Moonlight on Linoleum: A Daughter's Memoir

Moonlight on Linoleum: A Daughter's Memoir

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by Terry Helwig
     
 

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"I invited the child I was once to have her say in these pages. I am the one who came out on the other side of childhood; she is the one who searched for the door."

In the tradition of The Glass Castle comes a debut memoir about a woman’s hopeful life despite the sad results of her mother’s choices. Moonlight on Linoleum is an

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Overview


"I invited the child I was once to have her say in these pages. I am the one who came out on the other side of childhood; she is the one who searched for the door."

In the tradition of The Glass Castle comes a debut memoir about a woman’s hopeful life despite the sad results of her mother’s choices. Moonlight on Linoleum is an affecting story of a girl who rose above her circumstances to become an early and faithful caretaker to her five siblings. It is about the power one finds in sisterhood to thrive in a difficult and ever-changing landscape as the girls bond in unconditional love despite constant upheaval and uncertainty. In these pages, Teresa Helwig crafts a moving portrait of a mother she loved completely even as she struggled to understand her.

"Putting myself in Mama's shoes, which were most often white moccasins molded in the shape of her size seven-and-a-half foot, I see an eighteen-year-old girl with two children, one of them still a baby. . . . Her former husband is in Korea, drafted after their divorce; she has a sister who disappears from time to time, leaving yet another child in her care; she has no money, no high-school diploma, and a mother unhappy to have her home."

Teresa and her sisters, who were added regularly throughout the 1950s and '60s, grew up with with their charismatic, troubled, and very young mother, Carola. Because of their stepfather’s roving job as in the oil fields, they moved frequently from town to town in the American West. The girls were often separated and left behind with relatives and never knew what their unstable mother would do next. Missing her mother became a habit for Teresa; one summer Carola dropped off her two daughters at her ex's family farm.

"If there were an idyllic summer of childhood, it was that summer on the Iowa farm. Yet, if I had to choose a time when I felt most forsaken by my mother, it was also that summer. Even back then, I was acutely aware of the paradox. On the outside, by day, I was like the morning glory vine twining around the back fence. Every day opened to a life I loved on the land. I reveled in and relished the absolute freedom and abandon of being turned loose in Eden.

"But then, each evening, after the sun set and the dinner dishes had been hand-washed and dried, I became like the moonflower vine climbing up the weathered boards on the side of the garage. The moonflower opens its large fragrant blooms at night; they shimmer like moonlight and sweeten the night air.

"I evolved a ritual at bedtime before crawling into my bed . . . I held Mama's Polaroid picture to my heart. I love you. Please come get us soon. I want to be with you more than I want to be anywhere else. These were my prayers, my blooms that opened to the night. Then I pursed my lips against the cool glass and kissed her smiling face goodnight."

There were good times too: Carola made fudge for the girls during rainstorms, helped Teresa's cat deliver kittens, and taught her to play "You Are My Sunshine" on a toy piano. But when her husband was out working on the oil fields, Carola, who had married at fourteen, began to fill her time with men she met in the various towns her roving family moved to. She referred to her secret dating life as "going to Timbuktu," leaving Teresa in charge of her siblings. As Carola roamed and eventually developed crippling migraines, Teresa became a replacement mommy before her own childhood was fully in swing. Stress, guilt, and recurring nightmares marked her days and nights.

"In addition to the amphetamines [for weight loss], Mama was now taking barbiturates for her migraines. Her moods began to yo-yo. She became as hard to predict as the weather. When Daddy was out of town and Mama was in one of her fogs, I learned to fend for myself. And, being the oldest, I learned to fend for my sisters, too . . . It was around this time I came to realize a hard truth. Once your sisters begin looking up to you, as if you really could save them from being poisoned, as if you know a way out of a dark cave, there's no going back. You'll draw your last breath, trying to find that door to the Lost City of Enchantment, because you can't bear to let them down."

Yet, even in the face of adversity, Teresa found beauty in the small moments: resting in the boughs of her favorite oak tree, savoring the freedom she found on her grandparents’ farm, and gleefully discovering the joys of dating and dancing. While Carola struggled for an exciting and satisfying life, Teresa faced adolescence and young adulthood, increasingly burdened by Carola's dysfunction. Finally, as the family splintered between colleges, homes, stepfathers, and their mother's disintegrating mental health, Teresa drove Carola to a mental hospital--where at last the mother of five found some peace and order.

