a work-in-progress memoir
(1953 – 1973)
When I was born precisely nine months after the death of Hank Williams, my mother fell into what was then called “post-partum depression.” Crazy wasn’t a word anyone used.
It may have taken a few days, perhaps a week or two, for it to set in: just how unimpressed my father was with the child she had given him. She already had two other kids, one boy aged six and a girl of twelve, by other men whose names were never mentioned. She had hoped my birth would create joy, a dance, a smile — a new life of emotional attachment with the man she’d agreed to marry on Halloween, 1952.
Her doctor suggested electroshock therapy, and it happened.
I shit and peed my diapers and sucked my thumb while my mother’s brain had electricity run through it. Did no one ask, How does this work, exactly? What shall be the long-term effects of this, uh, electricity to a 28-year-old woman’s brain?
Personally speaking: What does it do to the baby-child of a woman who is given this horrific treatment? My elder sister treated me like her own baby, as she said, though she was barely old enough to develop any maternal instincts, one would think. I have read the tales of baby Rhesus monkeys who, equally cruelly subjected to early loss of their mothers, became quite neurotic and unable to function in baby monkey society. Read up on “selective mutism” sometime, if you are interested in this line of thought. I am and I am not. Some nights when I go to bed — my mother and father long since dead and my life deadened by myriad deadening agents — I think of the baby Rhesus monkeys, and doctors, and experimental treatments. The night is long.
In 1959, my mother’s cervical cancer was diagnosed. No one knows how the earlier post-partum shock therapy took — the spiritual records have gone missing — but we do know how this new shock hit her: Hazel Marie, “unspecial” middle daughter, became depressed and deeply religious, going to church as much as she could (awaiting the day she would enter the hospital for the focused radiation regime) and preparing for what she knew would be her imminent demise. Payment — God knew! — for all the years she spent in wildness, she later hinted.
You can see it in the set of her mouth and in my father’s masculine workadaddy despair. I saw it in the shifts of her concentration on the mornings I begged her not to make me go to school, explaining how hideous and prison-like the whole set-up was, how I’d already learned enough to read the words in my comic books — wasn’t that enough? Couldn’t I just stay home with her?
Sure, son. And I’d stay home, happy yet absorbing her anxiety somehow, while she watched soaps and listlessly did dishes, made up the beds, and stared out the front windows. No smiles. I learned from her how not to smile. How never to smile. How, even around others, when your inner world overcame you, and you knew it was expected of you — not to smile. Not to care if they worried about your unsmilingness. I missed too many days. When I wasn’t farmed out to my grandma Dennis, often I dozed on her bed with her, reading my comic books, until the afternoon turned to evening and everyone else came home from their outer lives.
The day she came home from the treatments, the whole family gathered but we were told not to get too close, that she was still somewhat radioactive. Everyone stood flattened against the wall across from the bed and around her bedroom. A banner, Welcome Home Hazel We Love You, hung across some space of the house. Her sisters, both living nearby, were there and all my cousins. There was a quaint sense of broken joy, transmuted thankfulness, because no one really knew whether the treatments would work. “Five years,” said my mother, feebly, her arm above her head, tucked into the bed covers. “Give me five years, then we’ll know.”
Years of feebleness, mayonnaise sandwiches, underlined Bible verses and diurnal unhappiness followed. Five of them, eventually, then more than five, and she had not died. We kids soon forgot that she was supposed to die and began to expect that she would live — yet somehow she seemed to get sicker with the decades, contracting this or that disease, taking a job and getting too ill to stay with it — peppering every phone conversation with details about her shingles, about how bad she felt that day (this in her diaries), until it became wearisome to speak with her. Did she make up this stuff, or did she really feel that bad, some wondered. A plea for attention, since she got none from my father?
My father learned to tune her unhappiness out. He played a lot of golf, worked a lot of overtime. As an adult, I joked with girlfriends about how she only talked about ailments, hers and those of others, every time I called her. That and my failings as her youngest child. “Sharper than a serpent’s tooth, it is –” I heard the Shakespearean quote again and again, until I began to write jokes about it into the cards I sent her on Mother’s Day.
When she died of broken bowels in 1993, the doctors mentioned almost offhandedly how the radiation treatments she got in 1960 — though temporarily saving her life — had placed within her the decadent seeds for the problems she eventually died of.
The night she died, I was not available to sit with other relatives at her bedside in the hospital, though they tried to contact me.
I was away, doing something fun, trying not to think about the previous months of hospital visits and operations and life-saving measures which did not work.
I tried not to think of her descent into mental debilitation, where she could barely remember any of us and swore that a rose my father brought her was not a real rose but a fake one. “Look!” he said. “Touch the petals,” he begged her. “Smell it! It’s a real rose, Hazel…I got it from the garden today — ”
“Fake. You always brought me fake roses.” It hurt my father so much. Too late, he had begun to realize he’d always loved her but was unable to express it.
I came home from the bar and heard the news.
November 22. “Your mother died last night.”
