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The summer my mother disappeared (Part 1)

Margaret Keane Big Eyed Art postcard - In the Garden.

Margaret Keane Big Eyed Art postcard – In the Garden.

That summer began with the disappearance of my mother.

Oh, it was clear that someone knew where she was, but no one was talking. If I was to find out anything, it was what the adults blurted out by accident or what I could decipher from their code. Every once in a while, I would get a direct statement from them in passing — while they were on their way to something more important – like mowing the lawn.

“Oh by the way, your mother is visiting her brother.” There it was. The critical crumb tossed my way by my dad as he dashed out the door on his way to work. If a person wasn’t paying attention all the time, they might have missed it.

The four of us, my younger brother and my two little sisters, were moping around the house, looking like those sad big-eyed kids in the posters for sale at the Five & Dime. We were hungry for information, all ears tuned in and alert to when our next fact crumb was coming.

But we knew better than to ask. My dad had always said, “Children should be seen and not heard.” When the out-of-state relatives were called in, we knew it was something big, but that summer of 1968 — no one was telling us anything. Did they think we were morons and didn’t notice a think like our mother disappearing?

Sure, my mother had kind-of not been there mentally lately, but we always knew where she was. She had laid in bed in her room doing nothing but smoking for weeks – ever since she had returned from the hospital. Next to the bed was an overflowing ashtray of cigarette butts. Sometimes she was difficult to see with all the smoke, but at least you could always find her.

Occasionally she would emerge with her big vacant eyes and wander around the house — doing pretty much nothing. I had been taking up the slack for her and had a million questions, but she was pretty useless in that department also. I started raiding her closet and wearing the one or two outfits of her’s that weren’t ridiculous looking. She didn’t even notice.

To be honest, the whole thing was getting old fast. Everyone was always going on about how happy they were that my mother had survived brain surgery. I wanted to scream at them, “MY MOTHER IS NOT OK!!! ARE YOU BLIND, DEAF AND DUMB?” But of course I didn’t do that. I was too mature to say stuff like that anymore. It seemed easier to just nod my head and agree that everything was hunky dory.

Things got scary at times that summer too. Once, in the middle of the night, I awoke to flashing lights, loud voices and the sound of gurney wheels clicking down the hallway. Although I was afraid it was a zombie attack or the end of the world, I got up to take a look. Uniformed men with walkie-talkies shooed me back into my room and the next morning I found out that an ambulance had come to our house and returned my mother to the hospital for a couple of days. On top of that, every once in a while, my mother would go missing – just up and wander away. My dad would panic and the police would come to our house — which was really embarrassing.

One night my dad was cooking tater tots for us for dinner. We were getting a lot of TV dinners and tater tot meals — which was probably the one good thing in our lives that summer. Well, he burnt his hand taking them out of the oven. Then the worst thing I had ever seen happened. He threw the pan on the floor and started crying. I had never seen my father cry before. I felt like the world was coming to an end. I walked into my bedroom, climbed into bed, pulled the covers over my head and hid until morning.

One day, near the end of school, we ran out of shampoo. My dad told me to use a bar of soap. He said he did it all the time. That was terrible advice! My hair ended up lying flat and gummy on my head. I am not the most popular girl at school, but the one thing I had going for me was my long blonde hair. NO WAY was I going to school with my hair like that and I let my dad know — in no uncertain terms. He got that almost going to cry look on his face and yelled, “OK, don’t go then!” and stomped out the door. I was stunned. In my family you had to practically be on your deathbed to miss school. I ended up staying home and washing my hair about twenty times using dish soap. I knew mom would have known what to do. I vowed to never ask my dad’s advice again.

My brother and sisters had started to drive me crazy too. At 10, 8 and 4 years of age, they were being obnoxious and bratty, having stupid fights, making huge messes and breaking things. Once, my brother threw a fork at my sister. It missed her, but cracked the sliding glass door. I just wished they would GROW UP!

That summer our dog, Ollie, disappeared suddenly too. Dad said we couldn’t keep an eye on him anymore, so he had to go to “a farm.” The little kids were crying and sniveling and missing Ollie. Frankly, I was glad I didn’t have to worry about him anymore, although I thought “the farm” story was highly suspicious.

Mid-summer it was decided that the three little kids were going back with the out-of-state relatives for the rest of the summer. Since I could not bear another minute of their childish behavior, I decided that I would stay home with my dad. Though I knew a trip to my relatives would mean regular meals, swimming, a tan, horses, amusement parks, lots of ice cream and an unending supply of shampoo, I didn’t want to leave my dad alone. I had already taken over a lot of things my mother used to do. My dad needed me. It was time for me to grow up. I was no longer a child.

I was almost thirteen for heaven’s sake!!!

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10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jane #

    A beautiful story of a young girls’ (you) sense of responsibility. It is interesting how mature we feel as each year we grow until we reach adulthood. Lyrics from a song come to mind ” I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now!”

    May 5, 2014
  2. This is a good story, however it must have been so painful at the time. My mother got very ill and was bedridden for three months when I was 12. I didn’t know how much it had affected me until someone asked me about it when I was 50! I definitely understood the little girl who felt she had to stay home to help her father. I look forward to the next installment.

    May 4, 2014
    • Thanks Wendy! I think we gloss over these big things when we are young so we can grow up and away. Later in life we can reflect and see the impact. Thanks for reading!

      May 5, 2014
  3. Pamela #

    I’m hooked on your story Betsy and looking forward to reading more. I agree that your thirteen year old voice rings true and authentic. Is this a true story? Blessings

    May 4, 2014
    • Hi Pamela – It is a true story from my life. Today I was questioning the sequence of the events, but then I told myself it didn’t matter. The essence of how I experienced it is there and that’s what matters. Thanks for reading and commenting!

      May 4, 2014
  4. Maui Tutu #

    My mother disappeared once for 2 days. Dad was mad at my 4 brothers and me…we must have done something bad. We all worried/freaked, since no one knew what was up. Then she came home, quietly. We found out later she had gone downtown to a hotel and checked in for 2 days…just needed a break. It’s the only one she took her entire life.
    Your story is a much MUCH sadder version of mom leaving.
    Part 2?

    May 4, 2014
    • Hi Maui Tutu – Anytime a mother disappears it has to be traumatic. My story is sad, but life went on and I am not sad now. It was time for the 13 year old to tell her story. When I wrote the last line, I cried for that little girl who took so much on her shoulders and thought it was normal and that she could possibly do it! Part 2 is mostly written. I’ll try to get it out soon. Thanks for reading and commenting and telling your story!

      May 4, 2014
  5. Ruth Lizotte #

    The voice of a 13 year old is absolutely authentic and makes this piece tense and sad and I look forward to Part 2. Really strong piece, Betsy! I am so glad you’re writing this.

    May 4, 2014
    • Thanks Ruth! One of the things I am so grateful for about my time in Portland is the writing group you have assembled which gave me the permission and wherewithal to write my stories. You are a star!

      May 4, 2014

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