Family Matters

The Family Album

Growing Up in the Shadow of Depression

Magazine Issue
November/December 2019
An illustration of a girl looking at her reflection in a car window


Sitting on lookout at the edge of the treehouse, I kicked my legs back and forth. The scrap wood Dad had built it with roughed the back of my thighs. When were Mom and Dad going to drive up? She’d left a couple hours ago to pick him up at that special hospital—the one no kids could visit. I hadn’t seen him since I’d finished first grade in June, and it was already August.

When I heard the chugs of our old 1946 Packard, I quickly lay flat so they wouldn’t see me. Mom opened the trunk, pulled out Dad’s ramshackle suitcase, and walked toward the door of our salmon-pink house. Dad slowly stepped out of the passenger side, clutching in his arms honey-colored pieces of wood the size of large books. What were those?

After my parents were inside, I scrambled down the wood-hammered crossways on the tree trunk and saw Mrs. Schutte, our neighbor who’d been watching us, walk out the door. I ducked behind the Japanese quince bush and skirted the house, peeking in the windows for Dad. I wanted to tell him that I could row our boat all by myself now! That I’d swum to our raft out in Lake Killarney alone five times! Spying him in our living room, I saw him handing each of my siblings—Tanya, Brian, and Mark—two pieces of that wood he’d been holding, only now I saw that in between the pieces were sheets of paper.

Mom spied me and opened up the back door. “Neene, come see what your Dad made for you,” she called. Made? When Curious George or Madeline went to the hospital, they didn’t make things there. His face still, mask-like, Dad handed me two pieces of wood that opened and closed like a book. Why wasn’t he happy to see me? What did I do that had made him go away?

As I sat cross-legged on the floor and looked down, Brian said, “It’s a scrapbook, Neene.” I looked at him puzzled. “To glue photos in and other stuff, like . . .,” he paused, “your report card!” Mom smiled at him and looked at Dad as if trying to get him to smile, too. Then she abruptly gathered up the four scrapbooks and took them to the tiny room we called the home office, where she placed them precariously on top of a jumble of papers.

On a Saturday morning a few weeks later, Dad made our bathroom into a darkroom. “To develop the film from my Kodak camera,” he explained to me. I nodded seriously. Tanya drew a big sign—”Do Not Open!”—and taped it on the door.

Two hours later, right leg crossed tight over my left, I banged on the door, “Dad, I have to pee bad.”

“Pee outside,” he replied. “We’re in the middle of stuff. Brian, hand me those negatives, quick.”

I squatted under our three giant Douglas firs in our backyard and watched the sun glinting off the waves of the lake. Why did Brian get to help and not me?

That night at dinner, as he cut his potatoes and cow tongue, Brian bragged, “Wait till you see what we did. It’s like magic. Dad, are the pictures dry yet? Can I run and get one?” Suddenly, I wasn’t hungry. I pushed my food around on my plate and pretended not to be interested in the photo Brian proudly held up. It was of him sitting on the ground with Tuffy and Spotty, our two dogs, while Mark, on Tanya’s lap in our big swing, reached his hand toward Brian’s face. I’m at the far left, watching.

Brian nudged me. “Dad, maybe tomorrow you can show Neene how to do it.”

That didn’t happen.

When Dad came home from work the next week, upset frizzled off him like Road Runner’s cartoon sweat. He yelled at Mom, “Why isn’t dinner on the table? What the hell did you do all day?!” With a slam of the door, he went into their bedroom, off the kitchen. After a tense, monosyllabic dinner, I waited until Mom was putting Mark to bed and Tanya and Brian were busy with homework. Then I pressed the metal end of the tin-can telephone Brian and I had made against the blue bedroom door and jammed my ear into its open end. No sounds. I ran into the dusk outside, to the window of my parents’ bedroom. The plastic-slatted blind wasn’t quite down all the way. I peered under it. No lights, only a dark lump under the covers in the bed closest to the window.

Dread hollowed my body. What was I doing wrong? I fell onto Mom’s flowerbed like the robin that had flown against the window that spring. I lay there. Finally, I heard Tanya: “Neene, Neene, where are you?”

I ran through the front doorway right into her. “What the heck were you doing outside?” Tears slid down my face. Words I couldn’t get out twisted around my tongue. Tanya tucked me into bed with my doll that I called No Name.

