Farrago, from the Latin farragin, is a word that means a confused mixture. This memoir, sharing the story of the relationship between author Diana B. Roberts and her mother, Markie, is just that-a farrago, containing neither positive nor negative judgment.
Markie Byron Roberts was eighty-five years old when she passed away-a long life for anyone, but particularly for a woman who'd been institutionalized for mental illness six times, beginning at age sixteen, and who had been unwillingly subjected to thirty-six shock therapy treatments. Through mental and physical illness, on her death bed and throughout her life, she maintained a personal sense of style reminiscent of her long bygone life. In the end she went quietly, politely, and silently to the other side, leaving her children to wonder what her life, and their lives,might have been like if she had been with them all along.
A victim of mental illness and the wounding loss of her family's place in society, Markie became incapable of raising her three children. For many years the lingering effects of the brief years she spent with Markie Created shadow over Diana's life, a kind of aura of both the presence and absence of her mother.
Finally healed after a lifetime of uncertainty and ready to help shed light on the needs of survivors of parental mental illness, author Diana B. Roberts details life with and without-her mother. This is their story.
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A MEMOIR OF MARKIE AND ME
By DIANA B. ROBERTS
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2013 Diana B. Roberts
All rights reserved.
A Short Hospital Stay
My mother, Markie, lay for hours on a stretcher in the hall outside the emergency room, waiting for a referral for treatment from the doctor who never came. It seemed so unfair to pass away on "diversion" from a bigger, better hospital. That is the term hospitals use for turning a patient away due to overcrowding in the ER. Perhaps it was because she had no insurance. It didn't matter. We got there too late after the doctor's call. By 2:30 a.m. she was gone. It was Marathon Day, Boston, April 16, 2002.
Markie was very sick anyway, but having to leave this world on a stretcher outside a treatment room seemed a sorry end to a long, mostly reclusive, sad life. She left behind three children whom she did not raise and who were as confused by her in death as they were by her in life. But even in illness, and mental illness, on her death bed and throughout her life, Markie Byron Roberts had style. In the end she went quietly, politely, and silently to the other side leaving us to wonder what her life, and our lives, might have been like if she had been with us all along.
My name is Diana. I was named for my mother's youngest sister, Diana Byron, whom my mother said was murdered at the age of 25. I am Diana Byron Roberts. I am the oldest of my deceased mother's three children, four if you count the miscarriage she had between me and my next younger brother, George.
My youngest brother, Cameron, stood next to our mother's lifeless head, weeping silently. My daughter, Page, was there, holding strong because she knew her mother did not know what or how to feel. George, our middle brother, was not there because he could never be in places where emotions might open up a floodgate of childhood memories. I briefly touched the hair and patted the face of the woman who brought me into this world. But I could not cry for the woman who never raised me.
There we were huddled together in a semi-private room next to someone who was comatose but not dead, at least not yet. Her face, barely visible above the stained white sheet and pale blue blanket, was the same color as Markie's bloodless blanched face. It was ironic that in death Markie looked the same now as she did in life. Her face, in life, always covered in white, white, white talcum powder, now in death seemed unchanged and inscrutable as that of a porcelain doll.
As if by design, the walls of the Needham Deaconess Hospital also matched the skin color of the two patients in the double room, except that the walls were peeling in many places, exposing plaster and iron pipes. Off and on I wondered about how my mother's face would peel underground and if the worms would render her pock marked and wrinkled like the decaying walls of the hospital.
The hospital in the early morning was completely quiet except for the sound of TVs left on by night nurses accompanied by the occasional beep of a bedside monitor. I felt as if I could hear IVs dripping everywhere, mocking the silence all around me.
A nurse's aide came by to close the curtains around Markie's bed to shield her roommate from what had just occurred. She told us we could stay as long as we needed to. I kept thinking that's what Markie did: she stayed as long as she needed to. Eighty-five years was a long time on earth for a woman who had been committed six times to mental institutions since her teens and had endured 36 shock treatments not by choice.
In her last days she talked about wanting to join our father George up in heaven. This was the last will and testament of a woman who claimed the biggest accomplishments in her life were divorcing her husband, not once, but twice and maintaining her strong stance against any belief in God. So what exactly did she really do with her time on this planet? She did not spend it much with me.
