When We Were At Your Mercy

My brothers and sister

It’s the 1960s. Everyone’s liberal, right? Not in each of the households raising my parents, blocks apart from each other. These people are God-fearing, Bible-thumping, John Wayne-loving Americans. These are future Nixon voters.

Grandpa Third Reich

Grandpa Third Reich was a chickenhawk. It has always been my nickname for him, because he came from pure Germans. He looked really Aryan.

Grandpa Third Reich

He told racist jokes but then whined if you called him racist because he went to a black dentist in the 1960s “when no one else was going to black dentists in our town.” He wanted a medal for that, trust me.

Grandpa Third Reich even unnaturally admired Clara Ford, Henry Ford’s wife.If you know the history of the Ford family. They were America’s Nazis. In fact, Hitler was inspired by Henry Ford in many ways, and said so.

When I spent time in Germany, I got to learn just how much Hitler fetishized American white people. He was inspired by their history. He heard of their manifest destiny, and he rolled out lebensraum, which is German for living space. Germans were supposed to have a Godgiven right to it. Just like we Europeans had a Godgiven right to the land in America. Remember when we sold that story? Manifest destiny? He ate that up.

Well, anyway, Grandpa Third Reich raised my mother. He inherited money from a wealthy uncle who was a banker in St. Paul. Like most wealthy men, he was a chickenhawk. Like most chickenhawks, his conservatism was all talk born of privilege. He didn’t fight in World War II. He went to chiropractic college after finishing community college.

Another Medium writer recently summarized his explanations of the successes of white people by describing some research:

Researchers rigged a game of Monopoly, and they told players it was rigged. They told them. It was rigged, but the players who won the game still tried to explain to everyone how they were superior game players. They went into detail about how they did this or did that to win the game. Dude, you started with most of the cash, remember? We told you that. “Um, yeah, but looook, how I still excel in my skills,” the winners still said.

That was Grandpa Third Reich. He loved to talk about “those people” because he listened to Rush Limbaugh daily. Those people were always doing things wrong. They were always doing stupid things. They were always doing violent things. White people were successful. They worked hard. They raised their children in an upright way.

Grandpa Third Reich was himself a failure by most measures of white people success. Sure, he was an minor innovator. But Tesla died broke and mentally ill, too. Grandpa wasn’t, of course, any Tesla.

The Brays

Grandpa Third Reich was my mother’s father. Grandpa Bray was old-school Puritan American conservative. I mean he was a strict Catholic — mass three days a week — but his own ancestors would have been conflicted about that. He’s descended mostly from Mayflower Puritans. Grandma Bray actually comes from a different Mayflower Puritan. She betrayed their Protestantism far more recently. She converted to marry Grandpa.

My Bray grandparents get no nickname though perhaps they should. Their conservatism was just as damaging as Grandpa Third Reich’s with his false patriotism, blatant racism, and behavioral hypocrisy. The Brays raised my father in such a way that he believed serving in the military was the only way you served this country.

There was the Vietnam War. Of course, he was going to enlist. He didn’t know it at the time — my father became a genealogist later — but he was part of a long line of American veterans. Back to the Pequot Wars, more than 100 years before we were a country. It is not something to be proud of to be associated with the Pequot Wars. It means you massacred Indians.

My father was just trying to be like his father, a WWII veteran (standing with his mother)

The military experience did not traumatize my father. This isn’t a story of the horrors of war. His unit was called up to go to Thailand, but the orders were canceled. He never went overseas. Instead, he bounced around to assignments in Colorado, Texas, and eventually Arizona. Why? Who knows?

He contracted an infection. It’s called Valley Fever. The long name for that is Coccidioidomycosis. It’s a fungal lung infection. He got it at the same time he got Hepatitis B. I don’t know what was going on. But about six months later, the story goes, there was a man singing in the mess hall. My father told him to stop. Multiple times. Before attacking the man. The only thing is the man was never singing.

He spent some undefined amount of time in the air force psychiatric hospital, then received an honorably medical discharge. He was deemed to have schizoaffective disorder. All the fun of schizophrenia. All the fun of depression.

Parts of his mental illness were crossed with delusions about the Mormon Church, going to another planet named Zircon, and another soldier who may or may not have been real named Alex. My father was three and a half years into his four-year service in the military. He expected to go to war. He never did.

