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Keeping Up Appearances, Part II

May 7, 2010

Continued from Monday’s post…Keeping Up Appearances

The chaos increased over time. Fast-forward to the late 60’s when my 17 year old mother moved out of her parents’ house and in with her grandmother. Jim Jr. was long gone, and the two were more like sisters and gal pals than grandmother and grand-daugther. Mom told me stories of how they would wash and iron their gloves every Saturday night, to be ready for church in the morning.

You never went out without a hat.

You kept your home in order at all times, lest a neighbor stop by and catch you with dust on your mantel.

It was perfect. They had a great time. My great-grandmother provided direction and stability for a young almost-woman whose own family was splitting apart at the seams. She taught my mother to cook and sew and clean and all the things that her haphazard mother had not. Or couldn’t.


One Sunday, the new preacher’s collegiate son came home from his freshman year at Pepperdine. He immediately spotted the green-eyed, quiet beauty with the chestnut hair on the back pew. He sat next to her and flirted. Showing off his muscles during church while his own father preached.

He asked her out.

When she told her parents, her own father told her “Don’t get your hopes up..” He didn’t mean to hurt her – he just didn’t want her to get hurt. A preacher’s kid. That would be step up for a family like theirs.

Not good enough. Not perfect.

But he was wrong and that boy DID want to marry a girl like her.

She tried to break it off, once.

The good news is, they were able to find the ring. After it was thrown into the street by a frustrated fiance.

She was sure she wasn’t good enough. But, he didn’t care that her family was less than perfect. He wanted her.


So they left California and all that behind and they started a life together in upstate New York and everything really was perfect. He went off to sea. But he came back in one piece. They had a baby boy. They moved to Virginia, he enrolled in Engineering school and they had a baby girl.

Her life was finally perfect.

She wouldn’t speak of her childhood much, only to say that it wasn’t perfect.

It was clear that she blamed all of the chaos of her childhood on what later claimed her life – a curse that Ernie passed along but never endured, having died too young – Huntington’s disease. For her, it was the explanation for everything – the excuse for why her mother behaved the way she did.


I think, for my mom, it sort of made it all ok – it wasn’t her mother who was selfish, and high-strong, and temperamental. It was the disease. Right?

I don’t know. I really don’t. I think her mother probably had issues long before Huntington’s began to take her mind and then her body. Her father died when she was an infant. Her mother was absent, by necessity, for much of her childhood. Her step-father was an alcoholic.

That’s enough to make you crazy, even without a mental illness to help things along.

But mom blamed it all on Huntington’s, and so Huntington’s became, for her, evil incarnate. The unspeakable evil.

When it became clear that she herself was falling victim, we weren’t allowed to bring it up. We could not speak of it. It was the unspoken, proverbial, elephant in the room.

At church, we sat silently, pretending all was well. We could not ask for prayer – oh no, we weren’t THOSE type of people. We prayed FOR others, not vice versa. We did not admit we needed prayer. We put on our pretty clothes and our happy faces, and we smiled and laughed and pretended for YEARS.

And she continued to decline. When her friends, wanting to reach out, wanting so much to support her, asked questions – she shut them out and pulled away. She begged my father to take her away, on trips, on vacations, anywhere but near the people who knew us. The people who knew.

He took her to Catalina, to Carmel. She begged to stay longer, and trying to make her happy, he would book her in a hotel, while he came down to stay with her on the weekends. Anywhere but home is where she wanted to be. Anywhere but where she would have to face what was happening.

I had graduated college by now, and coming home to this fantastical charade, I did the only thing I could do (so I thought). Control-freak that I am, I had to control something, so I controlled myself and I just stopped eating. Who has an appetite under those circumstances, any way?

She would show up at my office, demanding to see me. Embarrassed and appalled, I quickly ushered her outside. She was physically failing now, her balance compromised, the chorea pulling at her hands and arms and she flailed and gestured wildly. Uncontrollably. She was irrational and paranoid, imagining harm and malice in everyone around her.

She refused to quit driving (because of course there was nothing wrong with her). A friend, at our request, called the DMV who called her in for a driver’s exam and somehow she passed. I cannot know how she never hurt anyone else or herself those final years.

And the secret that wasn’t really a secret almost killed us all.

And right in the middle of all this my own little love story had begun to bloom. I looked down at my gaunt frame one day in the mirror, realizing what I had been doing to myself, and having in my back pocket the knowledge and reassurance of the unconditional and perfect love of this guy from Maine, I stopped starving myself and let that go.

It was still years before I was able to speak openly of the unspeakable evil. Years before I could talk about her decline. By now she had left my father and moved to Catalina permanently, seeking the shelter of an island just to get away from the truth.

I remember the first time I openly spoke of her illness at church. A whispered request for prayer and the floodgates cracked. I wept openly, torrentially, in front of God and everyone. I was mortified. Imperfect.

