21 February 2015

My Mom, TheTragic Story of a Horrible Wonderful Woman

Mom holding me with my brother looking on.
So I was about 13 maybe 14 years old and walking down the street with a friend of mine after school and he kind of pokes me and asks, “isn’t that your mom?” On the other side of the street walking in the opposite direction is my mother and she’s having an animated argument — with herself. I don’t remember who the friend was but he had the discretion not to remark on my mother’s behavior. As it was I felt…actually there are no words over four decades later that I can conjure up to describe that feeling. The cliche is that you felt like digging a hole and crawling into it. I never really felt like that in those situations. I say situations because that was not the only such occurrence involving my mother that I suffered.

Anyway the moment passed. It always did. It had to. You can't dwell on that kind of pain. Not when you're young. You've got to move ahead, forget as best you can and live your life. After all she was going to be there when I got home. Maybe in the midst of a manic episode, yelling, cursing accusing. Or perhaps she'd be drunk, slurring her words swaying between overly solicitous and openly hostile. Then again I could luck out and she'd be fairly lucid just a little bit daffy and I could ignore her and pretend that I had a normal if somewhat eccentric mother.

How I despised her. She had robbed me of a normal childhood. She had taken away that safe harbor that should have been my home. The base from which I would gradually venture out into the world. It was forever ruined by this woman and her paranoid ravings at people who were not there.

My mother was posthumously diagnosed as bi polar. 

Starting as a teenager until I was in my 50’s I sat in various psychiatrist offices recounting life with mother.

A few years ago I forgave my mother. This was a posthumous pardon. Now I write about her all the time. And today for the first time I write: “I love you mom.” I also write her story.

Gertrude Marie Kurki was born on February 2, 1920 in San Francisco to Finnish parents. A few years later the family moved to Berkeley and a few years after her sister Mildred was born.

My mom grew up during the Depression but her father had steady work and they never wanted for anything. Mom once told me that “hoboes” sometimes came to the house for handouts and, provided they went to the back door, grandma would give them a bite to eat. Mom was an excellent, attentive student and participated in various school and church sponsored activities.

In the Fall of 1938 she enrolled at the University of California. Again she did well in classes and was a member of various clubs and organizations. She also attended football games and was a fan of the Cal football team from then on. She took me to my first Cal-Stanford Big Game in 1964.

Mom graduated from Cal in the Spring of 1942, less than six months after U.S. entry into World War II. She was accepted at Columbia University where she went on to earn a Master’s Degree in Speech. But before that she served her country in the women’s naval and coast guard reserves.  A trip home to Berkeley on leave in March of 1944 was noted in the local paper.

It was while in New York at the end of the war that mom met my father, Aimo Hourula. Dad was a native of Finland who had fought in the Russo-Finnish Winter War and then traveled the world in the merchant marines. Timing is everything, virtually all his time at sea was during the war and he was on two ships that were strafed by German planes and was at the helm of one that was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in the Arabian Sea.

My father had earlier met Mildred on the West Coast and, knowing he was based in New York where her sister was, she gave him her contact information. My parents had a whirlwind romance that culminated in marriage on the day after Christmas 1945 in Baltimore. Mom was 25 and Dad would turn 30 in a few weeks.

Nine months later they moved to Berkeley and stayed with my grandparent’s until they got a place of their own. Dad quickly got work as a carpenter, a trade he practiced successfully until his retirement 35 years later.

My brother was born in 1947 and I came along in '54. In those days a carpenter made fully enough to raise a family, especially as dad always had work. To my knowledge Mom never did anything with her university degrees. Mom was a housewife though she was also active in Ladies Aid through the Finnish American Lutheran Church in Berkeley that she attended. I don’t recall Mom being particularly religious, nor attending church regularly. That was more my grandmother’s thing.

Mom was also interested in politics and was a staunch Democrat who refused to read Hearst papers. I also recall that she was a poll worker during the 1960 election.

