I can remember living in seven places with my mom and brother after my parents divorced. Only one of them had an indoor toilet. This was in Aitkin, Minnesota (pop. 1700), in the years from 1948-1956. I was aged 6-13. My mom was on welfare much of the time and I can remember eating ketchup sandwiches, also bread spread with margarine and sugar. In all fairness, I can also remember mom giving me a dime on summer Saturdays to go to the double-feature matinee. Admission was nine cents and the extra penny bought a sucker. When I got home, mom had made either chocolate chip cookies or cinnamon rolls for us boys to eat. Later, her night off was Thursday and she would take us boys to the Aitkin Coffee Shop for dinner, followed by a movie at the theater. It didn’t matter what the movie was; we went every Thursday night.
She tried, she really did.
Mom took in washing and ironing at first to make ends meet, later graduating to a nurse’s aide on the graveyard shift at an old folks home just outside of town, and in my final two years with them, to a job in a two-room school teaching grades one to four. I was in the other room, which contained grades five to eight. This was in a place God forgot thirty miles north of Aitkin called Swatara. It contained two churches, a general store/post office/gas station, and a small restaurant/bar directly across the street from our house where I would often go and drink cokes. Most of my schoolmates lived out in the country, so I was usually alone after school. I would check science fiction books out of the school library, buy a package of chocolate covered marshmallow cookies at the store, then eat them with milk while I read until mom and my brother came home. We usually had fried porkchops and mashed potatoes.
Between the cokes across the street and the cookies at home, I successfully destroyed many of my teeth in those two years. The books rescued me from reality: a house that was a mess and cold most of the winter because mom wanted to save money on fuel oil. I remember a birthday party for my brother (in January) where he and a few of his school mates stood around the stove eating ice cream and shivering.
I also remember cat turds on the closet floor and going to the outhouse in winter temperatures of –30 and –40. That’s Fahrenheit. Talk about freezing your ass off!
The three of us slept in one bed many winters, purely for warmth. Many winters, too, mom would get a country girl to live in town with us so the girl could stay in town and walk to school. In exchange for room and board, the girls cooked breakfast for us boys and generally took care of us while mom was at work. My brother Rolf slept with mom. I slept with the girls. No kidding. Innocent as hell, too, even though one of them was pretty cute. I still remember all three of those girls: Shirley, her younger sister Caroline, and Marjorie. Caroline was the cute one. I wonder if they remember me. Or are even alive, for that matter.
Back to Swatara. I hated that place mainly because all of my friends and school mates still lived in Aitkin, of course. It was a three-mile walk on the road out to the highway, where there was a bar/restaurant at the end. I could catch the bus there to Aitkin and I did this a number of times in those years, attending school dances in the gym, going to basketball games and seeing friends. Walking those three miles from the bus stop home on winter nights was really fun!
The last time I walked that road was in June of 1956 after I had coerced my mom to give me the $80 my dad had sent to come live with him in California. (I found out that the courts had said I could decide who I wanted to live with when I reached age thirteen. After watching the Mickey Mouse Club on the one channel we received in good weather, there was no doubt in my mind: California and Annette Funicello, here I come!) Mom had intercepted the letter and kept the money and the secret. After confronting her with this fact, she dug out the coffee can where she secreted the money she saved on fuel oil. She slapped me. I slapped her back. I took the four twenties Dad had sent, packed underwear, socks, and some other things, including a passel of science fiction paperbacks into a metal suitcase, and walked out. Mom and Rolf waved goodbye from the window; my brother was crying; I will never forget that.
I walked to the bus stop, bought a Greyhound ticket to Los Angeles at Fred’s Café in Aitkin (long since burned down), stayed with my uncle Emil one final night (I stayed with him often when visiting from Swatara), watched Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much during the layover in Minneapolis, then traveled four consecutive days and five nights to Los Angeles, boarding a bus there to El Monte, where I failed to dial the phone successfully (we didn’t have rotary phones in Aitkin; the three of us had no phone, period), spent my last .75 on a cab to my dad’s house.
Mom secreted money her whole life. While divesting herself of her worldly goods in preparation for her move to the Home, she gave away her Bible. The man she gave it to later came back and gave her the $600 she had stuffed in it. Imagine that! Wouldn’t happen here and now. I’ve got to say, too, that mom supported herself her entire life in that town, at first cleaning houses for years, then working kitchen cleanup in the Aitkin Coffee Shop, finally baking cinnamon rolls at the Aitkin Bakery, walking to work at 330 in the morning. Before she could go to the Home, she had to get rid of her money. At one point, she had as much as $30,000, most in the bank, thank goodness. I got 2500 and what was left she put in trust for my girls, who got around $10k each when mom died in October 2004. Remarkable, yes?
Especially since Mom was crazy. They called them “nervous breakdowns” then. She was hospitalized in the mental facility at Moose Lake when I was very young and I went to live on the farm with my grandpa and grandma. (That was fun. I loved that farm; Dylan Thomas’s Fern Hill reminds me of those days, smells, sounds). She was hospitalized again after I had left. She had closed herself and Rolf into that hellhole and her brothers had to come and drag them out, sending mom to the Ha-Ha Hotel for the second time, and my brother to a series of foster homes and finally the pediatric clinic at the University of Minnesota. That sad story is for later.
“Nervous breakdown” in mom’s case turned out to be manic-depression--what is now called bi-polar disorder. Her parents and brothers and sisters just thought she was “ornery.” Most thought, as I later did, that she was simply crazy. Thank God may Her name ever be praised for the advent of lithium, which allowed her to stay on an even keel for the rest of her life, support herself, and stay in touch with her children and grandchildren. She was a burden to no one. She arranged her own burial plot, tombstone, casket, and funeral—down to pallbearers (one of whom she had outlived), who was to sing and play, and what they were to sing and play. She was 86 when she died, having lived in the Home for 10 years, holding down her post next to the mailbox daily. She had seen her grand-daughters and son-in-law two summers before she died. She looked at my older daughter, Libby, and asked, “who are you?”
My eulogy for her was lost when this computer crashed, but I know that my opening line was this:
Mom did not have an easy life.
Talk about understatement . . .