Beginnings and Endings

Clemens siblings, Sonora, California, 1950 Carleen, Claudia, Cathy in middle, Betty, Larry

Clemens siblings, Sonora, California, 1950
Carleen, Claudia, Cathy in middle, Betty, Larry

December 1952, Sonora, California
Carleen snapped at us. “For the umpteenth time, I don’t know why she left, when we’ll see her again, or where she went, and no, I don’t know if she’s coming back. Now don’t ask any more questions!” Mom was gone, and this time, Carleen knew she wasn’t coming back. My sister was in charge now and there was no need to discuss it further.

The first time our mother left was in April of 1950, before I was two. Claudia was seven years older than I was, so that made her eight; Betty was ten, Carleen was fifteen, and Larry sixteen.

Our lives continued. Spring faded. Summer passed. Fall blew into winter. Mom once returned for a week, wept the whole time she was home, then fled again. She came back a few times more, but knew she couldn’t live a life she didn’t want. She told Larry she didn’t know what to do, that she’d go crazy if she didn’t get away, that she had to leave.

our mother, Noreen Clemens

our mother, Noreen Clemens

A lot happened in the family during that time; Daddy could no longer hold his head up in town, kids were told not to play with my sisters, and people whispered. Some of it had to do with sex, the very thing my father couldn’t tolerate, especially when it had to do with anyone in the family.

Finally, in 1952, packing what she could carry in two suitcases, she left for good. Mothers didn’t run away in those days—except ours did—and Betty never forgave her.

Even though she hated Mom, Betty was miserable without her. She didn’t want to go to school and constantly complained that her throat hurt, so after several weeks of too many absences, Daddy decided she needed her tonsils out. When summer arrived, it was time.

Carleen woke us up on Tuesday and told us to get dressed. That day, Claudia was signed up for a novice tennis tournament sponsored by the recreation department. Carleen told her she wasn’t going to be able to play, we were going somewhere with Daddy. She didn’t tell us where. When we drove up to the Columbia Way Hospital, Daddy was waiting at the entrance. He informed us we were having our tonsils taken out.

“Since Betty needs hers out, you two might as well have yours removed, too.”

“Who’s first?” The nurse asked.

Betty and Claudia glanced at each other, then in unison pointed to me. My not quite four-year-old body was packed up and carried howling down the short corridor, my sisters listening to my screams. My wailing was muffled as I was strapped to the bed, then silent from the metal cone of ether held over my face. Claudia was next.

When we all came to, we were told not to throw up or cough because we could bleed to death, as if we had a choice about not throwing up. Of course we all threw up, and did so for days afterwards, sick from the ether, certain we were going to die and wishing we would. It took me the longest to recover.

That was the beginning of my several hospital stays, and the end of Claudia’s tennis career.

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  1. Susan Price says:

    I really want to read this book, Cathy. So many family secrets… my 90 year old mother is now talking about how cruelly stern and unbending her father was (my beloved grandpa). The oldest daughter, my aunt, was often depressed and had to have shock therapy which meant my mom flew back to Chicago to take care of her 5 kids…. she died in her 60s. The neurosis get passed on from generation to generation… yet some are resilient…

    • As my teacher Michael Naumer said, “What you hide, you get to keep.” Because of my working with him, I was able to hold my past without feeling like a victim. I’m indebted to my writing teacher, Stephanie Moore; under her tutelage I was able to tell the story. And I thank my editors (there are a few) who tidy up my sentence structure, grammar, and confusing loose ends. Nearly everyone has a story (if they don’t, they’ve lived a pretty flat-lined life), and I know in telling mine it has helped others with theirs. Sprinkling healing fairy dust was not my intention, but it’s turned out to be a by-product. Shedding light on our past lessens the neuroses.

  2. I love what you said about passing the torch or turning it around, Catherine.
    My 82 yr. old sister just broke the ice and wrote to our gay nephew after decades of silent disapproval. It’s never too late!

  3. Debbie Albertson says:

    She created trauma in our family that trickles down to this day.

    • That she did Deb, however, it came before her. My mother picked up the torch from her mother, then passed it on down the line. It’s up to those in the family who have the sense to turn it around, to end the anger and angst we bear so righteously against one another. Unfortunately one or two missed the memo. We all have choices, and some prefer to be righteous rather than be in relationship. Then we get to die and carry it to our graves. I say, “How’s that working for you?” Nothing like being dead right.

  4. Tony D III says:

    You turned out great! Hope all is well.

    • Thanks Tony. It’s a puzzle to me as to why some of us end up one way, and others end up another. Maybe it’s genetic, or karma, or perhaps pre-ordained. I don’t know how to explain it.

  5. I feel like I want to give you a hug after this one. So honest, so painful…

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