Originally mailed on March 8, 1997
I think that last time I wrote I told you that Louella had been very depressed and that I had decided to talk to her about it; Grandma agreed to go with me, but Nona stayed home because, she said, she hasn't known Louella very long and is only her friend through me, and if we were going to tell Louella we'd noticed how screwed up her life had gotten it might be best if only people she felt very close to were there. That made sense to me, so I picked up Grandma and Flopsy, and we walked over to Louella's.
When we arrived, we put Flopsy in the yard to play with Hot Rod, Louella's dog, and knocked on the door. There was no answer, and when we finally let ourselves in (we both have keys because we sometimes need to get into the house when we're keeping the boys), the place was almost a caricature of the home of a depressed woman: dirty dishes and laundry everywhere; spoiled food sitting out on the kitchen counter; the boys, obviously unbathed, sound asleep in dirty linens; and in her own bed, Louella, not asleep but staring at the ceiling by the light of a bedside lamp.
I sat on the edge of the bed and said, "Louella, how ya doing?"
She said, "Oh, Harriet. Hi. I'm OK. Did you knock? I didn't hear you."
I said, "That's OK, we have our keys. Can you get out of bed for a little while? Grandma and I would like to talk to you."
She said, "Can you talk to me here?"
I looked at Grandma, who shrugged. "It would be easier if we were all sitting up. Why don't we go downstairs and have a cup of cocoa? Grandma will fix it."
Louella said, "OK, you go on down. I'll be down in a minute." So Grandma and I went to the kitchen and she searched for cocoa mix in the nearly-bare cupboards while I washed three mugs in the sink, not an easy task as the sink was piled with dishes. Eventually Grandma found some tea bags and we settled for that. The kitchen smelled bad, so we went into the living room to wait for the water to boil.
It had boiled, and our tea was brewed and cooling, before Louella made it downstairs. She said, "It takes me so long to do things. I was trying to put my socks on and it seemed like such an effort. I just sat on the edge of the bed and thought for a long time."
Grandma said, "What do you think about?"
Louella said, "Nothing. I don't remember." She sat down and Grandma handed her a cup.
I said, "Louella, we came to talk to you because we're very worried about you. You've changed in the past few months. You used to be very energetic and organized, and it looks to us like you're having trouble taking care of things now. You're obviously having trouble keeping house, and Grandma has had to find another ride for her errands because you stopped showing up when you were supposed to. We also think the boys are not being kept clean or being fed very well, and I wonder if you've been to school lately."
Louella started crying, and Grandma said, shooting me an irritated look, "I don't think Harriet means to criticize you, dear. We mean to say we're worried about you and have come to offer help. We have offered help in the past and you have not wanted any, but we are imploring you to accept it from us now."
Louella stared into her cup and said nothing.
I said, "What we mean by help, Louella, is that we want to make sure the boys are taken care of, and we want to encourage you to get some kind of therapy. I'll be happy to go with you to student psychological services. But you can't keep going the way you are. You and the boys are suffering too much."
Louella said, "Are you saying I'm not a good mother?"
I said, "Louella, I know you're a good mother. That's why I get so worried when you stop acting like one. Can you tell us what's going on? Is it about the abortion, about the divorce, about school? Believe me, we know the kind of pressure you've been under and no one thinks it's your fault that you've fallen behind."
Louella said, "I don't see what good it will do to talk about it. And I don't appreciate my friends coming here unannounced to tell me how badly I've screwed up. I am holding things together just fine, and if I'm not the perfect mother I used to be, so what? Maybe I'm tired of being perfect. Maybe I'm just giving myself the break we all agree I deserve. What business is it of yours?"
Grandma took Louella's hand. She said, "Louella, we are worried about you. You seem so sad, and you don't call us. Even you've admitted you're not your usual self. Please tell us what we can do for you."
Louella said, "Oh, Miriam, there's nothing anyone can do. I'm sure of that."
We went on like that for quite some time, Louella alternately angry, denying she had a problem and accusing us of attacking her, and hopeless, saying repeatedly that nothing could be done. She would accept no help from us, other than our usual baby-sitting arrangements, and refused to agree to see a therapist. In the end, we left feeling we had accomplished nothing, and more worried than ever about her and the boys.
Back at Grandma's, we talked about our options, which seemed limited in the face of her explicit refusal of our help. Finally, we decided to let things rest for a little while, in the hope that Louella might think over what we'd said and change her mind, and we agreed that each of us would continue to call her every day to check on her. Grandma was still keeping the boys after school a couple of days a week, and she resolved to quit worrying about stepping on Louella's toes and go ahead and bathe them, launder their clothes, and give them an early dinner before they went home. She also decided to talk to Mark, double-check that he knew her phone number, and tell him to call her if he ever needed anything, That, we agreed, was all we could do.
