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BOB BROWN: My Mother’s Bed

Prowling memories creep into my awareness. Intuitively, these memory fragments seem significant but they remain puzzling pieces belonging to a picture waiting to be developed – much as a photographer with anticipation develops a photograph. Forensic scientists meticulously study minute physical evidence of a crime scene. Initially, as in my case, it is not clear where the “evidence” will lead.

All I can say is that the single element consistently present in my fragmented fleeting thoughts, spanning many years, is my mother’s bed.

Perhaps it is relevant that I earned my living as a forensic psychiatrist. I leave that role in this case, however, and unburden myself as if I am the curious, if not perturbed patient who is sharing his memories with a respected analyst, the role confidently assigned to the reader. Following the habit of Charles Dickens, please permit me to address you as my “dear reader.” “What do these recollections mean?” dear reader. I am convinced the truth will illuminate my mind and lessen my anxiety when these memories reveal their message or meaningfulness. Yes, my memories – as yours – may well have more than one meaning.

Two remarkable events form a reliable time-line, permitting me to closely date these memories. First, my entire childhood was spent in one town and I lived in only two houses, merely 8 city blocks apart. Second and equally important, I was 10-years-old when Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared World War II. My sister Edith, 8 years my senior, and I were in Gray’s Pharmacy on Hampton Boulevard in Norfolk, Virginia.

The declaration of war was announced over the radio. We raced home to tell our mother the frightening news. All three of us cried because my brother Randolph, 10 years my senior, was in the US Navy, stationed on the USS Craven, a US Naval destroyer, whose home port was Pearl Harbor. Gray’s Pharmacy was on the corner of 48th Street and we lived on 47th Street. Three months after World War II started; we moved to 39th Street. It would be 4 years later before we were to see Randolph for the first time since the beginning of World War II. Thankfully, he had no visible injuries.

Perhaps most, if not all, important memories return or are retained in fragments. Fragments are manageable and are less threatening. The first fragment of my recurring memories takes me back to age 3 to 5 years. Tearfully and suffocating in a terrible feeling of panic, I was pleading with my dad not to leave. I was in my mother’s bed grabbing tightly onto my dad’s right arm as he said to my mother, “If you do not stop treating me this way, Louise, I am leaving. I mean it. I will never come back to you!”

As if oblivious to his words, my mother remained calm and as composed as a manakin. She replied sternly and very seriously, “Let me help you pack, George. You will not be missed! I’d say, Good Riddance!” By this time I was crying uncontrollably. The scene ends as abruptly as it began, but the memory tarries on. My dad never left. My mother continued to treat my dad without affection. She cautioned me to never be like my dad. How many times she warned me to “Get an education or you will end up like him!”

I was a teenager before learning my dad received his education on the Elizaeth River working on tugboats, not in public school. He never learned to read or write, married my mother when she was 14 and he was 21, and though richly talented in manual skills despite a worrisome familial tremor, he painted houses when work was available.

I was their sixth child whose birth was difficult to celebrate in the economic calamity of the Great Depression. Even so, he often took me to the Byrd Theatre on Saturdays to see a cowboy movie, and bought me a small while bag of chocolate candy. Just now I am remembering how early and how lasting is the nature of my memory. For example, I distinctly remember being 2-and-a-half years old. I made inquirers of my age burst into laughter when I replied, “I am half-into.”

When I was 9-years old, my oldest sister, Christine, 15 years my senior, my second mother and our next-door neighbor, and Frank, her mean and hot-tempered husband, took me to City Hall on a cold mid-winter night to watch the wrestling matches. Later, Christine and Frank were to have their own son, but until his birth, I spent a lot of time with them.

In so many ways, I was their “Pip,” whose fear of the escaped prisoner in “Great Expectations” (Dickens, 1861), perfectly describes the all-too-familiar fear that covered much of my early childhood just as measles or chicken pox covered one’s body prior to widespread immunization. I was as scared of Frank as Pip feared the escaped prisoner. How strange it seems now to have spent so much time around a person I feared.

During the Great Depression, the masses needed distractions. Wrestling matches were one of the great distractions. Large crowds filled City Hall. Even a child could tell that some wrestlers were clean, rule-obeying men, while others were sleek, devilish, dirty men seeking illegal ways to break the rules to win their wrestling match. Oddly, I remember “Sailor Bob” as a heroic, rule-obeying wrestler but we do, of course, share the same name.

