"I invited the child I was once to have her say in these pages. I am the one who came out on the other side of childhood; she is the one who searched for the door."
In the tradition of The Glass Castle comes a debut memoir about a woman’s hopeful life despite the sad results of her mother’s choices. Moonlight on Linoleum is an affecting story of a girl who rose above her circumstances to become an early and faithful caretaker to her five siblings. It is about the power one finds in sisterhood to thrive in a difficult and ever-changing landscape as the girls bond in unconditional love despite constant upheaval and uncertainty. In these pages, Teresa Helwig crafts a moving portrait of a mother she loved completely even as she struggled to understand her.
"Putting myself in Mama's shoes, which were most often white moccasins molded in the shape of her size seven-and-a-half foot, I see an eighteen-year-old girl with two children, one of them still a baby. . . . Her former husband is in Korea, drafted after their divorce; she has a sister who disappears from time to time, leaving yet another child in her care; she has no money, no high-school diploma, and a mother unhappy to have her home."
Teresa and her sisters, who were added regularly throughout the 1950s and '60s, grew up with with their charismatic, troubled, and very young mother, Carola. Because of their stepfather’s roving job as in the oil fields, they moved frequently from town to town in the American West. The girls were often separated and left behind with relatives and never knew what their unstable mother would do next. Missing her mother became a habit for Teresa; one summer Carola dropped off her two daughters at her ex's family farm.
"If there were an idyllic summer of childhood, it was that summer on the Iowa farm. Yet, if I had to choose a time when I felt most forsaken by my mother, it was also that summer. Even back then, I was acutely aware of the paradox. On the outside, by day, I was like the morning glory vine twining around the back fence. Every day opened to a life I loved on the land. I reveled in and relished the absolute freedom and abandon of being turned loose in Eden.
"But then, each evening, after the sun set and the dinner dishes had been hand-washed and dried, I became like the moonflower vine climbing up the weathered boards on the side of the garage. The moonflower opens its large fragrant blooms at night; they shimmer like moonlight and sweeten the night air.
"I evolved a ritual at bedtime before crawling into my bed . . . I held Mama's Polaroid picture to my heart. I love you. Please come get us soon. I want to be with you more than I want to be anywhere else. These were my prayers, my blooms that opened to the night. Then I pursed my lips against the cool glass and kissed her smiling face goodnight."
There were good times too: Carola made fudge for the girls during rainstorms, helped Teresa's cat deliver kittens, and taught her to play "You Are My Sunshine" on a toy piano. But when her husband was out working on the oil fields, Carola, who had married at fourteen, began to fill her time with men she met in the various towns her roving family moved to. She referred to her secret dating life as "going to Timbuktu," leaving Teresa in charge of her siblings. As Carola roamed and eventually developed crippling migraines, Teresa became a replacement mommy before her own childhood was fully in swing. Stress, guilt, and recurring nightmares marked her days and nights.
"In addition to the amphetamines [for weight loss], Mama was now taking barbiturates for her migraines. Her moods began to yo-yo. She became as hard to predict as the weather. When Daddy was out of town and Mama was in one of her fogs, I learned to fend for myself. And, being the oldest, I learned to fend for my sisters, too . . . It was around this time I came to realize a hard truth. Once your sisters begin looking up to you, as if you really could save them from being poisoned, as if you know a way out of a dark cave, there's no going back. You'll draw your last breath, trying to find that door to the Lost City of Enchantment, because you can't bear to let them down."
Yet, even in the face of adversity, Teresa found beauty in the small moments: resting in the boughs of her favorite oak tree, savoring the freedom she found on her grandparents’ farm, and gleefully discovering the joys of dating and dancing. While Carola struggled for an exciting and satisfying life, Teresa faced adolescence and young adulthood, increasingly burdened by Carola's dysfunction. Finally, as the family splintered between colleges, homes, stepfathers, and their mother's disintegrating mental health, Teresa drove Carola to a mental hospital--where at last the mother of five found some peace and order.
Upon leaving the hospital, sadly Carola continued in a downward spiral: more men, a drug addiction, a toddler son's death, and finally her own accidental overdose death in 1974. Though Carola's unhappy life meant Teresa's was marked by hardship and tragedy, Teresa found redemption in writing her mother's story and discovering empathy for the woman continually harmed by her own bad choices. The bonds of sisterhood helped sustain her, and today the girls are still close, still savoring the good in a childhood pocked with pain. Teresa, now a counselor and mother of a daughter, was able to conclude, after visiting her mom's grave and asking her blessing on the book,
I believe joy and sorry rest together, the two sides of love. I have repeatedly uncovered places of joy inside my own heart tucked within the folds of sorrow.
With enormous skill and sensitivity, Teresa deftly explores the history she shared with Carola and the relentless love of a child for her mother.
Terry Helwig, author of Moonlight on Linoleum: A Daughter’s Memoir,
graduated with an MA in counseling psychology. Before founding The Thread Project: One World, One Cloth www.threadproject.com
in 2001, she specializ
ed in women’s personal growth and spiritual development. She and her husband Jim currently divide their time between the coasts of southwest Florida and South Carolina.
“The world needs Moonlight on Linoleum because . . . it is what redemption looks like."
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