She called us to her bedroom. There was a handgun in one hand and a clip of bullets in the other. Dad and my brother hunted so at our young ages guns were not new … but this one was. I’d never seen a handgun with its own clip of bullets. Starkly ominous, there was something inherently wrong about it being in mother’s hands.
Since I could remember my brother and I were not close. Three years older, his resentment of me was instinctive. That was just part of who I was, who he was, and, to me, what family is. So it was unique and flattering in an odd sort of way that mom called us in together. Maybe I was finally my older brother’s equal. Then came her question.
Mom frantically asked if we knew how to load the gun. She butted the gun and clip together demonstrating how they jammed, explaining (which was the oddest part even to a five year old) that she wanted to kill herself … could we help her load it? For the first time I can remember my brother and I shared silent, soul-meeting glances.
We were such strictly disciplined kids it didn’t even occur to me that we could lie. Dad dished out the discipline and lying was met with the harshest of punishments, usually whacks with a leather belt on the bare behind. Innocent relief filtered in when I realized I didn’t know anything about loading guns. Mom knew this. I wondered why she’d even included me. Then came the gripping fear that maybe my brother did know – what was he going to do?
I wanted to tell her we loved her but I kept looking to my brother for an answer. Surely he knew better how to handle this and clearly this wasn’t a time for my melodramatics. Looking back, that’s probably exactly what she hoped to hear. That’s probably why she included me. We stood there in silence, me trying to read mom’s face then his. He stared at the floor in humbled obstinance. I hate that I never told her that.
Though incidents like this may not seem so, I lived in the idealistic world of a family that exemplified all things good and right. I took that rearing more seriously to heart than many children would. Dad was a professional, highly thought of in town and reasonably prosperous. He and mom grew up as many of “the greatest generation,” deprived and impoverished. As he told those stories my little heart overflowed with empathetic compassion. I knew their realness because every person I loved was living proof, from mom and dad to “Granny” and her stories of murderous Kentucky family feuds.
Dad was determined to make the world a better place through us; and to make our lives better than theirs. I clung to his every word, every punishment, every childhood adventure as something of indisputable high standing. My life had all the pristine qualities of living highly-esteemed 1950’s nostalgia.
The incident with the gun passed as if it hadn’t happened. My brother and I remained silently unknowing until dismissed, it never to be spoken of again. I suppose we felt secure enough in our surroundings to not find it seriously threatening; or maybe we intuitively knew our mother’s intense unhappiness and regarded that an acceptable side effect. I have tremendous remorse for not recognizing what a tragic cry for help that was.
Dad had the intellect and resources but Mom was the common sense street-wise half. Unfortunately women were still denied their own identities then, believing it sufficient to appreciate a husband who provided the amenities we enjoyed. Mom couldn’t voice herself as I so wish she had. Knowing her life’s obstacles, I suspect she was routinely dismissed while growing up, making it feel all the more normal as an adult, as a wife and as a mother. She poured herself into her natural gifts for mothering and homemaking. My mom was The Best homemaker of all time and she thrived in it.
When you mesh dad’s overly-protective righteous teachings and prosperity with mom’s outstandingly creative gifts for homemaking, along with both of their propensities for nurturing kids, you end up with a kid who believes an ideal life is real life. Kids instinctively know things, but they only know, about the world, the limits of what you teach them. Idealism is what I knew. That’s all I knew.
… do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature. [I Corinthians 14:20]
For all of its good intentions in protecting us against the evils of the world and making us better contributors to it in the process, that staunch idealism led me down a path of unwitting self-destruction. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I didn’t know the world was a much different place. I wrongly believed I could change it. I ineptly believed everyone was good. I naively believed the bad guys were those you read about in the newspaper, worlds away.
I would put my offspring in dreadful harms way because of my idyllic values. For all of the wonderful homemaking skills and love that my mother handed down to me, I was missing the most critical element: her unspoken street-smarts. I was not to be forgiven as readily or as compassionately as I forgave those before me.
We do the best we can with what we know and when we know more we do better. [Paraphrased, Maya Angelou]
I didn’t recall the gun incident until well into senior age. I’m not sure why I found it so easy to forget or why it came back to me then.
I often wonder if mother had had more of a voice maybe I’d have learned the harsher consequences of life when that would’ve made a difference for my children. Maybe it still wouldn’t have mattered. The “ifs” and “maybes” are not what is today. The lessons we take from those tragedies are the best we can hope to make of them. So often it feels like the lessons come too late.
Teaching good is the idyllic foundation upon which we must also temper the realities of bad. [Me]