Through Any Given Door

3.23 Purgatory


1960s • La Habra ~ Mom rotated between Betty’s and Claudia’s, but their welcome mats finally wore out. Larry wouldn’t deal with living with her because she smoked and he didn’t want her smoking around their new baby. Carleen was the one who took her in when she had no place else to go. What with our mother’s pills and drinking, what with her depressions and self-pity, and what with her mood swings, hypochondria, carping and complaining, along with her constant lament of, “why doesn’t anyone love me,” she wasn’t easy to be around.

My mother bounced from job to job moving from town to town, working as a live-in cook and housekeeper for Catholic priests or the well-to-do. She stayed with Carleen when she was sick, jobless or homeless, recovering from some surgery, or once again having checked herself out of one of the mental asylums up and down the state. Whenever she stayed with us for any length, I ended up with another vomiting spell.

Camarillo Mental Hospital

Agnews State Hospital

She committed herself into Norwalk, Agnews, or Camarillo State Mental Hospital when she had no place else to stay, where someone would take care of her and she didn’t have to cope on her own. One day, I was maybe eleven, I went to the State Hospital in Norwalk with Carleen to pick up Mom. The asylum smelled sickly sweet, a mixture of the sharp odor of urine, the reek of cigarettes, and the burn of Lysol. It was a din. Some of the women on the ward were fighting, screaming, and crying, some were curled up on the floor, some were tied to their beds with leather restraints. They were taking a woman away who’d just eaten the lenses from her glasses and women were freaking out. Narrow single beds with thin gray mattress ticking on painted metal springs lined the dingy walls, a chair at the foot of each one. When it calmed down, vacant people remained, wailing and weeping, hunched over tables mechanically playing board games, sitting quietly, and rocking… just rocking. The weirdest thing was, some of the women looked normal. Maybe they were the ones who had too many choices on the outside which made them crazy, so they stayed on the inside where life seemed more sane.

Metropolitan State Hospital in Norwalk

My mother had problems, but she wasn’t insane; I couldn’t believe she checked herself in there on purpose. It scared me. It scared me for her, and it scared me for me, that I might end up like her in a place like that. I had nightmares about it. Carleen promised me I didn’t have to go back, that I didn’t have to go see her in there again.

Cathy, 7th grade 1961

More than once Carleen moved a hospital bed for Mom into my room. Propped up with her green, over-stuffed reading pillow, wearing her nightgown with matching dust jacket and her black-rimmed cat-eyed glasses, her glass of water and bottles of pills on the metal TV tray, she’d call me in and have me close the door behind me, making the room and my breathing tight and small. The room had a sickly sweet smell that reminded me of ether, making everything even worse.

The final time I had to perch by her side I sat in a hard-backed dining room chair, listening to her litany of complaints: how lonely and dreadful her life was, how she hadn’t done anything wrong to any of us, how come I didn’t love her and why did I desert her? I retreated in tears from that room of moans and sighs, thinking that somehow it must be my fault. Carleen caught me in the hall and asked me what Mom said. When I told her, she charged in and told Mom that was it, she had to leave. She could still come and visit, she just couldn’t stay. When Mom took me aside and cried, “You don’t want to live here anymore, you come live with me,” that’s when Chuck put his foot down; she was no longer welcome, period. I didn’t see much of her after that.

to be continued…

© 2018. Catherine Sevenau.
All rights reserved.

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  1. Nancy Gillespie says

    There’s a concept I like that says some of the most accomplished people started out with more challenges than others – compared it to a bow and arrow…. the farther back the challenges pulled them when they were young, the farther they went in life when released…

  2. Kandace Head says

    Dear Catherine,
    I found your blog posts while searching for vintage photos of my former schools on Google Images. I attended Sierra Vista Elementary during the mid-1990s and was told that the carpeting and ceiling tiles in the classrooms had not changed since the school was first built (it must have been brand new when you were in Mr. Powell’s 5th grade class). One year when I was in fourth grade, we had a monster storm and the hard rain leaked through the roof of my classroom, creating a large spot on the ceiling (my classroom wasn’t the only one to have that happen; practically every classroom ceiling had at least one major water stain). Do you happen to remember the room number of your 5th grade classroom? During my time at Sierra Vista, the teachers would team up in pairs, and we would switch classrooms for science and social studies. The rooms in which I attended class were #3, 9, 15, 16, and 19 (assuming the numbers remained the same all those years later).

  3. Catherine, it is truly hard to imagine a mother like yours. It breaks my heart! Usually, most families have some difficulties, but having such a dysfunctional Mother is so disturbing. So very glad you survived the trauma and came out of this experience a loving, kind, resourceful and beautiful woman, mother and grandmother!

  4. Gordon Clemens says

    We did not know our mother was mentally ill, we just thought “that is the way it is” and had no understanding of why. Our dad was stable but he could not understand her either. He tried, but when mom sued for divorce, his business failed and he went bankrupt and all stability in our family was gone. I was no longer living at home and was entirely self supporting after leaving home the day I graduated from high school. I never had mom stay overnight in my home, not even one time. It never occurred to Marian or I to invite her as we never had an extra bed and, we did not enjoy her company. Frankly, we did not think she was mentally ill, even though she had all symptoms of personality disorder and bipolar. None of her five children were sad when she died.

  5. Bonnie Brantley says

    It is amazing what people go through and still come out on top! You have done well, Catherine!