The Red Bra

woolworthsSeveral years ago, my sweet sister came up to Alabama to help me care for my mother who had Alzheimer’s.  It was a difficult time for me and there were times, I thought I would surely die before she did.

You see, mother not only had Alzheimer’s but she was a bi-polar schizophrenic with Alzheimer’s!

When my step father died, I had asked her doctor for some meds to keep her manageable, which he was kind enough to provide me.  The problem however was getting her to take them.  Getting her to take them resulted in me getting a black eye, which had my brother not seen it coming and blocked it would have resulted in a far worse shiner than it was.  It was still bad.  Mother had not handled the death of her husband well and I had noticed a marked difference in her behavior afterward. Understandably of course.

There were many times early on in their relationship that I had wondered if those two even loved each other. I had always thought he married her to give his four children a mother.  He was in the Navy and gone all the time and his kids had been taken away from their mother due to abuse and neglect and were now in foster homes in Boston.

Little did he know mother’s mental state, as she was absolutely charming when she wanted to be. So, here these poor kids go from one abusive parent to another and he’s away at sea.

Mother on the other hand, was needing to get away from her abusive, inattentive, unambitious husband (my father).  Mother had grown up poor and she aspired to be rich in America and that was the last thing my father would ever strive for. Even so, she’d learned some bad habits from him when it came to discipline which we paid for dearly.

Many years later, we’d all managed to survive and they, my step father and her, had managed to stay together.  Granted early on he’d been away most of the time.  When he retired from the Navy, he went to college for a short time, but with her ragging on him all the time, he finally took on as a trucker, where he’d be gone for long periods.  She had many solitary days in the middle of nowhere on a couple of acres in California.  Eventually, they’d move to Tennessee.  While he was away she’d go on about how much she missed him and how hard he worked.  Five minutes after his return, she’d be yelling at him!  I would get so aggravated that his only response was always, “yes Vicky”.  He never fought her, argued with her or anything. Now, I look back and realize that he knew and accepted her state of mind. She did make sure the kids were well fed, well cared for and though her discipline was harsh and often unreasonable, she did make sure their physical needs were met.  I guess he figured it was the best he could give them and that she did the best she could. He was never mean or ugly to her no matter what she dished out.  Never.  For that I loved him.  As I’ve mentioned before, she was harder on us girls than the boys, so my step brother and brothers grew to love her in ways we girls could never.   And, so it went.

I was walking with my step dad one day and noticed an almost imperceptible wince.  I asked him if he was alright and he said, “yeah”.  I told him I didn’t believe him and had he gone to the doctors yet?  He said he had an appointment the following week and I insisted I wanted to know as soon as he knew anything.  Two weeks and four days later, he’d laid down on the floor to watch TV with mother on the couch beside him.  The two of them had fallen asleep as was their routine.  When she went to arouse him, he was gone.   He’d been diagnosed with liver cancer the Friday before. He died on a Tuesday. She’d fortunately had the wherewithal to call the police, but they took their time to get there.  Given her state of mind, she was notorious for calling them all the time. I would later find regular bills (amounting to thousands of dollars) from the police department for excessive false alarm calls.  Did you know they did that?  I didn’t.

So now he’s dead and there’s no will to be found.  Single handedly, I spent days going through tons of paper trying to find a will.  There was one record book with my name in it, but it was nearly forty years old and it wasn’t formal. I would later find 4-5 half started wills and that was it. Mother in her state of mind would hide things. I found so many multiples of documents and items around the house.  She would hide them so well that if they couldn’t find them, they’d buy another. Oh, and QVC was her best friend.  As she wouldn’t leave the house, she shopped online!  But I digress.

So here I am, mulling through everything, going to court to get custody of her and her estate and afterward tracking down insurance policies and VA benefits and doing this all alone. I would talk to my sister on the phone and after two years of this, she made up her mind to leave her job and come up to help me.   She had asked me a number of times if I needed her to do so but I vacillated saying yes.  My other siblings, including my steps couldn’t.  She was single and in a better position to come up but she’d be giving up her hard earned clientele and I couldn’t promise her anything that would match what she was making there. After some time, exhausted, I relented and said, yes.  A few months after, I would have a mini stroke and end up in the hospital.  By then, we were pretty settled in tag teaming mother’s care, but for the next ten days, she was on her own.  I couldn’t have been more grateful.

Later she would tell me why she’d been so willing to be there for me.  It wasn’t just because I was her sister or because mother needed our help.  The tyranny of mother’s mental illness and the hardships we’d endured with her resulted in there being no love lost there,  not for either of us but for some reason more so for her.  She told me she could stand to lose mother, but she didn’t want to lose me because of her.  It would be later that she and I would heal from that.  Now, years later we are able to mourn the mother we never had and the mother she may have wanted to be or could have been.