Post-funeral, my older sister confided, “After the cancer treatments, she was never the same.” What did she mean, I asked. What was different? “She was never as adventurous and carefree as she had been when I was little,” my sister said. “Always fretful and worried about everything and everyone.”
Unsmiling in the face of life.
That was the word that explained my cousin’s sharp difference from the rest of us kids.
“When he was born, Neil,” my mother impatiently explained, “the doctors used these big…things…called forceps, kind of like clamps, and they, um, mashed his head a little too hard with them, and — ”
Forceps. This was why he could stand in the front yard translated into another world for hours by the sight of convicts whacking grass along U.S. 31, or road-grading machines — any sort of repetitive construction? Why he thought it entertaining to place a puppy on a swing-seat, pull the puppy back, and let the puppy fly?
This was why he got so incredibly angry while we played football in my back yard, why he ran away complaining to his mother about how mean I was, how I started the fights we had? (The fights brought about the forceps conversation.)
Forceps: an explanation for why he tried to imitate me in every way possible, to the point that people at school and even elderly relatives mistook me for him (and vice versa)? Without knowing what forceps were or how they entered into the birth process, I found this an unsatisfying answer. (My cousin’s emulation of me was not, as far as I could see, at all similar to my emulation of my older brother’s pants, shoes and haircuts.)
It griped my kid ass to think that the other people in school thought I was he and he was me. A damnable Doppelganger. Nobody wants to be mistaken for somebody else; singularity is everything, isn’t it? Individuality — Neil Dennis not Keith Dennis. It didn’t help that we were cousins and had the same last name. I could see that my aged elders might mistake one of us for the other — they saw us all the time and had trouble remembering lots of things. We laughed cruelly behind their backs and imitated their stutters as they tried to name us, remember us. “Kee– Nee– uh — ”
My mother: “It drives your aunt Betty nuts. She has to buy the same clothes we buy you so he can look like you. He just wants to be like you, son. He uh looks up to you, he’s a little younger you know… you might feel a little bit sorry for him. He’s different and he will always be different.”
But I couldn’t. I didn’t. No way. I was angry enough to make ignoble unspoken wishes about him. I’d run inside before the bus came, on some school mornings, just so I could switch into clothes that changed up our matching outfits. “That’ll throw those stupid kids at school off.” But it didn’t work. I was an infuriated fourth-grader. Whenever someone said, “You’re Melissa’s brother, right?” I knew I had been misidentified.
Evil was a metal cylinder, white with red markings framing dark cobalt fancy-font script I could not read except for the seal in the middle: AB. From the triangular holes punched in the top came an unfamiliar, unnameably rich odor. Sometimes there were two of them, dew-covered, ant-invaded, lying on their sides in the grass beside my uncle Donald’s oddly-parked Mustang.
An early-morning uncle: “Get away from them beercans, boy.”
Fake-sweet — you knew somehow it would not actually taste sweet, because it was the color of pee. So this was the color of the evil that corrupted my Uncle Donald, that made him start talking and acting crazy, as his relatives put it. He drank so many of them that he forgot where he was and drove the Mustang so slowly from the beer-joint two miles north, in Jefferson county, across the line, that the police were always catching him. I could stand outside my grandmother’s trailer in our back yard, where Donald lived, and hear the adults talking:
“Why, he left his false teeth in a glass of beer at some place and — ”
” — drove all over the county looking for — ”
” — arrested three times in two different counties — ”
” … don’t know what we’re gonna do, but we gotta do something…”
I liked my uncle because he was always kind to me, even bought me a Benjamin pellet rifle one year despite my parents’ objections and helped me learn to load, pump and shoot it. He talked to me as if I were grown — perhaps this was part of the craziness the adults mention in their family conclaves.
He mentioned Korea and Vietnam, which I heard as “Core Ear” and “V. yet Numb.” He talked about the coming end of the world as if it might be before school began the next September and also showed me his Watchtower magazines.
My father decided he had to be committed to the Bryce Hospital for the Insane in Tuscaloosa.
When Donald came back from Bryce — there had been some electro-shock therapy and who knows what else — he was shivery. His voice, always antic, was croaky and throbbed with nervousness, as if he were not sure what to say or how it would be taken by those he spoke to. Aside from that, he looked the same: quick thin-lipped smile, darting green eyes (like me, like my father), a wiry physiognomy that required little food. For awhile, he was okay. He retrieved his old job at Hayes Aircraft and rose early each day (everyone in the neighborhood rose early) to ride in with my uncle Clem. I saw him making a dew foot-trail across the back yard, weekdays as I got ready for school.
But one morning (I later heard) he woke with the fragments of a dream about his ex-wife, Merle, she who had been married to him only long enough to discover his extreme love for the products of Anheuser-Busch. By this time, he and my grandmother had been moved from the trailer to a small house on the edge of Alabaster and he had been doing a laudable job of taking care of her and growing vegetables in the back yard, living a quiet life.
And that morning, he started back drinking. “All because of that dream of Merle,” he would later laugh, making odd inbreath noises between chuckles. “All because of a dream.” Again — after a week or two visiting the county’s bars and jails — he got back on the wagon, this time for good. I’m not sure my father ever quite trusted him to stay there, however.