Over the next couple of weeks, I called Louella every day but never talked to her; I left friendly messages on her machine. Louella was apparently sleeping 16-18 hours a day, and the boys started going to Grandma's on unscheduled days if their mother was asleep when they got home from school. Grandma told them they had to call her first, so that she could come get them and leave a note for their mother, because she didn't want them wandering the neighborhood with no adult who knew where they were, and she didn't want Louella to worry if she woke up and found them gone. So that became their process. Louella would call when she woke up, sometimes as late as 9:30 or 10:00, and Grandma would take the boys home then.
Grandma was happy to know the boys were clean and fed, but began to feel that Louella was passively abdicating her responsibility as a parent, and she grumbled to me about it. "She wouldn't just say, 'Yes, Miriam, I do need your help,' but she will just let me slowly take over. It's not good."
I said, "Yeah, but Louella seems to be in a passive state in general. Being depressed can do that. I'm worried about you, though. You were very clear with Louella about how much time you could give to the boys, and that time has slowly expanded, They must be at your house four or five evenings a week, and you only agreed to two."
Grandma said, "I know, Harriet, I know, but I can't think what else to do. The boys are the ones who decided to come over; it's as if they asked me for help even though Louella won't. I can't let them down; they're being let down enough by their parents right now."
I said, "Well, you tell me and Nona if you need anything, and if you need to say No to the boys a couple of nights a week, remember that's OK, too. It occurs to me that maybe you've given Louella an easy out and it may take her that much longer to snap out of this funk she's in."
Grandma sighed. "I've thought of that, too, but this seems like the best choice I can make right now. And you and Nona can help, if you'd be willing to give me a little money for groceries. I'm making the boys dinner half the time, and sending them home with lunches for school, as well as feeding Hot Rod some kibble when he's over."
In this unhappy state we remained for several weeks, until this past Monday. On Monday the boys called Grandma after school to say their mother was sleeping, and she walked over to get them and the dog. They left the usual note for Louella, and Grandma also collected some laundry from the boys' room; she had gradually taken to doing an occasional sinkful of dishes or some other chore when she stopped by. They all headed back to Grandma's with the laundry in the boys' wagon, and had their usual evening; some play time, dinner, homework and a bath, a little TV. Grandma settled the boys to sleep on the couch bed at about 8:30, and at 10:00, when she hadn't heard from Louella, she went to bed herself. In the morning, she gave the boys breakfast and walked them to school, and by 9:05 she was at Louella's, dragging Louella out of bed by the hair.
"I am ashamed of you, Louella!" she said. "A woman who doesn't know where her young children are at night is an unfit mother."
"I knew where they were, Miriam. They were with you, just fine. And I meant to come get them. I fell asleep. It's no big deal."
"Louella, you love being a mother so much that it broke your heart not to have that baby last fall, and yet you can stand there and tell me it's no big deal to you that you haven't seen your boys since night before last? No big deal that they got themselves ready for school yesterday morning, and spent the night with me? No big deal that I'm the one who helps with their homework, gives them a warm dinner, and tucks them into bed? No big deal that you have slowly given up the job of being their mother to me? Well, listen up. I have raised my kids and then some, and I will not raise yours. Mark and Sammy will stay with me this week. And a week from now, unless you have taken some steps to get your shit together, I am calling their father to tell him I believe the children should be taken out of your house. And if Sam won't take responsibility, I will call Child and Family Services. I don't want to do it, Louella. I think you're sick now but you're sure to get better someday and you'll be sorry then, and so will I. But I can't see that I have any choice."
Louella said, "Miriam-"
Grandma softened. "Louella, we love you and are worried about you. We have tried to help you in every way we know how. But you have to accept help. And you have to take responsibility."
And that is where things stand. I haven't seen Louella in a month, since the night Grandma and I went over to talk to her. I thought that when we talked to Louella she would say, "You're right, I'm depressed and I need help," and we would be able to help her. But things keep getting worse. The boys are at Grandma's ("For Goodness' sake, now I'm a kidnapper," she says) and Louella has not called or tried to see them. It's Saturday, and on Tuesday Grandma blows the whistle, unless Louella convinces her not to.
No word from Splash. I feel like I've lost my two best friends. I continue to be happy to share a home with Nona, but this mess with Louella is casting a shadow. Nona says it will have to resolve itself one way or another before long and we can get on with out lives then, but many of the ways I can imagine the situation resolving grieve me. Wish us the best; I'll let you know how things turn out.
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