What took me down this road and reminded me of all this is a story Linda Bethea has been sharing on her blog: Nutsrock .  (There’s still time to catch up on it, so you may want to check out my link to her story. BTW if you want to go to the very beginning, it starts in April and is a worthwhile read of “Charley’s Tale“)

It was her latest installment that triggered the memory of my sister and the Red Bra. I’d not remembered the incident until my sister shared it with me.  She calls it her “story of the Red Bra.” She said, it was in part, the reason she came to help me. It was because she would never forget how I stole a red bra for her.   Incredulously I say, “I stole a red bra for you?! I don’t remember that.” As she tells her tale, I begin to remember what and how it all happened.


My sister was the youngest of my siblings at the time.  (This was prior to the reincorporation of the families)

It happens that she was just starting to mature and her little breasts were just budding.  The boys in school were absolutely merciless and would pass by and pinch the girls, thinking it was funny.  I don’t know why no one tells them that this can be extremely painful to us during this growth state. Dad was still around and he was just as bad, if not worse, thinking it was funny.  We girls would walk around the house with our arms crossed when we passed him. It was not a good time.

Mother in general was unapproachable so you can imagine how difficult it was for my sweet, shy little sister to even broach the subject, but she did.  Mother did not disappoint and proceeded to laugh and rail on her about how ridiculous her request was, saying.   “you’re too young”, “too small” and too everything.  The answer was an adamant “No!”

It was humiliating, but she sucked it up, retreated to our room and didn’t ask again.

In those days it wasn’t unusual for us kids to walk into town and on some occasions we’d take the bus.  We’d hang out at the rec center and park or the plunge which was all within a few blocks of each other.  It was a different time then.


As a kid, I was quite the thief.  If I wanted something, I’d take it.  (Not one of my proudest moments, but I was a natural) Although we weren’t poor, we kids weren’t allowed to get and or have the many things my peers were allowed to.  As it was, I was an outcast and I was so desirous of being accepted and being “one of them”, that I guess I reasoned this was how I could do that. If I could just have what they had perhaps they’d like me.  I really don’t know how my mind worked then.  I was just a kid.

As I recall, it was shortly after her denied request, that I took my little sis into our local Five & Dime, i.e. Woolworth’s or Kresge’s, I don’t recall which. We had both.

In those days merchandise was all laid out neatly in bins. If you picked up an item, you folded it back up and replaced it to the best of your ability as neatly as you found it.  It was common courtesy in those days.  The only counters that didn’t seem to make it were those with cosmetics.  For some reason, I’m guessing girls especially,  would open up a tube of lipstick and forget to roll it back down before putting the cap back on it, resulting in quite a mess. For some reason, I don’t recall ever kyping makeup.

bra section of 5 X dime

None the less, we went to the bins where all the bra’s were and started digging in, selecting a few before proceeding to the dressing rooms for her to try them on. These bins were the least neat given the nature of a bra’s composition.

I remember her trying on several ones and yes, at the time, many were too big for her, but that wasn’t the point.  She needed body armor and that was all there was to it.

Why, we settled on the red one I don’t know, but there was obviously no accounting for taste in our selection, so we did.  When things would get tough for her; when she thought there was no one else who would rally for her, she’d remember the Red Bra.  She said the memory of the Red Bra would always be a reminder that she could always count on her big sister.  Over the years, jealousy on both our parts would cause our relationship to wane and at times waver, but our love never did.

My stealing of one Red Bra so many years ago, now serves as a reminder for us both and how we could count on each other.  She was there for me when I needed her, as I was for her so many years ago.  It is the memory of the Red Bra that moved her to come to my aid and the story of her memory that makes me grateful for the bond that grew from the experience.

We now live on opposite ends of the States but we talk all the time and I miss her horribly as she does me. For a little while we got to be girls again and I miss that.




My Mother

Mom & Dad with my bro in the foreground.
Mom & Dad with my bro in the foreground.

I know today is Mother’s Day so I thought it was apropo that I write something about my mother.

As I have mentioned before, I came from an abusive family and growing up in an un-nurturing environment was a challenge at best, but let me be clear there is a caveat when it comes to my mother.

I remember my brother’s comment regarding his feelings at the time dad passed versus those he had for mother  “she did the best she could with what she had” (the rest of that statement will come later and I promise it will NOT be on Father’s day).

My mother was born in the little town of Esquinapa, Mexico in the state of Sinaloa, just south of  Mazatlan, where the hardships of her life began ( and interestingly enough where my first child was conceived).

She did not speak fondly of those days.

