The more I dig into my mother’s family history, the more I am surprised by how different their life was at the beginning of the twentieth century. Now, let me say, first, that I was born in 1939, and I grew up convinced that the twentieth century was “modern.” We had great cars, television, single-party telephone lines, women voted, girls got to wear slacks, and we had McDonald’s as a hang-out. Oh, i know things have changed a lot since I was in high school, but the changes I've experienced have always seemed to me to be a natural progression, not some grand sea-change. But now, as I look back at my mother’s life, and the lives of her seven sisters, I’m recognizing a tremendous gulf between our worlds.
Among the stories I’m finding are these:
• A developmentally-disabled child, raised without benefit of medical intervention or therapy or adaptations to make her life better. She just lives out her life as best she can. And if she cannot do something, or reach something, or understand what's happening, then it’s just too bad. Things pass her by.
• A child born out of wedlock, who carries that label of “illegitimate” as if it were she who has committed some great sin. Her mother, too, faces a lifetime of shaming and ridicule, which drives her to make even worse decisions with her life. Who was the father? I wonder, but I find no record or even any effort to identify him or make him bear part of the responsibility.
• A father, knowing that he was dying, mortgages the family farm to hide the fact that he cannot work, which ultimately leaves his wife and children homeless and penniless when he dies.
• Another child, born to a mentally unstable mother and left solely in her care although she is clearly incapable of understanding her responsibilities. Even when the child comes close to dying at his mother’s hand, there is no intervention. There’s no social worker, or child protection agency, or thought of notifying some authority — because there is no authority to turn to if a child’s life is just plain rotten and dangerous.
• A man with what appears to be early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, whose tendency to get lost, whose forgetfulness, whose failure to recognize family members, whose sudden and violent rages are all explained by his devotion to God.
• A teenager who dies from a lack of medical attention, and another scarred for life by an incompetent doctor — both of whom should have been able to live long and healthy lives.
• Another teenager, taken in by a new family when she was left an orphan, only to find that when the wife died, she is expected to marry the husband.
• An adolescent boy, so traumatized at the age of twelve by the loss of family members that he develops a debilitating stutter that leaves him unable to communicate. and he is made fun of, not helped to overcome his problem.
• A young wife who suffers a devastating stroke that leaves her unable to say anything beyond “a-no, a-no.” She never sees a doctor, never receives treatment. She is just allowed to wither away from neglect.
• An alcoholic husband who refuses to speak to his wife because she will not join his church. And his absolute silence lasts not just for a period of days, but for years.
These stories, horrible as some of them were, were not told to me as anything other than simple explanations of why things were as they were. And when, in the course of these tragedies, someone did step in to help, it was not a parent or a grandparent, a policeman, a pastor, or a teacher. Invariably in this particular family help came only from one sister to another. I’m struggling to understand.