Once, needing some money for an apartment, he loaned me $90.00 which I never paid back but for which I was forever thankful, as it helped me get out of my parents’ home at a time I was too old to be hanging there.
I would occasionally take time out from my bohemian life-style to visit him and my grandmother, and it seemed to thrill him to see me and my wife-to-be (later, our kidlings as well) when we pulled up at their house. With that same nervousness, his smiling jittery demeanor that meant no harm, he welcomed us and asked if we needed anything to eat — “We’ll be glad to cook you something.” No, no. Grandma’s kitchen was kind of dirty.
He kept giving me, on each visit, nearly-clear glass stones that he said he found while plowing in the garden. He felt they were important and unusual in that they were hexagonal, with points on either end. “How did they get like that, bud, d’ya reckon?” I didn’t know, but later I did discover that the stones were natural formations — not the magical lapis philosophorum he seemed to think they were. “Keep ’em,” he told me. I have.
Just before he died — first one lung went, then another, then it was in his brain — while grandma stayed at my house (infuriating my wife with her quaint and incontinent ways) — I took him weekly to a cancer treatment center downtown — it was named for George Wallace’s wife — where he received radiation therapy.
I stood outside the waiting room doors smoking cigarettes. Muzak audible. How stupid is that? Smoking outside a cancer treatment center’s waiting room. I was in my thirties.
He was so pitiable when he came back from the treatments, a red bindu marking the spot at his third eye where the rays went in. Over the weeks when I was his escort service, I only asked “How was it?” one time. The look he gave me belied the mild answer: “Pretty rough. Pretty rough.”
The last time he had the treatment, just before we reached the house, he asked if I would mind stopping at the local grocery store. Not at all. He was in there a long, long time, and just as I was about to go look for him, here he came walking out, pulling his baggy new jeans up with one hand.
“Had to get some hot dogs to feed Pablo. He loves ’em.”
I drove back home thinking of this dying man talking to his dog, lovingly feeding him raw hot dogs. Smoking my Kools, probably thinking about stopping for a six-pack.
When I was ten, because I skipped church, I got to see a putative assassin assassinated live on my parents’ Zenith television. (Black-and-white, no red blood, scarcely as disturbing as a 2018 video-game for young children.) Even a dumb crew-cut kid could tell: the O of the shot man’s mouth, the jumble-view of the scene as the cameramen were pushed. I ran to my grandmother’s house, out of breath from the November cold by the time I got there, unable to speak. Calling me by my cousin’s name, she muttered non-consolatory words and asked if I wanted something to eat…
The Friday before, shouts of happiness from the halls of the high-school announced the shooting of JFK, the president almost all Southerners and surely most Alabamians hated — the hate sliding from parents to children, as hate always does.
But I recall nothing but confusion as Mrs. Kroell, our teacher, announced the shooting and put her curly dyed red hair down on her desk to weep without shame or self-consciousness as we all rolled out the door in queues to the playground, there to await the buses taking us home early. An early weekend should have pleased us, but a certain weirdness hung in the warm and dusty light along the route where the buses began to line up. When I got home no one was explaining anything, but more than one relative was disturbed at the pre-emption of soap-operas and local evening news. The silence of adults was deafening.
Friday night and into Saturday, a cold front came through — perhaps the same one that cleared the air over Dallas on Friday, allowing the president to go on his motorcade without bubbletop protection. There was something pulling us to the continual parade of people talking on the TV, that did not allow anyone to turn it off until everyone went to bed. I probably dreamed, in early wish-fulfillment, of receiving a gun for Christmas — seeing the assassin’s gun with its sight could easily spark such a dream.
Did I mention that I had recently accepted Jesus as my personal savior and had been baptized at night at Pelham Baptist Church?
Saved? — not truly feeling saved, not exactly one with Jesus — but with a surly and stinking brown hound I walked on cool October mornings, crunching gravel, gnawing a piece of straw, out into deciduous woodlands soon to be gouged into subdivisions. These were secretive morning forays, made only on weekends while my parents were still snoring.
I’d rise super-quiet, put on jeans, shirt and a rat-colored coat, fill the pockets with saltines and cheese, then lead the ecstatic, muddy-footed dog out through sleeping trailer-park denizens to the first of what I was told was a net of mining road used years ago to haul coal out of Helena, the nearest town.
A game I played with myself as I went further and further on these roads was: will I ever get to Helena’s defunct mines? I knew the main road couldn’t be terribly far away, but I had no conception of distance nor how far I was walking.
I did feel something like a scary little rush of libertinism, however, as I moved past the point where I could see the little curve of known highway — where our neighborhood houses sat — and into the thicker woods. The trail narrowed to two ruts. Crows hacking up high above the resiny pines gave me a goofy chill, intimated something deeper than the simple fun of being where no one knew where you were, but I could not have expressed it to anyone I knew, and to bring someone with me (this never happened) would surely spoil it.
(c) 2018 Thomas N. Dennis