Fifty-two years ago this month my beautiful mother, Jacqueline Virginia Gunter Roberts, took her own life at the age of 36 in a violent act, a month before my 7th birthday. Recently newsworthy people, people who appear to have been loved and respected, have chosen to end their lives, and I’ve again been reminded of the fragility of life and the darkness of depression and mental illness. I’ve been reminded of my own mother, a woman who in many ways is a mystery to me. The few memories I have paint a picture of a loving but troubled woman who for some reason felt she had no where to turn. I cannot tell her story but I can share mine and perhaps, through the eyes of a child, you’ll gain a glimpse of the woman. Perhaps you’ll think of someone in your own life who needs support. I share in hope that we’ll all be aware of those around us who may be suffering in silence.
My memories of her are jumbled together as if I’m putting together a jigsaw of a 1000 piece puzzle, the bits and colors so small that they’re hard to recognize when spread out across the years. Raven black hair, a preference for red lipstick, a generous laugh, and eyes that could go wide when startled. She was a small woman, at least I think she was, who loved dresses, belt cinched tight at her slender waist. She had a penchant for high heels. I don’t remember her hands, not even a little. I wonder why I can’t remember her hand
While her physical features are sketchy in my mind, a few specific places and events are as real and vivid as if they’d happened a few weeks ago, not 52 years. There are only a few, in fact, precisely six. But these six memories paint a picture of the woman who I called Mother.
Spring, 1963. Downtown Bradenton. Sharp’s Drug Store. This is my first true memory of Mother. At the age of almost 4, I have no recollection if she and I boarded the city bus on a regular basis or if it was a special event but there is one day that is so vivid and real that it is like I have a recording in my head. The bus picked us up a few blocks from our home and I sat on Mother’s lap while we made the 3-mile trip. Sharp’s had an elevator operator and I remember going up and down several times that day, the tall man (Was he tall or sitting on a stool?) opening and closing the scissor gate with a gentle smile. There was a soda fountain and Mother bought me a chocolate soda. It dripped down my dress and Mother became agitated. Apparently she’d planned on taking me to have my photograph taken at a downtown studio and was so upset that my dress was spoiled. Fast forward to the photographer reassuring Mother that all was fine as he buttoned my cardigan sweater up to the last button (I recall the sweater as blue but the photo is black and white so I’m not sure) and saying, “See. The stain doesn’t show.” I still have that photo, my bangs freshly cut, the sweater buttoned tightly, and the whole day comes rushing back each time I come across it.
November, 1963. I am now 4 1/2. My older siblings, two brothers and a sister, were at school; I had yet to start. Our family’s boxy black and white television sat in the corner of our living room. I don’t remember the events leading up to my mother’s tears, only that I was scared as she sat quietly crying. There was a black horse and a carriage and a woman in a black dress and veil. The woman had two small children beside her. Mother held herself, rocking a bit, tears spilling over her wide eyes. I distinctly remember patting her back and asking her not to cry but I have no memory that she ever spoke to me during the whole encounter. I was the comforter.
Fall, 1964. Kindergarten. Samoset Elementary School. Miss Mary’s class. I would be the fourth Roberts child to have Miss Mary and I was incredibly excited. Mother, however, was not. We lived close enough to school that we walked (my mother did not drive) and I recall her telling me to be brave and to be a big girl and she would see me at lunchtime when the local fire whistle blew right at noon and then she covered me with kisses and she cried.
I did not cry. I wasn’t sure what I needed to be afraid of, especially when I entered Miss Mary’s magical domain, filled with dress up clothes and a wooden kitchen set and colorful books and little rocking chairs. But Mother daily insisted I should be afraid, so much so that it only took a few weeks for her to convince me as well. By Thanksgiving I stopped attending and stayed home with Mother each day. Thinking of my own temptation as a mother to hold my three sons too close, I now have a tiny glimmer of understanding that it was her fear of being alone, her fear of losing her baby, and her fear of change that pushed her to seduce me into staying by her side.
