Today is May 9, Mother’s Day 2021. I started writing this back in Aug on my mother’s birthday. It turned out much longer than I anticipated.
My mother’s birthday was this past week. And as typical she has been in my thoughts more than usual — and I decided I would write a few remembrances. I know I’ve written bits and pieces of this before in my various books and blogs — mainly The Unwelcome Blessing and Diospsytrek: But God Had a Better Idea.
Contemplating her life fills me with sadness — the incompleteness of it. And in its incompleteness it feels like a continuous unraveling — a tragedy that in some sense bleeds out into my own life and dozens of others. Every unfulfilled life is like that in potential blessings lost to the world.
August 24, 1918: At the time of her birth in Algonac, Michigan, WW1 was winding down. Her father, Ivan Carl Lundblom, a Swedish immigrant with a captain’s license, was an officer in the US Navy. But where he was stationed or what his role was I do not know.
Her mother, Alma Delphine Murphy, was her father’s second wife and 18 years younger. She was tall, big-boned and of Irish, Chippewa and French descent. She was born on or near the Red Cliff reservation on the shores of Lake Superior.
After the war, my grandfather worked as a yacht broker, and also skippered luxury yachts of the America’s mega-wealthy. The last being the 160-ft Helene owned by Henry Ford’s right hand man Charles Sorenson.
During the 1920s and early years of the Great Depression the family lived well and moved a lot. Parts of my mother’s childhood were spent in Miami Beach, Cincinnati, Bath, Maine and various towns on the Great Lakes. Her birth was sandwiched between her older brother, Hal and her younger brother, Carl. For several years her brothers went to a private military boarding school while she remained at home.
The family enjoyed a very comfortable lifestyle. In 1930-31, my grandfather’s younger sister Elvie and husband Emil Carelius toured this country. He was an orchestra conductor and she was an opera singer. Aunt Elvie was quite taken with my mother and suggested she attend the finishing school in Switzerland that her daughters attended. However, my grandmother felt she was too young to be separated from them.
It all came to an end early one foggy morning in March, 1932. The family was driving north from Miami to Ohio on old US-1. Just north of Titusville FL they were hit head on by a truck. My grandfather was driving and killed instantly. My grandmother was thrown from the car and injured badly. Her younger brother suffered a head injury. My mother had only a small scar on her leg to remind her of the night her childhood, with all its hopes and dreams, effectively ended.
Within months the family was living back in my grandmother’s hometown Port Clinton, Ohio — and on Roosevelt’s dole. My grandmother lost her left arm in the accident and for a while was a morphine addict. However she kicked the drug habit cold turkey and was able to work part-time as a one armed pastry chef. She had invested the insurance money from the accident in a small hotel on Miami Beach. But it was 1932, and there was no hope for a small business that catered to vacationers. And so the family lost what they had, including a couple of lots on the beach to unpaid taxes, and returned to Ohio.
By the tender age of 15 my mother was working as a waitress and living in her own rented room. Her older brother Hal bailed out at 16 and joined the US Navy. My grandmother and the younger brother, Carl, lived in another rooming house. These were tough times. Unemployment was 20% and and folks went hungry. Some of my grandmother’s nine siblings turned their backs on their needy sister and her children. Hard times made my uncle Carl (who I called Unk) hard but my mother it made vulnerable to a lifetime of anxiety and emotional breakdowns. Unk’s classic comment about one of his uncles who turned his back on them was: “If he was on fire I wouldn’t piss on him to put it out.” In spite of dropping out of school in the 10th grade Unk served as an officer in the Merchant Marine during WW2, made a fortune in the black market, and then had a successful career in Civil Service, retiring as a GS-14.
My mother, on the other hand, lived with constant insecurity and mind-numbing anxiety for the rest of her life — and because her formal education ended in the 8th grade she suffered from what in those days was termed an “inferiority complex.” She never felt good about herself and always felt harshly judged by her peers. Thus, she was overly sensitive to any perceived rejection. She was tall and exceptionally attractive and an object for the cattiness of other women. The unkindness of others was the trigger for several of her breakdowns.
She also alluded to some family secret of which she never spoke. I suspect she had been a victim of some sexual abuse — but by whom and when I do not know. During her many breakdowns she would sometimes mention a secret she could never tell.
In 1935, age-17, my mother was working at Urb’s Cafe one of Port Clinton’s tavern’s when she met one of the town’s most eligible bachelors, Boyd A. Austin, age-29. It was a poor, ill-fated match from the start– but it did yield one potentially happy consequence (your author).
They dated for several years and then quite unexpectedly my father married a woman named Dorothy– and my mother’s sensitive heart was shattered. Dorothy was a school teacher and had been to college — my mother a mere waitress. But the marriage to Dorothy lasted but a few months and then inevitably, as fated relationships tend to go, my parents started seeing one other again. Pearl Harbor and the onset of WW2 brought a culmination to their dating. My father was 35 and near the upper limit for the draft. Being married and having a child would seemingly guarantee his continuing deferment. He already had an essential job as a police officer — but to no avail, in Feb 1943, he was drafted into the Navy.
As if the 12-year age difference weren’t enough, they were poorly matched in most all areas. My mother had grown up in a genteel family. Her father came from an upper class, somewhat aristocratic family in Sweden. My father’s roots were Scotch and German farmers. His father was a 5th grade educated plumbing and heating contractor. In a sense, the American dream –a successful self-made man, orphaned at a young age, who persevered through God-given talent and hard work. My father’s mother was also 5th grade educated and grew up in a German speaking home. They were devoted as spouses and parents — but they were rough people. They yelled and growled at one another. They terrified my mother. And my father resembled them in many ways. He was basically a quiet, introverted man but when he did speak he could be quite gruff. I think he really loved my mother but was at a loss when it came to expressing it. His model had been love expressed thru good cooking and occasional back handed compliments. A great meal was greeted by satisfied grunts and the comment, “Taint bad!”
My insecure mother craved affirmation and affection and my dad wasn’t very good at expressing either. Like I said, it was a bad mix.
One thing my parents shared in common besides me were significant mood disorders. My mother was bipolar and over the course of her life had at least a dozen breakdowns and hospitalizations. My father had vast mood swings as well but was never hospitalized or treated. I was in my late 30s and had worked in mental health for a decade before it dawned on me that my father was diagnosable too. Their mood disorders were expressed thru their rocky relationship.. They were married and divorced from each other twice by the time I turned seven. Between marriages to each other my mother had a brief marriage to a small town eccentric named Paul. Most of my traumatic memories of childhood were of the few months I spent in Paul’s home.
Off and on we lived with my grandmother. She was a strong woman — but rather than absorb her strength I think my mother was intimidated by it. And also there were resentments from her childhood that would surface during my mother’s breakdowns. I think she may have been witness to my grandmother having an affair while her father was out at sea. With her being daddy’s girl, seeing her mother cheat would have been particularly disturbing. She confided that to my father and I learned that family secret from him. Shortly before one of her breakdowns she started writing a novel based on her life The Captain’s Daughter. My father read a rough draft and said it was pretty good but she burned it. Perhaps, reliving the tale of her childhood was just too painful.
My mother worked for many years as a waitress and hostess at Port Clinton’s finest inn The Island House. That was where celebrities dined and stayed when they made their way up to the lake to fish. Among others, she served Henry Ford and Joe DiMaggio. But by 1951, she had taught herself to type and take shorthand and she got a federal civil service job as a clerk/typist at Erie Ordinance Depot (EAD). And then when I was about eight or nine my uncle Unk fronted her the money to buy a tiny home on 3rd Street on the edge of Port Clinton’s mini-ghetto. Black folks lived directly behind us and two doors down on either side.
I was rather ashamed of our dumpy little 360 sq ft house but my mother was happy to be independent. I would have preferred for us to have continued living with my grandmother Mimi on the better side of town. At that age Mim was my main source of security and ego-strength. I didn’t like where we lived and I was also skeptical of some of the men she dated.
However, she and my father would still go out on occasion, I suppose to provide a family experience for me, but inevitably before the date was over they would find something to argue about. One enduring memory is driving back from Sandusky after a movie on old Route-2, my parents up front bickering and me in the backseat mentally and emotionally checked out absorbed by the muskrat lodges in the marsh that paralleled the highway, wondering what life was like living in a muskrat house half underwater while Jack Benny and Our Miss Brooks played on the radio. I was never quite sure what their arguments were about as I was actively daydreaming.
The big event of every summer was the National Rifle Matches held at Camp Perry next to Erie Ordinance Depot. Thousands of marksmen from all over the world would come to compete. My mother and her single girlfriends enjoyed a several week long party jitterbugging and drinking with the young, handsome shooters — and it was during the summer of ’55 that my mother met a Marine Corps master sergeant who was likely the love of her life.
Del was a big brute of a guy and on the Marine Corps rifle team. He was a combat veteran of both WW2 and Korea. I didn’t think he was a particularly attractive man but my mother did. I was skeptical of his intentions and I’m sure he resented me. They had an off again on again relationship that spanned about a decade. He would pop into town for a week at a time and she would travel to various locations to see him.