Why wasn’t he happy to see me? What did I do that had made him go away?

The next morning Dad was still in the bedroom. Mom hauled the scrapbooks out of the home office along with two boxes of photos: one that had been sitting there forever and another one with the pictures Dad and Brian had just developed. From the old box, she held up a black-and-white one of me and my siblings sitting on a huge log in the Cascade Mountains. I was dipping a small brush into watercolor paints. “Look what a good photographer your Dad is,” Mom said with fake cheeriness. Then she wrote “1950” at the top of a page in my scrapbook, glued in the photo, and wrote “Artists” underneath. After gluing a few more, she took the page into the bedroom.

“Turn that light off,” Dad barked at her.

“Look how cute: Brian and Tanner helping you push the lawn mower, and Janine pushing your legs from behind,” I heard her say.

“Leave me alone. They’re nothing but my rivals.”

Mom screeched, “You called the puppets I made for shows rivals, and now it’s the kids?! What’s wrong with you, Fred? That Dr. Strachan isn’t helping you. He just gives you a mother’s lap.”

Oh no—Dr. Strachan! His name always meant trouble.

Mom ran out to the vegetable garden and began ripping out the dried-up peas. To screen out the yelling, I stacked blocks in the living room as high as I could. After a while, I heard the bedroom door open. Dad walked over to the dining room table and fingered the different photos piled beside the scrapbooks. I slipped quietly out the back door. “Mom, maybe you should go help Dad.” She looked at me with sparks smoldering in her eyes.

“With what?” she asked scornfully.

“Gluing in photos.”

She harrumphed into the house and stood across the table from Dad. Silently at first, they passed each other pictures and tried them out on different pages. Then, nodding at each other now and again, they brushed rubber cement on the backs of photos and placed them firmly in different scrapbooks. In mine, Dad glued Tanya and Brian in the snow in the fancy winter coats Mom had sewed. Then us kids in our PJ’s, in what I recognized had been our Christmas card one year.

Mom picked up a pen. “I’m going to write ‘I love life’ under this photo of Janine in her sunsuit,” she announced. Dad smiled at her.

My ragged breath evened out. I moved out from behind the blocks and leaned against the door jamb. They were parents together, gathering and holding our family.

Forty-one years later, when Dad was visiting me in my home, I brought out the scrapbook—loose pages, the hinges long broken from being hauled through some 24 moves in my life. I’d finally found out in my 30s, when I was studying to be a family therapist, that he’d been hospitalized by Dr. Strachan numerous times for suicidal depression at Steilacoom State Mental Institution, and treated with electroshock so strong he had to be strapped down so an arm or a leg wouldn’t break.

“You made this there, right?” I asked him, running my hand across the cutout letters of my name on the cover.

He nodded. “Wood therapy, hung out there a lot. Should’ve been a carpenter. Someone in the shop suggested I make it. He knew I liked photography and had four kids.”

“Why didn’t you explain to us what was going on with you?”

Dad gazed at his hands. “Strachan told me you were too young—not to say anything to you. I had to protect you. You wouldn’t have understood.”

I blew out hard through my lips, and thought of the work William Beardslee and others have done now with families to help them talk with children when a parent is severely depressed. And of Kaye Gibbons’s description in Sights Unseen of ECT, which helped me understand how the muscles in Dad’s face had been affected.

Dad paged through the book. “You added a lot of photos to it,” he noted.

“I did, thanks to you getting me that Brownie camera when I was eight.”

He chuckled, “You loved that contraption.

Not long after that visit, he died suddenly of a heart attack. My siblings asked me to do the eulogy. Back and forth, I paged through the scrapbook, and began to write:

“It was hard for us to get close to you, Dad. We weren’t always sure you were going to be there. You had such hard things to deal with, like the secret of your grandfather’s suicide, disclosed to you on your father’s deathbed. The best times were when you invited us to measure, cut, and hammer with you. We made go-carts, the rowboat, a raft, and the diving board—all ways for us to see the world from different angles and perspectives. You especially loved working with iridescent driftwood and contouring bases for tables and lamps. If only it had been as easy for you to reshape the story of your own life.”




Janine Roberts

Janine Roberts, Ed.D., professor emerita at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, is the author of Tales and Transformations and Rituals for Our Times.