Winter, 1965. First Grade. Mrs. Wiley. I was allowed to advance to first grade in spite of my lack of kindergarten training. It must have been a cold day. In the early 1960s girls were not allowed to wear pants to school, only dresses, and I seem to remember a red and black plaid dress, high waistband, sash tied in back, short sleeved and a red cardigan with clear buttons. I sat at my desk, the kind that the top raised up, when I heard Mrs. Wiley in the back talking low in a calming voice. When I turned to look I saw Mother and she caught my eye. She was panicked, scared. Mrs. Wiley called me back and Mother knelt to explain that she’d brought corduroy pants for me to wear under my dress, as she’d been sick with worry that I was too cold. Even at the age of 6 I remember turning red with shame. My friends’ mothers’ had thought ahead of time, dressing them in black tights, just thick enough with warmth against the cool Florida day. The corduroys she’d brought were ugly brown and bunchy and didn’t match my dress; however, I knew that refusing to put them on would cause more angst so I obediently slipped them under my dress. Girls snickered. Boys pointed. Mrs. Wiley told everyone to get busy. My mother smiled and backed away, her baby once again safe against the world.
Spring, 1966. Late afternoon, the ebbing sun peeking through the jalousie window, shadow dancing across my small bed. I don’t recall if I was sick or just playing on my bed when Mother brought me a brand new coloring book and box of Crayola crayons, eight, sharp and crisp. She said I could have the book and crayons if I promised with all my heart to not get up. She said she needed to go somewhere and Granny Roberts was coming and I was not to get up until Granny got there. Mother then kissed me atop my head but I don’t think I responded, the joy of the unexpected gift filling my thoughts. The next thing I knew Granny Roberts—strong, kind, wonderful Granny Roberts—was at my side, a bit winded, asking for Mother. “I don’t know where she went,” I answered. “She just told me to stay put.” That’s where my memory stops. Years later Granny filled in the blanks. Apparently my Mother, after securing my promise to “stay put,” called her mother-in-law to tell her she wasn’t feeling well and was afraid and could she come. Granny recalled, “I knew something wasn’t right.” My mother was found hours later, wandering in a local orange grove, no awareness of how she’d gotten there or of leaving me or of anything. Granny reassured me. “Your mother loved you and Angie and Jimmy and Lynn; oh how she loved you, but oh how she doubted herself about everything. When she felt strange she knew to take care of you first then call me. She did the best she could.”
Spring, 1966. I have no idea why I was snooping or what led me to peer under my parents’ bed but when I did I found several wrapped Christmas presents. It was so odd; Christmas was months and months away and didn’t Santa bring presents? Why were they under the bed? When mother came in and found that I discovered the secret she sat on the side of the bed and cried, big fat silent tears. I told her I was so sorry, that I would never peek again, and would she please not spank me? She said nothing, just silently cried. A spanking, which she rarely ever delivered, would have been easier.
That’s it. Those are the specific memories I have of my mother; six framed episodes of this woman who gave me birth. Other thoughts of her provided by those who knew her longer, who knew her more deeply, add to my recollections, but their snapshots may or may not be authentic to me. The memories end here for me for a few weeks after I found the gifts under the bed, gifts my mother had bought and wrapped in expectation of what was to come, she took her own life.
Once I asked my father when Mother had started to show signs of depression. His answer was short yet explained much. It especially made me aware that we don’t have to know the why but we must be willing to help. My dear father did all he could but for her, it wasn’t enough.
“Every time she had another baby she just got sadder and sadder. Nothin’ I did seemed to help. She was just so sad.”
Sad; such a broad term for such a deep emotion. There are those fleeting sadnesses that flit in and out and leave us fairly unscathed but then there is a sadness, THE sadness, that creeps in and unpacks and takes up residence. A sadness that demands attention and help and support, a sadness that is taking far too many people before their time, a sadness that has moved in with me on many occasions. My story ends differently than my mother’s and I am filled with wonder and humility at the Grace I’ve been given. May I now be that Grace in the life of another.
If you know someone struggling in the darkness of depression, be Grace in their life. Reach out, call, visit, pray. Be actively involved in local mental health initiatives and advocate for legislation that will provide solid help, financially and practically, to all who suffer. We as a country can do better. We as a people must do better.
If you are personally struggling, I beg you to seek help. Confide in a trusted friend, talk to your doctor, rely on your support system. Even as I type, I realize there may be someone reading who has none of those resources and not a single place to turn. If that’s you, please email me – firstname.lastname@example.org. Please use the contacts below. You are precious and of worth. Please get help.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
We can all help prevent suicide. The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals.