Wednesday, September 14, 2016


There were two grievous injuries my mother suffered about the time I was junior high age.  One was cancer and the other was a broken harm.

Dr. Nelson, her gynie, was just the sort of doctor she liked at that stage.  Strict, no-nonsense.  He delivered all three of us and kept our father from over-participating.  She discovered a small lump in her right breast during a bath, reported it, and was scheduled for surgery in the next few days.  He said,  “You’re the mother of three.  They cannot spare you.  We will take no chances.”  He performed a radical mastectomy that included even some muscles and all lymph nodes in her right arm, which meant that fluid movement was inhibited, so that she had to do exercises to keep her arm from swelling.  

She was much helped by a committed pair of women across the street.  I suppose now they might be called lesbians, but there was no sex about it.  “The Madame” had been smashed in a car crash, a fast sports car on a California leaf-slippery road going to meet her lover.  She was a very beautiful Philipino woman.  “Shirl” was a dark-eyed nurse who took care of the Madame and helped her manage the Madame’s daughter, “Scoop.”  There was something almost military about Shirl.  Sort of an Italian lady mustache.  My mother did bookkeeping for the button factory in their basement where they cut and polished semi-precious stone into specialty high-end buttons.  I’m not sure my father knew she made a little extra money that way.  Maybe had a little sip of whiskey when the sun was going below the yardarm. 

No one told me anything about breast cancer or my mother’s surgery or whether she would soon die.  I expect they told my brothers even less.  But I became the unwelcome step-mother in order to get the work done.  The wash was done in a wringer-machine and two big cement tubs in the basement.  The water was boiling hot and the soap was fels naptha.  One used a stick to move the clothes until they were cool enough to scrub on a ribbed board.  I never scrubbed hard enough to suit my mother and she’d wave that stick and yell, but she never hit me.  I wept as though she did.

The hot water heater was a copper worm in a cast iron housing and had to be turned on and off, lit with a match.  I never got the timing quite right and blew my bangs off a few times.  Lucky I was wearing glasses by then.  But the bigger danger was that if you forgot to turn the gas off, the boiler would blow up.  There was evidently no safety pressure valve.  A few times the sounds were pretty terrifying.  

It was years before I thought about what the mastectomy did to my parents’ intimate life.  My father was hugely fat by then and gone most of the time.  My mother said she felt like a skinned rabbit.  It was a while before she found a decent prosthesis.  There were no support groups.  I think she shut down.  When my father died, she searched for evidence of a second family but found none.  He had a huge collection of paperback porn, just truck stop stuff that we didn't find until he was dead.  Before that, he bought the academic landmark research on sex (Kinsey, Masters and Johnson), which I read as soon as I found it when I was about ten. Nothing out of the mainstream.  No one knew so it was not discussed.  I never thought about where he stayed on the road, but it must have been cheap motels with no television. 

The broken arm was clearly my father’s fault.  We were coming home from Roseburg, possibly after my grandmother’s funeral, and we kids had gathered a lot of duck eggs which were up on the back window ledge.  We were tired and quarreling among us, so my younger brother had been moved to the front seat where he insisted on being by the window.  The suicide seat.

My father was determined that we would get to Salem and walk through the State Capitol building.  He had a kind of fixation on the importance of citizenship and the sacredness of seats of power.  But there wasn’t quite enough time.  My mother begged him to slow down, but he was defiant.

We came over a hill and were confronted with a stopped school bus, hit it so hard that all it’s hubcaps popped off.  Thank God there were no kids crossing behind it, but there were some on the highway next to it, so there was no swerving around the bus.  

My mother threw her arm out to protect my brother, and her head hit the windshield.  She was wearing a heavy felt beret which helped some.  Duck eggs flew everywhere and smashed all over us.  My glasses flew off.  My father opened the back door to see if we were hurt and I informed him haughtily,  “Now you’ve done it for sure.”  He thought that meant I was hurt but I informed him further that I was intact, no thanks to him.  Both boys seemed stunned.  There was no screaming or even weeping. 

Our little terrier (Scottie/Sealyham) escaped and was standing in the highway with his ears flying when the cops got there.  He howled but they caught him easily and put us in the ambulance that had come for my mom.  She refused to lie down on the stretcher in back but sat up front with the driver, so we kids sat in a row on the stretcher, holding Duncan McTavish who howled with the siren.  People who tried to see into the ambulance did a double-take.

They kept our mother overnight so we stayed in a motel and I did an imitation of her:  “brush your teeth good; don’t let the covers touch your face, only the sheets."  Stepmother stuff.  No one explained anything to us.  Our father was in disgrace for just about the rest of his life.  None of us ever trusted him again.  His birth family had left town except for his sister but they didn't interact with us.  My mother's cousin was in Portland and was in regular contact.

Many years later after my mother was established as a teacher, she drove home late one night and in dark rain struck an old man in dark clothes carrying a black umbrella close to his head so he couldn’t see.  She came around the corner from Killingsworth (oh, what a dangerous street) and was going slow so she didn’t hit him hard.  He wasn't much injured.  The police came quickly and dealt with it.  

By that time my father was in the habit of coming home, starting a roaring fire in our furnace, still wood and coal, and then settling into his “big chair” where he promptly went to sleep in the heat.  My mother felt sooner or later he would burn the house down.  On this night she finally staggered in the door, shaking, and gasped,  “Bruce, I almost killed someone!”  He just looked up from his heat-drugged sleep and said, “Mhrpst” or some other unintelligible.  She felt totally betrayed and she was.

That next summer he had a big project going about following the Lewis and Clark Trail to take photos which he would sell as sets to schools.  His plans were just intentions (his photos weren't that good and his research was weak), but he wanted her to come along.  She refused.  While he was gone she replaced the furnace, the water heater, the washing machine, and bought her first clothes dryer.  Now it was her house and he knew it, but he wasn’t on the road anymore, so he had to stay, going into a kind of dormancy that lasted until his final stroke.  He kept buying books, but went to sleep before he read more than a few pages. They were mostly "how to" books.

I suspect it all came from that first brain damage in 1948 when a drunk hit him head-on on a winding coast road at night.  We didn’t understand it — we blamed him for his personality change — and no one understood that it would last forever after.  Even if it had been diagnosed, we had no way to treat it.  He 

No comments: