In one of my earliest “Muncie Boyhood” posts, I shared the story of my brother’s suicide. He was twenty-six at the time. I was seven. My mom was forty-seven…four years younger than I am right now. While my memories of him are somewhat sketchy, my recollections of the years in the aftermath of his death are more clearly defined. I often say that my mom went to bed in 1969 and got up again in 1980.
Of course, I exaggerate a bit…but, really only a bit. The emotional toll of her loss was devastating, and I was left in the wake to pretty much do as I wanted. Depression settled over her life and she took advantage of the medical profession’s use of anti-depressants to dull the edge of the pain. With only minor exceptions, she became a recluse to her bedroom, spending day after day reclining in her nightgown; listening to the odd mix of WMDH Country Music and her police scanner, and smoking. Later, she added a phone extension and a television. It was not unusual to walk into a cacophony of those sources of noise all blaring at one time.
Dad couldn’t take it and moved to another room to sleep.
She did find the inner strength to get up long enough to take a few trips: California, South Dakota, and an occasional trip “up to the Lakes” near Wolcottville. Christmas was big enough to get her going…making her ham, macaroni & cheese, and Jello salad. Otherwise, most of her days and nights were spent on the full-size bed that occupied the northeast corner of our little two-bedroom house.
When I got big enough to fend for myself, Swanson TV Dinners became a regular evening meal for me. Later, I became very fond of Campbell’s Chunky Sirloin Burger Soup. One can + four slices of Roman Meal Bread was a fine supper. Other times, I heated up the skillet with a quarter inch of Crisco in the bottom to fry myself some Pete’s Pride Pork Fritters. Slather on some mustard and you have another of my meals. I was even known to chow down on a large can of Freshlike Whole Kernel Corn for dinner; heated up with about a quarter stick of butter, salt, and pepper. Mm Mmmmm.
Not to be too hard on Mom. I loved her, and she had so much pain to work through. During those years, she did have three distinct meals that came in a big pot. They were prepared at least once per year, and each provided at least a week’s worth of leftovers: Vegetable Soup, Chili, and Potato Soup. They were all excellent! But… Ahhhhhh, the Potato Soup!
The Potato Soup has become a staple of our family. Mom did it from memory and taste. No recipe. And, we all loved it! The ingredients were basic: milk, potatoes, onions, “ripplies” plus butter, salt, and pepper. But, the magic is in the right balance and the careful cooking. You have to watch it close or the milk will scorch in the bottom. Thankfully, Mom taught my wife the magic of the mix and she now does it just as well as Mom did!
(In case you are wondering, “ripplies” are little dough chunks that are cooked into the soup. Mom always called them riplets, but Dad renamed them ripplies, and that’s what we all called them from then on to this day.)
Mom told me that the potato soup had its roots in more humble circumstances. When she was a small girl, she had six siblings and they lived on a farm. Money was often very tight, and grandma sometimes didn’t have much food on hand to feed those hungry mouths. She said that the potato soup that we all loved so much started out as a pot of water with a couple of potatoes. I’m sure glad it evolved from there.
The good news is that my mother did eventually pick herself up out of that decade-long depression and resume her life. Some of the habits from those lost years carried over, but for the most part she got up and around again. She got out and about, started hanging with old friends, and regained a spark that had seemed to be gone for so long. As I write this, I’m wondering what was the real difference? and it is hard to nail down. Perhaps, it is just something as simple as she began to clean herself up and dress in daytime clothes again. Or, maybe she got that sharpness back in her tongue.
Nope. She never lost that.
I think maybe it was a combination of things. How she dressed. Her getting out of that bedroom and going places. Her interest in her friends again. At any rate, I’m glad to report that she emerged from the devastation of my brother’s death a strong woman on the other side, and I enjoyed another twenty-three years with her in my life...sharp tongue and all.
This month, she would have turned ninety-one. She passed away in December 2003. I wrote the following poem a few months later to express my heart in missing her:
Visions of Mom
By Mike DeCamp
Visions of Mom flow through my mind
Memories of home, all mixed and combined
If I entered her kitchen by the open back door,
I’d often be fed and come back for more
Big bubbling pots of potato soup
Big wacky cakes with an ice cream scoop
Then, out in back we’d go for a rest
Sippin’ tea in the shade with mom at her best
We’d laugh, we’d joke, we’d argue and fuss
In the end, we’d smile, ‘cause that’s just us
Now, she’s moved on, and these memories I love
I can take comfort from knowing she’s happy above