So, if liberals were shouting nasty things at Vietnam veterans as they came home from war. My father’s parents were embarrassed and confused, so they were saying nasty things to him, too. It was hard to get my father to talk about it. He wouldn’t go into detail about what things were specifically said to him. But his white knuckles on the steering wheel getting closer and closer to the Bray grandparents’ house in my childhood haunt me. Whatever they said hurt him deeply.

I can imagine. They probably called him lazy, when instead he was really depressed. They probably called him crazy. They might have called him any number of insulting names. In their minds, he was a huge disappointment.

My Parents Meet

My father said his family kicked him out. Before he was ready to go. Before he was healthy. Mom and dad said, “Son, get out.” He didn’t know where to go, so he went to Salt Lake City, Utah. He had been there once before with Alex.

Alex, his buddy from the military, was a black Mormon. I always looked at Dad kind of cock-eyed at that one. Mormons love to recruit everybody. But the fact this man was a black Mormon before they denounced their own history of racism in late 1970s always seemed strange to me. Given my father’s mental illness, you couldn’t always trust his reality-testing. But someone took him to Salt Lake City on leave. Someone took him to see the angel Moroni trumpeting from the temple. He felt that angel had been calling him back. So, to Salt Lake, he went.

As a new convert, the church set him up. In some ways, the church can take care of its own. He was given a job at the massive genealogical library in Salt Lake City, the one Mormons are known throughout the world for building. He saw a woman there that he had seen once before. He had met her briefly at the Mormon Church in Cedar Falls, IA.

What a crazy coincidence! How on Earth was a woman from his hometown also working at the Genealogical Library with him in Utah? When they get to talking, the coincidences do not stop piling up. They grew up blocks from each other for the first fourteen years of their lives. They hadn’t met, because my father had been at Catholic School.

What Had My Mom Been Up To?

My dad is twenty-three years old by now. My mother is actually a year older than he is. What has she been doing with her life? Mom did grow up a few blocks from my dad until she was fourteen. But then, my mother’s pregnant teen sister caught her father, the chiropractor, giving more than a back adjustment to a patient when her sister opened the door without knocking.

To save his marriage and his pregnant teen daughter’s reputation, Grandpa Third Reich had to be innovative, which as I may have mentioned, he was. Quite. He decided to use his inheritance to buy 40 acres of land in a little exurban town north of Waterloo-Cedar Falls, Iowa metropolitan area. On this land, he planned to build recreational vehicles.

It was the 1960s, and Winnebago was not a big name yet. There had already been innovators in the area of recreational vehicles going back to when cars were first developed. But, the interstates were new, and there was room for a growth industry.

My grandfather quickly developed two new patents. His RV was on the cover of a K-Mart Travel Guide:

My grandfather’s RV pictured on a 1960s KMart Road Atlas

He was even featured in Ford’s travel magazine. As a Ford enthusiast, he was over the moon.

I’ve heard it said that there are three kinds of entrepreneur, and you almost never find all three in the same man: the inventor, the salesman, and the capitalist. True to form, my grandpa was no salesman and no capitalist. Luckily, his sons could sell anything.

That still left the capitalist. An underwriters company was brought in after the company was already starting to turn a profit. They made significant changes to the company that were frankly stupid from a sales perspective, but as the money men, they thought they should have say over sales. Sales dropped precipitously. Just to give you an example, my grandfather’s innovation included RVs that folded out, so his business cards folded out like so:

Original business cards from the RV business

The underwriters replaced these business cards with plain white ones that had four pine trees across the top. I don’t have a sample. But, that was their branding for an RV company. Four pine trees across the top of their plain white business card. My grandfather was innovating business cards before they made funky business cards. These moneymen forced them to change the branding like that.

There were other problems. Plenty of them were my grandfather’s. Some his ego. His ego was spun part of the time from his bipolar disorder. He had type II, where it affects your emotional lability but not usually causes psychosis.

That’s where my mom got it from. It’s not like he willed it to her. Here, my dear daughter, this is my bipolar disorder which I bequeath to you. Everyone’s heard of that disorder where people hurt their children over and over in order to get attention so they can go to the doctor for treatment? Munchhausen’s-by-proxy? My mom had a case of plain old Munchhausen’s as she was growing up, too. She would fake injury to get attention, mostly because she wasn’t getting attention. She got kind of lost in the six children in her family. If she hid, they would leave her places when they left. She did it to prove they didn’t notice her. And then they wouldn’t.