They were poor and she would have to care for her father who died of tuberculosis when she was 10 and care for her two younger siblings. Imagine that for a moment. Being a child, your mother has to go to work and the helpless feeling of seeing your father whom you adore, waste away til death and you can do nothing nor afford to do anything.

Her father, from what I gathered was possibly a fisherman, but in truth I don’t know for sure. Her memories of him were of a nurturing male, wanting her to go to school and to have a better life than they had at present.  Sometimes he would take her out on his little boat and the two would have these magnificent talks of what her future would be like. Finishing school was at the top of the list.  That was never to be.

At times they lived on the beach in a little make shift lean-to of palm leaves.  No house or roof over their heads, the equivalent of being homeless today I suppose.  Whether that was before or after his death was never stated, but sometimes I got the feeling she longed for those carefree days, so I’m thinking it was more than likely before.

After his death, life became quite difficult.  Life without a man in any country in those days was horribly hard. My mother left school and abuelita would make tamales and send her out to the streets to peddle them. If anyone has ever been to Tijuana, Mexico, imagine a little street urchin hustling Chicklets or whatever it is they do these days. I’m certain that was why mother was so  generous when one of  these sad faced children approached us.  I looked at them as scammers. Whether or not they were didn’t matter, to her they were reminders of how it had been.

Later,  as she got older, mother would pick up milk from the local farmer and along with a childhood friend, the two would trek into town to deliver to the homes of the more affluent. Mom remembered peeking into the window of a home once where a little girl about her age was taking piano lessons and wistfully wishing it was her.

In my memory, there were few happy moments with her that I can recall, and when I made mention of this, she said I didn’t understand. She was right I didn’t understand. There were a few though as follows:

Mom and Friends 1950's
Mom and Friends 1950’s

The picture on the right was taken either on Rosarito Beach or Ensenada, B.C. around the same time as the first picture above with my dad, on one of our occasional “camping” trips.

She loved her friends and she loved my brother but we girls were the bane of her existence. Given her above history that of her father being her ally and her mother the taskmaster, it is no wonder.

Sometimes she would liken me to my abuelita but never in a favorable way.

She would occasionally get angry at me for being convivial as though it were a bad thing and then later turn around and say,  “you always make me laugh” and that I’m “always happy” in a good way. I believe mother wanted to be happy and sometimes we were privileged to see “happy” as in the following shots.

GetAttachment (5)One with my boys at Knott’s Berry Farm, she really got into the train robbery heist.

It tickled and surprised me to see this side of her, but then she was with “her boys” and I know how much she loved them.

GetAttachment (2)

Here she is in her garden with her flowers.  Her passion was growing things and learning about them.  She had many books and magazines with notes and scribbling’s and although she never finished school, she knew a great deal. Then there was Martha Stewart. MS was her idol. It was MS this, MS that. I know she contributed to MS becoming a very wealthy woman. She had her books and cooking accessories and I’m sure they didn’t come cheap!

The fact that she spent so much time learning was odd in a way because when I was a child, she would constantly accuse me of being “lazy” when she found me in a corner reading. Go figure.

Mom could be sweet and generous, a side we seldom experienced personally but observed in her interaction with others especially her grandchildren. With them we saw her effuse the love we sought for ourselves.

Mom constantly pushed us to be better, to finish school or to go for that better job. She constantly strove to give us all she ever wanted for herself when growing up.  A better life.

GetAttachment (4)When mother’s Alzheimer’s was finally diagnosed, I would learn that mother had also suffered from bi-polar disorder and depression. After much discussion with her doctor  about what our lives had been like he speculated she may have also struggled with paranoid schizophrenia with perhaps multiple personalities, but it was hard to know for sure since her Alzheimer was advanced to a stage that blurred the evidence.  I wasn’t totally surprised because when the movie “Sybil” came out, I recognized some of the same symptoms in my mom and did some research. Mother was famous for turning on a dime, behaving one way with us and then when the doorbell rang or whatever, becoming another person to deal with whatever was at hand. But, in those days and surprisingly even before HIPPA (health information portability privacy act), doctors would not discuss these things with children.  Earlier on, before my grandmother died, she asked me in Spanish, “Take care of your mother, she’s a bit crazy”  (In Spanish, it doesn’t sound so harsh, but it confirmed my suspicions). She knew.

Sadly we were never engaged to help her or to get help for ourselves.

So on this Mother’s day I dedicate this page to you mom …

Dear Mom:  

“I understand now. I know you will never know how much we wanted to know you and have you comfort us, but know this I love you and know that God is taking care of you now and has made you better. I hope you are happy and that He has given you a nice big garden to work in. Happy Mother’s Day!!”