The little girl stood alone at the train depot. Her eyes cast downward. She noted the rough wooden planks. Self-consciously, her small hands ran across the placard around her neck. “EDNA THOMPSON.” Her name printed in bold black letters. Men and women hurried around her, ignoring the pleading look in her eyes. Her lips trembled as she fought back tears. Eventually, the passengers loaded suitcases and supplies onto wagons and into cars and vanished toward town. No one approached her, so she perched upon her suitcase, a small brown bird.
The train pulled noisily from the station, puffing steam and wailing its sad song. Moments after the last car rolled past, a station manager came from the ticket office, a broad smile on his face. He said nothing, just took the girl’s small, cold hand into his own and started to lead her into his office when a wagon turned the corner and approached the station. He paused, still holding the child’s hand, and smiled his greeting to the travel-worn couple.
"This package belong to you?” he asked lightly.
"Sure does,” the tired man nodded. “Had a wheel break. Sorry about being late. She cause any trouble?” He jerked his head toward the little girl.
"Not a sound out of her yet,” the station manager stiffened at the other man’s stern tone, but he still lifted the girl up into the wagon bed. “No trouble at all,” he continued.
"Good. Kid belongs to my cousin. Seems my cousin up and died a couple of weeks ago, and her husband can’t keep all the kids. Had eight, ya know,” he paused and looked back at the silent child. “Hope this bundle won’t be too much trouble. Doesn’t look like she’ll be much help on the farm, though.” He gave a quick whip of the reigns and his horse trotted off taking the little girl further away from everything she’d ever known.
One episode from Mom’s childhood that she revealed to us, her own children, when she was in her seventies, like it was a postscript attached to the end of a misplaced letter. I’d known that she spent nine years living with various foster care families. She’d told the stories of the Walkers treating her like a live-in maid and nanny.
I spent my childhood ironing sheets, Dad’s square military handkerchiefs, and table cloths because Mrs. Walker punished Mom for pressing the collar of her shirt on the dresser instead of using the ironing board. The punishment was ironing for the family of five until Mom turned seventeen and graduated from high school. She never wanted to touch an iron again, and somehow I thought it was the best household chore to have!
I knew of her eldest sister’s drowning followed a couple of months later with her mother’s illness and death. I knew the stories of Mom’s alcoholic father who lost custody of all the kids. I knew about one brother going off to war and deciding
was more home than the States. About the other brother who went off to war and was shot by the Germans, spending time in a German P.O.W. camp. England
I knew about her losses, and hurts, and insecurities not because she flaunted them, but because they snuck out when some other life event paralleled her childhood.
Unhappy childhoods cast shadows into adult lives. Mom felt lonely and frightened most of her youth. She didn’t understand why her father couldn’t stop drinking and bring her home. Shyness and insecurity became ingrained into Mom’s personality. She worked hard at being the nice neighbor, the mother who volunteered for every school function, and the wife who had dinner on the table fifteen minutes after Dad crossed the threshold. She became the perfect mother for the three of us kids.
With every ounce of her energy, Mom gave us children the childhood she never had. She never took off to visit her family without taking all of us with her. When we moved from state to state, or base to base, she made certain our bedrooms moved with us. We each had our own furniture and decorations that allowed us to feel at home even after a move. If one of us needed something for school or an extracurricular activity, she did without. For years she had enough clothes to get her through the week—one nice dress, a winter coat, and one pair of shoes.
Her mission to provide for us a safe and secure home focused us as a family. When Dad left for war, potential trauma and conflict became minimized because she provided us a home filled with love and laughter. Any tears she cried, she did behind closed doors and away from us. We never sensed her loneliness, fear, or insecurity because she put our needs ahead of her own.
Many friends and neighbors worried about how Mom would survive after Dad’s sudden death. She’s seemed a shadow cast by my ebullient father. Yet we, her children, knew the steel hidden beneath her gentle nature, and none of us doubted her resilience. When she decided to move back to San Antonio, rent her own place, and decorate it to her tastes, we weren’t surprised by her independence.
Today, at eighty-one, Mom fights another hardship—Huntington’s Disease. She’s a first generation carrier of the disease, with an unusually late onset. Nothing about her illness has been text book, but everything about it is heartbreaking. Mom’s years of calm acceptance of life’s tragedies trained her for the strain of her present days. Huntington’s Disease affects all aspects of a person’s life. For Mom, her cognitive functioning remains clear and strong—allowing her to enjoy the irony in The Daily Show and admire the boldness of The Colbert Report. If she’s not stressed and has her anxiety under control, she’s able to enjoy her daily routine.
That routine, though, gradually constricts and confines. Feeling unbalanced and “askew” when moving, Mom slowly restricted her environment. Mom raised us to be true to ourselves; and her dancing movements caused by chorea didn’t keep us from eating out, going on vacations, or embracing public activities other HD sufferers avoid. After two years in an assisted living facility, we decided to move Mom into our home. She’d slid slowly from utilizing a walker for long distances to shuffling around her small apartment with her walker, but falling frequently. When she moved in with us five months ago, she could manage getting out of bed, to her wheelchair, and into her bathroom on her own. Now she needs assistance with all three of those areas.
Huntington's Disease has no cure and minimal treatments. Mercifully, Mom’s severe anxiety attacks disappeared a few months ago. Her short and long term memory remain intact, too. Her body, though, betrays her. The chorea that pulled her arms, legs, and torso like a puppeteer controlling a marionette no longer plagues her. Instead, rigidity slips into her life. Her muscles resist movement, and positioning her reminds me of moving a life sized Barbie doll. Already, speaking challenges her, so we’re learning to phrase our conversations to where she can respond with short phrases. Eventually, all of her muscles will refuse to move.
We measure our future in months now, but we know eventually we’ll count the days or hours. Fortunately, I picked up some of the pragmatism that flows through Mom’s veins. The challenges that remain before us are just another part of life’s adventures. At least this time, Mom won’t stand alone.
Copyright 2011 Elizabeth Abrams Chapman