Inevitably, the referee never observed what was evident when dirty tricks were executed. An irritating dirty trick commonly executed was rubbing the eyes of the opponent with a match-box cover thrown into the ring by a rowdy member of the crowd. The sulfur temporarily blinded the opponent, rendering him helpless to defend himself as he forcefully rubbed his tearing, painful eyes.

Christine, Frank, and I booed loudly, protesting the misconduct. It became intolerable to Frank when a dirty trick occurred a second time. Before we knew it, Frank was climbing into the ring, throwing the referee to the mat. Almost at the same time, Police Officers entered the ring, physically removing Frank. Christine squeezed my hand tightly. We both cried, but Frank was soon returned to his seat next to us.

We drove home in silence. Christine knew that her silence was absolute and necessary. In the dark, I quietly entered my parents’ bedroom. A terrifying feeling of helplessness engulfed me; it lasted until I crawled into my mother’s bed in the dark, delivered home by Christine and Frank after midnight.

“Did you have a good time?” my mother whispered. I crawled into my mother’s bed nodding my head wordlessly. It was pleasantly warm in my mother’s bed. I snuggled closely beside her. I felt comforted, safe, protected, and loved. Her love was like the hands of a master sculptor that sculpted me securely then and into the future. I slept soundly through the rest of the night. My father remained asleep, lying motionlessly on the left side of my mother’s bed.

I never disclosed what I witnessed at the wrestling match.

Scripture from the biblical book of Isaiah 66 comes to mind. The prophet predicts that one day in the future, God will comfort his people in Israel. “As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; And you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.”

Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892), a highly regarded 19th century British minister deeply understood the meaning of Isaiah’s words, while portraying the comfort I received from my mother following the troubling scene in which the 9-year-old version of myself was an emotional participant: “This is a peculiarly delightful metaphor. A father can comfort, but I think he is not much at home in the work. When God speaks about his pity, he compares himself to their father: ‘Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him.’ But when he speaks about comfort, he selects the mother. When I have seen the little ones sick, I have felt all the pity in the world for them, but I did not know how to set to work to comfort them; but a mother knows by instinct how to do it.” (Spurgeon)

Although the commotion Frank caused at the wrestling match was never disclosed, it would have been no surprise to my family. As a 9-year-old, I could not understand why the referee so often failed to see what was obvious. I did not want to burst into the ring and fight the referee, but it touched a deep chord in my heart, one that is often struck today when wrong is ignored in whatever ring or circumstance it occurs.

Sadly, the repugnant mockery of ignored and unopposed wrong wrenches my heart far more frequently and painfully than the pleasant memories of the warmth and comfort of my mother’s bed. I confess I was well into my adulthood before realizing the wrestling matches in City Hall during the Great Depression were mostly no more than acting.

Years later, I became the first wrestling coach at the Norfolk Academy, chartered in 1728. High school and college wrestling is a legitimate sport, altogether different than acting in a wrestling match as entertainment Olympian wrestling is real and highly competitive, requiring peak physical fitness and strength. The comparisons these two scenarios seemed to demonstrate how much better life could be if courageous, strong people would successfully wrestle the ubiquitous evil that is unacknowledged, ignored, or promoted.

Wrongs seem to slither unopposed into our culture as an army of maggots devours decaying flesh.

My mother, born in 1898 on a small sharecropper farm in Isle of Wight County, Virginia, was the third of 11 children of John Wesley Beale and Nellie Eliza Addison. When she was 13, her financially destitute family moved by barge on the Nansemond River to nearby Norfolk. She loved and assumed a caretaker role to her siblings, placing their wellbeing above her need for school beyond the fourth grade.

Nonetheless, she was a naturally strong, intelligent person often sought out by others needing unaffordable medical attention. She was known for her loyalty, honesty, and willingness to render assistance and support. My mother said what she meant, and she meant what she said.

One of the unique features of my mother’s speech was the complete absence of ambivalence. “Not this day, Our Father,” was her iron-clad response when I requested permission for something she denied. The uselessness of a second request was immediately apparent even to a youngster.

The 1940s was a decade of significant life events for my mother. Her son Randolph was in World War II combat, her father died on Christmas Day 1945, she was spectacularly converted to Christianity, and she joined the Ballentine Church of God where her youngest brother, the Rev. Earl Doyle Beale, was its pastor.