She wasn’t totally socially awkward. She was on her high school basketball team. She says it was just because she was tall, and that tracks. She was 5'10", but she said she was always the boss in her friendships. I never was, so I guess I see her as doing better than I did in high school.

The small town she moved to after childhood was so small there were only 32 people in her graduating class. She left for college having never tried pot in the 1960s. She may have been born the year the World War II ended, but she was from the Silent Generation as they call the one before the Boomers.

She didn’t even like fifties music. It was too raucous. She liked to play classical music or showtunes like from Oklahoma. She finished college unsure of what to do with herself. If she hadn’t been her church’s organist, she may not have heard what God wanted her to do next.

God’s Plan

If there is one thing to know about my mother, something — her preacher, her horoscope, the direction the leaves on her houseplant are all pointing — something is sending her a message from God. She’s always looking for where it is coming from next.

Someone in her church had a son do a mission to New Guinea. Well, there it was. The Lord was telling my mother to do a Lutheran mission to New Guinea. Within no time after college graduation, Grandpa Third Reich stepped on my grandma’s head…literally, she was napping on the floor, and he stood on her…at my mother’s going away party, and off my mother went.

It did not go well. The work she was supposed to be doing went just fine. She taught English to native people of New Guinea for eighteen months. She liked some of the students, but not others. One boy got angry at her for correcting him. He gave her “the evil eye” stating he was cursing her. As in with a hex. My mother was suspicious by nature, and the boy’s stare spooked her.

But there was something about to happen with her health, too. She developed some form of mono. It’s hard to say what she had given her lack of immunities to tropical diseases. During her hospitalization for it, the doctor decided she wasn’t really sick. She was psychologically depressed.

To this day, my mother becomes livid with the memory. The doctor gave her antidepressants. Since she knew she was actually sick, she put them in the drawer next to her bed, opting not to take them. When the doctor discovered what she had been doing, he made her take all of them. A handful. At once.

He watched her swallow the pills. Then, she went on a one week highapparently. The German family she was living with said, “I’ve never seen a person go from so sick in bed to so full of energy in one afternoon.” Regardless, a week later, she tried to swallow another handful of pills again on her own. This time, to take her life.

Needless to say, they sent her home. Was she really suicidal? Was she really sick? Was she just reacting to those pills? It hardly matters in the long term, and I chose to believe my mother’s account to how it actually happened. What it actually meant was something different. It meant she was not okay. It was going to end up meaning she was not okay for a long, long time. If my mother’s hair got gray, which it doesn’t, it would have been gray by the time, she was okay again.

How Did My Mother’s Family Treat Her?

My mother’s family handles mental illness differently than the Brays. The Third Reich family has always had a wonderful denial/fuck-you kind of attitude toward it, which at first breath sounds similar to how the Brays react. But it’s not.

The Brays were blindsided by my dad. I’m not sure if there has been any mental illness in his family lines, but I haven’t easily found it. There are no other living Brays with a reported case of mental illness. When it hit them out of the blue, they did not treat my father well.

But by the time I was born, the Brays were financially and emotionally assisting my parents in a limited capacity. The Third Reich clan always saw my mom as a burden, and it wasn’t theirs. They were the kind of conservatives that would go and on about how only families, not government, should be taking care of people on welfare right in front of the sister on welfare they were not taking care on. I kid you not. Remember when Craig T. Nelson said, “I never got any help from anybody when I was on food stamps?”

I heard him and wondered if maybe my grandpa was his father. Same damn mentality. He did step out on my grandma. Is Craig T. Nelson’s mother a prostitute?

They surrounded me in love. Then they disappeared.

The little girl in red pants in the middle is me, but the extended family surrounding me would soon be non-existent

I can’t stop jumping up and down. My heart is racing with excitement. My cousins are coming over again and we can play in the giant house/business where I live with my parents, my grandparents and my little brother.

My grandparents with my brother and me in front of our home/business

The building we get to play in is an adventure land and feels massive to a preschooler. The business is my grandpa’s chiropractic office. The office itself has a small reception area with chairs, magazines including Highlights for Children with the cartoon, Goofus and Gander, the desk where my grandma sits to greet patients, an x-ray room, and an adjustment table room. I am careful to avoid behaving like Goofus wherever I can to please Grandpa and Grandma. Or my aunts and uncles. Or the patients.

Grandpa making balloon animals in the reception area of his office

I still might not have seen my aunts and uncles and cousins except for holidays even if I did live with my grandparents. Family doesn’t get to see each other anymore with everyone working. Even in the mid-1970s.

But Grandma is going to die in a few months of a brain tumor and everyone knows it but the kids. In the meantime, family surround me and squeeze me with hugs. They tug gently on my pigtails which Mama tries to keep in bows, but my hair is fine, and they frequently slide out leaving missing bows all over the house. I am always getting snatched into an aunt or uncle’s lap.

I don’t even remember meeting my cousins. It was nothing like the awkward get-togethers I witnessed as an adult when I watched my own nieces and nephews meet each other for the first time over and over at holidays.

My cousins and I didn’t have that slow approach-and-assess period I witnessed before the little ones would become friends. We were close automatically because we saw each other all the time.

If we weren’t interacting with grandpa’s patients, my cousins and I might take off for the living area behind the office. This is where grandma and grandpa tried to find room to live among his inventions.

The most prominent invention was a chair that reclined bodies into a position perfect for deep diaphragmatic breathing with your legs supported in the air and your head rested at a declining angle.

In other words, the chair almost turned a person upside down. Grandpa’s greatest insights came from his study of Eastern medicine. He believed that deep and rhythmic breathing held benefits for the immune system and physical well-being generally, so he created a chair that optimized breathing.

It looked fun to make this chair move your head and chest downward, while your legs began to rise into the air. But it was not for children, because it was too big. We had to sneak onto it when the adults weren’t looking.

At our age even doing the laundry was fun. Because ouch. Be careful. Grandma had a wringer washer machine. We fed the clothes through the rollers with delighted giggles. Mama taught us to sing while we worked.

Even doing the laundry was fun at this house

Then we hung clothes up on the sloping second floor deck that served as the perfect place to view fireworks set off only a block away on the 4th of July. My mother believed clothes were not handled with proper care unless they dried in fresh air and sunlight. She lowered the height of one of the clotheslines just for me.

When we do celebrate Independence Day on the patio, we just lay out lawn chairs everywhere. Nothing seemed finer than having three generations of our family sitting as a small tribe. The setting exuded the kind of security a strong, free country and a tight-knit family always promises to provide. The coziness of sitting together was intoxicating and I am the most patriotic person in the country. American flags are everywhere including in my hand as I wave it vigorously.

There is a door next to grandpa’s business office that goes up to the second floor apartment where we live. That’s where my cousins and I celebrate birthday parties, play with my toys, or watch TV.

Happy Birthday to another cousin

Just a few shows are allowed like Sesame Street, Little House on the Prairie, and Star Trek. For some reason, Mama thinks even Electric Company is too racy. All the other kids I know get to watch it, but not matter how much I protest I can’t.

At bedtime, Aunt Penny read children’s stories she had written and illustrated herself with crayons on black construction paper. They were about Timothy, a little boy, who was afraid of monsters in his room at night. I hung on her every word as she read the stories. I wasn’t afraid of monsters. I was tucked in by a village.

Our arrangement wasn’t even typically American since the time of The Waltons. The Waltons being a television show about a multigenerational Depression-era family who all live together in a big house which aired during the 1970s so one wonders how much longer it can last as a cultural reference. But this was family as I thought it existed. And it was good.

Given that both my parents were suffering from a serious mental illness, this arrangement was helping me to thrive where I might have otherwise been falling behind.

Bam!

My mother screamed, “Go downstairs and get your grandpa. Tell him we need him to call emergency.”

She was talking to me, but I froze at the sight of blood pooling around my father’s face. My little brother David heroically stepped up and ran downstairs. We didn’t have a phone, so mother was frantic to have Grandpa call for help. There wasn’t anything like 911 emergency line yet. You just had to call the ambulance line.

Mama kept muttering to Jesus and God to help my dad. She grabbed towels from the bathroom and pressed them against my father’s face as she cradled his head and shoulders in what was left of her lap since her tummy was inflated with a baby. She pulled the red bandana from her long straight blonde hair when the towels were soaked, and pressed it against his nose.

I carefully stepped over any blood and sat on the braided rug to take my father’s hand and give him a reassuring pat. “It’s alright.”

“Whhaa…t…Grraa…ahh,” He stirred, making gurgling cries of pain, blood spraying from his mouth. His black hair was matted and shiny crimson.

