My father’s nicknames defined him. Bones, for his length, and “Glue Tips,” for his good reach and sure hands as a tight end on the football team. He won a football scholarship at BYU. It wasn’t until Dad returned home from the Korean War that he set about wooing my mother. She wasn’t easily convinced, and in hindsight, she said if it weren’t for his good genes and long legs, he might never have had a chance with her.
My mother was in her early 20s when she married, and she started having children faster and easier than either of them wished. We were all beloved, and my mother recounts those early years, with five children under the age of seven, as her favorites. I was the middle child, squeezed between two standout older siblings and two mischievous younger ones.
Black-and-white Polaroids of my mother give distinct clues as to where the family started to break. In nearly every frame, you see the stress of a woman trying to do it all too well: standing or kneeling behind five adorable children all in a row with starched rompers and hair that had been twisted or curled into place. Five pairs of polished white shoes, never a scuff, never a detail wrong. The house is orderly in every shot.
My mother is dressed as if she were having a professional photograph taken every day: trim and groomed, her hair in an updo even as she battled the reality of motherhood — diapers, puke, and colic. But there is sadness in her eyes, and I would later learn my father’s approval was as rare as a full night’s sleep.
In kindergarten, I saw, for the first time, a huge pile of dirty laundry on the laundry room floor. Mom was rarely up when I returned home from school. She started excusing herself from making dinner to stay in her room, and eventually she was absent from every family meal.
I remembered watching my father stir a marinara sauce after working all day long, his work shirtsleeves rolled up as he tested the sauce again and again. The steam from the spaghetti noodles whistled into his face, making him sweat above the stove. “Who’s hungry?” he’d asked, forcing a cheeriness to his voice.
I was 5 when she slipped into a full-blown depression. Nobody called it that. All I knew was that I rarely saw my mother. One morning I stood outside the door of her room and offered a knock. “Mama,” I asked, “are you sick?”
I slid my back down the door and waited. My brothers and sisters played rambunctiously in the hallways, and I shushed them.
The next morning I left toast at her door. By that afternoon, the edges of the bread had curled upward.
More days followed, with no improvement. I fished a dirty shirt out of the hamper to wear to school, not understanding the gravity of what that meant until a teacher pulled me aside and asked me if everything was all right at home. I lied. “My mom’s on vacation.”
I missed her laugh — a shush of air that came out uninhibited, her white teeth flashing as she threw back her head, slapping her hand on her thigh. I missed her lying down beside me at night to tell me what a special girl I was, that I was loved beyond the moon and the stars.
I tried new ways to move Mom from her bedroom. One day, I brought her a Coke, with five ice cubes, the way she liked it, and put it by the door. It spilled, and I cursed myself for being so stupid. “She’s not even in there,” I told my youngest brother as I scrubbed the carpet with a white bathroom towel.
Several more days went by, as my father hushed any discussion of why Mom wasn’t feeling well, offering instead to make us pasta or pizza for dinner and instructing my older brother on the ways of the household.
By the time my father insisted on professional help a few weeks later, we’d all learned how to pack our lunches, wash the laundry, vacuum the floor, and finish our homework without supervision. We coped.
I started spending most of the time away from my house, in the garden or in the tree house. Nobody really seemed to notice my absence anyway. Time passed more slowly without the frequent visits from my mother’s friends, without her remodeling the living room (again), and without the magical conversations we had about what I was reading or writing.
My older sister soon learned to saddle our horses, and we would ride in the fields behind our home. I avoided the house, my mother’s lingering sadness, and the heartache of losing touch with the one person who reveled in my stories, my theatrics, and my funny dances on the fireplace stage.
Dad took her to a hospital and brought back bottles of pills that were supposed to make her better. One day she was up, folding the laundry, going through the motions of being a good mother. She attended our horse shows and clapped whenever we won a ribbon or trophy. But there was a hollow beneath her eyes that frightened me.
I would be an adult before I learned the true cause of my mother’s pain, a family secret that unfairly left the burden of dysfunction on my mother.
Excerpted from All the Things We Never Knew: Chasing the Chaos of Mental Illness by Sheila Hamilton, published by Seal Press, members of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright© 2015.