In the summer of 1956, we flew on old DC-3s and 4s to Charleston, S.C. It was a great adventure for me. Our eventual destination was to visit both my uncles who lived in Jacksonville, FL– but first mother wanted to visit Del at Parris Island where he was a D.I. for Marine recruits.
We had a horse-drawn carriage tour of colonial Charleston and took a boat across to Fort Sumter. The next day we got on to the base and toured Parris Island. But before she made contact with Del the following day she sent me on to Jacksonville. The next time I saw her, three weeks later, she was in jail in Beaufort and out-of-touch psychotic.
Hal and Unk bailed her out and Hal’s big Packard barely stopped on our trek north to Toledo State Hospital. Once again my mother spent about three months in the state facility and I lived with my grandmother. She had a course of electroshock treatments (ECT). It was her third hospitalization for what was termed in the 1950s a “nervous breakdown.” ECT in the state hospital was what the working poor got for treatment in the 1950s.
She returned to Port Clinton and her civil service job embarrassed and subdued. Her immediate memory had been wrecked by the ECT. She could not precisely remember what had happened and she was embarrassed at not being able to remember her last conversations with coworkers and friends. Nevertheless, she gradually put her life back together. At the first of the year, 1956, she sold our dumpy little house and we moved to a place my father’s older brother John owned. It was back on Fulton Street in the neighborhood in which I was most comfortable: my father, grandmother, uncle and best friends all lived within a block or two.
In a sort of low-keyed way my father stalked her. Being on the police force he knew all the town gossip and happenings. Also, she was very sensitive about her trips to the state hospital along with the gossip that inevitably accompanies an attractive divorcee in a small town. She resented the gossip and my father’s intrusions into her life. So in the Spring of 1958, she jumped at the chance to join other Ohio ex-pats in New Mexico at White Sands Missile Range. EAD was phasing out and its career civil service employees were transferring to posts all over the country.
For the next decade she lived in Las Cruces, and some of the happiest years of her life were spent there. I went out for my junior year of HS but I didn’t care for the starkness of the desert and mountains and so I went back to the lush green of Port Clinton and the emotional comfort of familiar surroundings for my senior year. However, I’d acclimated enough to the desert that I went back out for college, especially since I could attend New Mexico State University as a resident.
Mother had bought a small three bedroom cement block house in a development called Bellamah. It was about two miles from the university, and in the early-60s Bellamah was a nice middle class subdivision. She carpooled the 27-miles over the Organ Mountain pass to her job at White Sands. She socialized with neighbors and a group of friends from Ohio and her job. Overall, these were happy times. She taught Sunday school at a little Lutheran church a few blocks from our house. She was completely independent, her income was adequate and she enjoyed decorating our little home. She was a good cook and frequently invited folks over for dinner.
From time to time Del would show up and stay for a few days. He had retired from the Corps and split his time between Arizona and his original home in Washington state.
But it was around about Sept 1965, when my mother’s life again started to unravel. There was another tryst with Del that didn’t go well and then her boss at White Sands committed suicide. She thought a lot of this man and was devastated. The day before he shot himself he’d reached out to her. He showed up at our house early one Saturday morning. I remember him at the door. My mother was still in her nightgown and sent him on his way. She had no idea how depressed he was and she was worried that this married man might have a romantic interest in her.
Feeling in some way responsible for her boss’s suicide sent her into another spiral. A couple months after, on an irrational bipolar impulse, she took off to see her cousin Jack in Riverside CA. A few days later two of her closest girlfriends and myself drove nonstop to Riverside and checked her out of the local psych ward, and echoing the response to her breakdown nine years earlier we drove 18-hours straight to the psych ward of a hospital in El Paso.
The following autumn (1966) she had another breakdown. She then decided that her dead end clerk/typist job was too stressful and that she wanted to better her employment prospects. She drew out her retirement and went back to school. My mother had always been a voracious reader and she easily passed the GED needed to get into the university.
Her one semester as a 49-year old NMSU coed was in some sense restorative. She had to take some non-credit classes such as algebra, which was difficult for her, but she made passing grades in sociology and English Lit. And in some way being a somewhat successful college student made up for years of feeling less-than due to never having attended high school.
Financial pressures forced her to take a waitress job and a break from school. But the next big crisis occurred in the autumn of 1967. I got my master’s degree and took a job in Illinois as a psych intern. My finally leaving home as a 24-year old was another life-changing stressor. There was no one to orient her life around. Del was a hopeless cause as far as marriage or long term commitment and her baby bird had finally flown the nest.
I had moved up to Rockford, Illinois in November and by the following March (1968) she had again fallen apart. Per usual, she had taken flight on a bipolar impulse and drove aimlessly for several days. She ended up in jail in a small town in southern Illinois. I bailed her out and drove her back to Toledo State Hospital.
