Granny Paintbrush – My Mom
By Suzy Barile
Back in the late 60s and early 70s, depression wasn’t acknowledged or talked about, and seldom was it treated. That is when my mother became depressed.
By today’s standards, she had every right to be. Her favorite aunt died of cancer in January, and less than a month later, both parents died unexpectedly within three days of one another. She was left with a loving-but-domineering uncle, a mentally and physically handicapped sister, seven children ranging in age from 18-months to sixteen, and a lot of regrets.
That amount of loss and stress is enough to push anyone over the edge, but instead of an understanding of her losses, she was expected to behave like nothing unusual had happened. Life went on, and she should too. And she did, for the most part. She got us up and to school, to soccer practices and baseball games, to scout meetings and doctor appointments. Laundry was done, meals prepared, diapers changed, and hugs given. As normal as it seemed, all was not well, for my mom lost her faith in God.
Here’s how it happened. The day my grandmother died, I arrived home from school to find my dad there and upstairs in their bedroom. What’s going on, I asked. What Mom said next is one of the two phrases I hear when I conjure up her voice in my head: “Oh, Suzy, the most horrible thing in the world has happened. Granny has died.”
On top of that, her father, my Poppee, had been hospitalized, collapsing shortly after his wife was taken by ambulance to the hospital. Dad took Mom and my 10-year-old brother to the airport and called for his parents to come down from New York to help with the rest of us. A U.S. Navy officer working at the Pentagon, he was expected to be at work, no matter the problems at home. Today’s military is so much more family friendly.
Two days later, Poppee died after acknowledging that he knew his wife was gone by marking his name with an X on an official document. Dad got down there, and first one funeral, then the other, was held. Mom did for her sister what her parents had always told her to do: Packed her bags and took her to McClenny, the state hospital where she’d find lots of activities to keep her handicapped mind and body busy. Some legal work was taken care of and then they were home. Life was moving on, or so it seemed.
From the first call that my Granny had been hospitalized, Mom kicked herself: she’d not gone to Florida for Aunt Pat’s funeral, and by not attending and taking my baby sister Pattie with her, Granny and Poppee didn’t have a chance to see the youngest child one last time. Over the course of what by then was Dad’s nearly 20-year Naval career, Mom had often felt like an awful daughter for living so far away from her parents, and what she considered a lapse in judgment simply added to that guilty load. Then there was the matter of dealing with Uncle Tyn, who was embarrassed that a niece of his would become a ward of the state. He promptly ignored his sister’s and Mom’s wishes and moved my Auntnie into a group home where, we later learned, she did little all day but read and watch television. It was such an awful situation that even packages we sent didn’t always get to her.
When school got out in June, Dad took all of us to Orlando so Mom could clean out her childhood home. Although we’d visited for at least a week every year, none of us could envision what was in store. Built in 1896 as a wedding gift for my great-grandmother, it had been lived in continuously since then, and as I tell folks who marvel that I have so many family heirlooms, no one ever threw anything away. After two weeks of trying to determine what in a dresser drawer was worth saving and what was not, Mom called in an estate firm run by two women my sister Ellie and I called “the vultures.” They arrived each morning at 8 and rummaged through closets and drawers and cupboards, selecting what they deemed valuable and could be sold. What they really did was to take Mom for a ride, as they offered her pennies for what they later sold for dollars.
During the two months we stayed in Orlando, Pattie was potty trained, friends of my grandparents came and took us places so Mom could have a break from sorting, childcare and sister-care, and Uncle Tyn stayed as close as he could to make certain nothing of even slight value was overlooked. Dad had already said we couldn’t take a lot back home with us, so I cannot imagine being my Mom during those weeks as she watched furnishings and belongings she’d known since the day she was born vanish into the vultures’ van.
The days leading up to the sale of the property brought no relief, either, for it was a sale that promised this grand house on a street once called “Honeymoon Row” because of the many newlyweds living there would be torn down to make way for condominiums. I remember Mom telling me once that my Granny had never liked the house because it wasn’t “hers.” It was the home of her mother-in-law and had been decorated long before she and Poppee married. None of the home’s touches were hers. Nevertheless, knowing the house would be no more was painfully sad.
Back in Vienna, a northern Virginia suburb of Washington, DC, the next school year began, then I graduated and went off to college, and slowly Mom quit going to church. No more look-alike Easter and Christmas dresses specially embroidered or with smocking for me and my sisters; no more cramming all seven of us kids into the blue VW bug for the ride to church – the four older on the back seat and the three younger ones in the “way back.” This, of course, was long before mandatory seatbelt laws. It was frightening to hear the woman who had made certain that as babies we all were baptized suddenly cry out, “If there is a God, how could he do this to me?”
Once in college, I made it home on school breaks. But by then I was in a world that revolved around me, even opting to remain in Chapel Hill to work the summer between junior and senior year. I wasn’t privy to what was happening to my Mom – not until I'd graduated and was on my own and she called one night in spring of 1979. I was hosting a going-away party for a friend and Mom heard partying in the background. She told me to have fun. But when she called back the next day, she heartbreakingly told me my Dad had left her. She hadn’t told me the night before because she didn’t want to ruin my party.
Suffice it to say the next few years were difficult for her. At 52, she was past being able to get a newspaper job. She tackled real estate, but sold little and hated it. She worked in the media center at NC State’s D.H. Hill Library, but it was the night shift and she hated walking to her car alone at 10 p.m. She was a substitute teacher at Cary High, which was probably her saving grace, for she was loved by the students and she loved them. When offered an assistant’s position in the Trainable Mentally Handicapped classroom, she was thrilled to be working daily with a classroom full of appreciative students.
To supplement her income, on the weekends she turned into Granny Paintbrush, a clown who made balloon animals at children’s birthday parties and at the twice-monthly Family Day at Pizza Inn. As at the high school, she was in her element -- working with children, something she’d loved as a troop leader when I was a Brownie and Junior Girl Scout, and a den mother when my brothers were in Boy Scouts.
As a mom, I often wished I’d had my mother’s creativity: she designed the embroidery and smocking on our childhood dresses, she could create anything we wanted atop a birthday cake – like “monk-monk,” the only teddy bear that looked like a monkey and was loved by my brother Donnie. She cooked a mean leg-of-lamb and sesame seed pork chops. She made her grandchildren feel special, like picking up Jen each Tuesday afternoon from school for what came to be known as “Tuesdays with Granny.” And she made each of her children believe they were the only one in her life.
In December 1990, when she was diagnosed with a glioblastoma multiforme – the fastest-growing and deadliest of brain tumors – she tore out its description from her encyclopedia to keep us from knowing its seriousness. She had the doctors tell us they’d removed “a neat little package” and she’d be back teaching the following fall. When we finally learned the truth after an awful weekend of setbacks – a weekend where those same doctors who lied to us for her told us to put her in a nursing home – I was the one who had to tell her we knew, that there was nothing more they could do. Then we waited.
Eleanor Hope Newell Maynard – the sports editor of her high school and junior college newspapers, a reporter for UNC’s The Daily Tar Heel, a UNC journalism grad and former reporter for The Raleigh Times and The Orlando Sentinel – gave up her dream of one day owning a small community newspaper to support a husband’s career, to raise seven children, and to “mother” many more.
Despite the unacknowledged and untreated depression that gripped her for many years, what we had inscribed on her marker said it all when she died April 29, 1991: “Granny Paintbrush – She left them laughing.”
Love and miss you, Mom.
Posted by Suzy Barile