Grandpa arrived with my brother. He was unable to take his eyes off of my father, transfixed by the report that he had fallen straight on his face. He could see there was lots of blood loss coming from my dad’s nose and mouth. Grandpa reassured my mama, “I called the ambulance. David said his daddy ‘fell down’ and didn’t wake up. Hope I understood that right.”

“Don’t just stand there staring, help him.” My mother’s pale blue eyes flashed anger. Grandpa stooped down, took my father’s hand from mine, and touched his wrist. “He’s got a steady pulse.” My dad’s groans grew louder.

There were sirens farther in the distance than anyone hoped. But, eventually, people in uniforms were whirling around trying to figure out how to get my father on a stretcher down the long flight of stairs. I ducked out of the way into my room. Noticing blood on my shorts gave me a shiver. I tore them off and kicked them toward a pile in the corner of my room.

My brother fell asleep at the foot of the staircase the paramedics had to get my father down that day. My brother was too tired to climb them.

When the varied noises of sirens, radios crackling, voices yelling, and feet stomping faded; I ventured back out to where my father had fallen. Grandpa had his camera out. Look at this, he says. When I glanced to where he was pointing, I saw the imprint of my father’s two front teeth embedded in the blood-smeared hardwood floor. I had to swallow a little throw-up. When Grandpa finished snapping pictures, he asked me to help him clean up; I didn’t move. David started to help. I wasn’t touching that blood. It made me queasy and light-headed just looking at it. I just walked away.

Mama came home alone when it was dark. She was quiet, but I wasn’t sleeping, so when she stole a look around the piano into our room, she saw my eyes were open.

“Is Daddy okay?”

“How about a bedtime story?” Mama thumbed through my collection of Dr. Seuss and Little Golden Books about tough little engines and dawdling little puppies.

“I pick Hop on Pop.” She winced. I chose that book a lot. But she started to read, “Up pup. Pup is up…Red bed. I am in bed…Sad dad… Dad is sad. Very, very sad. He had a bad day. What a day Dad had!” Mother slowed down, a little tear in the corner of her eye. “He sure did,” she said.

“When is he coming home?”

“I don’t know, sweetie. I just don’t know.” She didn’t finish the story, just curled up with me on my twin-sized bed and fell asleep. Her large belly pushed me through the night until I was dangling off the bed.

We got a family picture taken as soon as my father got out of the hospital. My brother was already quite a few months old. Notice how my father has a yellow tint

Weeks after they took my father away without bringing him back, Mama packed up the car trunk with blankets, a picnic basket, and a cooler. She put our favorite drinks, little grape juice cans with plastic pull tops, into fresh ice in the cooler. Mama pushed forward the driver’s seat of our Impala and told David, then me, to hop in the back. As she drove, we passed by billboards and signs with bright company logos that gave way to alternating patches of trees and farmland. We passed a few fields quite a few cows. We were going for a trip to the hospital where my father was staying.

David and I usually teased each other on car rides. Sometimes, I would poke or tickle him; anything to make him giggle. This time, we each looked out our windows in silence. Eventually, Mama turned into a long driveway surrounded by perfectly spaced large trees growing in flawlessly mowed thick green grass.

When we arrived at the large hospital for people with tuberculosis, Mama argued with the receptionist and the nurses. We were not allowed to go and see our father because Dad was under quarantine. The nurses said that the problem making my dad sick could also hurt children if we got near him. Mama was not pleased. The nurses were irritated. After Mama disappeared around a corner, I heard them whispering, “What was that woman thinking coming in here pregnant and with small children?”

The waiting room got boring after a long while, so I took David outside to roll down a hill behind the hospital. I ended up dizzy after turning and tumbling just once. I threw up a little in my mouth. David gurgled in bliss on his third trip down. Mama found us outside and hustled us back into the car. She smiled much more than she had on the way down to the hospital. She was relieved as she told us that our father would be coming home soon. The doctors had figured out he did not have tuberculosis as they had assumed, which was the whole reason he had been sent to a TB hospital in isolation. Instead, he had hepatitis and valley fever, also known as coccidioidomycosis, an infection in his lungs. He had originally contracted both conditions while serving in the Air Force. When his immune system weakened from working in a paint factory full of chemicals, both illnesses flared up.

