One day I was given a writing prompt: tell about a person you’ve known, someone you’d describe as simple. Well, the simplest person I ever knew was my birth mother, Mom Vance. She was about as simple as they come.
Mom’s stepmom Maggie told me Mom was born “simple,” as far as she knew. I suspect that circa 1923 a number of babies were damaged at birth by various factors not controllable in the days of home deliveries, without x-rays or antibiotics. A difficult labor, a baby deprived of oxygen at birth, or an infantile infection resulting in days of high fever. The brain was damaged and the child was classed as slow, simple, or addle-pated.
And part of the problem was that Mom got her head stuck inside a cream can when she was nine years old. The family says she was already blue when they got her unstuck, so that oxygen deprivation likely did yet more damage.
Mom was friendly enough to people she knew, but not the cheerful, everybody’s-friend like a Down’s syndrome child. More like someone half asleep. Sometimes we say of such a person: “The lights are on but nobody’s home.”
I nodded when I read in Oliver Twist that “Mr Bumble struck Oliver with his cane; once on the back to make him lively and once on the head to make him wise.” Yeah; that was the policy and it probably made some normal children “simple.” One woman talked of how her father would knock the kids’ heads together and she’d see stars. It wasn’t because all folks back then were so cruel, but in that society nobody seemed to know any other way to raise children.
So I feel Mom’s upbringing was a contributing factor to her mental state. When I was young the old folks held to the concept that if a child was slow, a good whack on the head would straighten things out “upstairs.” And being slow, Mom got more than her share of whacks on the head — with frying pans even, I’m told. In one instance Mom’s father blew up and beat her over the head repeatedly with a chunk of wood until his brother intervened.
My Dad F, incensed at me over some density on my part, would often say, “You don’t have the brains you were born with!” Well, Mom V literally didn’t have the brains she was born with — or the emotions, either — because they’d been beaten out of her. Today we’ve tumbled into the ditch on the other side, where parents hardly dare discipline their children, but these former excesses have been cited to support the current position.
Mom did have a kind heart and was generous — too much so at times. She’d let any pal call from her phone — and run up huge phone bills. Anyone could crash at her house. But if she got mad, you had to watch for flying objects. My sister Donna claims she’s dodged a few knives hurled by Mom.
Because of her damaged brain, she couldn’t keep any facts straight. When Donna was expecting her third baby, Mom V told me one day, “The doctor says Donna might be having twins. She wasn’t very happy about that.” Her next remark threw me for a loop. “They say I had twins once, but I can’t remember.”
“Who said you had twins once?”
“Maggie (her stepmother) and them,” Mom replied in her usual vague way. Everything she said was vague. I overheard her trying to explain to someone who I was and she simply couldn’t. I was “that girl.” So Mom wasn’t capable of tact, sense, or the deviousness the rest of us are. As one of my sisters said, “A couple of beer and she was drunk enough to do anything.”
Mom’s schooling ended at Grade Three. My sister and I guessed Mom to be at a nine-year-old’s level, but really, a nine-year-old would be much more capable and careful if made responsible for the care of young children. It was her irresponsibility when I was a three-month-old baby that led to me catching pneumonia and ending up being raised by my uncle & aunt. (I refer to them as Mom & Dad F and call them my “real parents.”)
I must give my Dad V some credit here. He didn’t have much education or smarts, never had a driver’s license, but he was a hard worker. I’m not sure if all my siblings would have survived if he hadn’t been around at least part of the time to keep an eye on things. He really did love his kids and never forgave my uncle for taking me away and keeping me.
It wasn’t till I was older, started meeting other relatives and learning the family story that I discovered what kind of upbringing Mom had and why she was the way she was. But simple she was.