My mother grew up in a converted barn on Butternut Street in what used to be called East Ann Arbor. She had five sisters and a brother, Lewie, who hit his head and drowned in Malletts Creek when he was ten years old.
Mom was an alcoholic as a teenager, and by the time she was in her twenties, it was clear that she was mentally ill. Eventually she would be diagnosed with bipolar disease with psychotic features, and narcissistic personality disorder.
When her high school sweetheart married someone else, she took revenge by having sex with a man for whom she had no feelings. She had their baby a few days before her twenty-first birthday, and it was immediately placed for adoption. Disowned by my grandparents, she spun into a world of alcohol, men, and mental illness. Her next four children were either adopted out or taken away by the state under allegations of child abuse. That left me and my little sister, Dawn.
No one knew about autism in 1966. All I knew was that Sissy was quiet until she wasn’t, and then she was a screamer. Mom had no idea how to care for her, so though I was only four years old, caring for Sissy became my job.
Until it wasn’t.
Mom’s illness was showing strong by then. Ordered by the courts to seek help at the risk of losing us, she instead became nomadic. We moved nearly every year, always soon after a teacher or school nurse noticed my bruises.
But this isn’t about my mom. It’s about one of her sisters, my Aunt Lois. There’s an old picture of the two of them, both with wavy red hair, my mom wearing the man’s dress shirt and smoking a cigarette and Aunt Lois in coveralls. Give my aunt a rivet gun and she’d be Rosie the Riveter.
Aunt Lois married her first husband in the early 1960s and took a job at the Hoover ball-bearing factory. They divorced for reasons that were never any of my business, and she didn’t marry again until she was in her mid-sixties.
The state took Sissy away when she was still very young. Mom never explained why, and it quickly became law never to cry or talk about my missing sister. By then, Mom was pregnant again. One warm afternoon when I was four-and-a-half, she took me to a diner and ordered my favorite treat of all time, a hot fudge sundae. As I was eating it, she rose from the booth and left me.
I don’t know how long I sat there, but it felt like a very long time before the police showed up. At the sheriff’s department someone recognized me. They called Aunt Lois, and she came to get me. I had never seen her before.
She was beautiful, tall, and loud, but on this day she was soft and sweet toward me. She drove me to the Victorian apartment house near the Huron River in Ypsilanti where we were living. We could see Mom standing at the window, but she wouldn’t answer the door.
When Aunt Lois came back to the car, she found me desperately trying to suck an ice cream stain out of my shirt. Mom didn’t like stains; we couldn’t afford new clothes, and I knew better than to spill.
She asked me what I was doing, and when I told her, she laughed. “Wait till we get to my house. We will make a bigger mess on that shirt and I will buy you a new one.”
When I asked why I couldn’t go home, she only said, “You will stay with me tonight. Your mommy isn’t feeling well.”
We went back the next day, and this time, Mom let us in. She immediately sent me to my room. Behind a closed oak door I could hear the two of them yelling at each other. I stayed in my room all day; if I had supper, I don’t remember it.
About a month later, Mom went into labor for her last child, my sister Terri. She called a cab and went to the hospital, leaving me locked inside the apartment. I was used to her leaving me alone for hours. I knew how to take care of myself–to fix a sandwich if I got hungry and watch TV until bedtime. I was never asleep when Mom came home from the bar, but I knew to pretend that I was.
This time was different. She didn’t come home all night. Again the police collected me. This time they took me straight to Lois’s house in Ann Arbor.
Her home was tiny, but she welcomed me. “I’m going to paint this living room and I have a little elf to help me–how lucky is that?” she asked. “These putrid green walls gots ta go,” she said as she handed me a paintbrush and guided me to a large pan filled with blue paint.
“I don’t know how to paint walls.”
“You didn’t color on the walls at home?”
“Sissy did,” I said really softly as I put the paintbrush down. “I got in trouble for letting her.”
“Well, you aren’t going to get into any trouble today. This is better than coloring on the walls.”
“Yeah, we can get messy,” she said, and dabbed paint on my nose.
I fell in love with my aunt right then.
I don’t think I was much help with the painting, but it was fun–so much fun that I forgot Mom had again abandoned me. I had to sleep on a sofa, but that was okay with me. Though Lois usually worked as much as twelve hours a day, she stayed home to be with me.
After three days, Mom came home with my new sister, and Aunt Lois took me back. After that, she began visiting us regularly. She came over on the weekends and took all of us to the movies until a few months after Terri’s second birthday, when Mom met a new guy and moved us to Seattle.
For several years I bought two Mother’s Day cards, one for Mom and the other for Aunt Lois. I never mailed them, though; Mom wasn’t one who liked to share. It was only after she died in 2006 that I was able to thank my aunt for taking me in all those years ago.
She told me that everyone in the family knew there was something wrong with Mom but had no idea just how bad it was. I told her that Mom was a hard woman to love, but once I was old enough to understand her mental illness, I did love her.
Lois now lives out toward Jackson. She’s still a barrel of laughter, a joyous woman whose hair is turning an odd shade of grayish orange. She never had any children, but I believe she would have been a wonderful mother. It took me far too long to tell her that if I could choose any family member to be my mom, it would be her.
Happy Mother’s Day, Aunt Lois.