On August 8, 1933, my mother was born in Tucson, Arizona. Kathryn Yvonne Maben. Today she would have been 82 years old. She died November 3, 1993, when she was just 60. This was her high school senior portrait.
She was a handful before I even met her, and after getting to know her I understood why others found her so difficult to deal with.
Until I was 13, she was Mom. After 13, and after the year we spent in Denver, she became Mother — a different person to me, with a different role in my life. In Denver I learned I could not and should not trust her as the nurturing, caring adult whose job was to make sure I reached adulthood safely.
I won’t go into the details of that year in Denver, but I was not one of her top priorities.
It wasn’t until many years later — in fact, just within the last few years — that I learned the term “gaslighting“. It’s a form of abuse in which the abuser convinces the victim that what he saw or heard or experienced wasn’t real, or that was something quite different from what the victim remembered.
Like, the time when I was 5 or 6, Scott was 7 or 8. We’d not eaten most of the day, and we were hungry, but Mother was passed out drunk and the day was turning into evening. I knew that Mother cooked TV dinners by turning on the gas for the oven, sticking a match in to light it, waiting 10 minutes for the oven to get hot, and then putting the food in. So, we pulled something out of the freezer and turned on the gas. I couldn’t remember if the match goes in when you turn on the gas, or later when the food goes in.
Turns out, the match goes in when the gas is turned on. I did it wrong. I turned on the gas, waited a while, and then struck the wooden matchstick and opened the oven door. It exploded and blew me across the little galley style kitchen, leaving the scorched outline of a little boy on the wall.
It was never EVER discussed, but we all knew what had happened and why. Years later, when Mother was staying with my wife and family, somehow that incident came up. Mother told my wife she had been in the bathroom putting on her make-up and we were playing in the kitchen when it happened. That was NOT how I remembered it, but I didn’t press the issue at that time. (I had not yet discovered Adult Children of Alcoholics.)
Then several years later, I was staying with my brother and I mentioned Mother’s version. This was more than 20 years later and we’d never discussed it. The first thing he said was, “That’s bullshit! She was passed out drunk and we were hungry.”
BAM!!! I knew I wasn’t remembering wrong. She was making up her own version, making me question my own memory.
She also invented her own versions of what I wanted. Like, I wanted to join the Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, since some of my friends were also doing that. Mother said, “No, you don’t want to do what your brother is doing. You want to do something different, like join the YMCA.” And I got stuck in a stupid YMCA sports program.
In elementary school, the nurse told Mother I needed glasses, and my teachers were complaining. Mother said, “No, you don’t need glasses, you just want to be like your brother, but he needs them and you don’t.” It wasn’t until my shop teacher in 7th grade threatened to have me expelled if I didn’t get glasses that I was finally tested and got myself some glasses.
Most of my childhood I was told what I wanted, what I liked, how I felt, what I meant. Most of my childhood I was being gaslighted and learning not to trust myself because I was always “wrong”.
There were several instances when I had to call the police on my dad, because they were fighting and he was beating up on her. I thought the police were the good guys. But when we got to Denver, and mother couldn’t pay the motel bill, and the police were called, she went to hide in the bathroom and told me to lie to the police. Suddenly the police were the bad guys and it was my job to protect her. A 13-year old kid being responsible for the grown up. How fucked up is that?
The last fight Mother and Dad had was in January of 1968, and the police finally took him away instead of just telling him walk around the block to cool off. He was gone for good, and Mother applied for welfare and commodity foods. We got a box of cheese, canned peanut butter and some other things and waited for the first check to arrive.
Mother connected with an old high school boyfriend, he got her into pendulums, Ouija board, and other things. And she was convinced that because Jesse James had been a distant relative, he was tell her to go to Denver and find the stash of gold he left after one of his robberies. She was just to go, and when she got there she’d get further instructions.
So the day she got her first welfare check (a couple hundred dollars), she got it in her head that it was for a plane ticket. She needed to take the Ouija board with her, but the one she was using was one I had borrowed from a friend, so I insisted I really should go along just to make sure the board was safe for my friend. Plus I really REALLY hated my Spanish teacher and didn’t want to do the test later in the week. So Mother let me go along, as long as I took my school books to study. After all, we’d only be a few days and come back with lots of money.
