DIXIE Chapter 1
In this life, most people get only one mom. For better or worse, I drew Dixie Weinzettal Mitchell.
Dixie was a fiery beauty with riveting green eyes – riveting in the sense that they immediately drew everyone’s attention, and riveting in the sense that when she was in the throes of mental illness, her eyes pierced those around her with whatever emotion was raging in her soul at the time. This is her story. It’s also my story growing up in the shadow of dysfunction.
To the best of my knowledge, Dixie wasn’t formally diagnosed with mental health issues until she was in her mid-fifties. It’s safe, however, to say that Dixie’s mental illness didn’t suddenly start during her post-menopausal years. I have no doubt, though, that menopause didn’t improve the situation. Menopause is decidedly not a friend to the women in my family.
There are many aspects to Dixie’s life that point to mental health issues from an early age, as will be evidenced throughout this story. One of those evidentiary factors is that Dixie took Valium daily “for nerves” from the age of 26 until her death at age 79.
As for her diagnosis, doctors bandied about a couple different labels, but the one that finally stuck was bipolar 2 with periods of psychosis. Do I 100% believe it? I don’t know that I’m 100% positive it’s accurate, but it does explain some behavior. Periodically, like her mother, my grandmother Alma, Dixie would take to her bed. At other times, she would go overboard with things, and then there were the times when she would be so mean as to border on evil. I came to refer to those instances as when “Trixie came out.” During these episodes, she behaved so differently from my sweet mama that she seemed a completely different person.
Many doctors say there often is a genetic component to bipolar disorder. Some say, too, that childhood trauma can help trigger the disorder to manifest especially when there’s a genetic predisposition. Dixie’s childhood was definitely traumatic as were her early adult years.
However, this book is not intended to pinpoint the cause of Dixie’s mental illness, but rather to remember and celebrate the way she survived the trauma, raised two successful children in the midst of chaos, and lived her gypsy life.
Dixie – Chapter 2
In September 1940, the United States had been monitoring the wars in Southeast Asia and Europe for a year with increasing trepidation. Many national leaders said it was only a matter of time before the U.S. would be drawn into either one or both war fronts. So, it was, in preparation for the inevitability of war, that the U.S. Congress passed the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940, which initiated the first peacetime military draft in U.S. history. Elmer Weinzetel, 23, was still in the honeymoon phase of his 1938 marriage to the former Alma Annau when he became one of the earliest Americans to dutifully register for the draft on October 14, 1940, in his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri.
Their honeymoon phase, however, was not one of happy new beginnings. In 1940, St. Louis had still not fully recovered from the Great Depression, and Elmer, who only finished one year of high school, had trouble finding steady work. In fact, during 1940, he had at least two different jobs – one selling shoes and one working in a hinge factory. Because steady work was scarce, Elmer and Alma were unable to make it on their own. So, earlier in the year, they lived with Elmer’s brother, Ludwig, and they were living with Alma’s parents, Hungarian immigrants, at the time Elmer registered for the draft.
If times weren’t hard enough on them already, Elmer and Alma had just suffered the loss of their firstborn, two-year-old Elmer, Jr., in July[MC1] , as the result of a freak accident. Little Elmer had been eating peanuts (yes, at two, his parents let him eat peanuts) and fell back off a chair. He might have been okay except that because of the fall, he inhaled the chewed peanuts into his lungs. He didn’t survive the resulting pneumonia. Alma, already prone to “the blues,” was devastated. She took to her bed and was still depressed months later. So, the prospect of Elmer being conscripted into the military for at least twelve months weighed heavily upon them both.
By the following spring, Elmer and Alma’s circumstances had not substantially improved when they learned Alma was pregnant. The United States had not yet gone to war, and although other young men had been drafted, Elmer was not among them. So, they continued to try to scrabble enough money together to contribute to whoever’s household they were living in at any given time.
Then, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The next day, the United States declared war on Japan, and the whole country, including St. Louis, was plunged into chaos, uncertainty and fear. At that time, there was a munitions plant located in Weldon Spring, west of St. Louis, and so even though St. Louis was in the middle of the country, there was concern that it could be targeted by infiltrators or sympathizers. Consequently, soldiers patrolled not only the munitions plant, but the roads and bridges in the surrounding area, too. In addition, St. Louis’ citizens participated apprehensively in blackout drills, where all light was to be blocked from all windows after dark.
December 14, 1941, was a designated blackout drill date, but Elmer and Alma had another event that demanded their attention. On that day, Dixie Lee Weinzettal arrived, kicking and screaming.
With the war effort in the next few years following Dixie’s birth, work was more plentiful even if some resources were rationed. The little Weinzettal family, still at times needing assistance from extended relatives, was better able to make ends meet. But, all was not right with the family. Shortly after Dixie’s birth, Alma, who liked to sing, took to spending several nights a week in a local bar singing for tips. Unfortunately, she spent most of the money she made on drinks.
Elmer wasn’t too concerned about the money she spent. The fact that she earned money singing was shameful to him – not because she earned it singing, but because he did not believe wives should have paying past times. He perhaps should’ve been more concerned about the amount of time she was spending away from home because, before Dixie’s first birthday, he discovered that Alma was having an affair with one of the men who frequented the bar where she sang.
Immediately, Elmer left Alma and took Dixie with him. His primary reason for taking Dixie was to hurt Alma, but Alma welcomed being free from caring for her daughter. Elmer soon realized that caring for an infant on his own was more difficult than he had anticipated.
Again, extended family stepped in to help. Catherine Allen, Elmer’s sister, and her husband George took Dixie into their home. George was a metalworker employed by Architectural Bronze Studio, which still exists in St. Louis. It was steady work, and George was successful in his career. Consequently, the Allens were able to afford a home in the Dutchtown area of St. Louis., and it was there that Dixie had a bed of her own for one of the few times of her childhood. Uncle George and Aunt Catherine, who had a young son, enjoyed having a pretty little girl in their home and showered her with affection and frilly little dresses. In later years, Dixie would describe her time with the Allens as one of the happiest times of her life.
Unfortunately, that happy time was all too short. Before Dixie turned four, the Weinzetels reunited and wrenched Dixie from the only home she knew. Being ripped from her beloved “Daddy George” and “Aunt Caca” left Dixie with abandonment issues that surfaced periodically throughout her life.
In 1945, months after Dixie returned to her parents, the United States Army, which had begun conscripting married fathers previously not called up, pulled Elmer’s number in the draft lottery. He joined the army on April 30, 1945. World War II ended the next month with Germany’s surrender, but Elmer remained in the army until July 15, 1946.
With her parents, Dixie went from an environment where she had plenty of healthy food to eat to one where she sometimes had nothing to eat and rarely had what a child needs to be healthy. No longer did she have a “princess” bed; her sleeping arrangements varied with wherever the Weinzetels were living at the time. But, what stuck with Dixie for the rest of her life was how she was torn from a home where she felt adored to one where she was treated like a nuisance.
Her situation was not improved when, in 1949, Alma gave birth to a son, Gary. Dixie was excited about her baby brother and was thrilled to hold him for the first time. She soon learned, however, that having a son was everything to her parents, and for the rest of her childhood Dixie took a backseat to Gary. When her parents would fight, Dixie repeatedly heard her mother say to her father, “I gave you a son,” as if that accomplishment was worthy of compensation. It only reinforced Dixie’s feelings of being unwanted.
After Gary’s birth, the family lived in a tiny 685-square-foot home in the Fox Park Historic Neighborhood. It was one of the very few single-family homes in the neighborhood, and although it was cramped, it provided a small backyard for the kids and was near parks. There were only two bedrooms. Neither of those bedrooms was Dixie’s: one was her parents’, and one was given their infant son. Dixie didn’t even have a proper bed. She slept on a pallet, and later a portable cot, in the kitchen.
Despite her abandonment issues and her parents’ unabashed preference for her brother, Dixie was a happy child and made friends easily during grade school. But she struggled to keep up with her playmates. She just didn’t seem to have the same strength as the other children, and then her bones began to ache. Her parents dismissed her complaints of bone pain as alternately being growing pains or her being lazy and trying to get out of caring for her brother or doing her other chores.
Luckily, an observant teacher noticed that Dixie was unwell, and contacted Alma and told her that she suspected Dixie had rickets. Rickets is a disorder that occurs when a person has a long-term vitamin D deficiency. Sometimes, that deficiency is due to the body’s inability to absorb vitamin D. More frequently, it is caused by insufficient exposure to sunlight and/or an insufficient diet. Symptoms include fatigue, muscle weakness, bone pain, arrested growth, bowed legs, tooth loss and “knock knees.”
Elmer and Alma resisted taking Dixie to the doctor, but when Gary had a doctor’s appointment, Alma asked the physician about the teacher’s assertion. He explained how serious rickets could be, and they made an appointment for him to see Dixie. He quickly confirmed the teacher’s diagnosis.
Before the 1900s, many children in the US experienced rickets. But by the 1920s, medical science had determined that sunlight, whole milk and cod liver oil provided most children with sufficient vitamin D to prevent it in older children. Consequently, by the 1940s, it was usually infants at risk for rickets, except in dire circumstances. When Dixie was with the Allens as an infant and toddler she was well-nourished. So, for her to have a deficiency so extreme that a teacher noted the impacts, it’s clear that Dixie had not been properly taken care of in the years after she returned to her parents.
Upon receiving the official diagnosis, Alma was ready to dose Dixie with cod liver oil, but the doctor said that was unnecessary. Vitamin D was being added to commercial milk, and the doctor said that having Dixie drink vitamin D-infused milk on a daily basis would quickly turn things around.
For the most part, the addition of fortified milk to Dixie’s diet resulted in her having almost no long-term effects from her malnutrition. Almost. She, unfortunately, lost half of her teeth by the time she was 13. Although lack of consistent dental care no doubt contributed to the loss of her teeth, that level of tooth loss at such a young age points to rickets being the primary cause.
Unfortunately, rickets was not the only ailment often associated with poverty and neglect that Dixie experienced growing up. When she was about 12, she was exposed to a parasitic infection. Specifically, she somehow picked up a tapeworm. Tapeworm infection in humans is rare in the United States. When it occurs, it usually occurs in or around farms raising cattle or pigs. It can be transmitted by eating the improperly cooked meat of infected animals, but in the U.S. it’s more frequently transmitted through ingestion of worm eggs or segments which are deposited in feces. Keep in mind that in the 1950s 25% of U.S. homes, primarily in rural areas and impoverished sections of urban areas, still used outhouses. There were no facilities for regularly washing hands after dealing with the livestock or after going to the bathroom oneself.
Still, the Weinzettels did not live on or operate a farm, so it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how Dixie would have picked up a tapeworm. One possible source may have been visits to relatives’ farms in Indiana. During extended visits, children from multiple families were crowded together in whatever beds were available and no one was much minding all the cousins’ hygiene. As we’ll see later, there wasn’t anyone minding much of anything when the families all crowded together.
We’ll never know where or when Dixie picked up the parasite, but she graphically described the exact moment she discovered it. She was thirteen and sitting in the outhouse, taking care of business when she felt something moving against her. Thinking a daddy long-leg or something had crawled on her she jumped up and discovered the tapeworm hanging out of her anus. She was completely disgusted, but she wasn’t about to run out and have someone else take care of it. So, gritting her teeth, she reached a hand between her legs, took a hold of the white, ribbonlike worm and pulled. The worm pulled back. They waged battle for the better part of an hour until the worm either let go or broke off. Dixie may or may not have told her mother about the tapeworm; either way, she was never treated for tapeworm infection.
As time went on, Alma’s bouts of “the blues” were more frequent, and she spent significant amounts of time in her bed. Elmer had found a career in construction and worked long hours during the warm months. He also developed a reputation as a master carpenter, and his services were often in demand during the winter, too. The combo of Alma’s mental health issues and Elmer’s long work hours meant that no one was properly caring for the children. Alma ordered Dixie to take care of Gary, and over time she became his primary caregiver, which was particularly unjust given that the parents made it clear they valued their son more than Dixie.
Gary remained the favored child, and the Weinzettels gave him whatever he wanted when they were in a position to give it. They also set the expectation that Dixie was to give him what he wanted and do what he wanted. For instance, if Dixie had schoolwork to do, but Gary wanted her to take him to the park, Dixie was expected to either do her schoolwork later or not do it at all. She was responsible for making sure he was fed and bathed and where he needed to be, but she was not allowed to correct his behavior. His parents spoiled him, and Dixie bore the brunt of his resulting demanding and tantrum-prone behavior.
As she grew older, her family duties expanded to include all the cooking and housework. This early responsibility for the house began Dixie’s love of home decorating. Their home was small, and money was tight, but Dixie took pride in keeping the house homey and tidy.
As much as Dixie enjoyed caring for her family’s home, her responsibilities for the house and raising her brother left her little energy or time for school. Still, she attended almost two years at Roosevelt High School before dropping out at age 16. If she thought leaving school would make her life easier, she was mistaken. Her parents immediately required that she contribute monetarily to the household – oh, and she was still responsible for raising Gary, keeping the house and cooking most meals. Over the next couple of years, Dixie held several different jobs, sometimes multiple jobs at the same time. Always she was on the lookout for a better position.
Beautiful and fun-loving, Dixie’s Saturday nights were spent dancing with one of the many young men who asked her out. By the time she was 18, she’d received three marriage proposals, but none of those men captured Dixie’s gypsy heart.
One of Dixie’s social outlets as a teenager was the USO center near the Weinzetel’s home. USO centers were prolific during WWII, with most cities, including St. Louis, sporting multiple centers. After the war ended, funding for the USO dried up, and almost overnight most centers closed. Then, shortly before the U.S. became embroiled in the Korean War, the U.S. government decided that our troops needed the USO centers in order for them to have a sense of consistency as they were stationed in different places in the U.S. and abroad.
Dixie loved to dance, and she was damn good at it. She knew all the hot dance steps, and she went dancing every chance she got. (This was true her entire life.) So, it was a “meant to be” moment when she heard that the USO center near her parents’ home was looking for someone to give swing dancing (aka jitterbug) lessons. This was at the beginning of the 1960s, and although music was starting to change, there were still a lot of young people who continued to love to swing dance to the music from rock and roll’s early days.
Dixie had been working at the USO for a few months when a handsome soldier she’d never seen before walked in. She was in the midst of a lesson when their eyes first met. She was a young woman used to the attention of young men, but the look this soldier gave her caused her breath to catch and her face to color. Flustered, she had a hard time concentrating on her students. Later, when she looked over to see if the soldier were still there, he was gone. She swallowed her disappointment and went home.
When she next returned to the USO, she was going over the sign-up sheet for lessons, when a deep voice behind her said, “I think I’m your first student tonight.” She turned with a ready smile, and there was the handsome soldier in his uniform.
His name was Carroll Dellurene Mitchell (Mitch to his friends and family). He turned out to be a man of multiple talents; dancing was not one of them. He signed up for multiple lessons, but never became any better. To save Dixie’s feet and shoes, they decided to date instead. In just a matter of weeks, Dixie cut loose all the other men she had on the hook. Things were a little more complicated for Mitch.
In 1957, when Mitch was not quite 21, he and a young lady got in the back seat of a Ford, and a few weeks later a rabbit died, as they say. In June, on his 21st birthday, Mitch had the proverbial shotgun wedding, and the next day, he departed for Army boot camp. Prior to enlisting in the army, Mitch worked in his parents’ grocery store in Connorsville, IN. Knowing that he was going to be a father, the army seemed like the best way to earn a steady living to support his new family. However, after leaving Indiana for his initial duty station, he thought differently about his forced marriage. He and his first wife never lived together as man and wife. Still, he wasn’t legally free when he met Dixie – a situation he took care of as soon as possible because the two of them fell hard and fast once they started dating.
When Mitch’s four-year enlistment was up, he did not re-enlist, and with his divorce final, he and Dixie went before a justice of the peace in St. Louis and were married. At long last, Dixie was able to leave her parents’ house.
Dixie – Chapter 3
The early days of Mitch and Dixie’s marriage were blissful. They were crazy about each other, and Dixie was ecstatic to have a home of her own. She quit working because Mitch, who’d found work in construction, didn’t believe that women, particularly married women, should work. After a few months of living together, Mitch realized that Dixie was better at managing the money than he was, and so he pretty much relinquished all responsibility for bill paying to her. That included paying his monthly child support obligation for the daughter from his first marriage, my half-sister Debra.
Then, In November 1962, Mitch and Dixie were blessed (well, sometimes Dixie said they were cursed) with a daughter, Carol Lee Mitchell – me! Mitch had no experience with babies, and in the early days after they took me home, he worried about every little thing. For instance, when I was young, Dixie told me the story of how as a baby, I loudly passed gas when Mitch was holding me. He wanted to take me immediately to the hospital. Dixie was nonplussed. Mitch was insistent that something must be wrong with me. See, Mitch for some reason thought that girls physically could not fart. And, it makes sense — most probably none of the females in his life ever admitted to it. It was a different time back then.
While Dixie was pregnant with me, she began scouring thrift shops and rummage sales for baby furniture and nursery decorations. Often, she would find other household items that she was sure she could refinish or repair. While I would nap during the day, Dixie would work on these treasures. Some she used in our home. Others she sold and used the profit to purchase more items and refinishing supplies. Over time, her little hobby supplemented Mitch’s earnings, helping them buy a house.
Even though she enjoyed her side hustle, Dixie’s highest priority was making a home for her family. My memories of my early childhood are of being loved by both parents. In fact, early on, my childhood was, actually, fairly idyllic. Dixie was a stay-at-home mom, taking care of me, and my brother Carl, who came along a year after me. (Yes, my father named both of us after himself. That pretty much sums up Carroll Mitchell.) I remember being happy, and I remember Dixie being happy – singing Patsy Cline and dancing as she baked and cleaned.
My earliest, vivid memory of Dixie is when I was about four years old. I remember that I was sick – a tummy bug with fever — and in what seemed to me to be the middle of the night, Dixie took me to the local Tom-Boy Supermarket (Tom-Boy was a local chain in the St. Louis area until the early 1970s) to get some medicine. As I was getting out of the car to go inside with her, she accidentally slammed the car door on my finger. In my memory, there was blood everywhere. Later, my beautiful, doting, mother held me and rubbed my head. When I recall that memory, the most vivid aspect (after the pain and blood of my smashed finger) is how loved I felt. If there was one thing I knew in my young heart, it was that my mama loved me. I never let go of that conviction, even later in life, during the bad times, when Dixie, or rather, Trixie, told me she hated me.
By the time I started school, life wasn’t quite as perfect in our home. The stress of two young children, taking care of a house, periodic struggles with money, my father’s immaturity, and Dixie’s burgeoning anxiety sparked battles between my parents. Some might say my parents were mutually abusive because of their screaming matches and the fact that either one of them might strike the other at any given time. But, abuse is defined by power, and the power in that relationship lay with Mitch. Dixie might throw things or slap Mitch, but he was not only twice her size, but he brought home the money that sustained them. Beyond that fact, in the 1960s, society viewed the husband as the unchallenged head of the family and the wife as subjected to his rule. As time went on, the balance of their battles definitely tipped to Mitch, and his assaults on Dixie increased in both frequency and severity.
Dixie’s own unstable childhood, and mental health struggles — most likely inherited from her mother — mixed with the chaotic violence of her marriage left its toll on her. The story of how she received her first Valium prescription is a little murky, but the gist of it is that my father took her to “an army doctor” because she was “nervous.” I don’t know what “army doctor” meant, but we’re talking the late sixties when “Mother’s Little Helper” was quickly gaining its status as the most prescribed drug in the U.S. if Carroll took his wife to a doctor saying she was nervous (anxiety or perhaps mania?), of course, she was prescribed Valium. After her diagnosis thirty years later, the doctors continued to prescribe the Valium (but at a lower dose), and so I’d say the “army doctor” may have accidentally partially treated my mother’s symptoms. Dixie was 26 when she began taking Valium; she would take it for the rest of her life.
Dixie wasn’t the only one whose psyche was harmed by our volatile home situation. When I was in kindergarten, the anxiety caused by the violence and uncertainty in my life was manifesting physically: I trembled. My teacher, Mrs. Howell, was the first to notice it. She spotted my constantly trembling hands and called Dixie in for a conference because she suspected I was being abused. Dixie explained it away, saying that I was high-strung like she was, and absent any marks on my body, Mrs. Howell didn’t question it any further, but she watched me closely.
Back home, however, Dixie must’ve said something to Mitch, because going forward, he’d lock Carl and me in a bedroom when he beat her. The door didn’t block out the crashes, the screams or the crying, however, and even though I was never the target of his physical abuse, I came to fear my father.
Dixie’s resilient spirit, however, didn’t allow her to view herself as a victim. She occasionally had low days and took to her bed, like her mother, but for the most part, she still kept house and cared for us kids. She also continued salvaging, restoring and selling household goods, primarily baby furniture.
In the 1960s, women finally gained the right to open a bank account without their husbands, and Dixie took full advantage of that right. She began saving her “hobby money” with a larger goal in mind. She had come across a trailer park off of Charles Rock Road where people parked their SilverBullet Airstream Trailers and rented them on a short-term basis. She talked with some of these precursors to AirBnB hosts, and quickly determined this was something she could do. I think she headed down this path initially to create a safety net for us because she knew that Mitch’s violence was escalating.
It took many months, but between her hobby money and skimming from the household funds, Dixie saved up enough to buy a used and somewhat beat-up airstream silverbullet. She paid the lot rent and to have the trailer moved to the lot, and then undertook the task of cleaning and outfitting it. Of course, Dixie couldn’t just leave it with unadorned walls and windows. So, she decorated it with pretty little curtains, pictures and throw rugs. When satisfied that she herself could spend a couple of days in it, she posted its availability on the trailer park’s bulletin board and in the classified ads. She collected all rent upfront and enlisted the help of other people in the trailer park to keep an eye on her renters and her investment. Very quickly, she developed a list of repeat customers, and she had the money to buy a second and then a third trailer in much quicker time than it took to save up for the first one. The money from this revenue stream would come in very handy later on.
Things continued at home as they had. Dixie didn’t sing or bake as often as in my early childhood, but she always made the effort to provide the fanciful as well as the necessary for Carl and me. I remember when I was about seven, she put together a playhouse for me. I didn’t have it for very long, but I remember that Dixie went all out decorating it. (She instilled in me a love of home décor and everything about making a house a home — that early influence factored heavily into my career pursuits). The decorations in that playhouse were what pushed my dawning comprehension that something was amiss in our family into an abject certainty that our lives were violently dysfunctional. Of course, at seven, I didn’t have the words to express that extreme change in my perception of reality.
See, the playhouse that my mama lovingly decorated for me with rugs, china cabinets, miniature china, stuffed animals, dolls, and a toy piano, was Mitch’s smokehouse. The issue wasn’t so much that Mitch used the smokehouse for smoking meat; the issue was that the smokehouse was his. When he discovered my “playhouse,” he beat the living shit out of my mother.
Of course, I knew that Mitch was beating her before this incident, but this is the moment when I recognized things were really bad. After the “playhouse beating,” I became all too aware of my parents’ battles. By this time, Dixie’s bipolar symptoms were evident – again, I didn’t have the words to describe what I was seeing, but I knew my mama was not the same person all the time, and I didn’t know which version of Dixie might show up at any given time. (Looking back, the extravagance with which she outfitted my playhouse was probably indicative of a manic phase.)
I was confused. I didn’t know why my beautiful, singing mama looked or acted the way she did. I remember wondering what had happened to cause this. In my young mind, I was certain that it was my father’s fault, and I wasn’t wrong, but I had no way to understand at the time that Dixie’s mental health issues contributed, too. Adding to my confusion was the fact that through it all, Dixie and Mitch continued to be crazy about each other. Their love, like their fighting, was passionate, but the direction of that passion could switch up with what seemed to my child’s eyes to be no warning. I walked on eggshells.
One night, we were having dinner, and my parents were laughing and joking with each other, caressing each other at odd moments. I almost let myself be lulled into thinking it was going to be a good night. Then Mitch’s voice rose. Dixie fired right back. Before I could even form the thought that it was going to be a BAD night, Mitch jerked Carl and me away from the table, locked us away in a bedroom and ordered us to go to sleep.
Somehow Carl readily complied. I couldn’t. As the shouting began, I pulled the covers up high and curled into myself. Then the familiar sound of my mother being thrown into walls and furniture began. I lay trembling, jerking with each loud crash. Then, things got relatively quiet. I could hear a thumping, and the indistinct sound of my father’s voice, but it wasn’t the storm it had been. I was just starting to uncurl just a little bit, when I heard loud knocking at the front door. It continued until I heard my father stomp across the living room. Then I heard other, unfamiliar, voices.
I strained to hear who the people were, and I strained to hear if Dixie was talking with them, too. Finally, I did hear her, and she was crying. Then the unfamiliar voices began to yell, and both my parents were yelling, too. I couldn’t tell who was yelling at who, and I didn’t know what might happen next. Then, I heard one man say loudly, “You have children? Where are they?”
Then someone unlocked and opened the bedroom door. I stole a look quickly – it was a man in a police uniform. I immediately shut my eyes and willed myself to be completely still. The police officer came over and looked closely at both Carl and me, then he left and quietly shut the door.
It turned out that the neighbors had heard Dixie bouncing off the walls screaming and had called the police. It was a good thing, too, because that night Mitch not only broke her nose and cracked her ribs, but he drug her to the bathroom and was drowning her by shoving the hose from the shower sprayer up her nose. The thumping I was hearing when it got quiet was Dixie trying to free herself.
Mitch tried to justify his actions by saying that Dixie was crazy – he could prove it because she had to be on “crazy pills” – the Valium. Dixie spent the rest of the night in the hospital.
I don’t remember if Mitch went to jail that night. What I do remember is that when Dixie came home, so did Mitch. I didn’t know at the time all that had transpired, but I knew it was bad enough that the police had yelled at Mitch, and that only confirmed the complete terror he instilled in me. The mere sound of his voice could make me cower. But, still, they continued.
Sometime over the next few days, one of the neighbors had a little chat with Dixie. I wasn’t privy to the entire conversation, but the neighbor told her it was time she got her husband in line. Dixie’s route to that goal was a little unconventional. The next time Mitch said something that made her want to yell at him, instead, she calmly grabbed a bat, went outside in front of the whole neighborhood and beat up Mitch’s new pick-up truck.
Then she came in and cooked breakfast. Mitch came into the kitchen, and, as she seemed to be about to serve him bacon and eggs out of the skillet she’d just taken off the stove, she instead hit him over the head with the cast iron skillet, knocking him to the floor. Dixie told me years later that upon hearing about the hot-skillet-to-the-head approach, the neighbor said, “Yep, that’s how you take care of a wife-beater.”
Mitch never beat her again, but it didn’t stop their verbal fights or heal their marriage. Several times, Dixie packed us up to go live with my grandparents, and several times she moved us back. At the time this was going on, Elmer and Alma were living is a decrepit old farm house, and my uncle Gary was in and out of the house. When he was there, he always played games with Carl and me, and I thought he was the most fun uncle ever. That is until the afternoon he invented a new game for just him and me. A game of finding things under the covers. I never played games with him again, but neither did I tell any of the other adults in my life until I was much older. He told me no one would believe me over him, and as a child of eight or nine, I thought he was probably right. So, it was up to me to protect myself from him, and I never gave him another chance to violate my innocence.
I was nine when Dixie filed for divorce. But still, they couldn’t quite let go of each other. So, the dysfunction continued until my paternal grandparents’ (that’s Mitch’s parents) marriage exploded.
Mitch’s parents, Harvey and Edrith, were devout, lifelong members of a Pentecostal church. In Mitch’s eyes, his God-fearing mother was the epitome of everything a wife and mother should be. His mother could do no wrong. (I’m sure this did nothing to help my parents’ marriage.) So, it rocked his world off its axis when he learned that his parents were divorcing because his mother had had affairs with, not one, but three, traveling Pentecostal preachers.
To say my father reeled from that news would in no way adequately describe the frothing rage that gripped him. He screamed, he cried, he threw things. When none of that quenched the frenzy of fury and disillusionment within him, Mitch stormed outside and spent the next half-hour beating up the trashcan. Needless to say, Carl and I were terrified. I knew that any moment he would decide the next thing his fists would seek would be Dixie. She could see that probability, too, and that was the moment she decided the marriage was over.
For a very brief period, Carl and I stayed with Dixie in the house. One day, we came home from being out somewhere, and a neighbor ran over and told Dixie not to go in the house. They’d seen Mitch go in with gasoline and knew he was up to no good. Dixie drove us immediately to our grandparent’s house, and Elmer went back to check out the house. He found that Mitch had put gasoline-soaked rags in the furnace to start a fire or explosion when Dixie turned the heat on. A few weeks in jail cooled the insanity that had sparked that act.
While Mitch was cooling his heels in jail, Dixie bought a secondhand mobile home and moved it onto her parents’ property in Flint Hill. Mitch paid his child support, which was a bit of a surprise as Dixie was still paying the support for his daughter, Debra. He also would regularly pick up Carl and me for brief periods of visitation.
At the time, those handoffs were awkward and extremely embarrassing. In hindsight, they’re hilarious. See, no matter all the crazy and violent things they did to each other, they were still hopelessly obsessed with one another. So, on the day Mitch was supposed to come get us, Dixie would doll herself up – usually donning her Tammy Wynette wig – and put on a skimpy shirt and hotpants — to mow the grass. Mitch would show up in a fancy car – the one I remember most vividly was a Volvo – and would be wearing an open-neck dress shirt and several gold chains. They’d both go into their separate struts, trying to appear nonchalant, but each eyeing the other intently.
A year or so later, Mitch went back to Indiana. That put an end to the weekly visits, and the child support dried up soon thereafter.
I didn’t much hear from him until I was an adult, and I assumed that Dixie didn’t hear from him at all. I was wrong. The two of them kept up a correspondence for most of their lives. I believe they were toxic soul mates. Had they both had meaningful help with their mental health struggles, who knows what they might have been?
Mitch’s failure to be the husband and father Dixie needed him to be stoked her abandonment issues that had been born long ago when she was ripped from the arms of Daddy George and Aunt Caca. But, I think when he snuck back to Indiana, physically and financially abandoning us, that was even more traumatic for her. I’m not sure she ever felt stable or truly supported for the rest of her life.
Dixie – Chapter 4
The move to Flint Hill didn’t make life calmer, but it did make it less violent, and so it seemed better.
This move was the first in a pattern in our lives over the next six years – my grandparents would relocate, and Dixie would pack us up, and we’d follow them. And, there were other moves.
The trailer we moved into only had two bedrooms. Carl got one, and I had to share the other one, and the bed in it, with Dixie. That meant every night, I slept pressed up against a wall. But, I didn’t mind. Dixie made it seem like a game and made me feel like sharing a room with her was a reward – it didn’t occur to me to question what I’d done to win that peculiar reward, I was happy that my mama was talking about being close with me. With all the trauma in our family life, I grasped onto that ray of sunshine from my mother and made the best of it.
Dixie had been working for a couple years at Cousin Charlie’s Bargain Barn, where she was named a top salesperson. She continued working there after our move to Flint Hill, and so Carl and I were often alone, with our grandparents checking in on us. We’d never been close, but after this move, Carl became openly hostile toward me most of the time.
I’ve thought a lot about it over the years, and I think that Carl’s hostility toward me is directly related to our relationships with our parents. As a young child, it always seemed to me that Carl was Mitch’s favorite. He was all the things that Mitch valued. First of all, he was male – the preference for boys didn’t just run in my mother’s side of the family. But, he was also analytical and athletic, and made perfect grades. Carl always said that I was Dixie’s favorite. I don’t know about that, but we did share interests that Carl didn’t share, such as home décor, hair, fashion, and dancing.
Then, of course, there was the fact that on those dark days when Dixie took to her bed, I was the only person who could convince her that things weren’t as hopeless as they seemed and coax her to get up. I think Carl took this as proof of Dixie’s preference for me. Over time, he gave up even trying to cheer Dixie when she was depressed. On days when he was in, what for him, passed for a good mood, if Dixie took to her bed, Carl just ignored us both. On days when his face was like a storm cloud, particularly if he wanted something like a ride somewhere, and Dixie was down, we were lucky if he just rolled his eyes and stormed off to his room. More often than not, however, on those days, there was a lot of yelling and slamming of doors. When Dixie was already locked in her depression, Carl’s theatrics didn’t even rate against whatever was churning in her head. I think maybe that made it worse for him – the fact that he could explode and spew hatefulness on the both of us, and on those depressed days, it didn’t even spark a response from Dixie. (Don’t get me wrong – there were other days when they went toe to toe, but sometimes, when Dixie was deep in the dark well of depression, she didn’t even notice that Carl threw a tantrum.)
My theory on Carl is that when our parents split, he missed Mitch’s bolstering of his ego, and he took his anger out on me. Usually, his antagonism was limited to belittling my intelligence and calling me names. This was learned behavior – it was exactly how Mitch had treated Dixie throughout their marriage. His favorite name for me was “Carol the Barrel.” Yes, as a child, I carried a little baby fat around the middle. But, at other times, usually, when he was frustrated with something (often me), he’d haul off and punch me in the stomach as hard as he could. A lot of the time when he slugged me, there was no triggering interaction. He’d just walk by me, and without warning, punch my stomach, leaving me doubled over.
This went on most days that Dixie was at work. Then one day, one of those very rare days when Alma got out of bed, she came over by herself to check on us. She walked in right at the moment that Carl slammed his fist into my mid-section. “Hey!” she yelled, surprising Carl. (Well, she surprised me, too, but I was in too much pain to react.) “How would you like it if somebody did that to you?”
I didn’t look at Carl’s face, but I’m guessing he must have given her the smirk he reserved for Dixie and me because, without another word, she punched his stomach. She punched him hard enough that he went to his knees. As I stood there with my mouth open, she said, “Hurts, doesn’t it?”
I’d like to say he never punched me again, but, no. He just learned to make sure no one was around when he hit me. That’s the thing with violence. It doesn’t always solve violence. My father’s violence instilled itself in Carl. My mother’s violence had only temporarily deterred my father’s. All of it influenced decisions I’d make in my early adulthood, but we’ll get to that later.
Our lives fell into a steady if somewhat dysfunctional routine. Dixie was in and out of bouts of depression of varying lengths, but she remained gainfully employed. Every other weekend, Mitch came to take Carl and me for his visitation periods, and he and Dixie would engage in their bizarre performances for one another. Most weekends, Dixie would go out dancing – either with girlfriends or one of the many men who pursued her – she always had two or three on the string.
She taught me to jitterbug, and…well… to “sexy dance.” Those lessons on pelvic thrusts, hip sways, and running my hands down my body suggestively probably were not appropriate for a child, but she instilled in me a love of dancing that still pops out from time to time. Occasionally, Dixie took me with her when Duard, Chuck or one of the other men wasn’t taking her out. I was young, and I don’t remember exactly the circumstances, but I remember going with her to The Tiki in O’Fallon for dances and pool parties. My memories of those dances are vague for the most part except for one night.
I had needed to use the restroom, and Dixie and I were waiting our turn in line. The next thing I knew, she was in an argument with another woman. Before I could even register what they were arguing about, they were physically fighting. In some ways, in my memory, it seems like it all happened quickly, but I can remember, too, wondering when it would ever end. The detail that stands out clearly for me is how it ended: Dixie grabbed the back of the other woman’s head and smashed her face into a sink. Blood went everywhere. Gloating in her triumph, Dixie looked around, and I guess it was only then that she remembered I was there. She barked, “Well, go on and go to the bathroom!” I did, and then we went back out to the dance, like the fight and the blood in the restroom were no big thing.
I guess not all the dances involved Dixie starting bloody brawls in the restroom because soon she’d found a new beau who she really liked – Chuck. For a time, she was constantly happy, singing and baking, much like I remembered her from my early childhood. Then, I came home from school one day and found Dixie had never gotten out of bed that morning. She was in a funk for a few days, and I noticed Chuck wasn’t calling anymore. I figured he’d broken up with her, but I learned much later that he’d turned out to be married. Apparently, Dixie put it together when they were out one night, and she went full Trixie on him. Still, for all the violent fury she released on him when she dumped his sorry ass, she was deeply hurt and disappointed, and I tiptoed around the trailer for several days.
But, she bounced back, reconnecting with her string of dance partners, and our life went on. Every other week, Mitch would come get Carl and me, making a big deal out of promising all sorts of fun activities, like Six Flags. Of course, like the gold chain and the Volvo, the promises were all for my mother’s benefit. He never took us to Six Flags or anywhere else. He said he didn’t have any money because of the child support he paid Dixie. On one weekend at his house, he made onion rings out of pancake mix, and that’s all we had for dinner.
I don’t know what Mitch was doing with his money because even with Dixie’s wages and the child support, we were barely making it. (Yeah before you start wondering how much money Dixie spent going out dancing, let me tell you: $0. Why do you think she strung along so many men? They paid for everything on those nights out.) Our first year in the trailer in Flint Hill, we would have had nothing for Christmas if it hadn’t been for the Salvation Army. I don’t know who told them we were in need, but they provided us with gifts. I got a radio, which I listened to every night, jamming to the hits of the 1970s. For some reason, The Captain and Tennille’s Muskrat Love comes to mind when I think about that radio.
In the new year, Dixie dated many other men, most notably Duard, who would become a fixture in our lives for years to come. Then she met a man who she thought might be the one: Bob. Or maybe it was me who thought Bob might be the one. He treated her like a queen, lavished her with gifts, and spread the gifts around to Carl and me, too. He had a couple of kids, and we all got along really well. I loved going to his house, and I had bit of a crush on his son, Chris. Still, Dixie, as always, was looking for him to reveal his true self, so she kept him at arm’s length and didn’t quite let go of all her others. Bob wanted to marry her, and everything seemed perfect to me, so, I thought it was going to happen. Without warning, Dixie was done with Bob. I’ve never really known why. But years later, she made a comment to me about all these men wanting so much sex and wanting oral sex, and she wasn’t doing “that,” to which I replied “TMI, mom.” I wonder sometimes if the sexual abuse Dixie suffered as a child made her sexually dysfunctional, so to speak, too. But, I just was not comfortable talking with my mother about her sexuality. I still think of Bob as the one Dixie let get away.
By this time, I wasn’t quite “the new girl” at school, anymore. I made friends – like my mother, I never had trouble making friends. But, I was reaching that age when there were challenges. All the other girls in my class were wearing bras, but Dixie refused to get me one. She said I didn’t yet have anything that warranted spending money on a bra. The boys all knew I was the only one of the girls without a bra. When I’d walk by the water fountain, they’d try to douse me with water, especially if I were wearing a white shirt. Often they were successful, leaving me embarrassed and cowering trying to cover up. Dixie’s solution? “Don’t walk by them.” She didn’t understand, or didn’t care, that that solution was not particularly helpful for a pre-teen girl trying to fit in at school.
