When I was four years old, my sister, Suzanne, then aged 6, died of polio. In the aftermath, I was sent off to stay with my maternal grandmother, Ora Mae, in West Virginia. My parents stayed in California.
I remember asking my grandmother why everyone was so focused on Suzanne. That made me feel like I was unimportant. I made my grandmother cry.
My parents ended up separating. My mother returned to West Virginia where she and I lived with my grandmother in a small town called Mullens. My mother took courses to be qualified as a teacher and taught school. Whenever Suzanne’s name came up, she cried.
As I have come to understand as an adult, Suzanne’s death changed my mother and father and their relationship. My mother, already an incipient alcoholic, drank more. My father pursued his law practice in Oakland, California and became more daring in the means he used to succeed. When I was six, my father persuaded my mother to return to him, and we moved back to California to be with him. Things went downhill.
Heavy drinking was accepted, even expected, behavior in the circle my parents moved in. Both of them regularly drank to excess. I was more and more left to my own resources. I learned how to feed myself, get myself to bed and up in the morning. Because drinking was a normal part of life, my mother’s addiction to alcohol attracted no attention. I remember discovering the bottle she kept under the sink in the kitchen which she accessed covertly day and night. At the time, I knew nothing of proper adult behavior and only gradually began to realize that her constant drinking was unhealthy.
Through it all, the memory of Suzanne loomed large.