By any measure I was a pretty lucky kid. I lived in a small town on Cape Cod, I had a good group of friends, and I had a great family. We had gone on vacations together to Florida, I went to summer camp, and I was a really happy kid. I was entering the 5th grade at the age of 9 and my teachers all said I was a bright kid and a natural leader. I wasn’t a straight A student by any means, but I did very well and generally schoolwork came easily for me.
Around this time, there were a number of things going on in the family about which I didn’t know. Barbara had gone off to college in Boston and Janis had gone to Southern Seminary in Buena Vista, VA for her last year of high school. That left me as the only child in the house. As things developed and as I look back on it, perhaps there was some design to it all.
It seems that my untimely birth had set a series of events in motion. Both of my parents were extremely ordered and strict with their own lives. They were terrific planners and executors of plans. They were unused to major problems with their plans and I was that problem. Don’t misunderstand, they loved me and nurtured me with all their hearts. But I introduced problems. And it didn’t help that I was as precocious as I was.
The first major event was my series of illnesses in the 2nd grade. Over a 12-week period my mother had not gotten any sleep and no one else could help because I was so contagious. On at least one of those doctor visits, she asked for some help “with her nerves.” Before long she was taking a string of multi-colored pills every day. While I didn’t notice it, I am told that her mood swings from that point on had escalated to the point where you never knew what was going to happen next. There were episodes of spontaneous crying that I remember but I never knew why or what was going on. Parents didn’t talk to their children about such things in the ‘50s. My father would usually say, “Don’t worry, it’s not your fault.” I would breathe a sigh of relief and go on with whatever I was doing.
Then in February my father sat down with me and explained that he and my mother were getting a divorce and that I would be living with my mother. I didn’t understand any of it. I was too young to really understand what was happening and too old not to be terribly effected by it. My world was imploding, I was 10 years old, and I was very, very confused. I cried uncontrollably for a long time. When I was finished, I didn’t speak to anyone for a week. Perhaps that was a contributing factor to how I would develop. I had determined that I would hold it all inside, not show myself to the outside; build my own world and retreat to it when needed. My mind had conjured up its own survival mechanism.
There would be a delay of about a month while my mother gathered her things and then she and I would be moving someplace else. One of the things I didn’t know at that time (and no one thought to tell me) was that my mother had suffered something called a “nervous breakdown.” This definition, “mental breakdown (also known as a nervous breakdown) is an acute, time-limited phase of a specific disorder that manifests primarily with features of depression or anxiety” sums up her mental state at that time. The combination of all the pills for the past few years and the emotional stress of a divorce had been too much for her. The courts however, thought that granting custody of a 10-year-old boy to a person in this mental state was perfectly proper because she was, after all, the mother. While I didn’t know it at the time, much of the month’s delay was a time for her to recover enough to function properly in her new life with her young son.
Our first stop was a tiny, dirty apartment in a bad section of Cambridge, MA. I had never been to a city before and I was scared to death every single day. I went to Kelly Elementary School and my grades went instantly to failing. I was unable to concentrate on anything and the curriculum in Cambridge was significantly different from what I had always known. There were no art or music programs and physical education was relegated to running around a gym for 45 minutes. Fortunately we were only there for a month or so when we moved to a small house on Fresh Pond Parkway, also in Cambridge. I finished out 5th grade in another school, continued to barely pass my schoolwork, and somehow it was determined that I should be promoted to 6th grade.
But the pills continued. And as my mother was being prescribed into someone I didn’t know, I withdrew into my own little 10-year-old world. I didn’t understand anything that was going on and my only outlet came once a month when I would spend a weekend with my father. He still lived in the home where I had grown up and he was still the same person I always knew. And now, he had added incentive for us to do things together and enjoy ourselves. But I was the one in the middle. He would always ask, “how’s your mother?” and when I went back to Cambridge my mother would always ask, “how’s your father?” Everyone wanted information when most often there was none to give.
It wasn’t long before my mother’s paranoia had convinced her that my father was trying to take me away. I didn’t have the slightest idea what she was talking about, but she decided that the best thing to do was to move as far away as she could. That became her motto: “When in doubt, run.” So she modified the custody agreement so that I would visit my father once a year for a month in the summer instead of one weekend a month. She needed a place that was far away and also represented a place of safety. Since her parents lived in Fort Myers, FL, I started 6th grade at Bennett Elementary in Wilton Manors, FL.
© J T Weaver