27 March 2011
August: a memory
It was August 1999, at the very end of a bizarre summer. Limestone, New York had served its purpose in entertaining me between school years, but those were simpler times. I was nine years old and completely indifferent to turning ten in a few short months. I was interested in dark cloaked vigilantes, international men of mystery and completely unaware that the seed had been planted for my interest in japanese pocket monsters when I lifted a small, yellow, cat-like figurine from a truck stop restroom.
My imagination aided in making that summer truly an enjoyable period for myself. I spent a lot of my time with a blue bucket of colorful interlocking bricks. I remember building a ship that would sail around the blue carpet in the living room. I hope no one paid any attention to how consumed I was. My entire family was on a precipice of understanding and we didn’t have the wit to realize it. I continued to play on the bank in front of our house, lurching over Parkside Drive, the road that looked down upon the small hamlet not unlike the way my mother, brother and I looked down our self-entitled noses on the little area and its few citizens. We had no right to do so.
We moved to the sad excuse of a town on the border of New York and Pennsylvania in February 1999 after a year of unrest for my mother. She had left her 75 year old husband (another story entirely), for his brother-in-law, a much younger man than he, in the summer preceding. We moved quite often that year. She had a daughter die to my brother’s father that she kept hidden at the time and in October 1998 the old man that she was legally bound to had also passed away. Needless to say she was unhinged. Her undiagnosed bipolar disorder, along with being improperly medicated exacerbating the issue, allowed for her judgement to be dangerously skewed. For the fourth time that year we changed homes.
This time was different. We left the trailer that we had been living in (now hers because she was technically a widow) and almost everything in it. We packed what we could with six people (Yes, six people) into a Geo Metro. I grabbed the blocks and the Playstation, apparently the most important things. She told us that she got someone to take our cats but the truth was that she left them in the trailer. Luckily, the cats, likely driven by abandonment, found a way out of the trailer by crawling underneath a tub fitting, my aunt later told me. We were young, we worried about the cats and not for ourselves.
We arrived in the dead of winter to this house on the hill with essentially nothing. No furniture. No dishes. Nothing. Everything left behind because some grand scheme in her head. Her new boyfriend/future ex-husband apparently had been sleeping on his coat on a hardwood floor while he established a job. He too must have had some sort of mental disorder to think that it was a good idea to bring two young children, a woman, and himself to a house while leaving everything we could have continued to own nearly five hours away to be lost forever.
Fast forward five months and a series of Rent-A-Center stints later we find ourselves back in August. As I said, it had been quite a summer. My brother and I had an elaborate month and a half traveling with his father and soon-to-be-step-mother (and her mother and children). We went to Nova Scotia and New Foundland on the combined wealth of the soon-to-be-step-mother’s money from her previous husband blowing his brains out and her mother’s new husband’s established wealth. He had Multiple Sclerosis and largely had no idea what was going on as we wheeled him around Canada spending his money. Nonetheless, I cherish these memories.
Coming back we were plunged into the sorry state of affairs my mother was living in. She was fine, I suppose, to be living with a misogynistic, unhygienic, abusive man she would later marry and even later divorce (still pending I believe). I hated him. My brother hated him too. But we tolerated him because my mother knew she wouldn’t be able to support us without him and we understood that. This was a concept that she would maintain for the next eight years. He left and returned many times that summer; sleeping in his car in the parking lot of the place he worked at, returning to the house after a few days to pretend like he didn’t pour a can of soda all over my mother’s head while threatening to punch her in the face. We would pretend too so we didn’t have to deal with it again. We usually went out to eat and got a toy or something to help erase the memories. As you’d imagine, I don’t have a delete button.
This happened a few times until my mother slipped into a depression and he left for quite a while. By now we are halfway through August and my mother is desperately poor. Our child support checks came in erratically and, despite near incessant unreliability, she depended on that income to the day. She had the telephone number memorized and would ring them up every half hour to see if the money had been issued. The expected day of arrival would come and go and no check.
I remember we ate a lot of noodles. It was in her depression that we were finally allowed to cross Route 219 all by ourselves. By allowing us to do this we could go to nearest convenience store to buy food with the little bit of cash that she had. We didn’t mind because this also opened up the other side of the little village for us to entertain ourselves. There was a recreation center that was being operated by a friend’s mother that we would go to. I say friend loosely, I had/have few friends. They had pool tables, televisions and computers where we would would play Doom all afternoon and pass the time. The tacky spray-painted walls, much expected from a low-budget, small town operation, are still seared behind my eyes.
