94. White Walls and Flowered Curtains

94. White Walls and Flowered Curtains

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Matters


White Walls and Flowered Curtains

There’s no place like home except Grandma’s.

~Author Unknown

Iran across the dark wood floor, sliding in my stockinged feet. “Grampa! Grampa!” I said, throwing my arms around my grandfather’s legs. He picked me up and hugged me.

“How’s my Little Bertie?” he asked.

I buried my face in his shirt collar and held him tight, so tight it was hard for him to breathe.

That was the day my grandparents came to see me at the foster home where I was awaiting a stranger’s decision: Who would raise me?

I’ve been blessed by my grandparents. They saved me from an uncertain life with a mother who, while well-meaning, was ill-equipped to raise a child. My mother suffered her own demons, and offered me only uncertainty and chaos. She was young and single. She had no way to support me, so we lived with her parents (my grandparents).

Now, I try to imagine my mother’s life of dependence and anxiety. She had been “a little different” ever since she reached adolescence, but her behaviour grew more bizarre after my birth. My grandparents became protective. Instead of sleeping with my mother, I slept in a crib in their bedroom. This must have made my mother very unhappy, for she would come into the room while my grandparents slept and watch me.

Haunted by obsessive-compulsive disorder and postpartum depression, my mother was sad and restless. This was the sixties, a time when mental illness was misunderstood. My grandparents were alarmed by her outbursts of rage, as well as her odd habits and rituals, like checking the knife drawer and counting the knives. She would sleep long into the day, pacing the house at night and checking for locked doors. But while she endured a fractured life, she made plans.

We lived in a remote area with few neighbors. The closest town was an hour’s drive. My mother wanted to get away, so she took me, her only child. We often went for walks: down to the lake or through the forest. But this day was special because my mother had prepared for it in advance. On this warm June day, she retrieved the clothes she had hidden in the forest.

“We’re going on a big adventure, Bertie,” she said, squeezing my hand.

We walked through the forest, down the road and across the bridge. We walked so far that my short legs grew tired, and my mother had to pick me up and carry me. In those days, well-meaning railroaders were happy to stop a freight train for passengers, especially if a person looked in need. Soon, a noisy, giant train went by. My mother stood on her tiptoes and waved her arm in the air. The train’s brakes screamed. It slowed and finally stopped. Clutching me in her arms, my mother ran to catch up. She handed me up to a big, smelly man with a kind voice and scratchy face. I was frightened by the rumbling engine, but my mother was with me, so it was okay. Soon, we were half a province away.

I don’t remember what happened during those weeks on the lam. My memory skips ahead to the bars of a crib that felt like the bars of a prison. Through the bars, the walls were winter white, and the sun shone through flowered curtains that made shadowy patterns on the wall. I was wrapped in a mauve waffle blanket, and I rocked back and forth, sucking my thumb. There was no time. I had been there forever. Eventually, the bedroom door opened, and the Nice Lady walked in. She picked me up and brushed out the wrinkles in my little pink dress.

“You have visitors,” she said.

She carried me downstairs, and Grandma and Grandpa were standing by the door. Grandpa held me for a long time, and then I was passed to Grandma. But it was Grandpa I wanted, so he held me a while longer, then said, “We have to go.” He handed me to the Nice Lady and left quickly.

There are defining moments in our lives. I will always remember the relief I felt when my grandparents came to see me. And then I remember the betrayal when I learned they weren’t taking me home.

After that day, I stopped speaking. I sucked my thumb. I rocked myself back and forth in the crib. I watched the other children play, and they watched back. But like ants under a magnifying glass, they remained separate. At mealtime, the Nice Lady sat next to me and coaxed me to eat. At night, she put me to bed, and I slept.

When I did go home, I had forgotten the words I once knew and again spoke the baby talk that I had long outgrown. I suffered from nightmares that woke me screaming in the night. I was left with an indelible fear of being abandoned.

After they were finally allowed to take me home, my grandparents showered me with unconditional love. They seemed intent on making up for all the sadness that had befallen my young life. My grandfather was my constant companion in those early years: telling me stories, reading me books, and taking me on long walks where he would talk about his own childhood. My grandmother accepted the role of mother: taking me to doctors’ appointments, scrutinizing my report cards, and eventually helping me choose my wedding dress.

My mother never did receive the help she needed, and she has spent her life a lost soul, joining the community of mentally ill and terminally disenfranchised. I have not seen her in many years.

My grandparents were the best parents a kid could ask for. They saved me from a life I’m afraid to imagine, and they treated me like their own. Over the years, they endured much for my sake: a long custody battle and fears that I would be abducted in the dark of night. Over time, they mended my fears and replaced them with a sense of comfort and security that has lasted a lifetime. They are both gone now, but for their unconditional love and kindness, I will be forever grateful.

~Roberta Laurie

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