The Rustle of Couch Cushions
My early years were punctuated by childish giggles and my father's big belly laugh. I know this not because I remember it, but because I have seen photos of myself with my parents and the first of my two younger brothers:
diving into my first birthday cake, hands first, head topped with pointy cardboard hat;
playing in the surf on Charleston, South Carolina beaches;
paddling in my kiddie pool;
cuddling with my brother, Lance, on a quilt that was mustard yellow with brown polka dots;
being tickled by my dad on the den floor;
tossing a ball with my mom;
riding our shared Big Wheel;
watching Hee-Haw on Saturday night television.
These are the little moments that make up our stories, aren't they?
Their sounds still live in my memory: splashes and giggles, the crunch of big plastic wheels on grey pavement, banjos…
I was fortunate that in my earliest, toddler and pre-school days, I lived in a healthy and loving family. My mother and father fell in love while attending college in Lubbock, Texas. Having grown up in families that were well-loved and respected in the windy, dusty, conservative town, they had met at the Church of Christ Bible Chair, an inexplicable name for a building near Texas Tech University, where students met to eat snacks, play games, study the scripture, and find spouses. When I was young, I spent hours laying on my tummy on our den's gold shag carpet, poring over each and every page in my parents' wedding photo album. I especially loved the picture in which my mom looked contemplative as she held her prayer-posed hands under her chin, a slit cut in her white kid gloves, made so that the ring could be put on her finger, clearly visible. My dad looked so handsome in his black tux, and I loved a particular photo of him with all his groomsmen, walking with arms linked and big laughing smiles on their faces. My mom had never stored her dress, so I could go into the closet and pull it from the back and hold it up to my little body, caressing the appliqued roses and rustle-y organza. I don't have the dress anymore, but I do have the kid gloves.
When my mom was young, people tell me she was engaging, popular in school, a tremendously talented athlete. In many ways she was brave- playing shortstop, she could face down a speeding softball, catching it and pivoting to throw it to first base in the blink of an eye. She was fast as a whippet, graceful on the field despite numerous broken noses and arms; and competitive to a fault.
She was also beautiful. There are photos that show this to be true; with big blue eyes, golden olive skin, blonde hair coiffed to perfection, and impeccable style in clothing, she was a knock out who grew even more beautiful in the first years of marriage and motherhood. She had that glow that happy women have.
The only boy among four sisters, my father had served in the United States Navy, which was a matter of immeasurable pride to those very sisters, and rightly so. I still have his sailor uniform, I cannot believe how slender he was in his twenties. Dad marched in the band at Texas Tech and graduated with an accounting degree just three months before wedding my mother.
So much joy, so much promise.
Recently, while sorting through boxes of keepsakes in my attic, I found two letters that must have been kept in my grandfather’s belongings, letters that I don’t recall ever having seen. In the first of these letters, written by my mom to her family just two weeks after her nuptials, she tells of all the small joys and travails of a newlywed couple: an apartment without air conditioning, burning her fingers while learning to cook, her fear of ironing my dad’s white work shirts, so sure she would scorch them. In the second letter, the one that cracked through every defensive wall I ever erected, she writes home to tell her family what young motherhood was like. There was such joy in her description of my eating preferences (apparently, I loved green beans) and my irritation with a particular orange bird that swung above my head on my crib mobile. She told of my sleeping habits and my quiet nature. The letter was full of hope, she was brimming with love for her husband, for me, and for the life she was starting.
I know very little about their courtship, though. By the time I was old enough to hear stories of drive-in movies and malt shop jukeboxes playing Elvis songs, our little family had started to unravel. Laughter was becoming less and less present, replaced by yelling and stony silence. Something changed for my mom. In her mid-twenties, depression and probably bipolar disorder intervened. I say "probably bipolar disorder" because that really wasn't a thing that was being diagnosed back then. She didn’t go for therapy or diagnosis for at least ten years of our living in chaos. But when she did, she was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic, which isn't quite right, but maybe as close as the psychologist could get in 1982.
