Willa Louise

I was about 7 years old when my mom first disappeared. I have a vague memory of her not being at home and neither was my brother Jonathan.  He was sick and she was with him.  Then they were home, but she really wasn’t.  We lived in Wise, Virginia then.  That was when I first heard the words nervous breakdown. I had no idea what that meant.

My 10th birthday was celebrated in South Williamson. KY.  I’d just returned home from an unhappy trip with the Girl Scouts to camp. I remember I had a birthday cake that mom made and I also remember the terrible haircut I had and the ugly polyester pants that my grandmother would make me and my mom made me wear no matter how much I begged not to have to wear them. Sometime shortly after that my mom was in the hospital for a couple of weeks with blood clots in her legs. When she got home from the hospital, she was in her room in bed a lot.  I was always with my brothers, the three of us coming home from school together.  We weren’t in South Williamson long; we moved to Harlan, KY.

I remember the moving van packing us up then we were in a new house with the moving van being unpacked with just my mom and my brothers.  A nice teenager named Dinky Pollitte was there to help us and he was the one who told mom about Pennington’s Grocery that would deliver groceries to us if we called and placed an order.  Mom didn’t drive.  I remember how we looked forward to perhaps getting a box of Fiddle Faddle in our next cardboard box delivered by Butch Clem from Pennington’s. Dad was working and was having to stay day and night at Harlan ARH due to a UMWA strike going on.  A new co-worker of Dad’s, Jan White, would come every Sunday to pick us up and drive us to the hospital and across the picket line to visit with dad all afternoon.  We knew almost every inch of that nearly deserted hospital – we had fun times there.  Mom must have been with us on those Sundays, but I don’t remember.  I remember wheel chair races and getting ice cream. Dad suddenly was home one day when we returned home from school and I remember crying with joy when I saw him hunkered down in front of the TV changing channels.

Mom disappeared again sometime after that.  We were told she was in the hospital and we were not allowed to see her.  I have a very vague memory of being taken to the hospital one time to see her after a couple of weeks.  I can see this hospital corridor in my mind’s eye, but I can’t recall much else. I occasionally will wake up having a bad dream about discovering that mom is in a hospital having been there for years without any knowledge of it on my part, like she was hidden away there.   My brothers and I were once again taken to stay with our grandmother in Pike County, KY.  We hated going there, or at least I did.  I recall whispered conversations that contained the words nervous breakdown and sideways glances at the thre of us.  I was the oldest, so my brothers would have been under 10 years old.

Mom got better and started taking care of an elderly lady at her apartment as a private duty nurse.  Mom had the kindest, most gentle heart.  She became very attached to this lady, I believe her name was Georgia. Georgia eventually died. She gave my mom a chair before she died and I still have it to this day. Mom grieved over the loss and she once again was in bed sick every day when we went to school and every day when we came home from school.  I was about 15.  I was cooking dinner for us most evenings.  Tomato soup for mom in bed.  I have few memories of mom being up and about and being active with us much after that.   I do remember being picked up and driven to Southeast Community College to take the ACT test with my friends Stephen, Bucky and Sherri.  I must have been 16 and in my junior year of high school.  I remember mom standing at the kitchen sink crying.  I was getting ready to leave and I went over to her to ask what was wrong and I can only remember her saying that she felt useless since her children were growing up. I will always remember that and I will always remember that being a teenager on her way out the door to ride with her friends to take the ACT test I didn’t take the time to comfort her. Nor did I know how to.  I didn’t understand.

I got my driver’s license when I was about 16 ½.  Dad made me wait to take the test until he was sure I wasn’t going to kill myself or anyone else while driving.  We had a 1976 Ford LTD.  That was also when he added me as an authorized signer on his and mom’s checking account.  He did that so I could go to the A & P to get groceries each week.  I’d shop, write a check at the checkout lane and drive home.  If anyone at A & P blinked an eye at a 16-yr. old doing the family shopping and writing a check I wasn’t aware of it.  I wasn’t even questioned about the carton of cigarettes that I had in the cart along with a loaf of Salt Rising Bread and an Ann Page spiced bar cake that I hoped mom would eat since she liked both of those things.

September 24, 1980.  My 17th birthday. I’d just started my senior year of high school earlier in the month.  I remember wearing a purple shirt and I had my traditional home baked cake with a candle that mom made for us each year.  We always had a birthday cake.  I was sitting on the floor in front of the coffee table with the cake to blow out the big #17 candle. Two days later, I was sitting in Elizabeth Wilson’s English class looking out the window toward Ivy Hill where we lived. It was close to lunch time. I had the most overpowering feeling that I needed to go home.  I brushed those feelings aside.  We had less than an hour for lunch and I had no way of getting home.  It was too far to walk and get back to school in time.  I had no car.  I didn’t have anyone to ask to drive me home.  I pushed the thought aside.  3:00 was the end of school and my brothers and I walked home as we did every day unless we could catch a ride. We’d sit on the wall adjacent to the school for a few minutes hoping someone we knew would pass by and offer us a ride.  If not, we’d start walking and sometimes we’d get lucky and someone would stop while we were walking and offer a ride.  That day, there were no rides and we walked. It wasn’t a short walk and it was literally up hill.   The last street before getting to our house was a downhill stretch. My brothers would usually run down it faster than me and were ahead of me.  Our driveway was at an incline and we’d walk around the back to the patio to the back door.  Except that day we didn’t make it to the back door, at least I didn’t.  My brothers got there first.  Nearly 37 years later it is still a big blur.  Time seemed to stop yet it was racing.  Our mother was on the patio.  Bleeding.  There was a gun.  She was dead.  I stopped breathing for a second when I typed that just now.  Until that day I’d never known what a self-inflicted gunshot wound meant.


One thought on “Willa Louise

  1. Thank you for sharing. I, too, know what it’s like to live with a parent with mental illness. My father struggled with depression and alcohol much of his life and though he didn’t complete suicide, he spoke often to me about how he wanted to end his life. Imagine a young girl carrying that with her. It’s no wonder I have dedicated my professional career to treatment of mental illness. Your voice sharing the truth of what mental illness can do and the carnage it leaves behind is a gift to the world and I believe it is a good way to honor your mother’s memory. May you find healing in this forum. Big hugs. God Bless.


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