This, added to all the other stressors in my life, left me not wanting to go to school some days. I’d try to imitate my mother and grandmother and spend the day in bed in a depressed funk, but sharing a bed with my mother made that an iffy proposition. Plus, she didn’t seem to think that what was good for her was good for me.
Surprisingly, my grandmother solved one problem for me. One day she bluntly told my mother, “You need to get that girl a bra.” Dixie, never wanting Alma to tell her what to do, grumbled about how she’d raise her daughter how she saw fit, and she accused me of putting Alma up to it. (I didn’t. My grandmother and I didn’t have that kind of relationship.) Dixie didn’t want Alma to tell her what to do, but neither did she want her mother to berate her about it. Dixie bought the bra. Should it have been so difficult to cross that first line of adolescence? No. But, because of the dysfunction, I do have a clear memory of getting and wearing my first bra; I’m not so sure girls in less dysfunctional families remember that milestone as clearly.
Later that year, Dixie met Clifford. Clifford was possibly the least attractive man she’d ever dated. She and I never talked about it, but I doubt she was ever physically attracted to him. Like Bob, Clifford gave her extravagant gifts, and wined and dined her. Dixie didn’t give him any more play than she gave her other dance partners. Then she saw his house, built on several acres outside O’Fallon Hills. Dixie stopped seeing the other men.
That year at Christmas, Mitch must have been doing better financially, because he brought us all sorts of presents. I know now that the gifts were all just another attempt at trying to win back my mother, but at the time, I was wowed with the toys – including a Barbie camper that I have to this day – and with the thought that my father must really love me. Christmas is a time of hope, and I hoped this was the start of better days with my father.
My bubble of hope was burst forever when Dixie became engaged to, and immediately married Clifford the next year. I didn’t know it then, but my hope was tied to Mitch’s hope of a reconciliation with Dixie. Upon her marriage, his hope finally died. He left St. Louis and returned to Indiana to live with his parents (yes, his father got over wanting to murder his mother). There were no more gifts, there were no more visits, there were no more child support payments, and there was no more contact with my father until well into my adulthood. I didn’t say anything to Dixie about my disappointment because even at my tender age, I knew I shouldn’t have believed in my father or expected anything more of him. I knew that if I said anything to Dixie about it, that’s exactly what she would have told me. I didn’t want her to know I’d been that stupid because she might use it against me later.
That’s how your mind starts to work when you grow up in a family thrown into chaos due to the mental illness – particularly when multiple members of your family have various levels of mental illness. You learn what the triggers are that might cause verbal or emotional abuse to rain down on you. You learn to anticipate that every good moment can evaporate to leave ugliness in its wake as quickly as you can blink your eyes, and you learn to suspect every one of those good moments as potential manipulation.
Still, as I mentioned, I have hauled that Barbie camper around with me for fifty years. I don’t think it’s because it’s a memory of my father. I think it reminds me that there were brief moments in my childhood when I wasn’t getting punched in the stomach. Small slices of time when I was just a child on Christmas getting all the toys I liked. Life isn’t always fair, and it isn’t always happy. I choose to hold onto the happy moments.
Moving into Clifford’s house was one of those happy moments for me. After almost two years sharing a bed with my mother, I had my own bed in my own room. I was ecstatic just being able to close the door to my own room and spread out on the whole bed, but there was more. Clifford had a pool, a go kart, and minibikes. Of course, we had to share those things with his sons Denny and Doug, but I was used to sharing everything I had and the boys were only there every other weekend.
Things were going swimmingly for a few months. Dixie had no days when she wouldn’t get out of bed, and as far as I could tell, she was happy I started to let my guard down, started looking at Clifford as maybe being a stable presence in my life. Then, Clifford’s parents hauled their Airstream trailer from Florida and parked it in Clifford’s yard.
To say that Dixie was unhappy with this turn of events would be a gross understatement. She made it abundantly clear to Clifford and everyone else in earshot that she had not signed on for in-laws underfoot every day of the week. The calm was gone; the storm returned. Clifford and Dixie fought behind closed doors, but we knew they were fighting; well, I knew they were fighting. I retreated to my room because I knew I wouldn’t have it for much longer.
At Christmas, there were, of course, no gifts from my father. There were gifts from Clifford and Dixie, and surprise, surprise, I even had a gift from Clifford’s parents. When I opened it up, I didn’t know how to react. While their grandchildren received great gifts from them, they had dumped the contents of a junk drawer into a box for me. I was so shocked, that I really can’t remember what happened after that. I just remember looking down at the box full of unprocessed rolls of camera film, random pens and pencils, bread ties, batteries and other assorted junk. If for some unfathomable reason, you want to make a child feel unwelcome and uncared for in the home in which they live, give them a gift of junk drawer contents. Looking back on this time of my life after navigating my mother’s craziness for almost sixty years, I can understand Clifford’s parents not being happy with Clifford marrying Dixie. To take that out on children, however, I think is worse than anything my mother might have done.
By the time I was 13, Dixie had divorced Clifford, and we were back in the two-bedroom trailer in Flint Hill. I missed having my own room, but I had not been able to think of the room in Clifford’s home as mine after the Junk Drawer Christmas.
Life went back to what it had been before Clifford came into our lives. Dixie reunited with dance partners she’d abandoned, and Carl and I returned school at Mt. Hope in O’Fallon.
I met some girls who went to Catholic school and became fast friends with them. I felt like Jenny, Donna, Lisa, and the other Jenny (Jenny was a popular name in my age bracket) were closer friends than those I actually went to school with. I’d spend the night sometimes with them, mostly with Jenny, but, of course, I couldn’t invite them to spend the night with me. I didn’t want anyone to know where I slept.
One night when Lisa, Jenny and I spent the night at the other Jenny’s house, we decided to sneak out in the middle of the night and ding-dong ditch around O’Fallon. We were having a great time, ringing doorbells or knocking on doors and running and hiding to see the residents’ reactions when they opened the door to no one. Then someone had to idea to go to Donna’s house. Not only did we knock on the door and hide, but after her parents slammed the door, we stayed there, and for whatever reason, made cat noises. I don’t know why we settled on meowing and spitting like cats, but we found the whole thing hilarious. Hilarious, until Donna’s parents caught us.
All the other girls were from good, solid Catholic families while I was the girl with the twice-divorced mother. So, I was labeled the bad egg that had gotten everyone else to sneak out and terrorize the community. The parents told Dixie that I was running wild and that their girls were no longer allowed to associate with me. Donna was pissed that we came to her house with our nonsense, and before I knew what was going on, she had turned all the other girls against me.
I was pissed that it was all blamed on me, but more than that, I was distraught that I lost my friends over it. But, that was the least of it. There are few human beings who are more socially brutal than a clique of junior high girls.
Graffiti about me popped up all over town on overpasses, bridges, signposts. I walked around in a constant state of humiliation at the statements made about me in that graffiti. I knew it was Donna, Lisa and the Jennies because when they’d see me somewhere, they’d taunt me by quoting the graffiti. Then, one night, they egged our trailer and then TP’d it.
The next day when my grandparents saw the TP sticking to all the dried egg on our trailer, they saw red. They demanded to know who would do such a thing, and I confessed all that had been going on. Upon hearing about the content of the graffiti, Elmer and Alma went full hillbilly. Elmer ordered Carl and me into the back of their truck, and he and Alma went and got all their guns. We drove to all my former friends’ homes, and shotguns in hand, my grandparents told all the parents what their daughters had been doing and stated menacingly that if the harassment of their granddaughter didn’t stop, they’d be back and things wouldn’t be so friendly. Of course, my whole family gained a reputation as being crazy after that, but the harassment stopped. I had to clean up the eggs and TP, but I was feeling okay about that. Sometimes, the crazy in your family is just what you need.