My mother was an attractive woman, with blonde hair, blue eyes and a slim figure. She was always healthy. I never remember hearing about her having any major illnesses or injuries. Through the mid 1960’s she had a wide circle of friends, many were kin of my dad others were old friends or relatives from her side of the family and still others were old classmates. She attended class reunions and regularly went out with my dad. They were forever going to one gathering or another, or out to dinner, or to parties or to ball games or camping or on ski trips. Mom danced, skied and enjoyed life. She was a chatty and articulate woman, opinionated but never overbearing.

She was a good wife and mother and housekeeper. Our place was always clean, there were always meals ready on time and she made a point to come into my room every night to put the covers back on me while I slept because I had a tendency to kick them off. I was aware of her doing this the last night I slept under the same roof as her, even though at the time her mind was quite far gone.

As I grew up, everything was great in our family, especially for my brother and my dad. My mom had started slipping away from reality not long after I was born. Maybe even before, it's impossible to say.  My brother and dad didn’t know a thing about it for another 12 years or so. I grew up with it. Well into adulthood I reckoned that I was somehow responsible for her insanity and even beyond that I was sure that the same fate awaited me.

One thing I’ve learned about being an abuse survivor is that people don’t believe you. My story is particularly hard to swallow. I never once told it to my brother or my father. I have thought many times about why I kept it to myself. I really don’t know why but I did. They’re both dead now and I’m glad I spared them the details. It wouldn't have done any good anyway, the shock they went through was enough. For my story of being the sole audience for so long of her ravings many doubts have been expressed,  even by some psychiatrists. I understand the disbelief. But its not my problem. I've flat out been told I must be mistaken. It's incredibly insulting but I've learned to shake it off. What can you do?

Mom and Dad in New York.
My earliest memories of my mother include her having angry arguments with people who weren’t there. Sometimes she was using a normal voice but just as often her voice became what can only be described as ugly. I never for a second thought that what Mom was doing was normal. But it also never crossed my mind to tell anyone. I just grew up with it. The good thing and bad thing was that she stopped once anyone else came home. To everyone else on the planet mom was perfectly normal. Unlucky me. No wonder I was so attached to my brother and father, they unknowingly protected me.

Her psychosis gradually grew worse and her rantings and ravings became more pronounced and more tinged with paranoia. I remember once when my father and brother were working up in Tahoe we were invited to my Uncle’s house for dinner. I think I was about 11 at the time. We had, as was generally the case at my Uncle’s a grand time. I had three female cousins who were like sisters to me. But when we came home my mother went ballistic. She screamed at me about how horrible “those people”  how much she hated them and that we were never going back. It went on for quite awhile and even though she was looking right at me I plugged my ears. Mom didn’t seem to notice. Another time she cornered me in my room and raged.  The words were coming directly at me though the intended audience was non existent. I finally picked up a shoehorn with a long strap and hit her with it on the arm. She stopped, looked at her arm and  after a few seconds continued. Another time I finally just screamed at her to shut up. This stunned her into silence. For maybe half a minute. Nothing I did stopped her. Only the arrival of another family member would make her stop.

It was at about this time that Mom added drinking to the mix, so to speak. Alcohol variously made her better and made her worse. But ultimately it made her unable to control the timing of her outbursts. Finally she acted out in front of my father and brother. I felt awful for them. By this time my brother had moved out and it was on a weekend he was visiting that he saw mom in all her horror. He cried himself to sleep that night. I don’t believe that as a child I ever cried about my mother insanity. It was just there.

My father was crushed. Especially when Mom moved out of their bedroom and refused to go out with him anymore. All those outings Dad enjoyed, he now had to go to alone. Mom even refused to go to her own mother's funeral. My brother pleaded with her to go. By this time I didn't care what she did.

