By Sarah White
To clarify a story point, you need to know that my parents called me Betsy, a nickname for my middle name Elizabeth.
The end for us as a family arrived in late summer 1973 on what would be our last family camping trip.
You could see it coming. Family camping had already devolved from our past spontaneous overnights and glorious two-week trips to Canada. The last couple of years we’d only gone as far as some land one of my father’s friends owned in Michigan. I guess the fishing was good there, but not much excited the rest of us.
Now, as summer 1973 wound down, my mother suggested a weekend trip to Amish Acres in northern Indiana. I don’t remember that weekend, per se. What I remember is the photograph my mother took of us lined up against the family car, after we’d packed up to go home.
“That’s when I knew it was over,” my mother said later, pointing to that photo. Three sullen teens and a muddled-looking old man stare back from it.
Father is in his usual uniform of light blue polyester slacks, a short-sleeved white no-iron shirt, and a brimmed cap. To his left is Andy, 18, in jeans and a wide-striped t-shirt like the Beach Boys wore. Thick bangs of dark hair swoop across his glasses, half-obscuring his eyes. David, 17, is harder for me to see. (I’m doing this from memory—the photo is at my mother’s house in Florida.) He must be wearing jeans, ghetto boots, a t-shirt. What I see clearly are his chunky glasses frames and his bushy brown hair curling over his collar. If Andy’s trying for surfer look, Dave is trying for rock-n-roll dude.
To his left stands me, 16. I am wearing the uniform I adopted after I saw “Billy Jack” too many times. This consists of bell-bottom jeans and a big chambray work shirt, worn un-tucked. On my wrist is a chunky leather watchband. (These thick bands were to protect your wrists if you got into a knife fight.) My hair is as bushy as Dave’s but redder and so long it reaches almost to my waist. I accessorize it with a thin leather thong tied Indian-style across my forehead. I dress as much like a hippie as my mother will allow, so that if I run into some they will recognize me and take me away from this family.
That camping trip, on which there was nothing to do but buy apple butter up at the Amish store, was the end of us trying to do anything together. From then on, we just tried to get by.
It had been a while coming on. As we became teenagers the decibel level in the house had risen. My close-and-play record player competed with the family stereo Dave and Andy had moved to their room. Plus Dave had started a rock band that sometimes practiced in the basement. Andy had been enrolled in a challenging private high school and studied constantly, which was somehow a loud process. He paced and exhorted in his strange halting speaking style. Mother coached from the kitchen, matching his decibels to reach him as he paced up and down the hallway. This exasperated my father. He had had hopes of Andy pursuing a law career, but these halting declamations revealed a lack of talent for courtroom oration.
How the family had changed from one in which we’d all pile in the car together and head out somewhere fun! Now Mother just worked, came home, made dinner, and watched a little TV or maybe sewed. You could almost see her resign, say “I can’t do a thing with these people” and turn her attention elsewhere. Father wasn’t his old self either. He was sometimes more and sometimes less. The early-morning staccato sound of typing from his basement office stopped filling the house.
Over the next months, Father would present different sides—sometimes the gleeful prankster of old, but more often the missing man, alternating with the angry drill sergeant. I no longer accompanied him on his outings; boys were calling on me now. He developed new friends, palling round with “The Old Dogs,” his barbershop quartet, or hanging out with Joe the Plumber, an ex-Hari Krishna. Sometimes he dragged my mother out in the evening to drink at the new fern bar that had opened in Carmel.
As the winter of 1972 turned into spring 1973, he developed a pattern of fixating on something as The Problem, then perseverating on it until it had to go. One such episode involved the cats, two silver tabbies he had named Beowulf and Thomas Aquinas. I don’t know what he held against them but one day he put them in the car and that was the last I saw of them.
The thing that turned me against him was my letter B. Boyfriend Bob and I had been dumpster-diving behind the Ben Franklin in Nora when we found it; an abandoned foot-high initial from the store’s signage. “B for Bob, B for Betsy,” he said as he presented it to me. I hung it on the wall in my bedroom next to the window. My father decided it was a problem and even though I kept my bedroom door closed so the sight of it wouldn’t set him off, he kept railing about it. Finally I let him have it. The B went the way of the cats.
One day early that summer of 1973 Father came home with an old gold Cadillac as big as a boat. He must have bought it off one of his friends. It was much larger but no stranger than some of the other purchases that followed him home around that time.
No sooner did he buy the Cadillac than he crashed it. No sooner did he crack it up than he cracked up himself. The car was towed back to sit leering, gape-hooded, in our driveway. He was towed to St. Vincent’s Hospital for observation. My mother called the three of us together to give us the news. This has to be the hardest thing she has ever done. We Never Talk About Anything.
She told us he’d been drinking; they were keeping him on the alcoholics’ ward, drying him out. We got in the car, went down to the hospital, up to the ward, through the day room of sick, gray men in bathrobes to our particular sick, gray man. I don’t remember what anyone said.
Then he moved to the Carmel Motel. When he did come home a couple of weeks later, he brought a plastic ice bucket from the motel, shame-inducing on sight. Why did he keep it?
He took to his bed. We quit making noise in the house. The band no longer practiced. His diagnosis morphed from alcoholism to manic depression. My brothers stayed away as much as they could; so did I. How Mother got us together late that summer for that final camping trip is a mystery.
That fall Dave followed Andy off to college. Mother hit her marks of work, housework, and some cooking, but otherwise in her Mennonite-inspired way, shunned us all. I went to high school, to my job at the Can-Do kiosk at the mall, and out at night with my new hippie Indianapolis friends.
The end of the end, heralded by that camping photo, had arrived. As a family we were done. I was free to go.
I’ll be visiting my mom next month–will try to get a scan of The Camping Photo to replace this placeholder.
Very poignant. It’s hard to look at some aspects of our past, but you wrote about it with honesty, boldness and even a bit of whimsy. Nice combination. The timing of your post was interesting for me to read as I’m in a reflective mood, my father in a hospital bed, his lungs giving out. We were also one of those families that Never Talked About Anything. Well, it got better in later years, but Dad is still the stoic retired Air Force colonel. I’m glad I made the 1000 mile trip to see him last week. Your writing helps me see the importance in doing my own. Family is often at the core of our thoughts about life, the past…and the future.