Mental Illness Runs in My Family but Gave Me Wings to Fly
Mom didn’t like the TV channel and said, “This is my house and I’ll watch what I damn well please”. She walked across the living room to change the black and white TV back to the news. The TV had aluminum foil rabbit ears and as she adjusted back to its location to tune in Walter Cronkite, in one elegant move, Joe Alan, mom’s first born 18 year old son flew off the couch, across the room and crushed her hand and the aluminum foil in his. He was 6 foot and a star running athlete in high school; she was 5 foot 6 and had a nurse’s soft round body. As he crushed her left hand, his right hook connected with her eye and her face disappeared under flowing blood.
We had just settled into our new home on Limoges Way. My single parent mom had qualified for an FHA loan with government payment help. It was twice as much house as she could afford and brand new, but she needed the space for the four of us. It was the summer of 1968 between my 5th and 6th grade and I would start a new school at Brentwood Middle School in the fall. The phone was not connected yet and the building lots on either side of us had lumber, piles of bricks and stick houses that were still under construction. We had no immediate neighbors yet.
Mom cried for help but my brother Greg and I fled. I was in the back yard trembling in the fetal position leaning against the sun-warmed brick. I had my fingers in my ears, crying softly. Mom walked down the now darkened block to the closest neighbor for the first time. I heard Joe change the channel from Walter Cronkite.
Joe was taken away that summer evening when the police arrived and I didn’t see him again until Thanksgiving in Defuniak Springs. Joe was committed to Chattahoochee State Hospital diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Mom had 40 internal stitches in and above her eye. I was sent away to my Grandma’s in Defuniak Springs the next week while mom sorted things out and healed. My grandma was blind from glaucoma. She knew Braille and had a Braille bible. At first I was fascinated but became bored with the small town and inactivity. The park was so antiquated; it still had “For Whites Only” inscribed in the concrete drinking fountain. The best thing about grandmas was the sleeping porch upstairs. She and my grandpa were unable to climb the stairs and I spent many hours up there looking through old Life magazines and daydreaming. I guess I was angry and confused at having to leave my new home when I had just made new friends.
There was a spittoon in every room at grandmas which I thought gross. They could barely take care of themselves much less a preteen and I did not feel welcomed. I called my mother and begged to come home. She called my uncle Gil in Lake Charles, Louisiana and I went to stay with him. He was much more interesting. He had dated Aunt Margie for 8 years – meeting her in exciting places like Mexico City and Paris over the years and they’d finally gotten married. They had been married about 6 months when I arrived on the greyhound bus. Aunt Margie’s first assignment was to have my hair styled and buy me new clothes. Afterward, we went to the country club where we played bingo and I won a bottle of Sherry. It was much more interesting than at grandmas. Their apartment building had a pool and Aunt Margie taught me etiquette such as how to set a table properly and stick my finger out while holding a cup of tea. My uncle Gil was an alcoholic but he was so much fun. He called me “The Great Vivian”. By the time summer was over, I didn’t want to go back home. Unfortunately, when I left, Aunt Margie left also. There marriage failed and they went back to meeting in exotic places. Even though they divorced, I saw Aunt Margie again many years later at my Uncle Gil’s funeral in Lake Charles.
It was our family tradition to spend Thanksgiving Day in Defuniak Springs at Grandma’s. That Thanksgiving, my mother’s sisters and brothers took over a small hotel in Defuniak. My brother Joe was out of Chattahoochee on a good behavior pass. He and I had to share a room. At first I was afraid of him, but I saw how docile and sweet he was from the medication. I felt sorry for him- he was not the Joe I remembered. That night, I dreamt of the beautiful green grounds in Chattahoochee at the Florida State Hospital and I dreamt of an Indian that was there with him but it was an American Indian not the image of his doctor from India. It was a peaceful dream and I felt melancholy when I awoke but I also felt like I had had a vision. He would be okay. Life would be okay.
The next day for Thanksgiving dinner at Grandma’s, my Aunt Erna gave me a Christmas present of pierced earrings. My Aunt June had flown in from California, which she hardly ever did. My Uncle Gil gave me a real oil painting of a daisy to put on the wall above my daisy patterned bed spread. Even my Aunt Enda was there and brought gifts. My Uncle David gave me a bible. I met my cousin Bibb and Sandy Roney. Bibb and Sandy took me under their wing. Looking back, I felt the love of family holding me aloft as I was getting my own wings.