Several days before her death I sensed it was time to steal an afternoon from work to drive to Needham to visit her and to begin hospice care. I came with flowers and a smile, although inside I was very anxious about what was happening. The sun was shining through the curtain less window which was open, allowing in the fresh spring air. Tomorrow would be a great start for the Boston Marathon tomorrow if the weather held.
The nurse came by again, this time to say we could stay as long as we wanted. I could not wait to leave. I did not need to stay any longer. I left the room first and the others followed. The sun would soon be up and the Boston Marathon would begin in Hopkinton. I wished I could be running the 26 mile race that day instead of having to face arrangements for my mother's farewell.
One Flew Out of the Cuckoo's Nest
During the 1960s, when being institutionalized was often thought to be the optimum treatment for the mentally ill, Markie had moved rapidly in and out of residential mental institutions in New York. At twenty-two I was a college dropout busy escaping all responsibilities of an emerging adult. After a few odd jobs, I was lucky enough to join the Peace Corps in November of 1966. After three months of training in early childhood development at Wheelock College in Boston, I headed to New York and the flight to Tunis, the capital of Tunisia. Forty-four of us had made it through training and were headed for our "in-country orientation." We were going to set up day care centers in cities and towns all over Tunisia at sites built by a group of Peace Corps architects already in the country. We were called Tunisia Child Care 8. Later I would learn that we were the last Peace Corps group to train in the United States and not in the host country. It would be cheaper in the future to train volunteers in the country in which they would be stationed. There would also be fewer surprises from the very beginning of training and less attrition overall.
Just before the end of training my grandmother, Muffy, wrote from New York that she wanted to meet me in the airport in New York before my departure. At the time I knew that neither she nor I had any idea where Markie was although I thought she must be somewhere in New York City as she had no means to leave. I knew that Markie's only means of survival came in the form of a government disability check and that she must be picking it up regularly or at least have at a P.O. number. In her own way she was a survivor wherever she might be.
Muffy drove up to the airport parking lot in an honest-to-God pink Cadillac convertible that she had borrowed from a friend just for this visit. The top was down and even though I had not seen her since I was six when I last lived with my mother in the apartment above Muffy at 59 East 79th Street, I recognized her as my mother's mother. The salmon pink blouse was the signature color I remembered of her as a child. She walked toward me where I sat in the section for those preparing for overseas flight.
"Hello, my darling, I am so happy to see you," she said. I have a gift for you to keep you healthy in that African country." She handed me a large heart shaped yellow box with Whitman's Sampler clearly marked in red script on the cover. What a nice gift for my send off. Maybe Muffy wasn't so weird. Muffy had surrounded the box with a red satin ribbon to hold the contents together inside. Very thoughtful. I pulled on the ribbon and lifted the box top.
"Wow," I stammered as I looked down on an array of several hundred multicolored pills. I am sure I seemed a bit stunned as I uttered my thanks. For a brief moment I contemplated the possible origin of my mother's early peculiarities.
"Vitamins, darling, vitamins! They are the key. You will need them, especially the Bs, to keep your body and mind whole and healthy," Muffy assured me as she picked out a red one and popped it in her mouth.
In another half hour, I thought, I would be gone and this woman would no longer be sitting next to me on this bench, too close for comfort. Then she started in: "I know you don't where your mother is or where she has been but I will tell you Markie has been in and out of a number of institutions in the last several years and up until recently had been living in a flea-bitten, rundown place called the Scott Hotel on the Westside. I have not seen or heard from her for months at a time in the last few years. One afternoon, about a month ago, in January, the phone rang."
"Hello, Muffy. It's Markie," my grandmother, who sounded much like my mother, reproduced the exact sound of Markie's voice as I remembered it. Old New York, aristocratic.
"You can't imagine the lump in my throat, Diana, to hear Markie's voice. All I can say is she didn't look as badly as I expected when I first saw her. She looked like she was eating better and had gained a little weight. Apparently she had gotten out of the horrible hotel and is now occupying that little apartment in Brooklyn that she once shared with your brothers. I have improved and furnished it. I am hoping at some point she can move into a bigger one, closer to me in Manhattan."
