Thursday, June 25, 2009

Rattling the Chains

There is a saying that southerners do not hide the eccentric or mentally ill when visitors arrive. They bring them down to the parlor and show them off.

My mother's attitude was even more nonchalant. She did not acknowledge mental issues unless they, say, reached murderous proportions. I suppose. I say that because at one point my sister and I had a daycare provider who periodically would need to leave to spend time at the state's mental institution.

I can't imagine that kind of thing happening in today's overprotective, litigious society. And the truth is, not only did my sister and I emerge unscathed. Our lives were richer for the experience.

D. was from "up North." Her family built a house not far from us in that stretch of former cotton fields that converted into a close-knit neighborhood during the nation's mid-century space race. They were really from Indiana, but native children didn't understand fine geographical distinctions.

My sister and I were thrilled to hear that the new people had girls our age. We waited for the workmen to leave and slipped into the shell of a home and poked around. I remember sweeping up debris, tidying bedroom spaces, imagining our new friends. Once a station wagon pulled into the unpoured driveway and I had to jump out of the stepless back of the home and hide in the sagebrush.

The new family pretended they hadn't seen a little girl running from the house. They talked about how pin neat it was inside, how the construction workers were the cleanest they'd ever encountered, all the sweeping up they'd being doing after themselves every day. And what do you know, they'd even left a little bouquet of goldenrod in a Coke bottle. All said in loud voices addressed to the golden sage in the back of the house where I hid, red-faced.

After the family moved in, my mother went back to work and my mother hired D. to watch my sister and me after school and during the summer. My sister and I, with D's four girls, became the gang of six. They taught us how to skate on the pond behind their house on the few winter days the water was frozen enough to hold our weight. We showed them blackberries and plums in the wild, just waiting to be gathered in big vats.

We played Batman and Robin, Flash Gordon, Witch games. Swam in small plastic pools and endlessly waited for turns on the Slip and Slide. My sister and I were thrilled to get to eat things my mother never served, like hot dogs and canned soup, washed down with green Kool Aid. Then, D. would send us to the country store to buy snacks. She had fallen in love with eating Goo Goo Clusters in between chain-smoking while watching her soap operas, cooled by a round squat fan I'd never seen before, called a hassock.

By summer's end, all of us, the six girls, were nut brown.

D. was always a yell-y fidgety type from the get-go, although harmless, she was the background noise. But she started gathering us in a circle to recite the previous night or weekend's drama. Bad things had started to happen. Her husband was working nights. And now "someone" was showing up outside the bedroom window. In the darkest part of the night.

She thought neighborhood boys were responsible at first, looking for mischief. She would yell, shine flashlights, go outside and demand they show themselves. But they never did. Because eventually she realized something much more sinister was actually appearing at night.

We sat cross-legged, eyes huge, mouths round. Waiting. Six girls, most of us not yet in puberty.

The thing, whatever, whoever it was, had started rattling huge chains outside the window, she said, the type used on boats. All night long. Hunched low into her soft chair, chain-smoking, she had stopped eating except for the Goo Goos. Her eyes were dark, darting. She couldn't stop talking about this horrible menace that parked itself outside her bedroom every single night and rattled chains through the dark hours.

Before long, she had gone. She was several hours away in the state's huge mental institution, for a bit of a rest, we were told.

When she came back, she was cheerful, happy, and her oldest daughter had taken over the household responsibilities. The girls were very careful of their mother, quick to defend against any perceived criticism or slight.

I was young, ignorant, insufferably curious. I actually asked her whether it was true that patients at the institution howled at the moon as another kid had told me while she was gone.

Her children recoiled in horror. But D. laughed. She was happy to clear up this misconception. Once again, we gathered around her in a circle and she talked about her days at the hospital. The routines, the doctors, the therapy, the other patients. The rest she got. That's all she needed. She was tired and just needed some rest.

And that was that.

Soon after, I started writing short stories whenever I had school assignments I didn't particularly want to do. Building forts with popsicle sticks was a particularly onerous task to me. So I would conjure a wagonload of pioneers heading West during a particular period and write about it instead, which always secured an "A" for me.

Other times, I would write about gothic themes. Something dire was usually waiting for the unlucky narrators, a thing so horrible that it could not be named. Although I'm told he no longer tortures the elderly D., this thing, this ghostly figure carries huge chains he rattles outside bedroom windows. In one form or another, it is D's "unspeakable horror."

The figure's ability to terrify is largely sheathed now. But he is lodged in an imagination that comes alive when I most need it -- vibrant, powerful, in technicolor. The colors of a young life that in some important ways was lived fully, without fear, and without censure.


  1. Oh, I'm not done with this theme, Blognut. It led me to something else I'm about to write about. I think you'll like it. And thank you!

  2. D. sounds like an interesting person. My mother was in psychiatric hospitals many times for depression. I will always be grateful for the good care that she received.

  3. Syd, D. has moved and I haven't seen her in years. But she was totally unique, a piece of work in a good way, and we all loved her.