*Note: I post this with not a little trepidation. First, this is a work-in-progress; while it has been workshopped it still needs some rewriting. It’s been difficult for me to find the right structure to tell the story. Second, there are terms used in this essay that are neither kind nor appropriate ways of describing those with severe mental challenges. I acknowledge and appreciate that, but I feel like changing the language changes the story too much. If it’s any consolation, I still feel pretty guilty about the Floyd thing.
My sister and I spent our summer vacation days with our great-aunt Ruthie, who lived in a sprawling house in the center of the village. Uncle Ed worked for the railroad and wasn’t around much, but Ruthie was never alone because she and Ed took in six male wards of the state to board with them. The men varied over the years, but most were severely mentally disabled and many had accompanying physical challenges. Often these disabilities were present at birth, although occasionally a patient came through who had had a traumatic brain injury from an accident. Most had spent time institutionalized but mental health reforms had forced them, for better or worse, out into the world at large. Unable to function independently, and without family willing or able to take care of them, they landed at The Open Door Boarding Home. The doors were never locked; we’d just walk in and wander on through the house to see if Ruthie was around. Only the state social workers ever referred to the place by its correct name. The rest of us just called it the Funny Farm.
My great-grandmother had been a nurse and started the business as a nursing home back in the 1950s. Ruth and Ed took over the business just as attitudes about mental health were beginning to change and de-institutionalization began. As unusual as it may seem, many of these men became like family to us, and the rest of the town kept an eye out for them. They weren’t confined to the house, and were allowed to walk around the village. Some of the higher functioning patients did odd jobs around town. It wasn’t all idyllic – there were a few patients who came through who were downright dangerous, and had to be moved to more secure facilities. And sometimes their health declined to a point where they needed more medical care. For the most part, though, it was like having six crazy uncles.
One morning, Ruthie was busy working upstairs in her office with her accountant. Ruthie was usually a jovial woman who bounced from one thing to another, possibly a side effect of all the caffeine and nicotine in her system. The accountant, however, would send her digging for cancelled checks and insurance forms, turning happy-go-lucky Ruthie into a tornado of wrath and flying bits of paper. We had seen enough of these accountant visits to know to make ourselves scarce for awhile, and so we camped out on the front porch steps with our cousin Shelley, who lived just down the road.
The porch steps were worn and damp from the summer morning dew, and left flecks of dark green paint on our bare legs that got under our fingernails when we scratched our bug bites. We all drank Pepsi, and I munched on a Hershey bar while Kim and Shelley took turns reaching into a bag of potato chips. This was our breakfast, purchased next door at the general store and funded by raiding the loose change off the dryer at home. Our parents would have been horrified had they known. We could hear snippets of arguing from the open window upstairs, punctuated by the occasional slamming of the file cabinet drawers or Ruthie swearing as she tried to locate her cigarettes or clean up spilled coffee. At regular intervals the light breeze would send her cigarette smoke out of the window, around the corner and down past our noses.
In the large semi-circular driveway to our left Lawrencewas pacing. Lawrence was our favorite patient; he had lived at Ruthie’s for as long as my eleven-year old brain could remember. No doctor ever provided Ruthie with a diagnosis; they just shook their heads and said, “That one’s just plain crazy”. He spent a lot of time sitting on the edge of his bed, swaying his body back and forth as if in a rocking chair, or sitting on the couch literally twiddling his thumbs and chewing tobacco. He also walked all over town, collecting cans and bottles from the side of the road. He often spoke gibberish, but occasionally, when he was in a foul mood, he would let loose a stream of curses that sent us all running upstairs for cover. He was most known for talking about a woman named Mabel and would often pretend to be on the phone with her, his hand pressed against his ear to simulate a phone.
This morning as he paced the driveway his shock of white hair stuck straight up, and despite the heat he wore a flannel green plaid shirt tucked into blue pants, with a brown belt pulled tight at the waist. As he walked, his hands were clasped behind him and his eyes were lowered, watching his feet traverse the gravel. He often muttered to himself under his breath and occasionally stopped to swat wildly at a bug, or dig into his back pocket for his can of chewing tobacco.
Suddenly an unfamiliar car with out-of-state plates pulled into the driveway. The driver rolled down his window and nodded to us kids. Next to him sat an attractive blond woman and there were two children in the back seat. The driver nodded at us; he probably thought we were Lawrence’s grandchildren.
“Sir, can you tell me how to get to Bethel?” asked the man in the car.
Calmly, Lawrence walked over to the car and grinned, bearing evidence of years of bad dental care. Then, not so calmly, Lawrence leaned into the open window and growled, “If you want directions to Bethel, you go call Mable. Tell her to go fuck a cow and then take a right”.
Lawrence took a step back from the car, smacked his lips and grinned at the driver.
