This article first appeared in the November/December 1994 issue.
ALTHOUGH IT CLEARLY SAID “STURBRIDGE: NEXT RIGHT,” I almost drove by the exit. Now that would be an inauspicious start to this therapeutic adventure, I thought.
As I pulled off the Mass Pike, I was surprised by how little Sturbridge had changed. I went by the Publick House. Built as a tavern in 1761, it’s a sprawling, white building that has only a few guest rooms and four big dining rooms. When my parents bought it in 1946, it was a wreck, but they worked feverishly together to rebuild and redecorate it in time for a grand Thanksgiving opening.
The Publick House was my Dad’s first Treadway Inn independent of my grandfather’s hotel chain. My mother had spent hundreds of hours researching colonial interior design in order to recreate the Inn in an authentic period style. Flush with the confidence of youth, my young parents had taken on an enormous debt to make a go of this venture. “We thought the world was our oyster,” my father used to say. My Mom was 28 years old and pregnant with her fourth child. I was a little more than a year old.
Memories of our regular Sunday meals at the Inn washed over me as I drove by. My younger brother, Jimmy, and I always had the roast beef, mashed potatoes, and more than our share of the bread basket filled with corn sticks, garlic bread and sticky buns. Being the owners’ children always meant that the waitresses treated us like visiting royalty.
On the other side of town, I made the turn to go up the hill. It had been 35 years since I last drove up Fiske Hill Road. As I pulled into the driveway, I noticed, with a small stab of disappointment, that our old house was now brick red instead of the bluish gray of my childhood, and that the barn where we kept our horses was gone.
It was odd to be renting a room for the night in my childhood home, but our house now provided additional rooms for the Inn. I wanted to rent my old bedroom, but it was occupied. I turned down the offer of the master bedroom I knew I didn’t particularly want to end up in my parents’ double bed. I chose my older brother’s room.
As I walked through the living room, I was struck by how little had changed. It all seemed like a museum. The TV was in the same place it had been when we ate popcorn and watched “The Lone Ranger” and “Howdy Doody.” The glass-topped coffee table with the magazines was still there. I wouldn’t have been surprised if they were the same magazines. Even the chintz-striped living room chairs looked like the same ones that my mother led us charging up and over in the parade when I was 6.
It had been a rainy Sunday afternoon, and we were all bored. Mom decided we should play follow-the-leader. She called it a parade. We each had to wear something exotic on our heads. I wore one of her hats with a veil, my sister wore one of Dad’s fedoras, Jim had on a pointed clown’s hat and Mom had Life magazine split over her head with the pages coming down over her ears. She marched us around the whole house, over all the fine furniture, including the dining room table. She got us singing and laughing as if we were the Von Trapp family. She could do that kind of thing. She used to be a lot of fun in the Sturbridge days.
After unpacking, I called my wife, Kate.
“How is it?”
“Feels a little anticlimactic, so far. I
think I might have spilled all the feelings I have left in Barbara’s office, Tuesday.”
“How are you feeling about tomorrow?”
“I’m afraid that I won’t feel anything. But, I tell my clients that it’s good enough to go through the motions and not to feel they have to have some kind of cathartic epiphany. I guess the same goes for me.”
“Well, it’s about time you did some of the things you tell your clients to do,” Kate said teasingly.
I ate dinner at the Inn in the room called the Barn. For a hundred years, it had been the horse barn for the Inn’s guests. I sat at a table not far away from the mock stall where my family always ate our Sunday lunches and wondered about this odd journey I was on.
For 18 years, I have spoken the language of grieving and recovery from the safety of the therapist’s chair. Now, after two years of my own therapy with Barbara Greenspan, I was finally confronting my mother’s death, which happened 26 years ago.
After dinner, I was suddenly very tired. Being in this old house had unleashed a flood of memories. It surprised me how many good feelings came back: skating down on the pond past the horse pasture; diving for pennies in the swimming pool; the first moments of pedaling beyond my father’s supporting hands on my brand-new two-wheeler; and playing endless games of toy soldiers with Jon and building block castles with Jimmy. Somehow, these last few years of therapy had melted the frozen memories until I could now savor the good times and realize that, once upon a time, our family was happy.
I crawled into bed, but couldn’t fall asleep. I pulled out my Dad’s manuscript about my mother. He had written her biography two years ago. I had reread almost all of it this week. I turned to the Epilogue.
