Three Decades Later

This month I'll turn thirty-eight. It occurred to me last week that it's been exactly thirty years since I last saw my father, who was arrested three weeks before my eighth birthday. Thirty years ago, I began to understand that I'd never see him again. I began to understand that the man he'd been--angry and mean at times, but my father nevertheless--was not who he was. I began to understand the rage that accompanies adulthood.

Thirty years ago, I was my oldest daughter's age. I look at her and am amazed by how young she is, how she laughs at silly voices and bad knock-knock jokes. I don't remember feeling young. I quickly grew up after my father's arrest, suddenly flooded by knowing, and the world became a rising tide.

I've been feeling significantly depressed over the last few weeks. It's the feeling I get every July. I carry it with me through August and can't shake it, especially on my birthday. While researching for my memoir, I discovered that my depression is a common phenomenon suffered by people who experience traumatic events, especially in childhood. It's called "anniversary reaction" and it's a type of PTSD.

I thought I'd try something new this year and instead of sinking into the familiar and nearly-irreversible sadness, I'd share a bit of my experience from thirty years ago. These are some snippits of a chapter titled "Baptisms."

I have a friend who becomes a hermit in the week leading up to the anniversary of her husband’s death. Typically, she’s boisterous, social, driving all over town to visit people and deliver little gifts to brighten the days of others. But during that week, she doesn’t even answer her phone. She won’t see anyone. She falls into the grief of a situation thirteen years past and has learned it’s best for her to cope by being alone. Then, on the anniversary of the day he died, she visits her husband’s grave, and celebrates his life in a small service with their only son and a few family members. The next day, she’s back to her old self.
Like her, I suffer from what psychologists call “the anniversary reaction.” Loosely defined, the anniversary reaction is “an individual’s response to unresolved grief resulting from significant losses [and] can involve several days or even weeks of anxiety, anger, nightmares, flashbacks, depression, or fear.”[1] Unlike her, my trauma refuses to be soothed by isolation, or therapy, or medication. For me, the last weeks of July bring on an uncontrollable sense of restlessness, grief, anger, shame, and fatigue. Most of what I felt about my father’s arrest went unresolved in my childhood. My family’s reaction—the product of a repressed American culture—was to sweep it under the rug, keep it taboo, lie about it. Let it hang over our heads and leave us to simply toughen up or drown under the weight.
 ***
The morning after my father’s arrest, a group of thin Brothers and their over-stuffed wives from our LDS church ward convened in our living room.  They looked at us with a mixture of pity and doubt as if we were co-conspirators. My mother got down on her knees while one of the Brothers held his hand on her head and prayed.  From a metal vial he wore on a beaded chain around his neck, he sprinkled water onto her forehead. My mother cried the way only a woman whose husband had been keeping secrets could cry—tears of shame and ignorance. The thin Brothers then moved on to praying over me. The holy water ran down my forehead and caught in my eyelashes. 
Out in our dirt yard, Grandma smoked one cigarette after the other and snubbed them out into the marigolds my mother had just planted.
While the Brothers prayed, their wives set up shop in our kitchen.  They’d leave behind casseroles and Bundt cakes, all of it laced with pity and suspicion. While the holy water dripped from my face and onto the brown shag of our living room, I could feel the women staring.  And the stares of those churchgoing Brothers and Sisters, our townspeople, our friends expected us to be hiding other secrets. After all, we’d let my father’s evil into the house. No one believed my mother nor I—because I was the oldest—knew nothing about my father’s double life.
Immediately following his arrest, my mother phoned my father’s parents to tell them what had happened, and they didn’t say much, only that they would come to see us in a few days. “They didn’t seem surprised,” Grandma told me a few years later. “I imagine they’d been waiting for something like this to happen. Of course they were waiting.” She’d scoff at this point, light a cigarette even if she still had another one burning, and say between puffs, “Of course they were waiting because they knew he was sick way before Mickey married him, and they just let it happen. Without saying a word. They never got him any help. Even after The Gas Company, they didn’t tell anyone even then. They should’ve. They were sorrysonsofbitches not to say a word.”
The Gas Company was code for my father’s short stint as a meter reader. A few years after his conviction, when I was ten or eleven, I’d come home from school to find a strange man standing in our backyard. Men in general scared me, and when I ran through the house screaming to Grandma that someone was in the yard, she’d said, “Don’t be an idiot. That’s just the gas man.” After he’d jotted our numbers down on his clipboard, he walked on to the next house, and through a slit in the curtains I watched him go.
That incident prompted Grandma to tell me about my father’s career when he was just twenty-three years old, just after my younger sister, Deidre, had been born. His blonde hair had just begun to recede, so both his forehead and his aluminum-framed glasses glinted in the sun while he walked from property to property on his Hollywood route for the Southern California Gas Company.  Sometime halfway through, he found himself inside the bedroom of a woman who lived alone.  She was about thirty and sleeping atop the sheets with her sliding glass door open to the faint summer breeze.  He didn’t know how long he’d been standing there watching her, but he’d touched her hair and it had woken her. She began yelling at him immediately.  He stepped backward, nearly falling over the frame of the sliding door.  He dashed around the corner to where he’d parked the company truck. He started the engine and drove.
“He smelled gas, that’s what he said,” Grandma told me. “He rang the bell and knocked, gone into the back yard to see if the family was outside.  That’s when he saw the woman through the window on the bed and worried that she’d asphyxiate, but she got hysterical.  Accusing him of all kinds of things.  He panicked and ran away.”
When I finally wrote to my father twenty years after Grandma’s rendering of the events, he admitted he’d known he’d done something wrong, but couldn’t explain what had brought him into that woman’s bedroom, why he thought he could get away with the gas leak story. All he wrote about it was that he knew he was “in trouble” because he’d pulled into the company lot and saw the police cars. 
