Monday, March 23, 2015

Long lost letters

Memory is a funny thing. How do we remember some things and not others? I notice Riley remember things that I never expected, but then forget things that I think she would remember - like who her daycare provider was just a couple years ago. I think about my own memories from my childhood and wonder what Riley will remember when she gets older about her childhood. Will she remember our weekend road trips up north? Will she remember all the books she reads each night? Will she remember who her preschool friends were? Will she remember how she feels about her life at this age?

My understanding is that we don't have the ability to remember much before the age of 3, but turns out it isn't as simple as that. New studies show that kids actually do have the capacity, but at around age 7 our memories begin to fade - referred to as "childhood amnesia".

I think back to my earliest memories and find that they were a mix of good and bad. In fact, the earliest memory I can think of must have been when I was three or younger as I think my parents were still married, but not happily. I remember standing at their feet while they argued about my brother. I remember we were standing around a short, kid's height round table and I was looking up at these tall adult parents of mine yelling at each other.

1975 - year of the divorce

The memories grow after the divorce when I lived with my dad, but had weekend visits with my mom. I remember styling my dad's hair and thinking he looked like George Washington. I remember playing Crazy 8 and eating black olive pizza with my mom. I remember going to McDonald's on Fridays with my dad, but then making a request to change the day we did that because it sometimes made us miss parts of the Dukes of Hazard on TV. I remember my mom curling my hair and saying I looked like Shirley Temple. So many good memories with both my parents.

The reason I lived with my dad was because my mom had some mental health issues (think delusional disorder like schizophrenia). Most of the time my mom was just my mom to me and not someone who had irrational thinking, but I wasn't totally oblivious to it either. I knew something wasn't quite right. I remember one weekend having to be extra quiet on Sunday night when my dad was supposed too pick me up from her apartment only to never have him come. My mom knew I had Monday off of school and she wanted me one more day. Turns out my dad planned to have me stay at my mom's apartment, but she forgot that and didn't want to let me go. Another time my mom up and took me to see family in Missouri when my dad told her she couldn't do so. Yeah, she essentially kidnapped me for 2 weeks.

My dad started dating Ann (my step mom) around the time I was 6 or 7 (they dated for 6 months and married when I was 7 - in 1979). My mom didn't take well to this and I remember her screaming at my dad that she was still his wife. Things went downhill from there. She wasn't happy about this new woman in my dad's life and would come over all the time, call all the time... write letters. Eventually, a restraining order was put in place, and then a judge determined that it would be in my best interest to have no contact with my mom. My dad had some say in this, but wasn't really sure what was best and followed the court orders. It was during this time that my mom wrote me letters - usually everyday, sometimes twice a day. These letters were mostly kept from me so I had no idea of their scope. In high school, I found a suitcase of them and read them, but never went back to them as I didn't want to get caught for having snooped in the basement.

Dad and I with my step-mom

When Riley was a baby my dad gave me some of mom's letters that he found. I think they were actually in one of my step brother's attics as they had a fair amount of mildew. I knew these weren't the letters I had found in high school, but appreciated having them - mildew and all.

More time passed when I recently got a call from my sister-in-law sharing that she and her husband (another one of my step brother's) had found a box of my step mom's in their basement that they had been storing for her for many, many years. In it they found letters from my mom to me. LOTS of letters. I'm guessing there are about 400, but that might be conservative. My step mom was the one who intercepted these letters and stored them away. I have no idea why she didn't throw them away as I am certain she never planned to give them to me.

I've been reading the letters all week. At first I was hesitant, unsure how they would impact me. Would they be too depressing? Were they better left unread? Would I unearth something I didn't actually want to know? In the end it was good for me to read these. Yes they were depressing and at times disturbing. She accused my dad of some horrible things, she repeatedly mentioned that crimes we being committed against us and evilness was inflicted upon us, she begged my dad to let me see her, but it was perhaps the amount of letters that expressed how much pain she was in.  They did, however, confirm that my mom loved me an immense amount - it's not really something I doubted, but beside all the paranoia, that came through loud and clear with every letter.


Mom with my siblings. I have one like this with her, but could not find it anywhere. Makes me want to do one of these with Riley.

It makes me wonder what I would do if I was told I could no longer see my daughter. Would I lose it? Of course, my situation is different from my mom's. Just for background, my mom had a somewhat normal life (although grandma shared that mom was a little paranoid in high school) and then something flipped. I guessing it was carrying two babies to term only to have them die hours after birth. I think this was the trigger that set everything off and it just got worse as the years rolled on. So here's a woman who already lost two babies, one of her kids was pregnant at 17, another was in juvie and then prison, and then her youngest daughter is taken away from her. I guess I might flip a bit too if I were in her situation.

My mom and brother in 1962. I had a hard time finding many pictures of her as she
must have been behind the camera a lot (note to self: get in more pictures with Riley).

Luckily, I'm not. With all the crap I went through growing up I'm so grateful for the life I have now. I have the best husband and kid... and my dad has always been there for me. He's a huge part of me getting through those times and while I read those letters I thought how hard it must have been for him. My mom would make wild accusations against him and then turn around and tell him how much she loved him. What a life he's had.

Again, about 10 years before my time.

My sister, who is 12 years older than me, assured me that it really was best for me at that time to not see my mom, and in many ways these letters confirm that.  I'm not sure it was really the best decision for me to be kept completely from my mom, but I do believe it was a different time and there were likely a lack of resources. I asked my dad if anyone had suggested supervised visitation at the time and he didn't recall that as even an option. I do know that our family doctor at the time became involved - something my mother was not happy about, but something I appreciate. She spoke up multiple times to help me and to help my family. I actually looked her up, hoping I might find a way to contact her - to let her know that her outreach did make a difference in my life, but she passed away in 2008. I wonder if she knew how much her letters to the courts helped shape my life.

Visiting my brother at juvie 12/25/77

The thing is, mental illness is more prevalent than we probably care to think it is. My mom's case was a little more on the extreme case (she was committed to a medical facility at least a couple times), but many people fight mental illness and so many don't get the support they need. I'm guessing the resources back in the day were limited, but it's not like they weren't there. My mom refused most help given to her, but if she had been open to it I'm certain she would have been a wonderful mom. Between all the chaos was a woman who wanted the best for her family and loved them fiercely.

When I was 18 I saw my mom again. It had been about 11 years since I last saw her. Too long for sure, but by that time her life had changed. I didn't know it until later, but she was on medication. Actually, she didn't seem to know it either and when she found out she wasn't happy about it, but it allowed me to spend the last years of my mom's life with her without the chaos of our early years. When she passed away shortly before my 24th birthday I was sad, but also relieved that she didn't have to live in this world anymore. I don't know what happens after death, but I hope she's found the peace that she deserves.

This all seems like a lifetime ago. In some ways it's good to put it behind me so I can focus on the now, but it's always there. It helped shape me and for all those years I worried about my ability to one day be a good mother - I have no worries now. As far as I'm concerned, Riley has the best parents out there.

What ever Riley remembers when she gets older I feel confident that they will be good memories, not always perfect, but still good.


  1. Thank you for sharing. It's tragic and a beautiful story at the same time. So sorry for your loss of your mother both in death and during those years of trouble. But having those letters would be comforting to me. She obviously loved you very much she just couldn't express it, as she probably would've liked.

  2. I wonder what my son will remember as well. There is so much a remember as a child and there's so much I don't. Sometimes when my sisters and I get together we trigger memories for each other that the other forgot about. And it's so fun!


Love to see your comments.