A journalist observes life in the far north.
I remember with great fondness the time we lived in an old house that she was fixing up on Glenwood Drive in Round Lake Beach, IL, the town where I grew up, a place where the Chicago mafia used to spend their summers.
My friend, Sherry, lived in a house with a wrought iron fence and an underground tunnel from under the back door to the back yard. People said Al Capone had lived there.
By the time my mom moved us there following the failure of her second marriage, it was a working class town with a growing Mexican community.
Those days on Glenwood Drive were the glory days of my childhood. My sister and I shared the attic, each of us claiming a side as our bedroom. I had a hampster and a desk with drawers where I kept my letter-writing stationary and Mad Libs.
I used to ride my bike to the gas station a few blocks away to buy my mom cigarettes. I spent the change on candy at the neighboring hot dog stand.
My mom braided my hair every morning, took us to drive-in movies and went to my parent-teacher conferences at Murphy Elementary School, where I was a straight A student.
I remember mom drove a station wagon with a bench in the way back where my brother, Greg, and I liked to sit.
She paid the bills working as a secretary for Dr. Wong, who had a kind stare and a thick accent.
I’ll never forget his clean and sunny bathroom in the way back of a musty building. I spent a lot of time there peeing in cups because I had blood in my urine and Dr. Wong worried over my kidneys. I liked to watch the breeze brush over the pretty yellow curtains and listen to the noise in the alley.
Mom also took public aid. I didn’t think much about that until I was called out of class in school one day and sent to the gymnasium where the floor was covered in toys, some of them old and tattered looking.
It was Christmas time and I was encouraged to pick out a few things.
Even though we were poor, my mom made a huge effort to make Christmas special. She somehow managed to buy us new toys.
I wasn’t very impressed with the toy selection on the gymnasium floor, and school officials weren’t very impressed with my lack of appreciation.
When I returned to class, I knew that the other pupils knew where I had gone and that they knew I was a poor kid on the government dole. That was the day I no longer felt equal with my classmates.
Here’s something that I didn’t know until a few years before my mom died: My mother collected welfare for a phantom child.
You see, she was still married to her first husband, Chuck Jones, a military guy, when I was born so I had the name Amanda Jones even though he wasn’t my father. He had reportedly refused to divorce her on account of being Catholic. It was only after she and Chuck finally divorced and she married my dad, Jim Milner, who was a truck driver at the time, that I became a Milner.
Both Amanda Jones and Amanda Milner had social security numbers. Mom reportedly claimed both children to the government.
The Golden Years of my childhood ended about the time my mom took a third husband, Rich Menconi, a heavy drinker with a home business fixing cars, who was at least 10 years her senior.
I think she figured a husband would bring her happiness or at the very least some security as she coped with a troubling medical diagnosis, Multiple Sclerosis.
I remember the day Rich moved into the house on Glenwood was the first of many times that I ran away from home.
Later, when I was 21 and got married and moved out, I hadn’t really grown up and moved out of the house so much as I ran away from home for the final time.
In my mind, husband No. 3 moving in coincides with mom stopping tucking me into bed at night and braiding my hair in the morning. No longer did we go to Baskin-Robbins 31 Flavors for ice cream on Saturday nights. No more drive-in movies. And since husband No. 3 was a spy who liked to tattle on me and my brother, I had to watch my back.
Still, I sought to keep up appearances outside of our household so I started using my stepfather’s last name. I wanted people to think we were a nice happy family. The town had always seemed to want to keep this single mom of three children at arm’s length. I hoped that my mom marrying a local would improve our social standing.
I think I stopped using my stepfather’s name around the time I got up in the middle of the night to pee and found him passed out on the toilet.
As the years passed, my relationship with my mother became more and more strained, my grades slipped and I began running around with boys and partying. My mom stopped going to my parent-teacher conferences.
Relations between me and my step-dad went from suspicion to hostility to vitriol. The day my mom left him was the same day that he and I had an epic argument. He was drunk, of course. I was sassy and disrespectful, of course.
I went on to steal my mom’s car and she eventually put me in a mental health treatment program. They put me on some heavy-duty drugs that mellowed me out enough to kill any desire to steal her car to go out partying with my friends.
When mom took me back to Dr. Wong for a check up, he was appalled about the psychotropic drugs. He must have shamed my mother because I was told I didn’t have to take the drugs anymore.
Somehow, I managed to graduate high school and my mom said I could live at home for free so long as I was in school. So I worked, attended the nearest community college and hoped to find a decent guy to marry me. It seemed like the ticket to adulthood.
After I was married, my mom confided in me that she was relieved because it meant that she didn’t have to worry about me anymore.
When I left my husband, I didn’t tell my mom for a year because I didn’t want her to worry.
I never went to her for help even though I needed it and I knew I could because she had helped my sister and my brother from time to time. I struggled putting myself through college, working two jobs sometimes.
Sometimes I felt desperate and when my mom was very ill and told me that she wanted to discuss her will, I refused because I didn’t want to look forward to a windfall upon her death.
The last time I visited home and saw my mother, we had a fight. It was silly. We argued over my driving ability but for some reason it got intense. We talked and I thought things were settled, but my sister informed me at my mom’s funeral that she was haunted by the fight.
The last time I spoke to my mother was on the telephone. She was losing her speech ability. No one had told me. It came as a surprise. She stammered and sounded like a stroke victim. I had to bite my fist and swallow because I didn’t want her to hear my sobbing. It was then that I knew she was dying even if I didn’t exactly admit it to myself at the time.
At the funeral, her corpse looked awful. She was swollen up like a blow fish. We opted for open casket and at the last minute we tried to change it to closed casket but the funeral home refused. I think they took it personally.
I had nightmares and went to therapy, which helped, after my mom died. It will be seven years this July.