Horrified and bewildered, the driver floored it and drove off in a cloud of dust. Lawrence cackled to himself and resumed his pacing.
After a lunch of Spaghettios, our cousin Keith joined us on the porch, and we decided we needed a proper clubhouse. Keith was the same age as me, but like many Maine-raised boys he had a surprisingly good knowledge of tools and building construction. We followed his lead as he raided Uncle Ed’s workshop and procured a hammer, and then we made our way up to the hayloft in the barn. Following us was a man in his thirties named Floyd, who resembled a Mennonite minister with his fuzzy beard, thick glasses and white dress shirt.
Floyd was another one of Ruthie’s patients, and he had a tendency to just appear and follow us around like this. In addition to his profound mental disabilities, he had physical issues that caused his legs to suddenly jerk, preventing him from walking in a straight line, and his head would often suddenly jerk to one side. Other than “yes” and “no”, his speech was comprised of grunts and moans accompanied by wild flailing arm gestures. He walked with the gait of a caged animal, which terrified us even though we knew it wasn’t his fault. We tried to avoid him, but he always seemed to know where to find us.
Up in the hayloft one of us noticed that a board was loose, and somebody else thought we should fix it. The four of us took turns hammering it back into place while Floyd scowled at us, his arms crossed tightly at his chest. It was loud, louder than we really anticipated, but we kept banging. Irritated by the noise, Floyd took the hammer from Shelley. At that moment Ruthie flew up the ladder into the loft.
“You damned kids, quit that racket!” she hollered.
Ruthie rarely yelled, or at least never in a way that we took seriously, and the unknown fierceness in her voice shocked us all into silence.
“It was Floyd,” whispered Keith. He pointed at Floyd who, unfortunately for him, was still holding the hammer.
Ruthie commenced to shake her finger and scold Floyd as we tore off down the ladder. Since Floyd couldn’t talk, Ruthie had no idea that his grunts and flailing arms were protestations of his innocence, and not one of us was willing to stick around and confess. We jumped on our bikes and pedaled as fast as we could away from the house, confident that Floyd would come find us. We hid on our great-grandmother’s back porch until it was time to go home.
While most of the patients were harmless, a few had some anger issues. Bill was tall and thin with dark black hair and long pointy fingers. He was one of the higher functioning patients and often would play cards and board games with us kids. Some days, he would buy us soda from the store, or play four square with us in the driveway. In many ways, he was simply a child trapped in a forty-year old body. But sometimes his mood would turn dark and ugly, and he would holler and chase us through the house. He wasn’t allowed upstairs, so when he got really mad we would seek refuge in Ruthie’s closet or even up in the attic.
There were others, though, who were sweet, kind and gentle. When I was six and my sister was three, there was a patient named Percy who used to love our visits, and gave us small boxes of pretzels. We were never really quite sure why he was at Ruthie’s, since his mental faculties seemed to be fully in place, but we always just assumed that like the others, he had no where else to go. He doted on my sister, treating her like a granddaughter, and after his sudden death we avoided going near his old room, where his chair still sat next to the window.
Growing up, being around these severely mentally challenged men was normal to us, and for a long time we had no idea people might think it strange. For one thing, cognitively speaking we had the advantage; most of the patients were operating well below our own mental capacities. For another thing, our parents seemed to think it was fine, although in later years it became clear that they didn’t realize how much time we were spending with the patients or have a clue about the sorts of things we were exposed to in their presence, such as Lawrence’s colorful vocabulary.
As I got older, though, I began to get strange looks I would get from my friends when I told them about my summer vacations. I remember how one teacher frowned when she heard me telling stories about the patients. I began to realize that to a lot of people these stories were not funny but downright disturbing. What is really difficult to convey is that many of these patients really did become family to us. When Lawrence eventually became too ill and had to be sent to a nursing home, we all worried about how he would adjust and wondered whether the nursing staff would treat him well. We wanted them to know that he was a kind old man who liked to pass out donuts to the other patients at breakfast, liked to go for long walks, and was a great conversationalist (as long as you weren’t too fussy about knowing what he was going on about). When he passed away, it seemed strange that there was no funeral to go to. Now, years later, we reminisce about him just like other family members who have died. And we all still wonder who Mabel could have been, if she ever existed at all.
Several years ago the business closed and the house was sold, and both Ruthie and Ed have passed away. Now on visits back to Maine I drive by the big white house, which has been carved into apartments by new owners, and it seems incomprehensible that I can’t just walk through the door any more. I remember how the door squeaked when you opened it, the turn of the handle in my hand, and the noise the little bells hanging on the inside of the door made when it shut. I’d like to go sit at the kitchen table with Ruthie again, and have her share all the family gossip over endless cups of coffee and cigarettes, or hang out on the porch with Lawrence, or even just walk through the barn. Nothing is the same anymore, and as weird as it was, I miss it.