It was getting pretty bad at home. My mother hadn’t left her room for a few days to eat or shower. I assume she used the bathroom but I can’t be quite sure. I did the cooking which consisted of buttered macaroni noodles because, after all, I was nine years old and didn’t have access to anything else. I think we ran out of dish soap so none of us washed the dishes, which resulted in my brother and I eating off of tupperware lids for a few days. It was probably as bad as it sounds but we were young and springy. We bounce back quickly.
The check finally came. My mother emerged from the bedroom. We had absolutely no money, the last of which was spent on our noodles, so we walked to the nearest town. We walked down Parkside Drive and over the state line into Bradford for what was quite literally hours. It was nearly six miles to the bank but we made it in time. She cashed the check and we went out to eat. It was probably Burger King, a detail that is slipping my mind at the moment. We got a toy at some strip mall store and bought quite a few groceries. She was almost instantly manic again. A complete one hundred and eighty degree change from just a few days earlier.
We rode a taxi home and she made a late dinner after our already late lunch. I remember her promising to do the dishes and clean up the next day as she washed only what she needed to cook that evening. The house was a complete mess. The laundry room floor could not be seen for the dirty clothes had been piled up and had been trampled on. The kitchen smelled horrible from the sink full of dishes, food and who knows what. The main source of stench was the pot on the stove containing some form of cabbage that she had made before the piece-of-shit significant other jumped ship. I’ll never forget that smell.
I’m positive we watched Wild America for the 300th time that summer before we went to bed that night. When we woke up we watched cartoons and she made us french toast. She always burned them a little but it tasted great because she cut them into pieces and poured just the right amount of syrup for us. It was an added bonus that we weren’t eating off of storage lids. She was stressing that morning about school starting shortly. She placed a big emphasis on new school clothes every year and she wondered how she’d afford them by herself. She stopped talking about it eventually. She gave us each $10 dollars to go to the recreation center so naturally we left in a hurry; our pockets were on fire. The house still hadn’t been cleaned when we left.
Six hours later the school nurse showed up at the recreation center. She tapped my shoulder to get my attention as I played on the computer. She was holding my brother’s hand and told me I had to go with her. I felt my face get hot. I knew something was wrong. She told us that our mother was sick and that we’d have to spend the night at her house. Her son was in my grade but we hadn’t really been friends. The awkwardness of the situation was only rivaled by my general confusion.
She told me that my mother took some pills and we couldn’t go visit her. She was fine but very sick and we weren’t allowed to go back to our house. I remember my first concern was that we would be taken away from her because someone had seen the house in its filthy state. I would eventually be proven right. Since we weren’t allowed back at our house we had to sleep in someone else’s t-shirts and someone else’s clean underwear. I have never felt so low in my entire life. My brother was too young to understand what exactly was happening and he played with the other kids to reflect that. I didn’t have that luxury. I played but I was stuck in my head the entire time. Everything was about to change. It most certainly did.
We had french toast again the next morning but this time I didn’t want to eat it. I didn’t want to cut it myself and I didn’t like how the nurse didn’t use milk with the egg when cooking it. Our clothes from the day before had been washed and dried overnight so we had something clean to wear that was our own. This helped a little when the social workers descended on the house to ask us questions. I can’t remember what they asked me specifically but I know I lied. I didn’t want my mother to get in trouble. I was quite convincing as I’ve lied often for my mother. I don’t know what my brother told them. We were informed quite plainly that the man who brought us to this fucking town didn’t want any responsibility for us and he reminded everyone that he had no legal responsibility to do so. He made it clear that he did not care what happened to us. I made sure I never forgot that.
I don’t remember crying but I remember wanting to. My grandfather and my brother’s dad drove up that night to retrieve us so there was some comfort mixed with the fear. We were going back to Pennsylvania. Without our mother. I kept my head bowed as we stopped by the disgusting house to get some of our things. I felt ashamed that they had to see it like that, like it was my fault. I know now that it wasn’t my fault but I can’t change how I felt then. They helped us pack our clothes into trash bags. The smell of the rotten cabbage was overpowering. For the fifth time that year I packed what I could and left a house I called home to never go back again. I don’t remember talking much on the way back to Lancaster but I do remember thinking. I remember thinking over and over again that she left us. She never cleaned the house either. The groceries still sat on the dining room table. She had left us.
I later learned to justify her actions. She was worried about us starting school. She was worried about buying pencils and backpacks and shoes. She was worried about being alone and taking care of herself and two kids. In her convoluted mind she found a solution. She’d attempt suicide. She would at least put herself on the brink and so she did. Surely this would snap her abusive partner into action, everything could go back to normal. She thought wrong. Nothing was normal again.
Note: I love my mother very much and she has come very far since the events in this memory nearly 12 years ago. I do not carry any hatred toward her for these things and I do not expect anyone else to either.