We stopped at a park and had a picnic on the way home. I started to feel less sick to my stomach after a peanut butter sandwich and grape juice. There were many bushes in the picnic area with bright red berries. My brother and I brought samples of different berries back to Mama so she could look in a wildlife survival guide to check if the little fruits were edible. None of the berries we found that afternoon were potential food. But, Mama noticed that in the wild, dandelions were considered a source of food. After trying them, both David and I spat them back out. Bitter. Yuck. Nevertheless, with that book, in the event our family decided to hide away in the wilderness, we were ready to live off the land.

My father was back at home in a few days and spending a lot of time in his bed. David and I were not allowed to go into Mama and Dad’s room, so we didn’t see him much. When he came out at night to watch his favorite detective show about Jim Rockford and his dad, Rocky, I peeked around the piano to examine him. He had a yellow tint around his blue eyes where it should have been white and his skin was a sickly yellow, too.

“Red or yellow, black or white, they are precious in his sight… Jesus loves the little children of the World…” I sang the little tune to myself. So, this was a yellow person. Since he looked tired and grumpy, it was a good thing that God loved him.

A few weeks later, Mama dislocated her knee while moving furniture around, so two of her sisters came to stay with us. At the time, I didn’t realize that my mama was sending out pleas for help, because everything was falling apart, especially for my grandma. From a preschooler point of view, life was carefree: preschool, books, puzzles, toys, and television. But, much later on, owing to our extended family’s pack-rat tendencies, I was able to read a February 1975 letter from my mother to my aunt revealing a very different picture:

“If you knew what an effort it is sometimes merely to get up out of a chair, or to bend over from what I can figure out, the organs and tissues don’t get an adequate supply of blood, and it’s sort of like when the juice goes down, the lights everywhere don’t burn as brightly, the iron doesn’t get as hot, the radio slows down, etc. to be MENTALLY DEPRESSED; and to have DIGESTIVE DISTURBANCES, COLD HANDS AND FEET, and VAGUE PAINS. Boy, is that me, eh?”

Our visiting aunts cooked and helped us with our baths. Feeling happier with some help, Mama would frequently sit at the old upright piano in our living room playing songs until her wrists hurt. She also knew how to play the accordion. The whole family, including my grandparents, would often gather around her to dance and sing. They especially liked a rousing polka number.

Soon, Mama complained that her crutches made her underarms hurt, especially since she was bursting with the baby almost ready to be born. She stayed in bed lying next to my father while he slept and slept. Mama suddenly left one day in September not long after her birthday to go to the hospital. She was angry about it. She wanted to give birth to all of her children at home, but her sisters said they weren’t helping her give birth at home with a messed-up leg. Mama was convinced the hospital would be horrible, and it turned out to be exactly that. They didn’t even let her kiss Samuel when she went to hold him for the first time. It was too unsanitary, they said.

She came back after being gone to the hospital for a few days. Mama was happy Samuel was born when he was because her mama got to hold him a couple of times before she died. David and I got to visit Daddy in his bedroom because Mama had brought home a baby boy. Daddy was snuggling Samuel on his bed. Mama planned a sneak attack outside their bedroom door warning David and me to surprise them carefully because babies are delicate, and Daddy was still sick. She rushed in with us and her camera shouting, “Pig pile next to Daddy and the baby.” Adding, “Carefully now.” Every picture she took had big smiles, including my father’s funny-toothed grin.

David, Mama, Dad, and me with the baby cut out of the picture due to water damage on the picture from a flood

Not long after that my brother David’s screams pierced the night. He had to go to the hospital after he developed spinal meningitis. I wasn’t there to see the him hooked up to the tubes and machines. I wasn’t there to see him in a large iron crib crying in pain. Mama cried a lot. I felt guilty for all the times that I had left my little brother out of my play activities. I made a vow to change when he returned from the hospital.

Still, Mama was not done dealing with major stressors. We expected my grandmother to die within weeks. Watching her mother deteriorate saddened my mama. I, however, was uplifted, in my oblivious youth, by the parade of visitors who came to see my grandmother. Most of the visitors were family; my aunts, uncles, and cousins who stayed around for musical sessions with my mama at the piano or on the accordion.

Grandma died about a month after Samuel was born. They took her to Minnesota to bury her. I was too young to go. I missed my mama and my grandpa while they were gone, so, when I saw their car pull up, I ran to greet them. They barely noticed me. Instead, they seemed to be having a disagreement. It scared me since I had never heard them argue.

“He is not lazy. He is sick. I can’t believe you would say something so despicable,” my mama cried. She had overheard Grandpa telling a patient from church that Daddy was lazy.

