Did you hear that?
Yeah, the guy said
– Funny Girl, Barbara Streisand
story of a girl
Mom was born in 1943, the youngest of three girls. Her sisters were much older than her, already in their teens.
Apparently, most of her childhood–before age 13–was spent living at her grandmother’s, because her parents were ill and had (at the time) an unhappy marriage. It would have been the post-WWII years to early 1950s, and I’m told my grandpa was an alcoholic and my grandma was bipolar (in an era when neither diagnosis or treatment were up to par).
Once she told me she’d stopped my grandma in a suicide attempt. Another time, she remembers my grandma locking the door against grandpa raging drunkenly outside in the snow of an Idaho winter.
In grade school, mom once overheard a teacher call her a homely child, and thought of herself as ugly forever after.
At 13, my grandpa reactivated in the LDS church and gave up drinking and smoking. Mom says that’s when everything in her life improved, which is why I think she was always so dedicated to the church.
“Honey, you’re a funny girl,”
I just keep them in stitches
Doubled in half,
—Funny Girl, Barbara Streisand
who cried a river and drowned the whole world
She attended BYU and got a degree in Political Science. She had a brief fling with some boy and had to take sabbatical and live with one of her sisters after the breakup. The boy who remains nameless to me– I only know about him because I was in an abusive and toxic relationship from 19-20, and after it ended, mom confided in me about her BYU heartbreak. She said the heartache ends, and this too will pass, and even intelligent women end up in stupid relationships.
I wished she’d told me earlier, at the beginning of my own bad relationship. Or before it. I’d thought no-one in my family understood, and it turned out mom understood best of all.
She served an LDS mission in Germany, which awakened a lifelong curiosity about the Holocaust. Specifically, how the German people could have turned a blind eye to the atrocities happening in their midst. It was a question of deep importance to her. She knew they were good people, having lived among them and taught them, but she was disturbed by how many had confided, over the course of her mission, their sense of awareness that something was wrong. They’d known something was wrong and chosen to do nothing, to turn a blind eye, to deny the atrocities in their midst and not know, because inaction and complicity was easier and less dangerous than speaking out.
After returning home, she moved to Washington D.C, where she worked for a Senator and volunteered on the Nixon campaign. Mom was political and educated–a working woman in Washington DC in the 1960s, at one of our cultural apexes of the feminists and civil rights movements.
That was where she met my dad, who was going to law school.
And though I may be all wrong for a guy
I’m good enough for a laugh
I guess it’s not funny
Life is far from sunny
—Funny Girl, Barbara Streisand
she always looks so sad in photographs
They started dating when Dad asked her out while they were filling out invitations for some sort of formal dance. Mom smiled and accepted, very calmly and graciously, and put down the invitation to walk out in the hall and whoop for joy. She smoothed her hair and skirt and returned to the room where they were working on the invitations, unaware dad heard the entire thing.
She kept the dress she wore to that dance, their first date. It was a blue velvet empire waist with cap sleeves that she sewed herself, back in the 60s when women could still sew their own formal gowns to wear to things and it wasn’t guache. I used to wear it as a teenager sometimes, to church or when I was in the mood, or as part of a princess Halloween costume. I don’t know what happened to it after she died. I think my older sister probably has it. Maybe dad’s new wife donated it to Deseret Industries when she was cleaning out the house before they moved, unaware of the meaning behind it.
They married after a few months of dating, in an Autumn wedding, and moved to the West coast, where Dad moved from jobs between various small firms. They both indicate this was a stressful time, with egotistical small-business lawyers squabbling over how to run their small businesses into the ground and toxic work environments. Dad was concerned about how to support his growing family, as they had two children over five years.
He’s often cautioned me not to work for small-business owners, especially lawyers, telling me the easiest way to cut costs is when it comes to employees–benefits, pay, hours; and that bad business owners often take their stress out on their employees through negative management techniques and bullying/ blaming of their underlings. I wish I’d listened to the lessons he’d learned early and harsh.
Eventually he acquired a position as civilian lawyer with the military, and the family moved to Germany, where my older brother joined the the family. Two years later, I was born–fourth child. I understand there were miscarriages between my older sister and I.
As a teenager, I often joked about the sequence of our births to explain why each child was our parents’ favorite: My eldest brother is beloved, I said, because he was firstborn and first boy. My eldest sister, because she was the first girl. My other brother, because he was the son brought as a gift from god when they believed they were infertile and would never have another child. Me, because I am the miracle baby–the unexpected pregnancy they didn’t think could happen. My kid sister because she is the youngest, and everyone loves the baby of the family. Mom liked this accounting of events. (Or, when I was feeling salty, I ended the recitation on a subversion: And my little sister–well, she was an accident. Mom never laughed at this version).
When the laugh is over
And the joke’s on you,
A girl out a have a sense of humor
That’s the one thing you really need for sure
—Funny Girl, Barbara Streisand
but i absolutely love her when she smiles
Six months after I was born–after five years total in Germany–my family moved back to the US. They settled in the PNW, where my kid sister was born, and mom slid into post-partum depression.
Apparently, she had it after each pregnancy, a little worse each time. A little darker. A little longer, a little harder to shake. Apparently, she’d been advised not to get pregnant again, especially with her family history–a mom and a sister with bipolar.