“Why did Martha kill herself? She wanted to. Her anxiety and depression had become unbearable. Her prescription-drug-filled mind had rationalized itself to the point where she felt she was doing me and our children a favor by bowing out.”
I put the page down and stared at my face in the black window across from me. I really had been better off since she died. I was just floundering before that, chasing girls and good times. Then my mother took her 30 Seconal, and Lauris and Dad got sent to their respective mental hospitals, and Jon retreated into alcoholism. That left me to pick up the pieces.
With my younger brother Jimmy’s help, I became the head of the family. I was the visitor to the hospitals and gave the family history to social workers. I took my Dad out on passes. It made me feel important. Although I was only 20 years old, I felt like a grown-up. I might have ended up a drunk myself if my mom had lived. Instead, I became a specialist in treating families with addictions.
I picked up Dad’s manuscript again.
“As Sherlock Holmes would be quick to point out, there are many factors to this bizarre and intricate puzzle. Each of us who knew her intimately would bring to the puzzle a personal and unique reaction. There is really no easy or neat answer to the question of why this beautiful, talented and loving woman took her life.
“Probably it was a cumulative, wearing-down process; the financial worries, the sale of the hotel, prescription drugs, anxieties about the children, emotional insecurity, and last, but not least, a manic-depressive husband.
“If Martha were with us today, I feel she would be proud of us. I would also welcome the opportunity to convince her of the importance and worth of her 47 years amongst us.”
I ached for my 79-year-old Dad writing those words. The poor bastard was still blaming himself, and he still loved her.
I WOKE UP TO THE SOUND OF A driving rain storm: not a great day for an outing. Weeks ago, I had decided to write a letter to my mother to read out loud. I hadn’t been able to find the right time to do it; it was now or never. But as soon as I sat at the desk to write the letter, I clicked on the TV. I slouched down in the chair and put my feet up on the desk like an adolescent. I didn’t want to think about her.
I remembered the time I was 16 and my friends and I got drunk with my mother. She let us have beer while she was drinking bourbon. At first, we all had a good time. She was very funny, teasing us about our acne and hyperactive hormones. My friends thought she was a riot. Then, as the night wore on, she began to slur her words and stopped making sense. Finally, she announced she was going to take a nap, laid down on the floor in front of everyone and passed out. I had to get her out of there, so I yanked her up off the floor by the arm, like she was a bag full of wet sails. I put her arm over my shoulder and my arm around her waist. Her head flopped onto my chest. My friends were stone silent and looked away. I dragged her out of the room.
I clicked off “Good Morning America,” took my feet off the desk and turned to the blank page.
I’m writing at the old Sturbridge house, in Jon’s bedroom. Soon, I’ll be leaving for Williamstown and I’m trying to figure out what I want to say to you after all these years. Thinking about you still jams me up with feeling mad and sad and guilty.
I guess the time has come for me to forgive you for killing yourself. I’ve spent years romanticizing your death into a noble tragedy, with you as the forlorn heroine. Other times, I’ve been angry and blamed you for destroying the family with your singularly selfish choice. I’ve also felt so guilty because I avoided you like the plague for the last few years of your life, and I really didn’t feel anything at all when you killed yourself.
I’ve never allowed myself to know how awful you must have felt. It’s in the last self-portrait you painted. Your self-loathing is brutal to behold; the cold disdain in your eyes. Towards the end, I imagine that you lay in bed, filleting yourself with hatred, exaggerating every mistake or flaw, dismissing every accomplishment or talent and blaming yourself for everything that ever went wrong in our family. You must have felt a desperate craving for utter oblivion.
For years, I felt that I had forgiven you for murdering yourself. That was bullshit. Beneath the smoothly polished facade of forgiveness, I was dead inside. I hated you and I hated me for hating you. And I felt nothing at all.
It’s been 26 years now. For most of that time, I never gave you a second thought. Now, I can’t get you out of my mind. This is progress?
Mom, I think it’s time to really forgive you, and maybe even me. But I’m still mad. I just don’t know how to let go of it. Believe it or not, I’ve been trying to pray about it. I’ve also begun to write it all down. It’s a form of prayer, too.
But I don’t really know what I’m doing. I’m just here.
I’ve never said thank you, Mom. I’ve never really acknowledged how much love you gave all of us. How much the best part of me comes from the best part of you. I am proud to have been in your parade.
I am blessed with a wonderful wife. You would like Kate. She doesn’t buy any of my bullshit, and she loves me anyway. I also have two sons who fill my heart with joy and gratitude. (Not all the time, of course.) I wish you could meet them. I wish they could have met you. It’s hard to explain suicide to them.
I finally did sail the Atlantic. I think you would have been proud of me. It’s going to have to be enough though. I’ve decided not to cross the Pacific. I’m too old. I have learned to care enough to be afraid. I am the same age you were when you died.
There’s really not much more to say. I’m sorry I’ve been so angry. I’m glad you were my Mom. You still are. I wish you were here.
THE DAY CLEARED AS I LEFT THE Inn. The sunlight shimmered on the wet leaves and grass; the countryside was lush and green. I was too agitated to appreciate the scenery. Thinking of the hope with which I had sent clients off to visit their parents’ graves with reassuring murmurings about “grief,” “healing” and “recovery” made me feel slightly queasy.
I turned off the Mass Pike toward Williamstown and suddenly remembered the flowers. I had planned to plant some at the gravesite and to bury my mother’s wedding ring under them, too. My sister, Lauris, gave it to me and said, “Take it. I can’t stand having it anymore. It’s killing me.” Burying it with the flowers seemed fitting, even if it was a little melodramatic.
I pulled the ring out of my pocket. It was a wide silver band carved to look like a floral wreath. My mother had designed it with her usual artistic flair.
Mom was 19 when she married Dad. In their wedding pictures, she was radiantly beautiful in her lace wedding gown, with her rich auburn hair and luminous brown eyes. She and Dad made a handsome couple. In the pictures, there’s an obvious sparkle between them.
Twenty-eight years later, Dad bent over her hospital bedside, kissed her forehead and said goodbye. Then the doctors removed the respirator and she was gone.
I put the ring back in my pocket. For years, my simple explanation for Mom’s suicide had been that the demands of her marriage and children strangled her. It was our fault. She was a ’90s woman trapped in a ’50s family. She became a depressed alcoholic. Then her doctors added a huge amount of prescription uppers and downers. In her last year, she had barely gotten out of bed.
It had always been easy to see my parents as clients in a case study. I used to have a glib systemic perspective on the story and never allowed myself to imagine what it felt like for her in those last moments. I have seen the black metal pill box where all her prescription drugs were stored. Dad kept it locked and had been doling out the pills. That last morning, she ripped it open with her bare hands, which couldn’t have been easy to do. She chose a safe time of day when she was confident she wouldn’t be inadvertently rescued. What was it like to take 30 pills? She couldn’t have done more than four or five at a time. How did she stand there at the sink forcing down one mouthful after another? Did she have doubts? She must have felt bloated with the glutinous mass in her stomach. The thought of throwing it all up before it was too late must have crossed her mind. What was it like to walk into her bedroom? Did she take in every detail or even notice? Her head must have felt heavy as her thoughts began to thicken. What was she feeling as she pulled back the covers?
And what was it like for my Dad coming home unexpectedly with the good news about having just found a housekeeper for her, only to find her comatose body? She lay in a hospital bed for three days with my Dad constantly at her side. He decided he couldn’t tell anyone the truth because he thought it would embarrass her if she pulled through. He was utterly alone, watching the rubber tube push air into her lungs like a bellows.
It was definitely time to focus on finding a flower shop. Robinson’s Flower Emporium appeared in the corner of my eye and I swung the car around. The store was packed with people buying flowers. Why were all these people here in the middle of a Friday morning? Suddenly, I realized my pilgrimage to the grave coincided with Mother’s Day. This was altogether too cute.
“May I help you, sir?” asked the friendly lady behind the counter. “I just want to plant something that won’t need a lot of tending. I like these things right here. What are they?”
“Well, that’s a very nice choice. They’re called miniature roses. But you wouldn’t want to plant them until the end of the month.”
“Actually, I was going to plant them today. What’s the problem?”
“At this time of year, you still have to worry about a frost killing them. Most people will keep them inside for a few more weeks.”
“Well, that’s a good tip. I’ll take them.”
“Do you want a card? We have quite a selection of Mother’s Day cards.”
“No thanks, I don’t need a card. The flowers will say it all.”
I liked my choice. The bloodred buds were small, delicate and beautiful. I hoped they wouldn’t be too intrusive at the gravesite. The idea of them growing there through the summer felt good. But if a frost killed them, so be it.
WILLIAMSTOWN IS THE EPITOME of bucolic New England white colonial houses, neatly tended lawns and a town green with a Civil War monument.
This was my Dad’s hometown. What was it like for him to drive back here with my mother’s ashes in the backseat of his car?