“He doesn’t have the luxury of being sick when he has to take care of his family, including a new baby,” my grandpa snapped.

“And just where is he supposed to go to work? He can’t go back to that toxic chemical factory. Do you want to claim that his yellow skin is also made up? Did you not see the same bloody floorboards I did? What about the tooth marks in our wood floor?”

“It’s up to him to find something.”

“That’s perfect. Just perfect. You have wonderful timing. Very loving, especially considering you were supposed to give him a job. You promised him a job,” my mama’s voice trailed off.

“What’s the matter?” I called out feeling brave enough to make myself known and to interrupt.

“Nothing,” said Mama, and she pulled me upstairs for the night.

Independence Day

Because Independence is Ideal

It was either the strain on my neck from turning around and staring out the back window for a over a hundred miles or it was the crying. Or likely it was both that gave me a multi-day headache when we arrived in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, the length of a state away from Sheboygan where we had lived.

My grandpa had made his feelings clear. He didn’t respect my father anymore as he laid in bed. My father was suffering from a mental illness. He had schizoaffective disorder. He had been diagnosed while in the Air Force when he enlisted during the Vietnam War. They gave him an Honorable Discharge. But he was also physically sick. Doctors recommended he move away from Lake Michigan because the sea air was believed to be bad for his lungs.

We went to visit no one. No one came to visit us. Family disappeared. It was just my depressed, delusional father. It was also my mother with bipolar disorder. She wasn’t well either. They were untreated. They were unsupported. We were on our own.

What happened to my family in small town Iowa was the stuff of nightmares

This was my family after we were reunited. Being poor and different was enough to split us apart.

I could be just like you, Jack or Jane White American, blissfully unaware of poverty.

My father knew he was a horrible candidate to lead a family. He knew he was not a well man. Church officials overruled him.

My father heard voices since he was a teenager, but told no one. He did what he was told. He went to church where he was an altar boy. He went to Catholic School where he did as well as he could. He joined the military as soon as he finished high school so he could be like every conservative man in his family for generations. He was gonna fight a war. Vietnam, this time.

The voices in his head told him things with religious-themes. He was supposed to develop a grand new theory uniting science and theology. Don’t read that too quickly. It doesn’t say science and technology the way those words are always seen together. It says science and theology, as in God.

The fact his delusions were so tied to God was what got my Dad into trouble. When his conservative family kicked him out of the house after the military, he went to Utah to join the Mormons. Mormons played heavily into his delusions.

The Mormons laid their hands on his head and insisted he needed to get married and have a big family.

They even suggested who was the most obvious choice to marry. My father met a woman from his home state of Iowa right there in Utah. The church elders did not know my parents. They just knew my parents were both recent converts from Iowa. Good enough for them. It was a match made in heaven.

You never tell a man with schizoaffective disorder he needs a wife and a big family. He had no earning potential. Each time he tried to take a college class, the voices in his head interfered. He didn’t interact with other people socially, so he didn’t make friends at work. It made it easy to let him go in hard economic times.

He did as he was told in terms of having a family, but unhappily. My mother was an enthusiastic Mormon. You were supposed to have a lot of children. It was actively encouraged by all Mormons. She was from a big family, so that dictate was right up her alley.

By 1975, my mother and father lived in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. They had three children. My father worked for a chemical company.

When my mother goes to pick my father up from work one day, a man exits their factory building and lights a cigarette. A giant plume of fire lit the air. My mother was frightened. She knew why my father was coming home coughing from work every night. The chemicals in the building were floating in the air so thick as to make it flammable.

Within a short time, my father fainted flat on his face in our livingroom. Most people do not faint in a flat-on-your-face manner. But he did, and it was enough to knock out his front two top teeth and put tooth marks in our wood floor.

For the next three months, he was kept in a tuberculosis hospital in another city in Wisconsin. It took a while for them to realize it was a misdiagnosis. He was actually experiencing a relapse of his Valley Fever and Hepatitis B conditions contracted while in the military.

His immune system had been compromised in the chemical plant. It may have been a good paying job, but it was eating his health.

There were a couple of missteps by my parents between this and landing in Denver, Iowa, but they involve becoming connected to fundamentalist Mormons in Canada. They are not really relevant economically.

The story next picks up in Denver, Iowa in 1978.

Jordan Bray
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32 min
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7 cards

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