So on February 26, 1968, Mother and I caught an overnight flight to Denver, leaving my brother (at 15) to say home with our sisters (Sheila was about 3 and Shannon was 11 months old). It was a Monday night we left, and she was sure we’d be back by the weekend, so it was okay for Scott to stay with the girls that week.
And, since we weren’t staying in Denver, I wasn’t enrolled in school there right away. It wasn’t until August and it was clear I wasn’t going back to Santa Barbara, so I enrolled myself in the nearest junior high. I lied my way in, saying we had just moved suddenly and didn’t have time to get my 8th grade records. They trusted me and put me into 9th grade anyway. That semester was miserable, to say the least. I was out as much as I was in, helping Mother manage the hotel because she was drunk or in the hospital or up to some other shenanigans.
The hotels are another story I won’t go into much here, except that after a dozen moves in the first few months (and as many different men), and then she met Ralph and they were together about 9 or 10 months. We lived in transient hotels, the kind with a little sink in the corner and the communal toilet and bathtub were down the hall.
It was at the Elms Hotel when life changed again. We lived in the upstairs corner room with our own private bathroom. Mother and Ralph had already split up, I had no idea how mother was getting any money or from where. I got up and went to school in the morning, and when I came home, nearly all of Mother’s things were gone. Just gone. She’d moved out.
What a strange and creepy feeling that was. I told the hotel owners that she and all her stuff was missing, and they let me stay in the room a few more days. About 3-4 days later, Mother comes waltzing in to pick up something she’d left behind. She said she’d met someone and moved in with him, so she was okay and not to worry about her. Umm… wtf? you leave a 14 year old kid alone and he’s not supposed to worry about YOU??? What about HIM???
She said it was a small little room that he had, but I was welcome to come for dinner in a few days and meet him and to see if I wanted to live there with them.
Holy shit, his room was smaller than what we had at the Elms but it had a stove and dining table crammed in there, too. (We’d only had a little hotplate at the Elms, and no refrigerator.) Whatever she cooked for dinner was not memorable, and it was bizarre watching her fawn all over him, making me feel like I was being interviewed or something, like a stranger.
There was barely room for three people to stand, much less sit or sleep. No way would I stay there. So I went back to the Elms, told Homer and Jane I wasn’t going to live with mother, and they (Homer and Jane) started the process of contacting the child welfare authorities, and a month later I was shipped back to live with Dad and my brother and sisters.
Oh yeah, when the police took Dad away, he spent the night in jail, and his sister and her husband bailed him out the next day. He spent a few weeks with them, and then put a deposit down to move into his own little apartment on March 1, 1968. When he was called that Friday and told Mother and I were gone and Scott had been there on his own, he was LIVID. And then he lost his deposit because he had to move back into the house that weekend.
It took several weeks for the Colorado welfare to convince Dad to let me come back home. He didn’t want me and seemed happy that Homer had suggested sending me to Boy’s Town, in Nebraska. But my grandmother (Mother’s mother) convinced him I should be with family.
Because Grandma worked for the school system, I was put into 9th grade just for the sake of rejoining my former classmates in the same grade. So I finished 9th grade, and then high school living with my Dad and siblings. He didn’t want me there, he wouldn’t actually talk to me (except to issue orders), and I got out of there 3 weeks after graduation by enlisting in the Air Force.
After Denver, Mother was never much a part of my life, except occasionally and every time I ended up with regrets.
She could have had a great life, but most of it was tainted by alcohol, pills, really bad choices in men, and an impossible personality. And she was a chameleon. If any man showed even a glimmer of interest (nearly always sex-related), she would suddenly become whatever he wanted. She would ‘love’ his taste in music, his interests, his food choices, and everything else. And worse, anyone who didn’t agree with those things, or preferred other things, was simply wrong. Her ‘man’ was always right, even when he was totally wrong. It was actually embarrassing for me to watch her do this.
She could have done great things. But she didn’t.
I envy people who have or had great relationships with their mothers. I didn’t have that.