I still remember that early June day in 1959, when though the frightened eyes of a six year old, I viewed my mother--still clad in her pajamas, crying the most anguished of tears and wailing in slurred speech--being carried out of the house by her father and mother. They loaded her in the cab of grandpa’s ancient pre-war pickup truck and drove off to Charity Hospital, the large public facility that treated the teeming masses, especially those like us who had neither money nor insurance. I didn’t see Mom for several months, while my aged grandparents tried their best to give me a normal upbringing.
Over the years, I found out, bit by it, what happened that day--but nosey neighbors didn’t require such a learning curve. They came out on the sidewalk and hung out of their windows as the spectacle unfolded, gawking, pointing, and passing judgment on our family.
Throughout high school, my pious mother had entertained thoughts of becoming a nun. Upon graduation, she entered the novitiate run by a St. Louis-based order, its convent situated on the banks of the Mississippi River. When she left New Orleans for the religious life, Monsignor and practically the whole parish had seen her off at the train station.
But as that first cold Missouri winter passed, the young lady who would give me life looked across the river to the Illinois side, where she saw smoke curling out of tiny chimneys. She knew in her heart that a life of celibate service to the Lord was not her calling; instead, she craved the hearth of family life represented by those modest little cottages. When she returned to New Orleans, after a chilly interview with Mother Superior, nobody but her own mother met the train.
A few years later, Mother gave up a promising undergraduate career in English at Loyola University, a Jesuit college, to pursue a curriculum leading to a Ph. T., “putting hubby through” medical school. Her dream of marriage and a family was falling into place; she would become a doctor’s wife!
Then my dad saw a path not only out of his lower-middle class existence, but also an escape route from an unhappy marriage. After obtaining his M.D. and enduring an exhausting internship, he took up a residency in military medicine. From a distant army post that June morning, he placed an operator assisted long-distance call. Pushbutton direct dialing came along a decade later.
He wanted a divorce.
* * *
Nervous breakdowns in that era prompted psychological care that can best be described as primitive and brutal. Anyone who has read Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, or has seen the movie, understands the barbarism of late 1950s electroshock treatment. That’s what the doctors did to my mother. They shocked her, over and over again, until they broke her. Then, when she no longer sobbed in self-pity, they deemed her “cured.”
A few months later grandpa’s rattletrap pickup truck carried her home, and Mom emerged to scoop me up in her arms. But her problems had not ended. She took up drinking to relieve the pressures of single motherhood and the rock-bottom pay doled out to female clerical workers of that epoch. Bosses expected young women typists to quit in favor of marriage at any time, and they paid accordingly. But my mother’s marriage card had already been played.
We moved in with grandma and grandpa, who lived on the same block, while a “for sale” sign adorned the lawn of the shotgun house we could no longer afford. That provided some sense of stability, but did not calm Mom’s emotional turmoil. But the move may have saved my life, or at least my hearing.
One evening, I came down with a painful earache. No all-night pharmacies existed back then, nor did doctors have 24-hour answering services. The hospital’s emergency room was available, but was considered out of the question for an economically depressed family with no health insurance. In those days, emergency rooms didn’t have to treat those with routine ailments who couldn’t pay.
I cried for several hours from the searing pain, and then there ensued an even greater commotion. As I can piece together the blurred memories of that evening, first grandma and then grandpa wrestled my mother away from me. They were making a lot of loud noise.
In the spoiled judgment of a drunken stupor, Mom was trying to cure my earache by pouring a bottle of nail polish remover into my infected ear. She didn’t mean to hurt me, but she certainly picked the wrong vial from the medicine cabinet. My grandmother had been watching her like a hawk, and fortunately prevented tragedy.
Like always, the windows of that shotgun house were wide open and the commotion became everybody’s business. That evening, something out of the ordinary happened for that era. A Jefferson Parish deputy sheriff appeared on grandpa’s front poach, the rotating red beacon on his car announcing his presence by flickering into every house on the block.
* * *
How does anyone explain to a little boy that the neighborhood kids can’t play with him because their parents think his mother is crazy? For a couple of years, no children dared set foot on our property, under penalty of a severe whipping from their parents. Only my grandparents’ long-term standing in the community mitigated the ostracizing. Although I could still visit a few other neighborhood children under the watchful eye of their parents, the adults seemed to look at me with sad eyes as they shook their heads.
When my mom’s car wouldn’t start one morning for her daily journey to work, and my grandpa had already left for day shift, I had a hard time soliciting any of the husbands in the neighborhood to look under the hood. A divorced woman, especially a drunk, insane one, was a threat to the married women of our social class. They didn’t want their husbands going anywhere near Mom.
Those spectacles involving my mother made all of us leery of letting anyone else know the slightest detail of our family affairs. Every one of us made a conscious effort to lower our voices, even in the house. Loud laughter was discouraged, lest some neighbor think the booze flowed freely in our domicile. Mom tried as hard as she could to never show the slightest bit of emotion in public. Even a smile could be interpreted as the sign of insanity.
Naturally, this applied to discipline. On the occasions that I merited a whipping from my mom or grandpa, I tightly grabbed my ankles while the belt slapped my bottom. I wasn’t going to cry out at any cost, lest the neighbors find another reason to talk about our family. Sometimes, by mutual agreement with my disciplinarians, I took my whippings in the closed-door bathroom, and then buried my face into a pillow if I had to cry. Other kids yelled like Banshees while getting punished, and then gladly rehashed a blow-by-blow account the next morning at the school bus stop. I kept my mouth shut.
As the years passed and few additional incidents ensued, and mom held down a more-or-less steady secretarial job in town, the neighborhood shunning abated somewhat. By the time I turned ten, I became the leader of the neighborhood rat pack, a group of adventurous but maverick boys whom most of the adults thought would either join the military and become war heroes or would wind up in prison. It’s this group of kids I led into the Wanda Laningham’s backyard for after-school and Saturday afternoon ball games.