Saturday, January 7, 2012

Coming of Age

I had a pretty good childhood.  I did have a bone disease that left me wheelchair bound for a few years, but by the time I turned 13 I was walking.  That was when my mother had her first nervous breakdown as they called it in the 60's.  Actually, she had a full psychotic break because she was schizophrenic.  Nice to find out when you are 13 that your mother is really crazy.

I won't go into the details, but after a lengthy hospitalization my mother did come home and go back to work.  Part of her hospitalization time was spent at a private hospital that did nothing to help her but weekly reminded me, a 13 year old, that my mother had neglected herself to take care of me.  When her insurance ran out, Mother was transferred to the state hospital.  "Horrors!" everyone told us.  Yet it was in the state hospital that Mother received the treatment and the medication that let her function normally and subdued her illness.

Mother's siblings had initially helped us, but when my mother was transferred to the State Hospital and her insurance ran out, they offered no assistance. They did seek to have me made a ward of the state and removed from the only home I had known and the care of my paternal grandmother.  My paternal grandmother refused to go along with their scheme.  She held firmly to the belief that my mother would recover.  Luckily for me, Mom did.  My father lived in Michigan with his second wife and wanted nothing to do with his only child.  One aunt told me I could live with her family, clean, cook and care for the children and she would keep me from becoming a ward of the state.  Those were some scary times.

Mom came home and I expected life to return to normal.  It did not.  My grandmother continued to care for the house and cook, her favorite pastime.  Mother went back to work.   Yet, I suddenly was making all my own decisions as well as many for my mother.  My grandmother had gone to work when she was thirteen, she saw no reason to supervise me.  Mother no longer could or would.

I did not recognize the change for a while.  I remember my first dental visit after my mother's hospitalization.  My grandmother gave me a signed blank check and told me when the appointment was.  I rode my bike there, got my teeth checked and cleaned, and wrote the check.  I was a little nervous, but I had been to the dentist before.   What had changed hit home when it came time for me to choose courses for the next semester in junior high.  I brought home the materials but both my grandmother and mother told me to do what I wanted.  I did.  From that day forward, I never asked them about school matters.  My mom would sign my report card happily, but she did not meet with my teachers or discuss my schoolwork.  Years later, she told me she knew I was much harder on myself than she would ever be.

I stopped attending church soon after my mother's hospitalization.  The church had completely abandoned us during mother's illness.  The only ones that helped us at all were members of my grandfather's Masonic lodge who sent a little money and some school clothes for me.  By that time, too,  I had decided I was going to be a scientist. ( I had read too much science fiction.)  I was full of questions, especially questions about our Sunday School lessons.  The teacher usually ignored me, but finally I was told that I should not ask questions because that showed a lack of faith.  I left the church with no plans ever to return.  Mother did not like that I had stopped going to church, but she never returned to church after her illness.  There was too much stigma attached to mental illness for her to feel comfortable in that church.  Again, leaving the Baptist church was totally my decision.   In the sixteen years that followed, I became a deist.  I saw Christianity as incompatible with intellectual pursuits and certainly with science.

My grandmother gradually ceded decision making about the household to me.  We bought a car the summer I turned sixteen, and I learned to drive.  The agreement was that it was my car, but I must put taking my grandmother and mother where they needed to go first.  I drove it to school and anywhere else I wanted to.  Neither my grandmother or mother ever checked on where I went.

You would think that with all this freedom, I would have been a wild teenager,  After all, my teenage years were in the 1960's.  I knew about drugs, smoking and alcohol.  I never smoked.  I did not drink nor do drugs.  I simply was afraid of losing control of my mind.   As I told a friend, I never thought about misbehaving.  I focused on school and taking care of my mother.   Finances helped keep me on the straight and narrow.  Mother was a telephone operator.  We just barely made it month to month.  My grandmother's tiny Social Security check made the difference.   The one thing my mother put her foot down on was my working.  She would not let me do it.  Looking back, I see she was right.  I had my hands full with school and home responsibilities.

I came of age at thirteen in 1960.   I have made my own decisions since then.  I have taken care of both my grandmothers through their last years and final illnesses.  I took care of my mother until her death from complications of Parkinson's disease.  I made it through college and worked all the while.  I possess a Bachelor of Science degree, a doctorate in chemistry and a law degree.   I would make some different choices for myself, but not the one's that pertain to my grandmothers and mother.  I do wish I could have enjoyed being a teenager more.

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