I do not remember when I first became aware that something was wrong with my mother. I do know that I was very young; as the first child to be born into the family, for four years I was the focus of my parents’ attention.
My mother had been a “brilliant” child who attended school at a time when classes for gifted and talented youth were not part of the public school curriculum. In an effort to provide a challenging academic environment the school administration promoted my mother to the next grade… three times sequentially. Before the age of eighteen my mother had obtained a baccalaureate degree and was teaching music in an elementary school.
The administrators responsible for my mother’s acceleration through school could not have predicted the emotional impact of such a decision. While she welcomed the intellectual challenges, the expectation to function as an adult while still a child was overwhelming. Anxiety became my mother’s constant companion.
My father was the son of Polish immigrants who settled in Brooklyn, New York. Even as a child he preferred visits to the country over city life. His first professional experience as a graduate engineer was a position with the Manhattan Project. When my father first left New York and his parents, he wasn’t allowed to tell them that for the next twenty-seven months he would live on a mesa in Lost Alamos, New Mexico, contributing to the development of the atomic bomb.
Constructing objects from wood was one of my father’s favorite pastimes. When I was two years old he created a playground extending from the side to the backyard of our modest house in Los Alamos. He constructed a see-saw, swings, and a sandbox, among other attractions, which he painted in primary colors. My father predicted that this initiative would give me friends, other children attracted to the colorful yard. Indeed, until the age of four when I moved full of regret to California with my parents, the playground was a gathering place for neighboring boys and girls.
A wooden swing painted lemon yellow was suspended on chains from the ceiling of our small family room so that even when the deep snow of a harsh New Mexican winter prohibited outdoor play, I could soar unrestrained into the air. Perhaps it was from this perch that I first observed my mother’s bizarre behavior.
My mother was a musician. Some of my earliest memories of life in New Mexico are of waking to the soothing sound of my mother singing. Her voice would greet me as I stirred from an afternoon nap, offering a calm and reassuring reception. Before the deadly tentacles of alcoholism silenced her contralto forever, she sang lullabies to me from her seat at the piano. Enraptured, I would listen… and memorize every word.
I came to associate the lullabies with safety. When my mother could play and sing she was like the other young mothers in my neighborhood: engaging, energetic, witty. Music seemed to release her creative side.
Then something strange started to happen, as if a mysterious fog was descending over my mother, a chilling force that seemed to envelop, infect, and dominate her. Like a sword, it severed me from the mother that I loved.
The terrifying transformation was apparent first in my mother’s eyes. Her lucid gaze turned to an opalescent stare, and a frown distorted her beautiful face, rendering it monstrous. Her gentle, measured voice would become harsh and frenetic, screaming obscenities and threats, escalating to electrifying shrieks, convulsing sobs, or accusations that others were conspiring against her. Then she would attack….and the target most often was me. From my memory:
Her dark eyes were blazing; her shrill screams pierced the stillness of the summer night as she loomed over me. Furiously shaking my small bare shoulders, my mother forced me onto the bed. Sharp fingernails dug into my pale skin like the claws of a predator. Sobbing, I begged my mother to stop, but my cries were ignored as her screaming spiraled and her piercing grip intensified.
A fierce pounding battered the door, and suddenly the brass lock was ripped from its screws as an ominous form forced entrance into my bedroom. My mother snatched a lock of my hair and with a sudden shove sent me tumbling across the room, crashing into a tier of shelves filled with hand blown glass miniatures. A tiny crystal piano and bench, a silvery swan, a glittering hummingbird shot from the shelves in a glistening shower, descending to shatter into fragments on the wooden floor.
As I grew older, my mother’s efforts to play and sing diminished. She retreated to her bedroom, accompanied by a bottle of wine and the repeated complaint of a “splitting headache.” From the age of eleven, I was instructed to administer my mother’s Demerol suppositories, a physician’s response to her psychic pain. Then she surrendered to sleep, leaving me alone in a silent reprieve.
The last time I heard my mother sing was an Indian summer afternoon during my senior year of high school. As I walked up the hill that led to my house, I was greeted by the once-familiar keys of my mother’s piano. A lullaby lifted through open windows and ascended through rays of sun to kiss the branches of towering Ponderosa pines. I stood transfixed, captivated by her plaintive voice, grateful for the moment. Motionless, I listened until the last note whispered through the trees.