ll need a jacket if you’re going outside.” There was no hugging or kissing in my childhood family; a family that practiced social distancing but didn’t wear a mask. Perhaps we were preparing for an incoming virus.
Inside the house was a wooden, quilt-making frame standing in a corner. The frame resembled a set of parallel bars that a miniature gymnast might have used. It was common-place for my mother, grandmother, and four church-ladies to sit around the frame while quilting, talking, and sharing the latest gossip. The finished quilts were then passed on to the church for fund-raising purposes.
Weeks earlier, my mother told me about her decision to have cataract surgery on her left eye. She asked if I would transport her to and from the hospital and spend the night at her house. It was decided that I would arrive at her house around 6:00 am, have her at the hospital by 8:00 am, spend the night, and head home on the following day. It was a commitment that I didn’t embrace, and I didn’t know why. For some reason, I didn’t feel the closeness that is expected between a boy and his mother. I always performed my sonly duties with a degree of detachment similar to a janitor mopping the floor at the end of a long day.
We returned from the early morning surgery and settled in. The surgery had gone well, and the doctor was pleased with the outcome. My mother seemed to be in good spirits as I stood in the kitchen unpacking sacks of food from Martin’s grocery store when I overheard a string of telephone calls.
“Hello,” my mother answered. “We just returned from the hospital. Surgery was fine. Yes, that’s right. Larry came up early this morning and will be spending the night.” Each call required a summary of the ordeal, including tales of the drafty hospital gown, the surgery, hospital food, and finally, to Dr Bucannon who was “such a nice man.”
My mother was short in stature but long in stories. “Did I tell you about George?” she asked as she sought my attention. George, her next-door neighbor for the past twenty-years, was a medium-built seventy-year-old man who always wore khaki pants with a matching shirt and a brown, Kirby feed-store cap. Except for his wife and horse, George was a loner.
“George’s got cancer real bad. They can’t perform surgery. He’s got a bad heart. Most of the people can’t get along with him, but he treats me right. He even starts my lawn mower. I don’t have the strength to pull the rope.” She paused and chuckled. “I swear he must look out his window just waiting for me to mow. Then he comes out and talks my arm off. I’ll never forget the time he told me about the four rules he lives by.”
“Oh, what was that?” I asked with a bit of curiosity.
“Well, let me make sure I’ve got this straight.” She continued to chuckle.
“George said that he didn’t run around with other women, he didn’t drink, he didn’t go to funerals, and he didn’t go to church.” We laughed trying to decide if each rule was equally important or if each was listed in some thought-out order.
I sat at the table and suggested that we eat something. We were having fried chicken, potato soup, green beans, hot rolls, and fresh fruit salad with a dab of whipped cream on top. No sooner had we begun when Reverend Robbins called.
“Yes, I feel pretty good. But I don’t feel perfect. It was quite an ordeal you know. And it was hard on my nerves. Yes, Larry is here. You should see the meal he fixed…” She talked about the crisp chicken, the creamy potato soup, and how the whipped cream was low fat. She neglected to mention that I had purchased everything ready-made from Martin’s and served everything on a paper plate. She most likely wanted her friends to believe that I had gone through a lot of work for my mother.
We moved into the living room where I quickly grabbed the La-Z-Boy recliner that had been my grandfather’s favorite chair. I remember him sitting in that chair with his left hand holding an empty pork n bean can that held his tobacco juice. His right-hand held a small transistor radio broadcasting the latest St. Louis Cardinal’s baseball game with an ear-piece stuck into his left ear. And at the same time, his right ear listened to the TV blasting out the latest episode of Perry Mason. If the game became overly exciting, he might miss the can, leaving some tobacco juice on the chair. Those were the few times when my grandmother aired her dissatisfaction. Despite any shortcomings he might have acquired, I called him Pop after my dad and brother were killed in a car wreck when I was 7. While he was a man of few words, I loved him.
My mother had a large, gauze patch over her left eye as she sat in her favorite chair. She was surrounded by everything that she might need on a typical day: knitting needles with various colors of yarn were on her left side flanked by the latest copy of Country Woman and a book of circle-the-word puzzles. To her right on the end table was a lamp, TV guide, remote control, cordless phone, and on the lower shelf rested her Bible with pages folded to mark her favorite scriptures.
She seemed to be more engaged in conversation than usual. Her speech was faster with little regard for the words that surfaced. Perhaps it was because of the medication administered to her during the eye surgery performed this morning. She began talking about the weather, a favorite pastime for the elderly in Orlen, and asked if I remembered the hard winters in central Iowa where I had spent the first seven-years of my life living on a farm with my father, mother, and a brother named Ben. Since she had never talked about those years, her question startled me.
After my dad and brother had died in a car wreck, my curiosity was strong. I had asked her to share memories of my dad. But each inquiring moment was met with a brief crying spell followed by a change of topics. It only took a few attempts before I lost hope and concluded that I would never know my dad. That’s when I began imagining what my dad might have said, how he carried himself when he walked across the bean field, and if he was really as strong as my uncle said. When coming in contact with a man of admirable qualities, I assumed that he was like my dad. Yes, that’s what my dad was like, I thought. The man became my make-believe dad.
Mr. Jones was my music teacher when I played the trumpet in the grade-school band. He had all of the qualities expected in my make-believe dad; kindness, understanding, and he always heaped praise on my musical abilities when I completed three-lessons and he assigned one. For three-years he was my imaginary dad. But then he moved on to a bigger school and better pay. He never told me why he was leaving. He just disappeared. I never talked to or about him until a year later when my mother walked into my bedroom on that cold, winter morning to share the latest news.
“Mr. Jones is dead. They said he had been drinking and drove his car into a telephone poll. He was killed immediately, probably didn’t feel a thing. I heard he and his wife were having problems. He was drinking a lot and probably drove his car into the telephone poll on purpose.”
My reaction was a mere one-syllable word, “Oh.”
“Do you want to go to his funeral?”
I reminded my mother that I don’t remember those times when our family lived on a small farm close to Delton, Illinois some 150 miles north-west of Orlen. “I don’t remember my brother showing me how to throw a curve ball; how to side into second base; how to tie a square knot; or how to put a worm on a fishing hook. While I do remember a couple of things about my dad, I don’t recall the hard winters on the farm.”
My mother paused with a startled look on her face. “You don’t remember anything about your dad or Ben? Well, I guess I shouldn’t be too surprise. I’ve read where sometimes people can’t remember bad things that happened to them. When I think about all of the times your brother used to beat you, I can understand why you would want to forget it.”
“What are you talking about?” I leaned forward in my chair.
“Your brother used to cut switches from the grove of Hickory trees that stood just north of the farmhouse. He’d beat you until he left those big bloody welts all over your body.”
“After all of these years, you’re telling me that my brother used to be beat me?” I studied her earlier remarks with the belief that big brothers beat up little brothers and that was normal.
“Well, if he was so bad, why didn’t you stop him?”
While I felt like I just called her bluff with my last question, she hurled back another surprise. “Well, when I tried, he’d beat me too. Sometimes he’d hit me in the stomach with his fists.”
Each challenge drew a response worse than before. “If he was so bad, why didn’t dad stop him?” Now I’m showing her how ridiculous her accusations sound.
Her face turned cold as she starred into the floor. “I told your dad what was going on. Lots of times, I had you undress so he could see all of those marks on your body. But he didn’t care about you, not a bit. Your dad didn’t love you.”
For the moment I was unable to speak. My mother had rolled an emotional grenade on the gray carpet stretched out across the living room floor, spinning and coming to a stop at my feet. I mentally threw my body on top of the grenade, hoping to stop the pain that twisted and churned in my charred body.
My voice trembled. “Are you telling me that dad didn’t love me?”
“Oh, he probably loved you. He must’ve. He just didn’t want to be around you. I mean he didn’t have time for you.” She was doing a poor job of reeling in her claims, even raising the pitch of her voice in a slightly humorous way. “Everybody said your dad and Ben were as close as a tick on a hound dog. Yes, Ben was his favorite.”
We both sat in silence while starring at the television. I craved more information. “Did you ever have a good relationship with dad?”
“Oh yes. The first few years were great. We worked hard on the farm but always found time for Saturday night dances at Farmer City. Of course there were times when your dad drank too much and I certainly didn’t approve of that. Sometimes we’d play cards with Uncle John and Aunt Sarah. I liked them a lot. Yes, things were pretty good then.”
“Well, what happened? What changed?”
Looking up and off to the side she drew memories out of thin air. “I guess it was shortly after you were born. You were nine-and-a half pounds and caused me some problems. I ended up having some female stuff that later required surgery. With me weighing only ninety-five pounds you were a bit much for me. At first, I had to bring in some help to take care of you. I remember sitting on the couch as you scooted across the floor and ended up at my feet. You reminded me of a baby bird with his mouth open wide, wings flapping about and crying to be held. I was just too weak to lift you. Yes, I guess that’s when your dad and I grew apart. He began going to town each night, drinking and looking for other women. And there were the problems between you and Ben.”
“What kind of problems are you talking about?”
“Well, when you were four, your brother bothered you at night. He wouldn’t let you sleep. So, your dad said that Ben would sleep with him and I would sleep with you. That’s the way it was for the final four years of our marriage. But it wasn’t my idea,” she said as she raised her voice. “It was your dad’s.”
“So you’re telling me that we slept together from the time I was four until the divorce, and then when we moved to Orlen we slept together until I was 11?”
“During those days it was okay for parents to sleep with their kids. I guess it’s different nowadays.”
She began to tire. Her uncovered eye began to fill with tears. I couldn’t help but wonder if crying might be detrimental to her other eye, and I didn’t want any problems that might delay my departure in the morning. I changed the subject by asking if it was time for the evening news. She nodded yes and the two of us starred at the television set.
After the news ended, we went to our separate beds for the night. The next morning we drove to Orlen’s cafe. Men circled several tables, talked politics and the weather, drank black coffee, and took deep pulls from their cigarettes. Two couples occupied separate tables: one with a child and one without. My mother and I ate one of our morning favorites — biscuits and gravy. Few words were spoken, certainly nothing of value, and the food was bland. I held the words from last night’s conversation deep down into my stomach, hoping to finish breakfast without vomiting on the floor.