Here’s the way my rabbit-trail brain works: Yesterday I finished up a divorce case that closely paralleled my own life. It started me thinking this morning of the strange twists that life takes, totally out of our control. Then, I started thinking back to things that I have witnessed over the years, instances where life just took off on its own; and one childhood memory came to the forefront of my thoughts. I talked about it with Son over breakfast this morning and, surprisingly, he said, “Write about that, Mom.”
In 1962 I was ten years old. John Kennedy was president, we were terrified of communism, gasoline was $0.28 per gallon and Marilyn Monroe died. (Confession: I had to look some of this up—my memory is not that good!).
Notwithstanding a fair amount of adult turmoil in my home, I was living a pretty good childhood. An integral part of that was my friend down the road, whom I will call “Jeannie.”
Jeannie was another budding equestrienne. She and I would saddle up as early as we could each morning and spend entire days together on our horses. We rode every, single day that the weather permitted.
Jeannie’s parents were an anomaly in my circle: they both had college degrees. Her mother was a registered nurse and her father, “JC” a reporter for our local newspaper. I spent lots of time at her house, as she did at mine. Remember starched, white nurses’ uniforms with white stockings, shoes and caps? Well, I remember Jeannie’s mother wearing these.
I was vaguely aware of adult problems in that house, too—JC was almost never without a can of Schlitz beer. But at that age, we left those issues to parents. Jeannie and I were bent on having a great growing-up.
One year Jeannie had a “bunking party” with four other friends and me to celebrate her December birthday. Her parents had just added a new den to their home, complete with fireplace, and we girls snuggled down there in sleeping bags and on pallets of blankets—that is, we did way into the night. It was traditional at these parties for us to stay awake just as long as we could, and woe be unto the girl who was first asleep, as pranks abounded for her.
The new den door had one of those locks that you can open from the inside without noticing that it is locked, but it locks you tight-as-a-drum out if you don’t unlock before you pull the door shut. And that is just what happened to “JC” when he went out that cold December morning.
When JC turned to come in and found himself locked out it apparently infuriated him, but instead of ringing the doorbell to wake one of us to let him in, he marched himself to his workshop and grabbed an axe.
Imagine being a ten-year-old girl and awakening from an exhausted sleep to a man splintering the door in with an axe, shouting obscenities at the door as if it were a live enemy, and occasionally just screaming primal utterances of rage! We had no idea who it was.
I clearly remember us all sitting up, stock still without the presence of mind to run—not a one of the six of us. I recall seeing the brass door knob fly off the door, skittering across the tile floor of the den in pieces. I remember the axe blade showing at one point, coming through between the door jamb and the door, which was splintering with each blow. Many years later, when I saw “The Shining,” I’m sure it had a deeper impact on me than on most…
Jeannie’s mother had also been asleep, so it took her a minute or two to register the noise and get to us. She herded us up the two steps through the kitchen, into the living room. I remember the fright I felt as she calmly told us to stay quiet but if she instructed it, we were to run out the living room door and to my house, which was the nearest of any of the girls’ homes. All through this, we could hear the sounds of rage and the hammering at the door.
I don’t know how, but Jeannie’s mother was able to calm JC, making him coffee in the kitchen while we huddled together out of sight just around the living room wall.
I don’t recall how we got home that day, and I can only imagine how the other parents felt when Jeannie’s mom and their daughters filled them in on the events of that morning. It was the last time I stayed with Jeannie overnight (Duh!).
Very shortly, before school started up again after Christmas, Jeannie, her mother and her brother moved 250 miles north to be with Jeannie’s grandparents. Their house went up for sale. Her horse was sold and another purchased from near her new home—a beautiful paint I remember named “Chief.”
Jeannie’s mother filed for divorce and JC was hospitalized, receiving a diagnosis of Schizophrenia. Within the year he was dead of a self-inflicted gunshot.
Later I learned what I had thought from observation: that JC had not always been so sick. He had been a charming, great guy when Jeannie’s mom and he married. He had been an attentive, loving father. His children loved him dearly. But he began to slide into illness over the several years prior to this tragedy.
My own mother recalls Jeannie’s mom confiding in her of the deepening of JC’s illness and her quandary over what to do. Do you stay by the side of the man you love, trying to find help that he constantly resists? What about the children? This axe-to-the-door event was probably one of the the proverbial last straws, a clear message that she had to get her children to safety. My mother remembers the last time they spoke of this, Jeannie’s mom saying, “I promised God last night that if He allowed us to live through the night, I would get my children out of this.”
Years later, after high school, Jeannie showed up at my father’s law office, seeking—and getting—JC’s medical records. She was, it seemed, fearful that she, too, would fall victim to this madness, afraid it runs in families and that she or her children might succumb. Sadly, I have lost touch with Jeannie, so I don’t know the turns her adult life has taken.
It’s just life, isn’t it? Any illusion of control we have is just that: an illusion. These children did not deserve a sick father, no one—not even JC, himself—did anything to bring it on. It’s a symptom of a fallen world and a warning to us all that we do not know what’s around the next corner.
Best to try to hold onto something solid…it’s a great recommendation for faith that Someone Else, a higher power who is wiser than we, has some kind of plan that can make sense of this sometimes senseless life. I admit, that raises the question of why Someone Else would let such things happen, but that’s a whole ‘nother post, isn’t it?
So much for childhood memories…C