Upon leaving the hospital, sadly Carola continued in a downward spiral: more men, a drug addiction, a toddler son's death, and finally her own accidental overdose death in 1974. Though Carola's unhappy life meant Teresa's was marked by hardship and tragedy, Teresa found redemption in writing her mother's story and discovering empathy for the woman continually harmed by her own bad choices. The bonds of sisterhood helped sustain her, and today the girls are still close, still savoring the good in a childhood pocked with pain. Teresa, now a counselor and mother of a daughter, was able to conclude, after visiting her mom's grave and asking her blessing on the book,

I believe joy and sorry rest together, the two sides of love. I have repeatedly uncovered places of joy inside my own heart tucked within the folds of sorrow.

With enormous skill and sensitivity, Teresa deftly explores the history she shared with Carola and the relentless love of a child for her mother.

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Editorial Reviews

Sue Monk Kidd
“The world needs Moonlight on Linoleum because . . . it is what redemption looks like."
From the Publisher
“The world needs Moonlight on Linoleum because . . . it is what redemption looks like."

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781451628470
Publisher:
Howard Books
Publication date:
10/04/2011
Pages:
304
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt

Emerson, Iowa

1950

“I left your Dad,” Mama told me more than once, “because I didn’t want to kill him.”

She wasn’t kidding.

Mama said she stood at the kitchen counter, her hand touching the smooth wooden handle of a butcher knife. In an argument that grew more heated, Mama felt her fist close around the handle. For a brief moment, she deliberated between slashing our father with the knife or releasing it harmlessly back onto the counter and walking away.

My sister Vicki was ten months old; I was two. Mama was seventeen.

By all accounts, Mom and Dad loved one another, even though Mama lied about her age. Mama told my dad that she had celebrated her eighteenth birthday; Dad, twenty-two, believed her. But the State of Iowa insisted on seeing Mama’s record of birth before granting them a marriage license. Only then did Mama confess her lie to my dad. He broke down and cried. Mama was fourteen, not eighteen. Still, despite the deceit and age difference, on Wednesday, May 26, 1948, Carola Jean Simmonds and Donald Lee Skinner said “I do.” Mama’s mother signed her consent.

Mama definitely looked older than fourteen. She had thick black hair that fell around her face, accenting the widow’s peak she inherited from her mother. Her hazel eyes reflected not a shy, timid girl, but held a womanly gaze that belied her years. Physically, she was curved and bosomed. But she was not pregnant. According to my birth certificate, I came along a full eleven months after they married, proving their union sprang from something other than necessity.

Part of Mama’s motivation may have sprung from her eagerness to leave home. Her older brother, my Uncle Gaylen, witnessed the difficult relationship Mama had with their mother.

“This is hard to tell,” he said. “When your mom was just a baby, I remember walking alongside her baby carriage with our mom. I must have been about eight. Carola was crying and crying and Mom got so mad. She stopped the carriage, walked to a nearby tree, and yanked off a switch. She returned to the carriage and whipped your mom for crying. I couldn’t believe she was whipping a baby.”

Uncle Gaylen fumbled for words, attributing his mom’s state of mind to my grandfather Gashum’s infidelity. “I think Mom took out all her frustrations on Carola,” he said.

I wish I could scrub that stain from our family’s history. I wish I could reach back in time, snatch the switch from Grandma’s raised fist, and snap it across my knee. It might have made a difference. Mama’s life might have taken a different turn.

She might not have been so desperate for tenderness.

By the time Mama turned fourteen, she had fallen for my dad. Instead of protesting when Mama asked to marry him, Grandma extolled my father’s family, told Mama she was lucky to have him, and readily signed permission for Mama to marry. With the words “I do” uttered in the sleepy town of Glenwood, Iowa, Mama became a fourteen-year-old tenant farmer’s wife.

