|My mom’s senior portrait; she was
only 17 years old. To me, she looked
like a movie star.
|Mom made that jacket for me out of
a high-end remnant she bought at the fabric store.
(Notice the wall of photos in the background.)
|Mom and her friends from her time
in England. She told me that
the man on her right was suppose
to come to America soon after so that
they would be wed, but he never did.
As her mental illness began to show more and more intensely with the apex being an episode when she, in anger, punched her fist through the front plate-glass window requiring many stitches in her palm and up the inside of her wrist, he asked for a divorce citing he couldn’t put his daughter through more instability and trauma (understandable). The sad thing is no one (her husband, doctor, or family) thought to look into this event to see what was the cause. Mental illness was not talked about.
|My first birthday.
My mom made the cake.
But, she did not give up. She found a little log cabin on the side of a lake that she rented for just the two of us. I believe we lived there for a year. And from the photos I have of that time, it looks like it was wonderful. She continued to work for the doctor while I stayed with an older woman down the road who loved taking care of the two of us.
|My mom made many of my outfits
in my first few years of life including
this cute bunny costume.
My mom certainly took care of me. She made my clothes and even my Halloween costume. When we were snowed in during the Great Snowstorm of 1967, she built a snowman as tall as herself. She threw a 3rd birthday party for me. It was then that she introduced a man she had met at a singles group gathering. He was to become my step-dad the next year and soon after, my baby sister was born.
|Snowstorm of 1967. Mom built
a snowman for the two of us.
Joe, my step-dad, was a kind but wounded soul. He had six children of his own from his first marriage. He’d been through AA (and I don’t recall any drinking issues while he lived with us). What I do know is he wasn’t really thrilled to add two more children to his roster, especially one that wasn’t a blood relation. However, he was kind and funny, and I have warm memories of his presence. During the two years that they were married, I do remember major fights. Mostly, my mom screaming and dishes breaking. This led to their divorce-still no one (that I know of) pushed for looking into what was going on.
She allowed us to have pets. This was always a special comfort to my sister. She still loves her dog like a best friend and each of her three children have grown into animal lovers.
MY VERY CORE
The core of who I am comes from her. As I’ve indicated, we were poor. However, most who saw us wouldn’t know that there was minimal food in the house or bills that were overdue. She kept us looking pretty middle class. I came to love the hand-me-downs she’d get from the “rich” side of town’s churches more than new clothes because they were soft and worn in.
One time, she got a used bike for me. It was WAY too big. So, she put two-by-fours chunks of wood on each side of the pedals, and I learned quickly how to balance and ride it without falling. It wasn’t the banana seated beauty I had wanted, but it allowed me to get around the neighborhood with the other kids.
|This isn’t the actual bike, but
it looked very much like this one
(except blocks of wood on both
sides of the pedals)😂
She taught me how to drive, how to be an independent thinker, to love learning, reading, and story. She gave me opportunities like attending multiple VBS programs in the summer, going to camp, being involved in band, and taking extracurricular classes like macrame and painting. I was able to be on my school’s swim team and volleyball teams. She made homemade popcorn balls for me to bring to school. (Oh the 70’s, when homemade treats were still allowed!) I was really popular that day in 4th grade.
My mom showed me how to be determined, honest, and caring. She encouraged me to help others. She made me face the consequences when I lied. She didn’t allow me to feel like I couldn’t do. She talked to me about college and traveling to England. She filled me with goals to one day do the same.
My mom made me feel special. When I was sixteen and kind of an outsider in my high school because we had moved to this small town only two years prior, she threw a big birthday party for me. We were dirt poor. I mean the type of poor where neighbors send over donations because they know you’re hungry. She arranged for the teenage neighbor boy to be a DJ, and we had homemade snacks and punch. That night, I felt like I had broken through the stranger-wall with the kids from my high school. I still remember feeling pretty darn cool, dancing with a boy who became my boyfriend for the next few weeks.
I was in fourth or fifth grade at the time, so even though I tried to start the car, I couldn’t. So, she had me get out and look under the hood while she turned the key. We were elated when it turned over and purred. That was when I noticed water coming from a loose hose. I called out to her but was too late!
The engine caught on fire. I had some singed hair but mom without too much panic turned off the engine, got the water hose, and quickly extinguished the fire. Unfortunately, the car was a total loss. Looking back at this event as an adult, I’m amazed that none of us panicked.
We had begun to fight more. She was upset that I was choosing my friends and school over her. She was also sinking more and more into bizarre behavior. She’d go on frenetic shopping sprees using store credit that she couldn’t pay off. She’d only buy things that were bargain-basement deals, but she’d buy so many things (all for her dream of running a home for wayward boys). She’d spend days upon days on the couch. My sister and I would make “meals” and try to keep up with the housework. But being we didn’t have a washing machine that worked, dirty clothes piled up. By the end, dirty dishes covered the counters and filled the sinks. She’d ask me to rub her feet or play with her hair. I would do it dutifully for what seemed like hours. Boy, I was so angry at her not taking care of us. I didn’t know anything about anything back then.
One Sunday after church, we were invited to my youth group leaders’ home for lunch. During the adult talk, my mom went into a psychotic episode. (My sister and I had known of these times but didn’t know that we should seek help for her.) Due to her threatening to hurt herself, the police came. She was taken to live at the state hospital (now defunct) in Kalamazoo.
|1980-My sister and I visit my mom at Kalamazoo Psychiatric Hospital.
She was pretty vacant and zombie-like
due to all the medication that they had her take.
It was there that they accessed her mental health. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar with delusions of grandeur. She remained in the care of the state from then until 1989 when she was allowed to get her own apartment. Being I had gotten married in 1985 and was living on the other side of the state with babies and working as hard as a new teacher, we didn’t see each other a lot. The last time we were together, just us, was soon after my son was born in December of 1990. My sister and her husband were able to pick her up and bring her to our house for a Christmas celebration. It was an uneventful, calm, normal family get-together. Everything I had always hoped for.
She called me on my birthday. I always got a tensed-up stomach whenever I heard her voice on the other end of the line, thinking something was wrong. All I remember from that conversation was that she sounded happy.
It was May 31st, nine days later, that my uncle called to let me know that my grandmother, who had driven over to my mom’s apartment to pick her up for a pre-planned outing, had found her body lying in the shag carpet. While I never saw the scene, the image is ingrained in my mind based on the few details he provided. She left a simple, yet powerful note.
I Still Miss Her
Our relationship was turbulent, to say the least. But 29 years later, I still miss her deeply. I think I’ve lived my life trying to save those I care about through my roles as daughter, mom, friend, granddaughter, teacher, and … I realize that my greatest fear is I am not enough to save those who need saving.
In Memorial to Joanne Kathryn Sherwood-My Mom
If you or someone you know needs help, here are a few resources (in the USA):
The format for this post is thanks to A Chronic Voice link-up. This month, the topics were foreseeing, panicking, upbringing, accessing, and soothing. Each writer takes the given topics and gives them their own spin. Check out these wonderful writers at May 2020 Linkup (scroll past the prompts to find the linked up posts).