My first real, actual, non-photograph memory of her is a body curled up, sleeping with her back to the living room, South Carolina sunlight streaming in the windows. I was three years old, and my mother was napping. On this particular day, the only day I truthfully and vividly remember from this period of my life, I saw her sleeping and decided to go exploring outside. I crept out the door, walked to a neighbor's house, and knocked politely. I don't recall what the neighbor lady looked like, but I do remember her surprise at finding me on her porch. She invited me in, and kept me fed and occupied until my mother woke and tracked me down, in a panic so thorough I think it's why I remember just this one day.
I don't recall her again until we had moved to Texas. I was around six, and she was watching TV in the den of our little house. Women didn't typically have careers in the late 1960s and ‘70s, they were housewives. I don't know that my mom found much joy in this. I think she was lonely and bored. It's not that she didn't love us, she was just too sad. She slept a lot, watched tons of TV, got depressed, then got addicted, then got crazy. All on the couch. Almost every memory of her after, no matter what age I was, includes a couch.
That first couch was a deep red with a Spanish styled print. I don't remember that from being three, but from having sat on the edge of that couch right through seventh grade. The couch moved from Tennessee to South Carolina to Texas. There are photos of me, then me with my brother, then with both brothers, sitting on that couch right up until I was about six years old.
It's always puzzled me, that couch. Red? My mom loved yellow and orange. Spanish? She hated all things Latin. There was a shield with crossed swords hung on the wall along with what I think was a painting of a bull fighter. The coffee table was a heavy wood with Spanish-style turned spindles and doors trimmed in burnished brass. Where in the world did all of that come from?
Sometimes she liked to call me to come sit on the couch to talk to her, and there was a creak of sofa frame and a rustle of red-and-gold-velvet. She might ask about my day at school or maybe what boys I had crushes on. She asked about teachers. She told me that I must go to college.
She lay there and smoked cigarettes, drank Coke or Pepsi with lemon, and watched television for most of my childhood. Soap operas, game shows, and classic horror and sci-fi were her TV of choice. She didn't mind if I joined her for game shows or Lost in Space, but when it was time for Guiding Light or Days of Our Lives I had to make myself scarce.
Occasionally, when she was in a happy period, she would head outside to play softball or swim; I remember sitting on the couch to peel dry, sunburned skin off her shoulders. In those times, she even cooked meals and cleaned house. Somehow, that was even worse because we knew it wouldn't last.
She never, ever got up and moved to the bed in the bedroom that she shared with my dad in name only. Sure, her clothes hung in a closet in that bedroom, and there was a dresser where she had drawers of underwear and socks and chiffon nightgowns left from her bridal days. But she rarely went in that room. Mostly, she was on the couch 24/7. Once, when I was about twelve, I got out of bed to get a drink of water and found my father laying on top of my mother on the couch. Sex happened on the couch. Meals happened on the couch. Sleep happened on the couch. Her life was lived on the couch.
Right around my eighth-grade year, we bought a new couch: sort of a nubby weave of lime green and golden yellow. There are no photos of us kids on that new couch. I didn't sit on the edge of that one quite as often, as the divide between my mother and I began to widen. Confiding in her was dangerous; if I shared something, I was worried that she would use it against me in an angry moment. Her own depression began to sink her into an apathetic lethargy and sleep.
Perhaps my most vivid couch memory was the day it tipped over. Let me set the scene:
It's summer, 1979. I am out of school, my dad is at work, and my little brothers are outside playing. My mom seems...off. Her speech is slurred, she's holding on to the walls as she makes her way to the toilet. I call my dad at work, he asks if I can just stay nearby and keep an eye on things. So I grab a book, the wedding photo album, and some catalogs and settle down on the shag carpet for a quiet day of reading and perusing clothes in the Sears Big Book; and I watch.
My mom comes back from the bathroom trip, sits down on the couch, then pitches forward headfirst over the coffee table. Her feet were tucked up under the edge of the couch, so it flipped backward.
Turns out she was completely strung out on pain killers. This was the day we discovered my mom's addiction.
