These three pages follow this story, yet also provide background for it:
I am very small. I will be two in two months. My body is small. My head, my arms, my legs, my fingers and toes are all small. I am tiny lying in the middle of my grandma’s great bed, the upper half of my body propped up on pillows. This bed seems to go on around me forever. I am hot. I don’t have a dress on. No rubber pants. Just diapers. Cloth diapers with big shiny pins at the sides. I am touching one of those pins, feeling its thin shape over and over again with my fingers.
Mommy left me here when she went to the hospital. My grandma says Mommy will bring me home a baby sister or brother. I miss my brother, Johnny. I don’t know where he is. My grandma has been very patient and kind when she changes my diapers, and bathes me with cool water and a soft cloth she brings to the bed in a white metal pan. I have been very sick for days, throwing up, with diarrhea and a tummy ache, not able to walk or sit up or even eat. Grandma gave me a bottle so I can drink some water with sugar in it. It is here on the big bed beside me.
To the left of this bed are windows. A whole wall of windows with white lacey curtains that blow into the room like they might be alive. Two doors with glass knobs and many small windows are in the middle of the wall. They open inwards from the center so sunshine comes in with tiny shining speckles. I have been watching them dance in the air there for days.
I see a chair between the bed and the windows. It has my grandma’s clothes over the back of it. My things are on the seat. Past the end of the bed, I can see the blackness of a huge closet as big as a room that is full of my grandma’s things. To the right there’s a doorway. Through there is a long, wide curving hallway that goes past the kitchen. I know there’s another way down to the kitchen, through the doorway at the back of the closet that leads to a narrow straight hallway that is much more my size.
Far away I heard Mommy come into Grandma’s house. Grandma was reading me a story. She put down the book and got up from the edge of the bed and went down the hallway to meet her. Now they are coming. They are mad and they are yelling.
“Give my daughter back to me,” Mommy is shouting. “Give her back to me this instant. She is my daughter, not yours. I want her back right now. You cannot have her. I will not let you have her. She is mine!”
“Now, Mildred,” Grandma returns. “Be reasonable. She’s sick. She has diarrhea. You don’t want to make the baby sick. You don’t want to make yourself sick, or John. You can’t afford that right now. You have so much to do. Let me keep her just for a few more days.”
“What has that girl done to you?” Mommy interrupts. “I knew better than to leave her with you. She’s done something to make you think I am not a good mother and that you can take better care of her than I can.”
Mommy is upset, and getting more upset all the time. My grandma’s voice is quieter now. I think she is trying to calm Mommy down. It isn’t working. The two of them are coming down the hall. They are closer. Mommy is yelling really loud. I am scared but I’m safe in my grandma’s big bed.
They are near the room now. Grandma tells Mommy again to leave me here with her, but Mommy won’t hear it. They argue as they come in the doorway. They argue by the closet door. They are passing by the end of the bed. Mommy stops and looks over at me. She sees the diapers. Now she is very mad. Her face is red. I watch her eyes change. But she turns next to scream at my grandma who has moved over to stand by the windows. My mother goes there and yells at her.
“Why is my daughter back in diapers? And you gave her a bottle? How could you go out and buy her diapers and a bottle? A BOTTLE? You know she’s been without a bottle for months!”
“But I wanted her to be comfortable,” Grandma is saying in defense of herself and of me. “And I didn’t buy them. I asked Aunt Carolyn to bring them. Linda’s been too sick to go out of the house, and she needed to drink liquids. She’s been too sick to even sit up. It was all she could do to hold onto that bottle.”
I don’t like them to yell. I don’t want Mommy mad at Grandma the way she gets mad at me. I’ve never seen Mommy and Grandma fight. I’ve never seen Grandma upset. That scares me.
“She has only been back in diapers for a few days, Mildred,” Grandma tells Mommy. “She’s very sick and I thought it would be best. There wasn’t anything else I could do. Just leave her be, and before you know it she will be better and you can take her home with you. I promise. I’m not going to keep her.”
“You are darn right you are not going to keep her!” Mommy screams. “You have ruined all of my hard work, Mother. I worked and worked to get Linda out of diapers before this baby came. And believe me it was hard work. Linda is very stubborn. Now I have to start all over again, and I have two babies in diapers. Only Linda isn’t a baby. She’s a big girl and she knows it. She just wants to be a baby again because she’s jealous. She wants to be a baby again to get attention. I’ll show her what kind of attention this will get her.”
I see them by the windows in the sunshine yelling and shouting. I don’t want to be here. I want to disappear. I want to vanish into this soft bed so no one can ever find me. I don’t want Mommy to touch me. I shrink away as she comes over to the bed.
“Get up right this minute!” Mommy reaches across the bed and grabs me by my arm. “Get out of this bed. You are a big girl. You made my mother think you are a baby, but I know better. You are a very bad girl. You are jealous of your baby sister. Jealous.”
She is pulling me to the side of the bed. My tummy hurts. Now my arm hurts. I want to stay here with Grandma. She is very nice to me. Grandma doesn’t get mad at me. Mommy picks me up and stands my feet on the floor.
“Look at you in those diapers.. Don’t you look like something? You look ridiculous. You should be ashamed of yourself. Now come with me. You’re going home where you belong.”
I didn’t get to say goodbye to Grandma. She is standing by the windows in the sunshine saying, “Mildred, you are being silly. There’s no reason for this. Linda was a good girl and she gave me no trouble. I enjoyed having her here.”