I was sure I wouldn’t have any difficulty finding the grave. The family plot is marked by a marble bench. How many of those could there be? I remembered seeing the bench when they buried Mom’s ashes. It was situated so that it took in a breathtaking view of Mt. Greylock looming over the valley.
I went all the way around the graveyard twice before I found the bench. I’d forgotten how many relatives are buried here. My Dad’s parents, my great-aunt, two people whom I had never heard of, and my Aunt Jane’s third husband, Bob.
My mother’s little marker was off to the left. I remembered when Dad buried the box. The procedure seemed so banal at the time. There was a little tiny hole dug in the frozen ground and my father knelt down next to the hole and lowered the cardboard box filled with her ashes down into it. And that was that. I don’t know if anyone said a prayer. Someone must have said something. All I remember is Dad in his winter overcoat on his knees lowering the box.
I stood in front of the flat, rectangular stone.
Martha Chamberlin Treadway 1918-1966
“Died by her own hand” crossed my mind as a possible epithet. I shook it off. I wasn’t experiencing any of the emotions I hoped to have. I was just feeling awkward and self-conscious; not really wanting to be here at all.
I relaxed a little. Mom’s marker was filthy. I didn’t have anything to clean it with, but I started scraping dirt off the marker with my shoe.
I walked over to the marble bench and read the inscription:
“Tarry, neighbor, God’s good work to behold.
Open your heart to the healing power of the everlasting purple hills.”
I sat down on the bench. There weren’t any purple hills a stand of scrub trees had grown up on the other side of the road, obscuring the view of the mountains. So much for the healing power of the everlasting purple hills.
I pulled out my letter to Mom and started reading it aloud. I was distracted by a car that drove up to a grave a hundred yards south of me. Sitting there on the bench and reading the letter seemed hopelessly foolish, but I pushed through it.
AFTERWARD, I SAT FOR A WHILE listening to the songs of the birds doing their mating calls. There was also a harsh whine of a chain saw probably a farmer clearing some land for spring planting. I tried to remind myself that just because I wasn’t overcome with grief didn’t mean I was a heartless person. The warm breeze and noonday sun felt good and so I just sat still for a moment.
When I got back to the car, I saw the flowers. I didn’t care much about following through with the planting ritual. I had even forgotten to bring a little spade, so the windshield scraper would have to do.
Kneeling on the damp earth to dig, I realized with annoyance that I was going to get my freshly cleaned slacks dirty. I had envisioned this scene as providing a profound moment of love and connection with the woman who gave birth to me. Instead, I was distracted about spotting my pants.
I remembered her last Christmas. My brother, Jim, and I had avoided coming home until Christmas Eve. It was awful. My dad was trying to cheer us all up while my mother wandered around in a disheveled bathrobe. She had a vacant, dead look in her eyes. We all pretended not to notice.
The only time she came to life was when she decided to set up the Christmas parade. When we were little, she had always put a column of tiny animals on the mantlepiece. They marched behind a black, wooden schooner that was filled with little make-believe Christmas packages. She had made each package by carefully wrapping wooden Scrabble pieces in white tissue and tying them with red ribbon. After dinner, she announced she wanted to make the parade and sent us all through the house looking for the animals and the boat. We found them, but we couldn’t find the tiny presents. So she insisted that we sit down with another Scrabble set and make up a new batch of miniature packages.
Jim and I could tell it was going to be a difficult scene, so we fortified ourselves with a jolt of bourbon while my father and sister tried to make a go of it. A fire was lit and Bing Crosby’s Christmas album was put on. Jim and I wisecracked about what a nice Norman Rockwell scene we were, while my mother and Lauris sat in front of the fire with the Scrabble pieces and the tissue paper, and Dad drifted off to the kitchen to freshen everyone’s drinks.
I noticed that Mom’s hands were shaking so badly that she couldn’t wrap any of the squares. Nobody said anything. Lauris worked away and amassed a little pile of packages while Mom struggled intently with her first one. She fussed with the tissue and ribbon over and over again, but somehow her twitching fingers kept defeating her.
We just sat and watched. Finally, she put the piece down and said to no one in particular, “Well, this was a wonderful idea. It’s so nice to have everyone home at last. But I’m very tired and I really must go to bed.”
It wasn’t until she was at the door that I noticed tears streaming down her cheeks. After she left, we packed away the animals and the boat. Not even Lauris had the patience to finish the project. Jim and I grabbed the bourbon and went down to the basement to join Jon in front of the TV. We didn’t say a word to each other.