By and by she sold our house in Las Cruces and moved back to Port Clinton. She could be near family (aunts and many cousins) and myself — Rockford was a lot closer to Ohio than New Mexico, and I could visit frequently. She moved in with her aunts Pat and Margaret who shared a home. Pat and Mag had lived together for years but they were quite different characters and argued incessantly. My mother felt put in the middle and was likely overly sensitive to the tense atmosphere, and inevitably another breakdown ensued.
When she was discharged from the hospital she moved back in with my father. After nearly two decades they were together again. They didn’t live together as man and wife but merely shared the same dwelling. They took care of each other and that was a blessing for me. Terrified of more hospitalizations she dutifully took the two powerful antipsychotics Thorazine and Stellazine that she was discharged on, and over the years they gradually turned her into a near zombie. Nevertheless, she still felt guilty about their living together and worried about the small town gossips who she thought would speculate about their cohabitation sans another marriage license. They lived together for the next 16 years until my father’s sudden death in Feb 1986.
I moved her down to Florida and in with myself and my wife Tiffany. Initially, my wife was very enthused about the project of rehabilitating my mother. In lieu of medication my wife substituted a variety of vitamins and supplements, and Mom started to come back to life. However, in April 1986, I had to go back to Ohio for several weeks to clean out my father’s house and work with his attorney on settling the estate. And it was while I was gone that relations between my wife and mother started to deteriorate. They had several conflicts about who knows what. My wife claimed that my mother was inhabited by demons, and that her behavior was quite different when I was not present. Having seen my mother during several of her manic psychoses I was well aware of how obnoxious, hateful and aggressive she could become. However, she was a born again Christian and I believed that the Holy Spirit and demons could not occupy the same body.
A few days after I returned to Florida I found her on the bathroom floor cold and barely responsive. An ambulance took her to the hospital ER. I was completely disconsolate. I’d just lost my father and now not much more than two months later I was facing my mother’s death. She had overdosed on her old psych meds in an attempt to end her life. It was not her first attempt nor was it to be her last. Her explanation later was that she didn’t want her presence to create more problems when it was quite obvious that Tiffany and I’s marriage was already foundering.
A consulting neurologist at the ER diagnosed her with hypothermia. It was quite chilly that morning and she had lain on the bathroom floor for several hours. She was revived with heavy blankets and heating pads.
She did not come back to our trailer, but was taken in by her younger brother Unk and his wife Sherrie in their home in Orange City. Going to live with Unk was a relief for all of us. At that point Sherry liked my mother and she gladly took on the continuing project of her rehabilitation. Orange City is about a 35 min drive from Oviedo and so I could visit frequently.
When my father’s house finally sold, I invested the money in buying a house in Orange City a few blocks from Unk. A couple months prior Tiffany and I had split and I ended up also buying a home in Orange City. The plan was for Sherrie’s mother Lessie to move in and share it with my mother. It looked like one of those God-plans — a win win for everybody. And for a few months it was. But inevitably, there were jealousy issues and she was triangulated by Sherri and Lessie. Unk and I didn’t know what to make of their conflicts, but predictably he chose his wife over his sister, and the chill in their relationship was a blow both to Mom and to me. Rejecting his sister who waited tables at 16 and 17 so he could have decent clothes for school was particularly painful to recall.
Sherrie was extremely materialistic, and she could be a controlling bitch — do it her way and everybody got along okay, but say “no” to her and there was hell to pay. It was a bad mix. Sherrie being a malignant. manipulative sociopath and my mother being easily hurt, and emotional hurts being a trigger for her bipolar episodes. And so by 1989 my mother and her brother were pretty much permanently estranged.
However, there were some bright spots during the four years (1987-91) that she had her own home. Her first cousins Hilda and Elvie came up for a visit from Ft. Lauderdale. She had not seen them since she was around 20. They had been close as kids and thru the years kept in touch by mail, and it was especially gratifying to spend a long weekend with them catching up. She was also visited by old friends from Las Cruces, Peg and Jim Smits, and Dorothy Sturtz. She loved to cook and to host family and friends for dinner or to stay overnight. It was during this same time that she started to attend a small Congregational Church in the neighborhood. It was less than two blocks away and she could easily walk there using her quad cane, and, best of all, almost the entire congregation and the pastor were folks around her age. After a while I started to drive her there on Sunday mornings. It was an important step in my spiritual development. Even though I’d had a “born again” experience in 1979, regularly attending church was something I had not done since about age-19.