Mom had horrible dental issues; in fact, all of her teeth were pulled and replaced by dentures by the time she was in her mid-thirties. Her dental problems started in her twenties, and she visited her dentist in Irving, Texas quite frequently. A lot, I mean. They went to the same church. He was her lover. I will call him Dr. Hotstuff.
With tooth pulling, you get pain; and Dr. Hotstuff gave my mom pain pills. Lots of them. She liked them. She grew to need them. Once their affair was over and we had moved one suburb over, Mom diligently built a network of doctors and dentists from the various suburbs all over DFW. I spent many hours with my little brothers in the back seat of the Pontiac as we visited doctor after doctor, left to mind ourselves in waiting rooms while my mom wove stories of pain both real and imagined so that she could get a hookup with meds. When a doctor cut her off, she found a new one. Back in the 1970s, doctors didn't seem to be as aware of the substance abuse problem, and it took them a lot longer to realize what was happening, so for five years she swallowed these pills, with no one the wiser.
Most of the time the drugs were delivered to our house by the local pharmacy. Back in the 1970s, drug stores still delivered and ran a tab- hard to imagine now in the age of cross-referenced databases and Walgreens efficiency. The delivery man was a middle-aged guy who recognized me on sight. He was a frequent visitor at our front door. Since there was no connected record keeping between pharmacies, Mom also mixed it up a little when the pharmacists got suspicious. If she picked up her meds from a different druggist for a while, the heat would drop. On the day Mom fell over the couch, I kept my eyes trained on her as the afternoon progressed. I didn’t know what I thought would happen, I just knew I dare not look away in case she hurt herself. As I was cleaning the kitchen, she snuck to the buffet under the living room window, eyes darting to see if I was watching, and dug in a drawer for a little brown bottle. I saw her swallow the pill hurriedly, and said nothing until my dad got home. He searched the house and found bottles of pain killers stashed all over.
My mom on hydrocodone was not a pleasant woman. She had three basic modes: slurred sloth, benign narcissist, and raging monster. Most of the time she was in that middle place. She could not help us to get ready for school, she could not fix breakfast, she could not do laundry, she could not wash dishes, she could not she could not she could not. I learned to live with this mom, she neglected but she didn't hurt. I figured out how to make delicacies like Frito pie and tuna casserole, I could open and warm a can of green beans. I made Kool-Aid by the bucket in a blue plastic pitcher, I got my dad to show me how to work the washing machine. I checked in on my brothers at school. I was no mother, but I did my best.
When slurred sloth was the deal, it just meant I had to work a little harder to make sure things were rolling along with some semblance of normalcy: food, laundry, etc., lots of checking to make sure cigarettes were snuffed out before the house burned down.
But when the raging monster was in the house, it was a nightmare of violence both physical and verbal. My dad was the primary target, because he was the person she blamed so that she wouldn't blame herself. Not enough money? Richard should work harder. Not enough intimacy? Richard shouldn't snore. Not enough friends? Richard should be home more. As I got older, I moved into the line of fire.
My dad did the best he could for a long time. He loved my mom. He had been taught by his church that divorce was a mortal sin. He worked two or three jobs to keep a roof over our heads, food on the table, and the pharmacy bill paid. He was by nature a quiet man, like his father before him, a man who did not easily confront problems. He was not perfect. He struggled. In truth, he was capable of great anger and his usual coping method in times of conflict was retreat. He retreated to calm down, but that often meant issues were not addressed at all. When he was cornered, if my mom forced him to fight, it could get ugly. I only remember one time when that ugliness was taken out on one of us kids. Just one evening when he snapped, grabbed one of my tiny brothers by the arm, and hit him hard and repeatedly as he dangled in the air, little body swinging to hit the wall. I don’t think my brother remembered it, I hope he was too young. But it terrified me, it was so unexpected and so unusual.
Dad often seemed unaware of what life was like for his kids, my mother's abuse only happened when he was not home. In my memory, my brothers escaped her animosity by being quiet, by playing outside, by being male and therefore no threat to her dominance. That changed as they became teenagers and began to speak, especially for the middle child, Lance, who was so like her. I have often wondered what life was like for them after I escaped to college.