Around that time, Mama wrote a couple of jingles and sold them to Burma Shave as part of their road-side advertising campaign. Mama liked to drive by a particular set of red and white signs posted successively along the highway near Glenwood. The words on the signs, which built toward a punchline farther down the road, were Mama’s words, right there in plain daylight, for the whole world to see.

His cheek

Was rough

His chick vamoosed

And now she won’t

Come home to roost

Burma Shave

It’s impossible to know which jingles Mama wrote, but, all her life, she loved the word vamoose.

During the first year of their marriage, my parents moved into a house without running water, off County Road L-45 not far from the Waubonsie Church and Cemetery outside Glenwood. Dad, a farmer, loved the land and spent long hours plowing, planting, and tending the livestock. His mother, my Grandma Skinner, lived four miles down the gravel road. Grandma Skinner had raised six children while slopping the pigs, sewing, planting a garden, canning, baking, and putting hearty meals on the table three times a day. I think Dad assumed all women inherited Grandma’s Hestian gene.

But not his child-bride, Carola Jean. She could write a jingle, but she knew nothing about cooking, gardening, cleaning, or running a household—not even how to iron.

“Your mom couldn’t keep up with the house or the laundry,” Aunt Dixie, my dad’s sister, said years later. “If she ran out of diapers, she’d pin curtains or dishtowels on you, anything she could get her hands on.”

I doubt Mama knew what to do with a screaming colicky baby either, one who smelled of sour milk and required little sleep. In a house without running water, I must have contributed to a legion of laundry and fatigue. The doctor finally determined I suffered from a milk allergy and switched me to soy milk, which cured my colic, but not my aversion to sleep.

“In desperation,” Mama recounted many times, “I scooted your crib close enough to the bed to reach my hand through the slats to hold your hand. Finally you’d settle down, but—” Mama would draw in a long breath here—“if I let go, you’d wake up and start crying all over again. You always wanted to be near me. Sometimes I cried, too.”

Without fail, the next part of her story included a comparison between me and my sister Vicki, born fourteen months later.

“Now, Vicki was just the opposite,” Mama marveled. “I’d have to keep thumping her on her heel just to keep her awake long enough to eat.”

Mama’s retelling of that story during our growing-up years made me feel like thumping Vicki, too, and it had nothing to do with staying awake. I pictured Vicki sleeping peacefully and wished I had been an easier child. More than once I wanted to shout, I can’t help what I did as a baby! But I held my tongue; I was good at that.

By the time Vicki joined our household, we lived in a former rural schoolhouse near Emerson, Iowa. It was here that Mama broke.

She was sixteen.

No matter how you do the math, the equation always comes out the same; Mama was little more than a child herself. The rigors of marriage, farm life, and two girls under the age of two finally came crashing down on her.

Mama had adopted a kitten, much to my delight and my dad’s dismay. Dad did not want animals in the house. But Mama stood her ground; the kitten stayed. Mama loved watching it pounce on a string and lap milk from a bowl. She loved hearing it purr and worked with me to be gentle with it.

One afternoon, in the driveway, Dad ran over the kitten. Mama could not stop crying.

“He said it was an accident and he was sorry,” Mama told me years later. “But I never believed him.” She jutted out her jaw. “He didn’t want that kitten in the house.”

I find it unlikely that my dad intentionally ran over a kitten. He had a reputation for being soft when it came to killing animals, even to put food on the table. But I do believe some part of their marriage died with that kitten.

When Mama found herself clutching the butcher knife, she said she thought about me and Vicki, what using the knife would mean, how it would carve a different course for each of us. I’ll be forever grateful that Mama fast-forwarded to the consequences in her mind. She released her grip on the handle and chose divorce over murder.

I have only a single flash of memory of leaving Iowa.

I’m sitting on the plush seat of a train, the nappy brocade scratching my thighs. I’m not afraid, because I’m pressed against Mama’s arm; I can feel the warmth of her against my side as she rocks rhythmically. She holds Vicki (who no doubt was sleeping). I repeatedly click my black patent shoes together and apart, together and apart, noticing the folded lace tops of my anklets hanging just over the edge of the cushion. The world is a blur passing by the train window. Clickety-clack. Clickety-clack. Watch your back. We are headed west to Fort Morgan, Colorado.

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