She was proud of her home, but after Lessie moved several roommates and she failed to get along. She hated living alone and would have been happy to move in with me, but I was trying to build a single life, hopefully find another wife, and at age-45 didn’t want to answer to my mother’s daily intrusions on my freedom. In retrospect, it seems quite selfish on my part, and at times I suffer a lot of guilt.
Things started to unravel again in Sept of 1988. She fell in a store and broke her hip. She spent a month in rehab before being able to come home and get around with some help. A very good attorney got her a settlement of 18k. She had never had access to that much cash before and it set her off on a bit of a manic spending spree.
But some people can never seem to catch a break, and sadly. her life took another downward turn when a year later she fell at home and broke the other hip. Once again a month in rehab and afterwards pretty much relegated to permanently using a walker.
Since she was unable to find a congenial and reliable roommate., I decided to sell her house and move her in to a nearby senior citizen apartment complex. There was supervision on site and it was set up for the elderly and handicapped. She lived there for nearly four years. It was not far from me or her old neighborhood and i saw her pretty much daily. But she was not happy and at least once a year she had a breakdown that would result in a couple week hospitalization.
In June of 1995, she suffered a major stroke. The left side of her body was completely paralyzed. I remember all too vividly the look of terror she had on her face and in her eyes the following day at the hospital. She had trouble communicating at that point but I think she knew that any kind of independent life was effectively over.
She regained her ability to speak clearly and her cognition was still good, but she remained paralyzed and clearly could never live independently again. One small blessing was that she got into Mariner a very nice nursing home that was less than a mile from where I lived. I was able to visit daily. If I happened to miss a day I’d go twice the following day. I got her three or four books a week from the local library and on Saturdays I brought her McDonald’s pancakes. It was a welcome change from the blenderized mess they feed stroke victims.
Watching TV didn’t interest her. She lived for visitors and spent her time between visits reading. She was well taken care of but she was understandably miserable. During my daily visits she usually had little to say. I pretty much had to keep the conversation going. When I would leave, ever the anxious parent, she would always say, “Be very careful.”
She lived (existed) at Mariner for four and a half years. She turned 81 in August of 1999. All things considered her physical and cognitive status showed remarkably little deterioration. But her emotional status was quite obviously depression. As time went on she had fewer visitors and she became even quieter. In the last few months of her life her blue eyes took on a luminous, far-off look. She saw the new Millennium in, though I’m not sure she fully comprehended that– as she took almost no interest in the news or current events.
On Sunday morning January 23, at around 2:30 a.m. the nursing home called and said she’d “fallen” out of bed, and that the paramedics had transported her to the ER. It was virtually impossible for her to have fallen out of bed, and I believe she pulled herself out in an attempt to end her life.
I only live a few minutes from the hospital and I was there within minutes. She was hooked up on life support and she was pretty much unresponsive. After a bit they transferred her to CCU. I sat there for a couple hours listening to the beeping and watching the monitors. Her hand was ice cold. A doctor asked if I wanted them to unhook her, and I said no. I wasn’t able to make that decision yet. Finally, after a couple hours I went home, and I told them to call if there was any change.
At around six in the evening I was pacing in circles — living room to family room to kitchen and back– trying to walk off my angst and not brood. Suddenly, I felt what could only be described as the fluttering of wings around my head. I knew in that moment she had passed, and five minutes later the hospital called and confirmed it.
I trust the Lord, and I know my mother was saved, and I know that I was “born again” because she prayed for me daily during the two decades that I was lost. And I know she resides in His presence. Still, I wonder why some people’s lives on this Earth are so unremittingly painful. Not just her life but the lives of hundreds of clients and a few friends I’ve known over the years. Even beyond her bipolar illness and psychotic breaks, she had tragic events blast away her security and happiness. She did have some good times and had some bright memories but in sum I think illness and tragedy are like a shroud that overshadows them all.
What if her father hadn’t been killed when she was 13, and if he’d been in her life another decade. She surely would have been more secure. She could have finished her education and had a normal teenage life, and had not reached adulthood feeling “less than” her peers. Or what if she’d gone to finishing school in Switzerland with her Swedish cousins. It goes on and on. What if her mental illness had been effectively treated earlier. What if she hadn’t broken both hips. The what ifs. What if she’d had a professional career instead of being a waitress and clerk/typist. She was brighter than average for certain and she had a creative streak. She wrote and took oil painting lessons. What if she’d been able to give full rein to her creativity? Between her breaks she was charming and well loved. In the late-1970s when I worked at Seminole Mental Health I had a client who had recently moved here from New Mexico. Oddly enough, she had attended our little Lutheran church in Las Cruces. My mother had been her Sunday school teacher. She remembered her fondly. Many did.