Naturally we had to stop entertaining. When someone did come by there was the awful risk that Mom would emerge from her room and rant at them or at us or at the heavens. She also started spending money recklessly. My father's perfect American life was collapsing around him. He didn’t know what to do. Neither did my brother. Me? I loved my dad as much as any son has ever lived his father, but I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of the house.

When I did move out and go to college, Dad was left at home with a crazy wife. The first time I saw him after leaving home was at a soccer game I was playing in. He looked like an old man. My heart ached for him.

Eventually Dad faced the fact that his wife was not going to get any better. He started seeing other women. He met a divorcee who was about 20 years younger than him. She knew a good thing when she saw it and talked him into going to Reno for a quickie divorce followed by marriage to her. My Dad was married to her until his death.

Once I was away from mom I stayed away. I saw her occasionally but usually only when it was unavoidable. Once my Uncle invited her to Thanksgiving when my dad was out of town. To my shock she came. Mom got very drunk and started yelling at everyone. I had seen it coming and had gotten very drunk myself.  I still mark this as the worst day of my life.

Mom would call me over the years. I’d sometimes indulge her for a minute or two before begging off. If, as was often the case she was slurring her words, I hung up immediately. She left long rambling nonsensical messages on my answering machines. Every syllable she uttered made me wince in psychological torture. My acute hypervigilance to certain noises is directly linked to the sound of her voice during manic phases.

I avoided mom like the plague. My late brother was a saint and he looked after her until she died in 2001. Somehow she had lived to 81 despite all her drinking. Also, when Mom had totally gone off the deep end she had taken up smoking, which I believe she continued to the end. She used a long cigarette holder which to me made her look like a rather poor Norma Desmond impersonator.

My mother ruined my childhood and caused me irreparable psychological damage. But over time I came to understand that it was not her fault. Mom was mentally ill. You could no more be angry at a person for contracting cancer. She never planned to go crazy and the fact that for so many years she manifested her behavior just for me…well, I’m sure that the sane conscious part of her mind had nothing to do with that. Mom loved me. I know that. I was just unlucky.

I’ve been sorry over the years that I lost out on having a normal mother. But more than that I’ve been sorry that I lost out on that particular normal mother, the one who gave birth to me. My brother had a lot of fond memories of her that I quite envied I only got to know her a little bit. I would have loved to have heard more stories from her about the Depression, football games at Cal, my grandparents and also to have heard her share opinions on politics and cultural issues. I'm sure that had I had a normal relationship with her I might have avoided some of the trouble that marked the first half of my life.

The biggest loser was of course Mom herself. At some point in her life she became something like half of her real self with demons possessing the other half. And it got worse from there. Today bi polar disorder (if that is in fact what she had) can be treated with medication. Back then the best she could have hoped for was probably shock treatment, heavy drugs and perhaps institutionalization.

She didn’t have a chance.

I’ve always thought about my mother a lot. But it's different now (for Christmas I asked for a Columbia University sweatshirt which I received and wear everyday to honor her). When I think of Mom  it is not with anger or depression but with a yearning to have known a perfectly sane and sober version of her. It’s a hopeless, fruitless feeling. But its all I’ve got.

With great thanks to my friend Germano Maccioni who encouraged me to write this. Grazie.


Tudor Queen said...

This memoir is so beautiful - painfully so, but well worth reading.

I believe every word (of course!) My heart aches for you and for her. I was particularly struck by what you said about condemning someone for a mental illness is like condemning them for having cancer. My mother taught me the same thing and I believe it absolutely - so I was thunderstruck that my mother later turned away from a family member with significant psychological issues. Later, I came to understand why, in this case, she changed her mind, but overall I find it a good standard.

I am glad that you found some balance in your life. Based on what you wrote about her early life - and the basic need we all have for parents, true parents - I, too, am sorry you never had the chance to know your mother in that context.

Good for you for dealing with it as well as you have! It's a real victory.

sirpa said...

Kiitos, kiitos, Richard. That is so beautifully written & seems very healing. Writing is amazing . . . we can write so much of the pain away . . .