"Diana, I cannot pretend that she is well, but she is much better. I am sure most of the time she is fine. Some of the time she slips into what I call 'the bad moods'. There is a new book out on schizophrenia which describes the cause of the disease and its treatment. It asserts that it is a malfunction of the adrenal gland system—producing a poison in the patient's body which produces a chemical imbalance which in turn throws the brain and nervous system completely off base. The wonderful thing is that the two doctors who have done the research have found a vitamin that will restore the balance and repair the damage to keep the patient on an even keel. It will also prevent the disease from developing in persons who may be susceptible to the disease through heredity."
Here my attention began to fade. "It's very simple. Eat a high protein diet (practically no carbohydrates, no caffeine, no smoking and 3000 USP units (300 milligrams) of niacin (vitamin B3) daily. It is not expensive and is natural. I have not priced it as a synthetic, if in fact that exists."
Although Muffy had brought me all those vitamins to ward off any future demons that might come my way in Africa, clearly she was thinking about how to cure her daughter much closer to home.
"The problem now is to present it to your mother without connecting it to her trouble and prescribed for her by someone in whom she would have confidence. This has all come to me very recently and I am still waiting for the perfect opening. Meanwhile, I want you to know you need never again have fear the possibility of heredity because this defense is always available to you. I would be inclined to follow this diet pattern as closely as possible because, in any case, it's much the best diet for everyone. If you are interested I will send you the exact list of the high-protein foods in the process of my gathering all this information together."
Mentally I was beginning to scratch my head, wondering how long this monologue would go on when Muffy changed the subject.
"I want you to know, Diana, that your mother is thinking of you and brothers Teddy and Cameron all the time. She feels so much heartbreak because of the complete absence of communication for so long. When the birthday week comes along in the month of August when she and you and Teddy and Cameron all have birthdays, it is an agonizing eight days for her. That's about the time she starts trying to call first you, then Teddy and then Cameron. This week I managed to reach your stepmother, Joan, and asked her to tell Markie that you are 'abroad.' I knew this would soften the blow for Markie when she could not reach you." Muffy seemed familiar with making up explanations.
"All girls seem to manage to go to Europe these days. However, she is now thinking you will return soon. When I spoke with your stepmother, Joan, she said Markie must be told where you are. I do not want her to ever know that I know where you are going and will not tell her. I know it would hurt her excruciatingly to know you left the country without seeing her."
"So please, dear, please sit down on that plane and write to her. That would be the kindest and greatest way for her to hear from you. Please say that you have heard from 'home' (not me) that she is living in an apartment in Brooklyn so you are sending the letter in my care. Tell her you did not let her know you were going to Africa because you felt it might distress her and that you have been so busy in training, etc. I know you will do this well."
"Whatever your contact has been with her since you were sixteen like that time for lunch in Boston at the Red Coach Grille with your brothers, she has completely forgotten. She thinks of you as you were as a baby and at three years old in the photographs of you I gave her to take to her apartment. The very first night in her apartment she put them next to her bed. I feel it is difficult for her to picture you all grown up. She still thinks of you as much younger. I suppose that is natural as that is how she remembers you." Another odd-sounding explanation.
"I'll be anxiously waiting for your letter to her. It's so important to bring her back into the real world from which she has been totally isolated for so long. She adores coming to my apartment near Central Park just to sit and remember the past when we were all together here, when you lived upstairs on the second floor."
We hugged briefly and said our goodbyes. At that point, I had no intention of writing. Muffy's last words were "I am so glad they are sending you to a city and not the jungle."
I moved quickly to put my bags in the line to get on the plane and to shut Muffy's request out of my mind for the duration of the plane ride and for the foreseeable
After three months of training at Wheelock College in Boston to be a childcare specialist speaking Arabic and French, I was ready for my Peace Corps assignment to spend the next eighteen months in Tunisia. When I left Boston in February of 1967, winter was in full force. When I touched down in Tunis, it was warm and the palm trees were everywhere lining the streets. After a night of rest in a hotel where I would discover the next morning that my L.L. Bean penny loafers had been stolen, we took a bumpy, very speedy ride by bus to the Peace Corps home office in Carthage. I remembered from my fourth year Latin high school class that Carthage was founded by a woman, Dido, who fell in love with Aeneas. Dido's story ended in suicide caught up in the flames of a funeral pyre. That was Virgil's tragic tale of a lustful Queen of Tyre, in the epic poem the "Aeneid." Much less well-known is the legend, passed down in oral form, of a heroine who through courage and determination founded a city to rival Rome, and who refused to let herself be subject to men, even at the cost of her life.