She thought she escaped bipolar. Usually, people are diagnosed in their 20s. Mom was in her 40s when she was diagnosed. It was that final bout of PPD that was the trigger. After months of nonresponsive depression, dad took her to the hospital for ECT treatments, which worked, although it severely disordered her short-term memory. With her moods were stabilized, she began treatment.
Her background and family history strongly influenced her attitude toward treatment. Rejecting the diagnosis, or treatment, was never a risk with her. She absolutely shunned the anti-science stance that mental illness was a myth. She was also intelligent enough to realize that just because she did better while on medications, didn’t mean she was “cured”. She knew the difference between symptom management and curing an illness, and absolutely refused to entertain any notion of giving up on her meds because of temporarily manageable symptoms. She believed 100% in the model of medication management.
She was never the sort of person who bought into the folderal that mental illness was a personality flaw, or some sort of test from God–at least, not in the sense of punishment for current misdeeds. In the sense of, maybe, the God she believed in giving us a “bag” of difficulties to carry through this test of life, and her bag included mental illness, sure. She believed that–like a person might believe God gave them poor eyesight, or a bad leg, except God gave her bipolar. So she carried it with grace and goodwill and handled the burden as best she could, as she believed God intended her to. She did not believe the God she believed in wanted his children to suffer. She did believe he inspired scientists to create medicines and treatment for the illnesses to help people in need, so–to her mind–it was by God’s grace that treatment was even available, and it would be a denial of that grace to turn away from it.
Me, I was never able to reconcile the notion of a loving and omniscient/ all-powerful god with this existence of trauma, harm, and pain. To me, someone that knows about horrific circumstances in advance and is capable of preventing them is just as liable as the perpetrator–if, say, my friend were to send me a text saying, “I bought a semi-automatic and I am going to go shoot up a grocery store,” or my ex sent me a text saying, “Fuck you, you feminist, I’m going to rape the next feminist I see,” I do think I would be somewhat morally culpable for the crime if I did not attempt to prevent it in some manner, and I’m not all-powerful. God allegedly is. Ergo, it must logically follow that if God is actually omniscient/ all-knowing, then God knows criminal events and human tragedies prior to their occurrences (mass bombings, terror attacks, child rapes, and all the little heartaches and tragedies of our lives), then God must either not be all-loving or all-powerful (one of the two) because God is clearing opting not to prevent such situations. So it’s either choice (not all-loving) or inability (not all-powerful).
Clearly mom and I disagreed on that–but I love that my mom could find grace in her worldview. That she could reconcile science and god.
Even with treatment, bipolar is a dark disease. The symptoms are never fully eradicated. They’re handled. Managed. Not erased. When I was growing up, mom would sometimes be brimming with energy, a barely-contained mania simmering beneath the surface as she rushed to and fro, starting a thousand church and family projects. She sewed costumes at Halloween most years–sewed my sisters’ orchestra dresses, and our prom gowns. She was a talented seamstress. She was Relief Society president in our ward for a few years. She used to pack us into the car and go, “searching for sunshine,” on rainy days, which really meant just driving to Tacoma or Centralia or Seattle until we found a patch of blue in the sky, then getting out and walking around a park for a bit. She was afraid of taking us swimming; irrationally fearful of us drowning.
Other times, the entire house was a tomb, silent and still. The heart of the family would hide away in the musty darkness of her bedroom upstairs, lights off and curtains drawn, for weeks or even months at time. It happened more frequently during my later teen years, as the last of her children approached college age.
It’s strange to think my older siblings know a mom who isn’t bipolar. Who was never bipolar. I try to imagine that, and cannot. It doesn’t really matter, because even with the spectre of illness, she was a great mom–a truly amazing woman: Reliable, affectionate, supportive, intelligent, and wryly witty.
She championed education–always expecting us to attend college ourselves–and believed in our abilities. She liked to spend time with us one on one. She cultivated activities and hobbies with each kid, individual to them and their interests. She was sarcastic and self-deprecating and creative.
When I came to her in high school, and told her the bullying was too much–that I couldn’t bear it anymore, that it was breaking me; she listened. She agreed to my proposal for an accredited learning program through mail (yeah, it was the 90s, no online learning) for course credits, even though it meant I was essentially homeschooling and she’d have to oversee my self-directed learning; make sure I was actually doing my lessons, and we’d have to arrange proctors for my tests. Even though it meant having a kid at home most of the day, instead of in school.
I recognize the sacrifice of personal time now; I didn’t then.
She did require I attend my math classes at the high school, which is another cool thing about my mom. She recognized her own shortcomings, and refused to teach or oversee lessons for a subject she wasn’t trained to teach in. My parents were always teaching lessons like that: Don’t be afraid to admit when you can’t, don’t be afraid to ask for help.
She loved to read, and shared that love with me.
She loved old movies and musicals, and shared that with me, too.
She taught me to love history.
She taught me to open my eyes to injustice. To not be the German who closes my eyes when my Jewish neighbors disappear, one by one.
She was a stay-at-home mom and a devout mormon, but still managed–through her life–to teach the importance of feminism and activism.
She was the most beautiful woman in the world.
When you’re a funny girl
The fella said “A funny girl”
How it ain’t so funny,
—Funny Girl, Barbara Streisand
Now how many days in a year/ She woke up with hope/ But she only found tears
Mom loved Barbara Streisand, and the movie (and song) Funny Face. She related to them. I’m a 90s girl. I relate more to Absolutely (Story of a Girl), by Nine Days.