It was an early morning in June, one week after school had ended and the day after my tenth birthday, June 25, 1958 to be exact. The phone rang. My dad, Ken Gormley, still in his pajamas and bare-footed, dashed across the hardwood floors of our Malibu Lake home in Southern California to answer the phone with a surprised look on his face. No one ever called this early. After a brief conversation, Dad walked ashen-faced back into the family room. He called to me and my little, eight year old brother, Pat, to tell us the grim news.
“Marilyn and Pat, I’ve something to tell you. Mommy has died,” he muttered softly.
This was unexpected. We’d all just visited her yesterday. The Motion Picture Hospital where my dad worked as a steam and refrigeration engineer and where my mother, Bessie, had been in “hospice care” had given us a special birthday visit. As young as Pat and I were, we were never allowed to visit our mother the long months she’d been hospitalized on and off for the past two years. But on this “birthday visit” the hospital had made an exception.
Mom was doing well and was obviously proud of my reaching ten. I could sense something in her expressions, a relief that seemed to say, “My babies are growing up and are doing fine.” She sat up in bed and chatted with us with a satisfied and calm demeanor, her soft Southern accent always pleasant to hear. In later years, my family came to believe that she’d willed herself to keep living those long eight years of battling cancer until that moment when she felt confident that Pat and I would be okay, not babies anymore.
My beautiful mom with high cheek bones, blue-blue eyes and the Southern drawl, only thirty-six years old, gone from my life when I had only just turned ten. My mom who baked cookies and made strawberry short cake from scratch; my mom who would give the most profound answers to my simple, childish questions was never going to be part of my life again.
“Where did everything come from?” I asked Mom when I was five.
“God made everything,” she replied. This revelation led to my lifelong belief in God.
“There must be life on other planets since there is life here on Earth,” she had stated when I ask about that possibility when I was eight years old.
Back in the 1950’s, before space exploration, this was very advanced thinking for her, who’d been raised as a Mississippi farm girl. I would never be able to ask her about her life and beliefs again. This is what I miss the most.
Sadly, Dad called Pat and I to his now dimly lit master bedroom where we sat on our parent’s double bed with the happy yellow bedspread. A place we two kids had snuggled safely when we were little. It was now our place of mourning. We all cried together for hours like an old Irish wake. There was nothing to be said. Mom was gone forever. We three were as one sad heart, each grieving the same loss.
Before that phone call our family had been Mom and Dad and little brother and big sister. I was Daddy’s little girl and Pat was Mommy’s little boy; a totally even parent distribution. There were no conflicts. We each were cherished by both our parents, but each was “special” to either Mom or Dad. Now it was a different dynamic, just Dad to be shared in competition by brother and sister. This didn’t become evident at first, but in a couple of years it became our daily power battle.
When the day ended, Dad quickly set to work to solve our dilemma. For two years we’d needed a baby-sitter during the swing shift which was two in the afternoon to ten at night that Dad worked on weekdays. He got us up and off to school, not very well groomed, but well fed and loved much. After school, various regular baby-sitters would care for us. On weekends, Dad spent all his time with us, a true “Mr. Mom.” Now he was in a panic, but didn’t let us know it. He was terrified Social Services would take us away, a totally irrational fear since he was a good provider and care giver.
Therefore, Dad arranged for me to spend the summer at my best friend, Debbie Gunn’s home. Debbie and I were so much alike, we were often mistaken as twins. Despite the fact that Debbie was a brunette and I was blonde, we were both very short, had blue eyes, and acted alike; both a little shy, but goofy and silly. So instead of having a sad, lonely summer, I had a really fun summer with Debbie, swimming and boating in Malibu Lake, playing dolls, swinging and pretending we were horses, which was one of our favorite games.
I also assisted Debbie with all her household chores, which were many since she was the oldest daughter of eight children in that large Catholic family. Even though I missed Mom terribly, the fact was that despite the shock and finality of my mom’s death, I had become used to her being gone. Pat was to spend summer days at his best friend, Robbie Blakely’s house; later in the evening he’d go home when Dad would pick him up after work.
