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Strawberry Plains- death of a mother

At the death of my mom’s husband, my stepfather, I was eleven. My mother decided she now had time and room in her life for my sister Kimberly and I to live with her and no longer just visit on weekends when Elmer was working. So, we switched schools, moved from the apartment to a small trailer in Strawberry Plains off Flint Gap Rd. Kimberly and I each had our own rooms and my small bedroom was off the kitchen and separated by a bathroom. We lived on someone else’s farmland and had access to multiple acres of land to run and explore and we treated cows like giant pets.

Because my mom worked a lot of hours as a waitress and when not working was out partying to medicate her pain from losing a man she really loved very much, I was in charge. My great-grandmother, Mattie, was living with us because she had heart trouble and surgery and although she didn’t seem to be fragile at all must have been because she was dramatic with confrontation with my mom or my Aunt Dottie when she was staying with us and would often ring her hands and act as if her heart would fail her at any moment. She smelled like snuff. My mother was in the process of grooming me for a domestic life as she gave me and my sister $7 per week each and an extensive list of responsibilities that were inspected daily by my mom or my aunt and if they were not done to their satisfaction one dollar was promptly removed for that day. I actually enjoyed this and pursued doing all my chores to perfection so as to not lose that dollar. Meanwhile, because I left my school on the west side of town, a school full of wealthy and best dressed kids and entered a school out in the country where my claim to fame was being the new kid, I was instantly popular. The academic bar was not super high, so I was also the smart kid. I was given the job of class monitor over a class of 8 year olds. I always played cool games with them from 7:45 until 8:15 when the teacher arrived. I was his pet and loved by all the kids. I joined the band class of four students. Every day, I loved to play my flute and no one ever had to tell me that I needed to practice. Sometimes, my family members would say, "Give it a rest Cindy!" and I would for a little while. February 14th, 1976, I was up at 6AM and had all my valentine cards ready to go. I was showered, dressed and ready way ahead of schedule. Mom had not come home in the night, but that wasn’t that unusual. The phone rang and I answered. It was Pete. I knew Pete because he had been in law enforcement with my stepfather, Elmer. His voice sounded grave and flat and he said, “Cindy, I don’t want you to go to school today. Your mom’s been in a car accident and she’s in the hospital.” I was irritated and before I knew it, blurted out, “She’s dead isn’t she? Just tell me the truth.” Pete answered, “Just don’t go to school.” I went and woke up Kimberly and my grandmother was sitting in the living room rocking back and forth in the big black leather chair wringing her hands and whining, “Linda’s dead, I just know it. Linda’s dead.” There was a knock at the back door and there were two women and a man. The women had on long skirts with their hair up in buns and the man was in a suit and said they were from some church. I knew my mom never went to church, so I was irritated at their presence but I made a pot of coffee and began to make a batch of silver dollar pancakes for everyone. Everyone looked pretty lost and not sure what to do with themselves. Then dad arrived. He looked a little haggard and didn’t say a word. He got really huge trash bags and started cramming all my stuff in them. I got really angry and started screaming at him, “My mom needs me. I need to stay here for when she gets home.” while I fought to take my things out of the bags. I gave up the losing battle and my hot, wet tears of anger and sadness got cold as I ran out the front door and looked out over the cow pasture trying to calm the pain that was consuming my head and chest. To my surprise, my other grandmother, my dad’s mom, was waiting in the car. I watched my dad cram all the bags of our stuff into the trunk and back seat and then put me and Kimberly in the front seat smashed in between him and grandmother. After we pulled out on to the highway, my grandmother broke the silence. In a loud, irritated voice she said, “Just tell’em Steve!” Then my dad’s voice broke a little when he said, “Girls, your mom died in a car accident this morning.” It was then, the wailing screams began.

Through Story Exploration:

I seemed to write this story without any trouble as it has played over and over in my mind through the years. I have never really cried when I have told it, but I had a desire to have some level of emotion when I shared this story with the group. My mom died. I should be sad, I told myself. My mom's death was obvious to me, but through exploration with the group and my follow-up after, there was SO much more that I'd never seen. These are some of the lies I came to believe that day:

  • Adults make things worse, can't be trusted and are self-centered

  • If I can just work hard enough, maybe I will be loved, noticed, delighted in

  • Me having hopes and dreams is foolish

The Truth: You can tell from this story, there were tough times before and more to come. But this particular day, at the age of eleven, my entire life was shattered. What became clear in exploring this, was that my role in the story, at the age of eleven, before and after my mom's death was to keep the home we did have together. I have continued to live in that tension most of my life and haven't even known it. I still work hard to be simply noticed and valued. However, one critical thing I learned is about, 'Ambivalence'. It means when you want something really bad and don't all at the same time. At eleven, I so wanted to be 'seen'/noticed. The new, cool, smart kid at school and then, Valentine's day, 1976, became the girl with the mom who died. I did not want anyone to see me. I have continued to live in that bind and found with many others, they do too. We all want to be truly seen and are afraid of it too. Being in this group was a beautiful beginning for me to truly be seen again. This journey isn't as easy as hearing or saying, "Adults can be trusted or I am loved or my dreams do matter." and then you feel better. It's really about naming truth in the moments of everyday life.


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