The legend was not lost on me during our in-country training. Dido may have been a strong woman and a city builder, but I was definitely entering a patriarchal society where women were covered from head to toe with the burka and rarely left the courtyard of their homes. As a daycare worker I would have to become familiar with many family traditions that did not favor young women. In and around Tunis and Carthage and Sidi Bou Said, home, at one point, of the English spy Kim Philby, we visited a number of day care centers filled with the children of wealthy Tunisians and government officials. In the big cities my French proved efficient and effective. When I was told that I would be assigned to Sousse, the second largest city in Tunisia, about three hours from the capitol, I knew I would have to improve my command of spoken Tunisian Arabic.
My roommate, Terry, and I took up residence in Sousse in an old "marabout" we rented for the equivalent of $14 a month. The term refers to a Muslim hermit or saint and the tomb of the saint is called a "marabout." Our marabout had a bedroom with Dutch style beds built into the wall, half way up, one on opposite sides of the room. The beds were so large that they were almost like separate inner rooms within the bedroom. There was a living room, a kitchen with no refrigerator and a bathroom shower over a Turkish toilet that was barely more than a hole in the cement with a place to plant your feet and squat down. The rooms surrounded an open courtyard. Above the courtyard a narrow path ran around on top of the four square stucco walls of our house. The children next door often got on the top of their building and ran along the turret looking straight down into our courtyard at any time during the day. We were able to rent the place just as the architect assigned to build our jardin d'enfants was ready for us to begin registering children.
I met the mayor of the municipality at the yard just outside the jardin on my first day of work, as part of my introduction to my future charges that were between the ages of four and seven. Soon after I arrived at the site, I was greeted by a number of children coming off the street into the space to see what the new foreigner looked like. A little boy of about four and a taller girl of five or six approached me together.
"Huwa Hiya blank, blank, blankity blank" the girl said directly to me. I didn't catch the meaning of the verb in the sentence. I searched my brain to retrieve the right meaning from my three months of intensive training in Tunisian Arabic back in the States. I stared blankly at the girl, turned toward the boy and at last turned to the mayor who was chuckling by now.
"Excuse me, your Honor," I started in my best two-plus-Foreign Service-rating Tunisian Arabic, "I am so embarrassed. I am afraid I am inadequate and cannot translate what she said."
The mayor spoke decisively without even a trace of irony or a smile.
"The little girl just reported that the little boy told the little girl to go fuck herself."
"Oh, sir, I did not learn that verb in training but I will look for it in the future," I said trying hard not to smile or to let on that I saw any humor in this incident. "I will see that Mounique takes a time out to consider the harsh language she has used."
Once the jardin was fully operating, I worked with two Tunisian assistants who helped me with the seventy children in the day care center, many of whom were not yet toilet trained. In Tunisia and other Arab countries toilet training is a matter of the child's readiness, not the parent's, to become fully disciplined in the habits of the toilet. And furthermore I was told the "Turkish toilet" is a much better invention than the Western "sit." In any case, I had my hands full most of the time keeping up with the children.
Excerpted from FARRAGO by DIANA B. ROBERTS. Copyright © 2013 by Diana B. Roberts. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc..
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Table of Contents
1. A Short Hospital Stay.................... 1
2. One Flew Out of the Cuckoo's Nest.................... 4
3. Round Trip.................... 8
4. Meeting the Big Guy.................... 24
5. Surviving Chairman Mao.................... 36
6. In A New York State of Mind.................... 39
7. Markie in the Mirror.................... 50
8. Ladies of the Vincent.................... 56
9. The Young Marrieds.................... 62
10. An Early Education.................... 69
11. Eye in the Wind.................... 73
12. Deep in the Heart of Texas.................... 77
13. In the Land of the Greek Gods.................... 89
14. The Arms of Medusa.................... 95
15. On Centre.................... 107
16. Two Schools of Thought.................... 117
17. Reunited for Good.................... 123
18. Harpy in the House.................... 127
19. The Message in Filene's Basement.................... 134
20. Head Mistress.................... 138
21. Lunch in a Boston Diner.................... 142
22. The Glass Is Nearly Full.................... 149
23. Caesar's Way.................... 152
24. A Christmas Story.................... 157
25. All Things Bright and Beautiful.................... 163