Dixie – Chapter 5
Dixie didn’t swear off men following her divorce from Clifford, but she did apparently decide that there was safety in numbers. Let me be clear here: Dixie was not whoring around. Her standard M.O. was to keep meeting new men to take her dancing, and cut them loose if they pushed for anything more. She met them in a lot of different places. Some she met at work (she was still at Cousin Charlie’s). Some she met at Parents Without Partners meetings. Let me be clear about that, too: the only reason she attended Parents Without Partners meetings was to meet men who would take her dancing. She found and attended these meetings even after both Carl and I had flown the nest, so it apparently worked for her. Some men she met while out dancing – whether with friends or with dates. Some she met at the grocery store. Yes, the grocery store.
One of her most frequent dance partners was Duard. He was a tall, almost gaunt, man with a military haircut and angular features. He had suffered a brain injury in the Vietnam War that left him with some reduced mental functions. He was also socially awkward and held some strange beliefs. One of those beliefs was that he lived among aliens, and he would blurt out “facts” about these aliens without care for who heard him. I don’t know if those quirks were the result of his head injury or if that was always how Duard was. He was devoted to Dixie, but she never saw him as anything more than a friend. He’d do whatever she told him to do, so when she told him they were just going to be friends, he accepted that without any pushback.
During the years after Dixie’s divorce from Clifford, Duard was the dance partner we saw more than any other, and eventually, he became a family friend. He’d come over for dinner or to play cards with Dixie and my grandparents. He’d regale us with his alien tales, and we’d all laugh. Sometimes we’d laugh with him, but often, it was more at him, but it made no difference to Duard. He believed what he believed, and no one else’s view or laughter impeded that belief in any way.
Dixie’s bouts of depression happened more frequently, and it was during these years that Trixie began to put in her first appearances. She would sometimes say horribly mean things to both Carl and me. One day, she told Carl she almost aborted him, and that she wished she had followed through on it. As far as I know, she never apologized for that statement. I know Carl never forgot it.
It was also during these years that she put me on diet pills – Dexatrim. Along with the supply of Dexatrim, if she felt like I ate too much, she’d call me names, or tell me boys would never want me if I was fat. If she was feeling particularly mean and narcissistic, she’d ramp up her taunts to tell me how by the time she was my age, she was dripping men who all wanted to marry her, and that no one was ever going to want me. If Carl were around when Dixie went on a fat-shaming rant, I’d have to put up with his gloating face, too.
Besides work and dancing, the other activity she spent time on was managing the rental of the house in St. Louis. Yes, she still had the house. The reason we didn’t live in it, was that after Mitch attempted to sabotage our furnace, Dixie felt we were safer with her parents, and over time, even after Mitch skipped town, she and her parents had become rather co-dependent on each other. But, she didn’t want to give up the house, so it became a rental property. Of course, at the time, I didn’t know that’s what had gone on. I don’t know how I would’ve felt sharing a bed with my mother for years had I known there was a perfectly good house we could have lived in.
She had very little difficulty with her renters because she was careful in selecting them, and she was a tough landlord. She really was a very savvy, self-taught businesswoman, but the older Dixie got, the less crap she’d brook from anyone.
When I was a kid, it was common for kids to say things like, “My dad’s gonna sue your dad.” Well, Dixie became that litigious parent we all threatened our friends with. She was not afraid to take anyone to small claims court or to involve the sheriff in an eviction. I know you’re thinking, why did she need to involve the sheriff or the courts when Elmer and Alma could load up the shotguns? As far as I know, that O’Fallon shotgun tour was a one-time occurrence. So, Dixie needed to follow the usual legal routes to resolve her rental issues.
By this time in life, my grandparents had multiple properties. One of their properties was forty acres along Route AA outside Russellville, Missouri. I’m a little hazy on exactly why they bought property there, but I believe it had something to do with my uncle Gary. In 1979, Elmer and Alma decided it was time to downsize, and so they put the drafty old farmhouse they lived in up for sale. That meant that the accompanying property on which our trailer sat was also on the auction block.
I was sixteen, which was not a prime time to switch schools, but Dixie wasn’t staying put while Elmer and Alma moved one hundred fifteen miles away. She sweetened the deal by saying we’d upgrade to a double-wide trailer with three bedrooms. I’d have my own bedroom finally! So, off to Russellville we went. Or, more specifically, off to the remote rural area surrounding the tiny town of Russellville we went.
It was summer when we moved, and we were in the middle of nowhere. Our double-wide sat right next to that of Elmer and Alma right beside Route AA. Russellville was about seven miles away, but there was nothing there for teenagers to do. Jefferson City, the Missouri capital, was about twenty miles away but it might as well have been on the moon. I was sixteen, but I didn’t have a driver’s license, and Dixie said there was no point in my getting it because she wasn’t letting me drive her ancient boat of a car. It was the battle of the bra all over again.
One other factor of our circumstances had substantially changed, too: Dixie decided she wasn’t going to work anymore. She had many reasons for this, not the least of which was the distance she’d have to drive every day to find retail work like she’d been doing at Cousin Charlie’s. Also, she’d learned that if we went on welfare, we’d be covered by Medicaid, too. So, she transferred the St. Louis rental property to Elmer, and applied for welfare.
And, of course, there was also the fact that the thought of starting over in a new place had taken a toll on Dixie’s nerves, meaning she had to up the Valium. That bump in how she dosed herself may or may not have been responsible for the increase in the number of days she wouldn’t get out of bed. And, there were other symptoms of Dixie’s mental illness that presented themselves after the move. Well, it may be more appropriate to say that it was about this time that I became aware of another symptom of Dixie’s mental health issues. When she would become extremely agitated over something, she would have what she termed “seizures.” During these “seizures’ she’d have hysterics, and at their worst, would writhe on the floor spitting. I had never seen it before it happened in the living room of our double-wide on Route AA. Dixie, however, claimed she’d had these spells all her life. If so, she’d hidden them well, because these seizures were not something anyone with eyes or ears could overlook or forget.
That first one I saw was nothing less than terrifying; I had no idea what was going on or what to do. I remember later thinking, too, how embarrassing it would be if that happened when I was out somewhere with Dixie, or if it happened when I had friends over. Luckily, neither of those things ever occurred. But, as Dixie got older, these fits happened more often. Many years later, after one particularly explosive “seizure,” I called the medics. It was then I learned that these were not truly seizures. Medical professionals refer to these as pseudo-seizures, and they are psychological, not physical in nature. As a teenager seeing it for the first time, all I knew then was that something was very wrong with my mother.
Dixie’s mood was substantially bolstered when a familiar face appeared at our door. Duard – remember Duard, the Vietnam vet who lived among aliens? He followed Dixie to mid-Missouri, but got an apartment in Jefferson City rather than trying to find somewhere to live in Russellville. He scoped out the places to go dancing, and the same day he got settled in his apartment, he took Dixie dancing at the Best Western. So, even if the summer was horribly boring for Carl and me, Dixie found her niche.
In August, school began. I was a junior in a K-12 school, where the largest class (mine) was thirty-six students. Carl was a sophomore. Most of the kids in our classes had been there since kindergarten, and the pecking hierarchy was pretty much established. It was rural Missouri in the late 1970s, so most of the kids came from intact families, and those families had gone to the same school, literally the very same school building, for generations. So, pretty much I was pegged an outsider from Day One.
There were some kids, however, who were not from intact families who had generations of history in the area. Those kids were the ones who welcomed me, and I quickly made friends. In no time, my weekends were full of activities, including spending most of Friday and Saturday nights “cruising the Boulevard,” as in riding up and down Missouri Boulevard in Jefferson City, and stopping to hang out with other kids cruising the boulevard. Sometimes, when stopped at Hardees, McDonald’s or Kmart, we’d hear about a house party. We’d pile back in our cars and go to find it. Sometimes it panned out, and sometimes it didn’t.