“I know you did, Mother. That is the problem. Linda is my daughter, not yours. I will not have you meddling in my life. I will take care of Linda the way I see fit. I should have found somebody else to take care of her while I was in the hospital like I did Johnny. I should have known better than to leave her with you.”
Mommy stomps down the long curved hallway, past Grandma’s big kitchen, past the dining room, through the living room, out the front door and down the sidewalk to the car. I have to run very fast to keep up with her. She is pulling me along by my arm. Daddy is waiting in the front seat. He has a bundled blanket in his arms that must be my new baby sister, Cindy. I can’t see her.
Mommy opens the back door and heaves me into the back seat by my arm, throwing the bag with my things in it past my head. It lands on the seat beside me and next to Johnny. I am so happy to see my brother but he isn’t smiling. Maybe he knows I am sick. Daddy doesn’t look at me. I still have nothing on but my diapers.
Any skeptic would rightfully ask how a child not yet two could have a vivid memory, let alone record in their minds any dialog being spoken. True to form, I did not live through this memory just one single time as a child. It was repeated to me again and again and again over the many years of my childhood from the day it first happened, forward.
Mother’s retelling of this story was always determined by who she was maddest at. If she was mad at her mother, it was the fact that Grandma knew so much better how to raise me that mattered. It was that Grandma could have had more children of her own if she had wanted them so much, and that mother certainly was not going to sit by and let her mother take any one of her children away from her or tell her how to raise them.
But usually mother was mad at me when this event was retold. Mad that I contrived a way to manipulate my naïve and innocent grandmother into feeling sorry for me so that I could get treated like a baby. That I had deceived my poor grandmother and convinced her that she could take better care of me than my own mother could, and that was a great humiliation to my mother.
This event consumed a central place in the litany that was being born and growing alongside me, that followed me throughout my childhood. This event proved that I wanted to be an only child, to be the center of attention, to be waited on hand and foot, to be pampered and spoiled, to be treated like I was the queen of the household. It proved that I wanted to remain a baby and never grow up and that I was jealous of my sister, Cindy.
“Do you think you could fool your grandmother into thinking that you are a well-behaved child? Your grandma doesn’t want you. She would see through you in no time at all.”
By then mother’s tirades would shift to the suggestion that I had both turned my grandmother against her own daughter and that I was so evil that I had no consideration for the feelings of anyone and that I had lied to my grandmother (as if I could force myself to have diarrhea, to have a stomach flu?)
The bigger problem you will see as my story unfolds is that my mother’s sheer madness made the same sense to me that it made to her because I had been immersed in it from the moment I was born. Mother’s twisted version of the facts of reality were so much a part of the fabric of my own brain and being, as she formed it and me, that I could never guess that it’s not quite possible for a not-yet-two-year-old to feign her own sickness complete with symptoms.
Even now, over 50 years later, I can feel myself saying, “Well, perhaps Grandma did go too far in giving me a bottle. She shouldn’t have done that. Mother was right.” Feeling on some deep and very old level both a creeping sense of shame of myself and a desire to defend and protect my dear grandma.
As I grew older I at least was able to keep separate the facts of an event as I knew them inside (even though I didn’t know that I knew them) from the facts as she insisted they were true. But nothing I could do ever brought my own reality into the foreground or focus. Whatever mother said is what always mattered.
I do remember being tiny and being in that bed because I did experience this as it happened. I remember the physical layout and the light through the French doors, with the almost puppet-like silhouettes of the two of them standing in the swirling dust motes as they fought over me. The words were all given to me over time — meshing, melting and melding in with the ones I was actually able to understand at the time.
If my mother had never come back to get me I would be different now, but I would have fine. My grandma adored me and my mother knew that. She’d no doubt known it since the first time my grandma laid eyes upon newborn me. My mother had done everything in her power to interfere with my grandma’s ability to spend time with me, only relinquishing her strangle hold when it suited her, so that grandma could baby sit all of us, either at her house or ours, whenever my mother and father had social occasions.
I will also say here that I know full well that my mother never transformed into a monster of a mother of her own free will. I believe something happened to my mother as a child, no doubt to a large extent through the demise she suffered at the hands of my grandmother when my mother was a newborn and after. (I will include some of my thoughts on this matter in the Appendix rather than recount my mother’s story in the midst of my own. This book is mine, not hers.)
The litany my mother created served as a sort of echo chamber over the years. As she reiterated my crimes she beat me for them, one after the other, again and again and again all the years of my childhood. They reverberated and grew larger and larger, amplified always under the umbrella of her twisted distortions and versions of the truth. My reality faded farther and farther into the distance until the light of me nearly went out completely. There was never room in my childhood for the both of us.
My memories that my mother chose to add to her litany were the ones I was never allowed to forget. But I did come out of my childhood with a few memories that were entirely my own as I lived them, I made them and I kept them. These few memories, not being a part of her litany, do not contain her distortions or her embellishment of facts. But because they have never changed or transformed over time, I now know they, too, are rooted in the PTSD I began to develop at my birth. They are trauma memories also, even though she found no way to actually jump into the middle and manipulate them. My interactions with my mother formed the brain I used to experience my childhood as it happened from the beginning, to remember it afterwards, and to tell it to you now.
It is the nature of trauma memories that they refuse to be integrated into an ordinary life. Even in the best of circumstances they need to be coaxed and loved into integration in a securely supportive environment of caring. Because I experienced so many traumas, I don’t have a whole fabric of a life that should have been all woven together into me. So the rest of the few memories that are mine have to be found using a flashlight or a searchlight as they hide in between gaping holes of darkness illuminated here and there by the flashbulb memories of trauma.