Friday, August 03, 2012

Country Roads, City Lights

Another unedited excerpt of Wrecking Ball

Country Roads, City Lights

My father grew up working class and poor in a small town in east Alabama, right on the Georgia line. His mother and far were primarily uneducated. Neither had even set foot inside a high school classroom. Like almost everyone else in that little town, my grandfather and grandmother worked inside a textile mill starting from a young age until they eventually retired. Few townspeople, certainly not my father's parents, understood why anyone would entertain the idea of leaving. This was the established way of life for many, much as subsistence farming had been the vocation of most before the mills were built.

Dad’s perseverance paid off. Though he was never more than an average student in public school, he was nevertheless the first person in his family to go to college. He chose to enroll at the University of Alabama, rather than Auburn University, which was located only a few miles from the place of his birth. Alabama was considered a school of higher prestige, having trained many of the state’s lawyers, politicians, and notable persons. Auburn, once called Alabama Polytechnic Institute, was the ag school and considered something of a cow college.

A couple years after graduation, my father met and then married my mother. Mom, nineteen at the time, was taking classes at Auburn, but then transferred to Alabama. Two years later, she would receive her own degree. Dad thought of himself on some level as a working class kid made good, but my mother had been raised to think very differently. Her family lived a blue collar life as well, but her parents held strong intellectual and cultural pretenses. They desperately wanted a middle class life for themselves and conducted themselves accordingly.

After five years of living without children, the decision was made to have me. My two sisters followed. Before long, car trips to visit my grandparents were scheduled with frequency. Mom and Dad were very democratic about it. One week they’d visit my father’s parents, the week after that, they’d visit my mother’s folks.

The trips to see my father’s family were the worst. These exercises in culture shock occurred with regularity for a while, always on Saturdays. I remember the long drive down, mostly on four lane highways with red lights. Immediately after exiting the car, dodging fire ant beds and the dusty red clay, I was confronted with an opposing culture that I could not and never would really understand. It challenged the middle class suburban outlook to which I’d been accustomed, a more urban perspective where southern accents were milder and opinions far less regional.

My cousins thought we were rich, which I found incredible. Their interests were incomprehensible, at best. They supported NASCAR, talked incessantly about automobile repair, and openly speculated about favored stock car drivers and races yet to come. Phrases like out yonder and over yonder were used in conversation, archaic English that was centuries out of date. The usage underscored the undeniable fact that we might as well have been speaking a different language.

My aunt displayed a black velvet painting of Elvis on the wall of a room adjacent to the screened in back porch. This was the living room where one of two televisions sat, though it had once been a bedroom. My aunt and cousins chain-smoked cigarettes and, took several breaks throughout our visit to attend to their addictions. Because of a substandard diet and lack of emphasis upon regular exercise, my cousins were several pounds overweight and always looked somewhat ill.
Sometimes, but not always, my grandparents fought. They were both on their second marriage. The first marriage for each had produced a child and very frosty divorce. My grandmother destroyed all of the pictures in her possession of her first husband. My grandfather never talked of his first wife. Dad has a half-sister who shares with him the same biological father, but she has never appeared to desire a relationship with him. She and he have never met in person and, over sixty years later, and I doubt they ever will.

Matrimony, the second time around, was not without its own problems. I must admit I often wondered why the two of them had stayed together as long as they had. Dad wasn't really allowed to be a child; he was too busy playing referee between two warring parents. On occasion, his mother left the family for days on end. She'd browbeat my father upon her return. I only came back because of you. For this reason, among others, my father held ambivalent feelings about her for the rest of her life.

Though this might be idle speculation, pathology seems present here. Alongside unstated emotional issues is co-dependency. The mental health problems in my father’s family, though always deflected by Dad, took the form of severe dysfunction, but not any diagnosed illness. No one would have thought to consult a specialist. Such things were simply not done, not in the rural South.

My mother’s father most likely had bipolar disorder. Though never medically pronounced as such, he showed all the classic symptoms, but lived in a time where men were too ashamed to admit to mental illness. When he could work, he worked hard out in the fields, drilling water wells. In many out of the way places, often in rural settings, wells were the only source of potable water. They were especially irreplaceable in situations where city water systems did not reach his customers.

When he could not work, my grandfather took to bed, whereupon my grandmother took over running the business until he resurfaced. That was a silent agreement never to be vocalized publicly. My mother's family kept secrets, and that was one of them.

My grandfather took many of them to the grave. It is evident that his life had not been easy. His first wife committed suicide. He had the misfortune of having to discover her body. I didn’t learn this story until I well into adulthood, years after his death. A shared history of psychiatric disorders, whether expressed or unexpressed, can attract and hold two people together. Indeed, here are at least two instances where illness has been unifying, the adhesive. But, as is also plain to see, illness can also complicate matters considerably.  

My mother’s mother had been born into Depression-era adversity, a difficult life made even more hardscrabble because of her own mother’s emotional storms. Probably schizophrenic, the unfortunate woman was eventually shipped away to an insane asylum. This event occurred when my grandmother was very young, still a child. And, in all of twenty years, I heard my Grandmother speak about her own mother only once. She was only mentioned in the context of my own illness. Grandmother always felt guilty that her genes had contributed to my bipolar disorder.

As the story goes, my great-grandmother, in a suicide attempt, had tried to drown herself in a water tank. The tank was located outside on the family property. A servant fished her out. She was barely alive when discovered. Her condition sadly deteriorated further from there, requiring additional methods of treatment. My great-grandmother lived out the rest of her days in the asylum. In those days, the medications that could have adequately regulated her condition had not yet been discovered.

Considered a shameful secret, my great-grandmother’s story was never to be spoken of for any reason. Families who keep mental illness under lock and key are part of my motivation for writing this book. Secretive attitudes have frustrated treatment, or driven those with psychiatric conditions to resort to self-medication. Though today’s prescription drugs are not perfect, it is possible for many people to live near-to-normal lives. I am an example of that.

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