Of course, I never drove because I had neither a license nor a car, so I needed a way to make money to contribute to others’ gas. I’d had a job before we moved, at McDonald’s — I’d started working at fourteen. Technically, McDonald’s wanted employees to be at least fifteen; Dixie told me to just lie about my age. She said that’s what she’d done when she was my age, and there was no way they could prove I wasn’t fifteen. It had worked. So, with McDonald’s experience, I figured I’d try to get a job at McDonald’s on the Boulevard. I had the job before I’d even finished completing the application, but getting to and from was a bit more of an issue. Luckily, Elmer agreed to give me a ride into work a couple times a week, but it was up to me to get a ride home. Usually, I could catch a ride with other friends who also had jobs in Jefferson City. Dixie wouldn’t help me out, but she was glad to have me earning money to pay for everything I needed, from clothes to soap. I was basically providing for myself from sixteen on.
It didn’t take Dixie long to find all the places to go dancing, and it didn’t take her much longer to find new dance partners. The first one I remember was Charlie. She referred to him as “Good Time Charlie.” Duard was around almost every week. He’d help us out, even as Dixie dated other men. I guess he knew that, as had been the case all my life, most of the men Dixie dated were just free dinners and dance partners to her She’d keep them around until they wanted too much, and then she’d move on.
Even with the outlets to go dancing, Dixie was not stable. In hindsight, it seems like I should’ve clearly realized that her behavior was steadily worsening. But, our life up to that point seemed like one long dysfunctional timeline peppered with calm moments, and so new behaviors such as the pseudo-seizures didn’t fully register with me – it was just a twist in the craziness our life was at any given time. So, when Dixie began threatening to kill herself, I think at first I was concerned (I later came to view it as a manipulation tool) but I didn’t see it for the escalation it was until years later.
There’s a memory I have from the first year after we moved to Russellville. I don’t know if it was the first time she threatened suicide, but it stands out in my memory, so I think probably it was. As I recall it, Dixie had been in her bed for a couple days. Carl and I came home from school and found her sitting in the living room in her robe. That seemed like progress, and, indeed, she seemed much better when she started talking about something she wanted to do that night. I told her I had plans, and immediately she started yelling. Carl bolted to his room, and I tried to reason with her, asking if we could do whatever she wanted another time. She went full-on Trixie. As she screamed, I realized there would be no reasoning with her, and after a few chaotic moments, I screamed back at her that I was going out.
Apparently shocked that I’d dared to scream back at her, she went instantly silent. We glared at each other for a moment, her on the couch and me standing in the entryway of our home. Then she said woodenly, “I don’t even know why I try. I wish I’d just die.” I don’t remember, but I’d bet I rolled my eyes. Then, dramatically, she dipped her hand into the nearby dish of Valium…oh, did I neglect to mention that Dixie had taken, for whatever reason, to keeping Valium in candy dishes? It didn’t occur to me to question it; if she wanted to keep her meds in candy dishes, so be it. Please understand, I realized it wasn’t normal, but when you grow up in the chaos mental illness generates, you’re more accepting of the abnormal – plus you learn to pick your battles. The candy dishes were not a battle I saw worth fighting.
So, anyway, she dipped her hand into the candy dish, and with the yellow pills sifting through her fingers she said, “All it would take is a handful of these.” In my mind, the memory zooms in on the pills falling in a gentle shower from her hand back into the candy dish in slow motion. It was riveting. Then, in an Oscar-worthy performance, after the pills all settled back in the dish, she hollowly told me to go ahead and go out.
The tone of her voice unnerved me. I remember standing there unsure how to respond. When she stood, picked up the candy dish, and turned to go to her room, I caved. I told her I’d stay home, and I apologized for yelling at her. Of course, it didn’t end with that, there was at least another thirty minutes of her guilt-tripping me. I don’t believe Dixie was suicidal that day; later threats, however, were real, and more disturbing were the suicide attempts that weren’t preceded by threats. One of the truths of mental illness is you can never depend on it being predictable.
In the spring of my junior year, I took the guy I was dating at the time, NAME, to prom. I felt so sophisticated because he was twenty-one to my seventeen. Dixie regularly gave me pep talks about how men only want one thing, and said NAME was only dating me for that one thing. I’d basically give her the 1970s version of today’s snarky “whatever.” I was still dating NAME during the summer between my junior and senior years. On the Fourth of July, his family had a huge bash, and I was introduced to the sneaky devil that is vodka. One second I was fine, the next I was out of my mind drunk, and then I passed out. NAME’s parents were worried about me, and so they poured me into a car and took me home to Dixie – Dixie who thought I was spending the night with a friend. . . well, she thought that because I told her I was spending the night with a friend. She managed to seem like a normal pissed parent until NAME and his folks left. When the door shut, she went berserk, and I was too drunk to fend her off. She was sure I’d “let myself” be raped, and proceeded to “examine” me for evidence of it, the whole time calling me a stupid whore and all sorts of other names. Then she launched into her usual refrains that now that NAME and God knew who else had fucked me, I’d never hear from him again and nobody else was going to want me either.
After what to me seemed like hours of Dixie berating me and telling me how worthless I was, I helped myself to a handful of Valium from the candy dish. Luckily, I was too drunk to realize that I did it right in front of her. She immediately made me vomit. The next morning found me miserably hungover and grounded for the foreseeable future. Dixie’s cousin John showed up that morning for a visit, saving me from Dixie berating me further.
As I entered my senior year, Trixie was appearing more often. Whereas previously Dixie would ignore Carl’s hatefulness when she was in a depressive low, now she’d be ready to do battle. Most times Carl stomped off, but sometimes he’d go toe to toe with her, and I’d slink off to my bedroom to try to shut their screamed insults out. During one of those shouting matches, I heard objects start busting against the walls, just like when I was a scared little girl trying to pretend I was asleep in my locked bedroom as my parents went to war. Suddenly, Dixie let out a bloodcurdling scream followed by, “Oh my God, oh my God, I’m blind!” I ran out to find Dixie with her hand over her left eye, and Carl yelling, “Let me see it!”
When I finally got them to shut up so that I could figure out what happened, I learned that in the course of throwing things at each other, something Carl had thrown had hit Dixie square in the eye. A trip to the hospital later, we learned that she had a scratched cornea, and Dixie stayed at Duard’s house until her eye healed. It seems to me that from that moment forward, Dixie and Carl’s relationship never truly recovered. But, in hindsight, I now realize, too, that Dixie played Carl and me off each other almost until the day she died to get whatever she wanted. So, I probably have no true idea of what her relationship with him really was. Had I realized earlier in life that my mother was narcissistic and had other mental health issues, perhaps my relationship with Carl could have been saved.
Another lifelong behavior that started during the Russellville years was Dixie’s hoarding. Because she received her welfare payments and allotment of Food Stamps at the first of the month, she began buying food and other supplies in bulk. She piled snacks up on the washer and dryer and stashed soda under her bed. I slept on a water bed at this time. Much later, after I’d moved out of Dixie’s house, she kept the drawers from under my bed, and she stored hundreds of cans of food in those drawers and other boxes and drawers throughout her home. In later years, her hoarding was the foundation of most of our battles, and following her death it cost me thousands of dollars to clean out everything she’d accumulated in her house.
When it came time for my high school graduation, Dixie told me I needed to start paying her rent. By this time, I’d been dating a boy, Brooks, for several months. He lived in Jefferson City, and his family seemed like The Cleavers compared to mine. Seeing the relative normalcy of his family made me want to escape the craziness of mine – at least on a day-to-day basis. In addition, several of my high school friends were looking to get an apartment together in Jefferson City. So, I told Dixie to forget the rent, I was leaving.
As might be expected, she didn’t take it well. She told me I didn’t know anything about what it took to make a life for myself and that she wasn’t paying for me to live it up in Jefferson City. She was unreasonably angry with me. Of course, I know now that her anger came from the abandonment issues she carried from childhood, but at the time, to me it seemed she just didn’t want me to be free, and I just walked out.