When I get truly and brutally honest, sometimes I have blamed Dad had for not acting sooner to get us away from her. I have wished he was more perceptive and realized what hell we were living. I have wished he said, "Pam, I will not buy that boat to prove to your family and yourself that you are keeping up. What I will do is buy clothes for the kids. I will get dental care for them and therapy for you. I will walk our family out of the twin shadows of shame and secrecy. I will enlist your parents and mine, your siblings and mine, and we will heal these kids.” I wish he had divorced her years and years earlier.
But he didn't. Even when he did, she hovered nearby, waiting and watching. So here is what happened: a girl who was smart and talented got a bit lost. I did the usual partying stuff that a high school kid does, no drugs, just a little drinking. I have never had a temptation nor inclination to substance abuse; not because I am a saint, I think I just got lucky. I didn't get the gene. No, in full view of every church youth worker and school teacher, I got lost in boys and achievement. I sought relief in being loved and admired. I played the damsel in distress for the boys while accepting nothing less than straight As and top scores at vocal competitions. I melded my own identity and dreams to match my boyfriends' and fought tooth and nail to grab the most prestigious writing spot in our school's journalism department.
I did not have the strength, after the daily battle with my mom, to be me. So, I found identity in all these other things. Some of them I did better than others, but to be honest I was worn out from it by my senior year. I stumbled a bit at that point. I didn't do as well academically, dropping from top 1% to top 5% in my class. I know, I know, still pretty good, but I was hooked on perfection. It was a stunning disappointment. I didn't sing as well, I was in an abusive relationship with a boy that I didn't know how to get out of safely. By the very grace of God, I survived to graduate. Then I got the hell out.
The last time I visited my mom in her section 8 apartment, where she was living alone, my husband and I slept on the double bed that my grandfather had given her. She said she had tried to sleep on it, but she just couldn't. She was still sleeping on a couch, this time, an old couch that might have come from the Goodwill store. She died when she was living in that apartment.
When we packed it up, my husband and I took the bedroom furniture, but not the couch.
When I enter a home, friend's home, or even my own home, I don't sit on the couch unless there just are not any other options.
A few months ago, I decided I would try to join my husband on the couch, that's where he likes to hang out. I spent about a week propped up against the arm rest, tucked under a blanket, and having flashbacks to seeing my mom living on her various couches. Not just chilling for a bit, but living. I moved back to my chair.
It's funny how we are shaped in the strangest ways. An innocuous piece of furniture that exists in nearly every American home can become a subtle, subconscious reminder to me of the child, preteen, adolescent, then young married woman that I was; who observed the long, slow decline of my mom from happy and vibrant young mother to lonely and sad woman. And then, because I can, because somehow I figured out how to step out of her shadow, I rise each day. I sit in an office chair at work, I read in a wicker patio chair in the evening, I watch TV from my comfy chair, and then sleep in a bed with my guy every night.
I just never sit on the couch.
About the Author: Kim Bryant
My life has been a series of sure steps…and steps that were decidedly less so. I grew up in the suburbs of Dallas, Texas, known as the buckle of the “Bible Belt,” a metroplex known even now for the evangelical conservatism that coexists with rampant materialism and Texas snobbery. My mom was a Christian drug addict, so I carried lots of baggage into adulthood: toxic parenting skills, damaged spirituality, and Republican values.
But I was, deep down, an artist and a dreamer, an introvert with a tender and quiet heart. I married my Prince Charming and set about building a new family- one of my own making that mirrored everything I had ever seen on afternoon reruns of *Leave It to Beaver* and *Bewitched* – and it nearly worked. Except I had a temper and my husband had an addiction.
Through a successful, award-winning theatre teaching career, I managed to soothe my spirit, save my marriage, set my faith free, and sow seeds of life magic. I have raised three kids, earned a Master of Arts degree in Theatre from the University of Houston, lost the physical ability to speak, and then rediscovered my voice and power as I turned that dreaded, hair-raising, spine-tingling age of fifty.
Still in Texas, I now find myself in management for the largest Renaissance Festival in the country. I work among the creative. My days are filled with incense and art, attendance projection graphs and marketing campaigns.
My website: https://kimberlybryant.net