Where is my Mother? | Part 1 of 3

by Elouise

A Note to Mother
I still wonder where you were when I needed an advocate, a safe listening ear, a cheerleader and a comforter.  I also wonder why you thought I would be able to deal with my father without any help from you.

Since you’re not here anymore, I’ve decided to write down bits and pieces of my history in our family, including what I know you were doing and where you were at certain times in my life.  Maybe I’ll come across some clues, a pattern, a way of seeing you that’s new.  Something that will help me appreciate you and better understand myself.

My Birth—Your memory, not mine, so I’ve written it in your voice.  Most of it. 
It’s November 1943, about 14 months after our wedding. Your father and I are  preparing to be missionaries.  We live in a communal mission home on the East Coast. Your father is in a tuberculosis sanatorium on complete bed rest. For the last 6 months I’ve taken the bus to visit him once a week for about an hour. He won’t be released from the sanatorium for 11 more months. By then you’ll be about 10 months old.

My routine at the house includes required group prayer meetings each morning, helping with daily cooking and kitchen clean-up for residents and visitors to the house, sewing clothes for myself and you, and setting up a nursery section in the bedroom you’ll share with us.

When I felt labor pains beginning I walked to the hospital several blocks away, admitted myself, went through a difficult delivery, and was kept in the hospital for ten days. While there, I became distressed because you refused to take my breast-milk.*  A nurse gave you a drop or two of phenobarbital which seems to have solved the problem.

*Years later, as my mother tells me this she tears up and says she felt I was rejecting her.

Red Boots and New Mittens
It’s the mid-1940s, Christmas. I’m 3 or 4 years old.
I live with my family in another communal mission house.
This one is on the Northwest Coast.
I now have one younger sister.
I open my Christmas presents.
Bright red rubber rain boots!
Also some new mittens.
They’re nice, but not as impressive as the rain boots.

It’s snowing!
I don’t remember seeing snow before.
My sister and I walk to a nearby park to play in the snow.
Mother stays in the house.
One of our ‘aunties’ goes with us.
She lives in the house, too.
So do some other people with children.
I’m proudly wearing my new rain boots and mittens.

We make a snowman and throw snowballs at each other.
I’m disappointed because they don’t stick together very well.
We get cold and wet and walk home.
My mittens are soaking.
When I take them off, bits of the yarn stick to my hands.
I’m not so very happy anymore.
I’m shivering with cold and I can’t stand the mess on my hands.

I don’t know why my mother didn’t go with us.
She was probably resting.
She does that a lot.

It’s the late 1940s; I’m 4 or 5 years old. My younger sister and I now live in our 3rd communal mission home. There are 4 other families living there, too.  This house is on the Southwest Coast. There are a lot of missionaries and important mission people coming and going. It’s a very large house.

One day I go upstairs to our family’s private rooms. We have one large bedroom, one bathroom, and one porch that we use as a smaller bedroom for my sister and me.  I get to the top of the stairs. The hallway door opens into my parents’ bedroom. As I approach the door, I see it’s already slightly ajar. I put my hand out to push it open.

Suddenly I hear my mother crying and my father’s stern voice saying, “If you ever speak to me like that again, I’m going to turn you over my knees like one of the girls and give you a spanking!”

I can’t believe my ears. I’m frightened.  My father is treating my mother as though she were one of us! I don’t understand this at all.

Is this what it means to be married? I keep wishing I hadn’t heard anything. I try to tell myself it didn’t happen. But it did. Now I’m more afraid of my father than I was before.  I feel incredibly sad for my mother. Surely he didn’t mean it?

But I know he did. Nothing in his tone of voice said he was anything but in control and sure of himself—as usual. I quickly retreat from the door. I’ll come back later.

The Piano
I’m nearly 5 years old. We’re still in the same large mission home. If there were pianos in either of the first two communal homes, I don’t remember them. My mother is in the living room, playing the piano. I watch her hands intently. I want to play the piano just the way she does.

Mother plays the piano regularly for group meetings at the house. She also cooks, cleans, cans fruit and vegetables, bakes bread, makes cottage cheese, ferments sauerkraut in the cellar, washes clothes, hangs them out to dry, starches and irons them, works in the mission office in the house, and takes care of me and Daughter #2.  I almost forgot–she also makes our clothes and her own.

I keep asking Mother whether I can play the piano. One day she tells me I can go downstairs and play it for 5 minutes. I’m thrilled. I run down the stairs and sit on the piano bench.  My small hands begin mimicking the motions of my mother’s hands. It sounds gorgeous to me. From the kitchen one of the other women calls out, “Stop that banging right now!” I’m crushed, and run upstairs to my mother. “I was not banging on the piano!” She tells me maybe she can give me lessons someday.

We celebrate my 5th birthday in my parents’ bedroom. I’m sitting on their bed, opening my gifts. I open a rather impressive-looking gift.  It’s a small, bright red plastic baby grand piano! The keys are color-coded. It comes with an instruction book and real music to learn!  I can hardly believe my eyes! My mother says that when I can play on this piano she’ll give me more lessons on the big piano downstairs.

I work hard.  Several months later I ‘graduate’ to the big piano downstairs. I’m nearly 6 years old and now have two sisters. In one of my most wonderful memories I’m sitting on the big piano bench with my mother beside me, teaching me to play the piano. Just the way she plays it.

Three months later everything changed.

To be continued….  [Here’s a link to Part 2, and one to Part 3.]

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 12 February 2014