Now, I was kneeling at my mother’s grave and feeling the same emptiness that I had that Christmas. I just wanted to get away from there. I fumbled for the ring in my pocket. Burying the damn thing was definitely melodramatic, but I knew I didn’t want to take it home. I dropped it in the little hole. Then I plopped the flowers in the hole, brushed off my pant leg and marched off to my car without looking back.
Leaving Williamstown, I headed up into the mountains to the east of the town. I worked the car through the hairpin turns and past the scenic overlooks barely noticing the lush, green beauty of the mountains. Only the broad trails of a ski area caught my eye. The swaths of green cut into the moutainside looked like scars.
The anticlimactic moment in the cemetery seemed both comical and disappointing. What did I expect? That she was going to appear before me? Maybe. Sit down on the bench and ask me how my life was going? Maybe say she was sorry, after all?
I was hungry and started keeping an eye out for a burger place. For once, I was going to indulge in a double cheeseburger, large fries and vanilla shake without sweating the calories and the cholesterol.
Sitting in the McDonald’s parking lot, I paused and closed my eyes. Suddenly, there she was.
I was standing on the stairs in my PJs. She was all dressed up for a night on the town. I was frightened about being left at home with a new babysitter. An incandescent warmth came from the depths of her brown eyes as she gazed at me. She bent toward me, putting her hands on my shoulders and nuzzling me nose to nose, doing our Eskimo kiss. A slight smile played on her lips.
“There, there, sweetheart, I won’t be gone too long. Keep your chin up. I love you, David.”
“I love you, too, Mom.”
My eyes filled. The soothing tears flowed down my cheeks. Then, I imagined sitting on the sofa in our old living room that Christmas Eve. I was seeing that poor, pathetic woman struggling with the ribbon and the tissue paper. Suddenly, I just wanted to be back there. I wanted to get down on my knees and help my Mom wrap the Scrabble piece. I wanted to fill the black schooner with presents. I wanted to help her make the parade. I wanted to put my arms around her and tell her that I loved her. I wished I could say I was sorry. Sorry for coming home late. Sorry for everything.
I heard myself whisper out loud, “I hope you like the roses, Mom.”
TWO YEARS HAVE GONE BY. I HAVE completed my therapy and finished a book about my family. My father, brothers and sister each contributed to the writing. Collaborating in telling my mother’s story became a pathway for us to face our shame and sadness together.
Last Thanksgiving, we gathered for the first time in many years without a crisis. I’m no longer in the role of family therapist to my own family, but I couldn’t resist asking my siblings to break away from the groups of spouses and kids so that we could be alone for a moment.
The four of us crowded into a small, spare bedroom in Jon’s house.
“If this is going to be a touchy-feely session, I’m out of here,” wisecracked Jim.
“Now, James,” admonished Lauris, “we can do this for David.”
“Don’t worry, guys,” I said. “I just wanted a moment for us to be together to talk about Mom. We’ve never really done it before.”
“Well, it had been a long time since I had given her a passing thought until your damn book stirred me up,” said Jon. “I was surprised by some of the anger you seem to have held onto, David. I let her off the hook years ago.”
The conversation unfolded. We talked about the book, our feelings, our memories. We told stories. We laughed. We cried.
I looked at my brothers and sister. Our faces were lined. Our heads were graying and balding. Each of us had our own version of a middle-aged paunch. Jon is struggling successfully with a lifetime of addiction. After years of mental illness, Lauris is managing being a single parent and pursuing her art work. Jim has gotten through a divorce and is a successful hotel executive. And I’ve specialized in taking care of other people. We’ve all been scarred. Some of the scars show and some don’t. We are all survivors after our fashion.
After a while, the conversation began to slow down. It was time to end.
“One last thing, and then I’ll leave you alone,” I said. “I know it sounds hokey, but I’d like us all to hold hands and pray for her.”
There were some groans, but we moved closer and with some awkward smiles, we took one another’s hands.
“Dear God,” I began, “Please comfort the soul of our mother, Martha Treadway. Tell her we’re all okay. Tell her we love her and we’re doing the best we can.”
I couldn’t say anymore. We sat in silence.
Then Lauris said softly, “And, Mom, we wish you were here.”
David Treadway, PhD, is a therapist and trainer of 40 years. His latest book is Treating Couples Well: A Practical Guide to Collaborative Couple Therapy. He’s also the author of Home Before Dark: A Family Portrait of Cancer and three other books.