The kindness I received in return I will never forget. The sympathetic tears. A silent touch of empathy and I saw in their eyes that they felt my pain. They ached for our loss.

I’m daily learning how not to be perfect. Having kids sort of drives it out of you. There’s not enough time to be perfect! I still fall down, and I get back up again. My pride looms large and frightening and I hide my seemingly fatal flaws from public scrutiny, only to realize later that they were not so fatal, and not so invisible after all.

Those little voices of self-doubt come back every once in a while. Now when they whisper, I rearrange the silverware drawer, or alphabetize my spice rack, or re-hang the closets in color-order. I push people away. I get back up again.

I create an invincible facade. I get back up again.

I spend months howling at God for not meeting my expectations.

And I get back up again.

And I try to remember (again) that being perfect isn’t my job. It’s His.

But, we talked about that this week already.

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. May 7, 2010 5:54 pm

    >This is all I could think of when I read this. Love you! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UyLnhn-IATk

  2. May 7, 2010 5:56 pm

    >This is such an intimate and touching view into your story. Thank you so much for sharing. I can relate to it on SO many levels. I posted a quote from Sheila Walsh's book 'Beautiful Things Happen When a Woman Trusts God' on my blog today. I really feel it goes PERFECTLY with your post. ~melody~

  3. May 7, 2010 7:14 pm

    >Christy – that was perfect! My new anthem…Melody – I'm headed over there now. Thank you for your kind words!

  4. May 7, 2010 8:24 pm

    >It's been a special blessing in my life to make a small part of this journey with you. I agree with Melody's comment that your "voice" is intimate and touching and I also know your spirit is strong and beautiful. I have long known this story will be a book (one whose excerpts will be posted on many blogs)! I am so glad you took the step to begin writing. Sign me up for babysitting when you go on your tour!

  5. May 7, 2010 10:42 pm

    >Yes, your mother did blame a lot on the disease. From the time my family knew about it (and knew that she would not talk about it), I felt a great sadness. Not just for what she and your whole family were going through, but because she was rejecting the biblical nugget of truth that the truth will set you free. Your mother was much loved. There were many prayers for your family you never knew about. By not letting the truth to be talked about and dealt with publicly, your mother was preventing people from showing their love to her. I think, by being a spectator into this part of your life, I learned a lesson that has helped me out when my tough times have come. If I don't tell people something is wrong, they won't know until it can't be hidden any longer. If I don't talk about that which is difficult, people will be tempted to talk behind my back instead of to my face. If it isn't public, people don't get the chance to respond with love. Yes, people have a tendency to put their foot in their mouth and say inappropriate things that hurt, but so many more just want to show they care

  6. May 8, 2010 12:09 am

    >I don't even know what to say. It's such a heartbreaking story. Thank you for sharing.

  7. May 8, 2010 2:26 am

    >Adelle, I am sure that had to have been SO hard for you to write! I want you to know that your success in failing to "keep up appearances" taught me so much. The first time I ever really saw people at church without their church faces on was in our class at Campbell. In fact, the reason I refused to go to church throughout the end of high school and all of college was because I was tired of trying to be perfect so I would fit in. I never felt good enough. It was with you all that I first saw what a loving church family should be–not a group of fake happy people, but a body that shares in each others triumphs as well as their pain. I know it was so hard for you to open up your heart that morning, but not only did it help you, it helped me too.

    • Elisa permalink
      January 7, 2016 12:25 pm

      Thank you for sharing this, and for your posts in general. For sharing it is ok to grieve and get back up and move forward without letting that grief consume us. I remember sitting in a college bible class your dad was leading, filled with anger because God had taken two precious people from me, and that week the church lost a very special member. His explanation of death and embracing the love we have for people even when they leave us will never be forgotten. He doesn’t know it, but that short speech in the class has never left me and it helped me recover from very dark times.

      • January 12, 2016 9:24 am

        Elisa, I was able to share your comment with my Dad and it really meant a lot to him! Thanks for taking the time to respond.

  8. May 8, 2010 3:00 am

    >There are lots of people who love you and your family so much and still cry with you over this. Your post was so beautiful and honest and vulnerable. Thanks for sharing and bringing tears to my eyes. You are truly remarkable, as is your entire family! Your dad taught me what it means to be faithful in marriage in sickness and in health. Wow.It was so fun to see pictures of your parents when they were young! Bob Jr. looks EXACTLY like Scooby in that first picture! Crazy!Love you tons. Thank you for always being an amazing mentor and example, and for being so open through your blog!

  9. July 24, 2010 8:52 pm

    >Oh, I could relate to what you wrote. I used to disclose about my mother's mental illness, but then I found myself judged, so I clammed up. It is hard to have your past be a secret, as if it is your fault, or your to blame.I know what you mean about the floodgates's opening, but unless you have a parent with mental illness, I don't see how people can judge where you come from.This was an excellent post. Thank you.

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