Dad, a short French-Irishman with black hair, barely middle-age, a Maurice Chevalier nose, always with a joke to tell and clever sayings he made up, had a charm that could win any lady. He started dating Esther immediately and quickly won her over. She was a fifty year old spinster, seven years older than Dad. She worked at the Motion Picture Hospital and had served food to my mother. She and Dad had met in the elevator. Pat and I were introduced to her when Dad took us all to the country fair. I liked her; she laughed a lot and seemed to be truly happy and comfortable with our family.
On Labor Day, in early September, they married. Dad called me home from the Gunn’s. The Gunns tried to persuade me to stay by offering to take me and their kids to the Ice Capades. Later I found out they’d offered to adopt me, primarily, I thought, to help Debbie keep their four-story home clean, while Mrs. Gunn was continually pregnant and Mr. Gunn worked two jobs.
Pat and I, who were always included in all our family’s activities, were invited to go on the honeymoon, a trip to Seattle, Washington. Cute, button nosed, blue-eyed Pat, the spitting image of our mother, who had declared to Esther before the marriage, “Go away, you’re not our Mommy,” started adjusting to her as our new step-mom. We called her “Es,” her nickname, never Mom. “Mom” was reserved forever for our Mom.
Sometimes I felt guilty for how Dad, Pat, and I occasionally excluded her as part of the “real” family. When we’d talk about Mom it was like we had a secret club that Es didn’t belong to. We needed to talk about Mom and work through the grieving process, but because Dad had remarried so quickly, it was awkward. It must have been difficult for her and showed in the hurt in her green eyes when this happened. She tried hard to be the mom we needed but that special intimacy and bond that existed with our own mother was gone forever.
Despite Dad’s mad dash to “save the family,” he was unable to cope with his own grief and bitter disappointment because of my mom’s death. Never allowing himself to fully grieve, he started drinking daily. He was angry at life and God for Mom’s death and was often unkind to Esther, even sometimes throwing her dinners against the wall if he didn’t like it. But he always treated me and Pat as precious. We were never spanked or even disciplined in anyway; the way he had always raised us. He continued to be a good provider and limited his drinking to “after hours.”
Esther responded to this abuse by having a mental breakdown the summer I turned thirteen. She spent that summer of 1961 in a mental hospital having “shock” treatments. She came home with daily medications, a changed attitude which was cold and sometimes hostile, with future tendencies towards more nervous breakdowns. Her laughter was gone. Later we learned she’d exhibited mental illness symptoms since she was a child in the 1910’s when she had almost died because of a very high fever. There was a lack of antibiotics in that era. Perhaps that’s why, despite her Irish dark-haired, freckled good- looks, she had never married until she met Dad.
Now my family had become dysfunctional. Dad and Es stayed together for twenty years, until her death at age seventy. They had their good and bad times, but managed to raise me and Pat in an outwardly normal way with vacation trips and outings. However, there was always an underlying tension. Pat and I battled competitively from junior high on, never being nice to each other. The sweet, cherished family when my mother was alive became just a memory.
In my teens, I learned of other women who had worked in World War II factories who had developed cancer, like my mother; and their daughters were unable to have children. I concluded my mother’s cancer had developed by exposure to radiation or toxins in the San Francisco bomb factory she’d worked in during the war where she’d met Dad. She had been a lead lady who was in charge of testing bombs for leaks and cracks.
As adults, both my brother and I, although healthy, never were able to have children. This led to my becoming an adoptive and foster parent. I wanted to help children from troubled homes. I wanted to be a loving and guiding support in their life, as my mother had been in mine. Although Mom’s time in my life was short, I always carry the memory of her love.
Contributor's Note: I've lived here in Lake Isabella for seven years now. I'm a retired foster parent, but am still raising permanently placed children. I started college at the age of 59. The things I enjoy the most are helping kids be the best they can be and going to college so I can be the best I can be, too.