When he went before a judge to plead guilty for trespassing, one of the police who’d first arrived at the gas company to arrest my father gave a brief statement about how calm and collected he’d seemed.  The woman had spoken to him at the police station.  She’d said she wouldn’t press charges.  The judge listened patiently when my father told his story of the smell of gas.  He didn’t know why he was standing in the courtroom, why the police insisted he plead or stand trial.
My mother and grandparents, and our church bishops believed the story.  But the judge didn’t buy it. And after his arrest, Grandma told The Gas Company story with suspicion, with gusto, as if she too hadn’t been duped. At the end of it she always said, “I knew something was wrong. I told your mother to leave him then.”
“She never told me that,” my mother told me recently. “She didn’t even know the whole story. Your grandmother could take a little bit of knowledge about something and turn it into a circus when she wanted to. That’s why we never told her the rest of it, just that Terry had been let go.”
But really, he’d been sentenced to psychiatric therapy. He spoke to a court-ordered psychologist for six months.  By then, he’d found a new job as a machinist at Menasco, and at the end of his Tuesday and Thursday shifts, he headed to the clinic on Tujunga.  He sat with the man for an hour each time, while he was asked questions about his family, his friends, the church, his job. After a month, the doctor began probing him about his parents and my father began to suspect the therapist was fishing for something.  Those things were private, he’d said.  He could handle them himself.  They had nothing to do with why he was there. That was the judge’s doing.  He just wanted to get the six months over with.
***
My father’s arrest happened during the summer break between my first and second grade years of school. I’d spent much of first grade in a deep funk because I missed kindergarten and the naps we’d taken in the afternoons.  My kindergarten teacher’s name was Mrs. Kreis, but to my young Mormon ears it sounded like Christ, so I’d spent many days after school complaining to my mother that I missed Mrs. Christ and wanted to go back to kindergarten. To this complaint, my mother told me to go to my room and get Mousie and read a book.
Mousie was a felt hand-puppet that Mrs. Kreis used during story time. She’d read to us from a different book each day and as we all formed a circle around her she asked for a volunteer to retrieve Mousie from the closet where she kept all kinds of supplies. I always volunteered, not scared of the dark dank closet, and so I was nearly always the one to grab Mousie from his shelf and bring him into the circle. He was made of gray felt and wore a bright pink vest with a watch fob dangling from the front pocket. At the end of my kindergarten year, Mrs. Kreis left Alpine Elementary, and she’d given me Mousie because I loved him. I spent much of the summer afternoons with him on my left hand, reading books in my room. After my father’s arrest, I took Mousie with me to Grandma’s house where the three of us girls were staying while my mother “sorted things out.”
That summer I also moved up into a new Sunday school class and it became my responsibility to remember all of the Ten Commandments.  On top of these, our God had sent Joseph Smith some additional rules, and I learned his history by singing, “Book of Mormon stories that my teacher tells to me/ all about the Roman knights in ancient history.” 
Our Sunday school class met in the church gym, the place where the teenagers held their dances and, once a year we had a family festival and a Magic Show.  The room was partitioned on Sunday’s by gray cloth screens, creating cubicles for the classes—one for the five-year-olds, one for six, seven, eight, etc.  It wouldn’t be until we were in our teens that they’d start grouping us with different age mates based on what we could learn out of The Bible, The Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price, and Doctrine and Covenants.
Our teacher arranged us all into a circle, and we recited the Ten Commandments. It was well known in our Sunday school class that if they couldn’t be memorized or if the numbers from the thirteen Articles of Faith were given incorrectly, advancement to the next class would be impossible.  That’s why one of the teenager groups was whispered to be the stupid group.  The members of the stupid group consisted of kids who’d joined the church late or didn’t own their own Book of Mormon, and every Sunday they’d check one out of the library where my mother worked.  None of them could even read, really, we said.
Although I was bright—a Super Speller and Math Whiz—I couldn’t keep the Ten Commandments and Articles of Faith straight.  I was too busy wondering where my father had gone, and trying to believe my mother when she said, “He’s never coming back,” even though I thought he would. And then I’d think, if the words of God were so important, then my Sunday school teacher should make up a song to help me remember them, the way Mrs. Kreis had taught us in kindergarten. Of course, I was the only kid in my class thinking this as very few of them actually attended public school—their mothers taught them in makeshift classes in garages and living rooms.  I had all of this on my mind, coupled with the weight of the stares in my direction, when I arrived in class after Testimony (There she is, the white elephant we won’t talk about!), so that by the time my Sunday school teacher got around the circle to me and stated a number for a Commandment or Covenant, I’d answer incorrectly.
She’d ask, “Joyce, do you know Jesus Christ in your heart?  He wants you to know him, but you have to live by these words.”
On one of the Sundays after my father’s arrest, when I hadn’t seen my mother until that morning before church, I thought long and hard, staring at my patent leather shoes and stupid frilly socks I had to wear.   Finally I answered, “I know Mrs. Christ, my kindergarten teacher.  She read to us with Mousie, and he makes reading easy.”
At the end of the church, as families stood around the massive foyer and chatted about the upcoming workweek and family dinners and who’d be giving Testimony for next Sunday, my teacher pulled my mother aside and told her what had happened.  She was afraid for my soul, she said.
“She’s seven,” my mother said, always practical.  “Have you tried a puppet?  Maybe that would help.”
No, she hadn’t tried a puppet, my teacher said.  All the other kids in my class were capable of saving their souls without Mousie.

[1] “Anxiety and Sadness May Increase on Anniversary of Traumatic Event.” American Psychological Association. 2011.

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