In so doing, she “gave up worldly things” and devoted herself to Jesus Christ. The biblical description of the conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus could not have been more consuming than my mother’s surrender of her life and being to Jesus. When she prayed – (and she prayed often) it was from her heart and mind and always on her knees next to her bed.

No event passed without my mother’s prayer. For example, before I left home for the University of Virginia in January 1950, my mother said, “Bobby, let’s get on our knees and pray.” A friend accurately described my mother as a “Prayer Warrior.” God answered her prayers. She prayed for 10 years that God would provide a second chance for me in a challenging situation in which I had ruined the first chance by my own irresponsibility.

My mother was recuperating in the Norfolk General Hospital from her second heart attack when she received confirmation that her decade of prayers for me had finally been answered in the affirmative. Within hours of receiving the news, my mother’s soul fled to the bosom of her Savior. She was 72. I regret that I was not at her bedside when she died, but I had given her my love, assured her she was a “good mother,” and said goodbye to her several weeks earlier.

Nearly 5 decades after my mother’s death, my sister Edith, ill with colon cancer said, “Bobby, next it will be your turn to die… You are the only one remaining in our family.” In front of her daughter and my wife, Edith pulled down her slacks to her pubic hair, placed my hand on her abdomen and said, “Feel my cancer.” Awkwardly, my cold hand palpated her warm abdomen. Two firm lesions the size of cantaloupes were unmistakable.

Then Edith said, “I want you to have mother’s bed.” I was shocked. I wanted nothing to do with my mother’s bed. Sheepishly, I said, “If that is what you want.”

A box of old family photographs was emptied and spread out on Edith’s living room floor. We casually looked through the pictures, but I was focused on the incredulously unexpected request to examine my sister’s abdomen, and the inheritance of my mother’s bed. Edith’s daughter volunteered to get estimates of the cost to ship the bed from Portsmouth to Charlottesville.

“This is probably the last time I will see you, Edith, on this side of heaven,” I said. Edith smiled. We hugged each other and said goodbye. Several weeks later, my wife Dottie and I attended Edith’s funeral. As we drove back to Fort Lee, a military post where I treated Soldiers suffering from combat-induced Posttraumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD), I told my wife I did not want my mother’s bed. She was warmly supportive as usual, and said, “We really don’t need any more furniture.”

I felt relieved. I told Edith’s daughter I was not accepting the bed, the cost to move it was not worth it, but that I respected her wish to have it removed soon owing to her plans to sell her mother’s home and move to Florida. I promised to have a plan for my mother’s bed in the immediate future.

The following week, during group therapy at Fort Lee, I learned that “Q”, a much admired wounded soldier in the group needed a bed. “I’ve been sleeping on the floor in my sleeping bag,” Q said, “for three years.” Q was the nickname of a Hispanic soldier whose last name was too lengthy and far to difficult to pronounce. He was in many ways the group’s pet / favorite member. His vehicle had been blown apart by an improvised explosive device in Iraq. He was badly injured but his PTSD symptoms were more disturbing than his physical injuries.

Travis was a stronger member of the group but no less disturbed by his symptoms of PTSD. Travis and Q formed a strong human bond, one I saw as therapeutic for both.

When I offered my mother’s bed to Q, Travis immediately said, “I’ll go with him in my truck to pick up the bed.” The group gave its strong approval. Solemnly, I said, “Q, the bed I am giving you was my mother’s bed. She was a devout Christian woman. It is something I want you to remember. Never defile my mother’s bed.”

Of course, Q did not know, nor could he appreciate, the depth of meaning I was attempting to covey. He was simply enthralled to leave his sleeping bag and, at last, climb into a bed.

The group met the following week. The plan had been executed. Q had my mother’s bed. Travis volunteered, “That woman at the house did not seem so happy about us taking the bed. It was not so much what she said; it was how she acted. I don’t know how to describe it, but she was sort of mean.”

The group showed little interest any longer but Q has a good bed, one he deserves.

I believe my mother is pleased that her bed has found such a home – one where it will not be used as an idol, or substitutional ‘linking object.’

Our real memories are surely more than enough.

Robert S. Brown Sr.

Robert S. Brown, MD, PHD a retired Psychiatrist, Col (Ret) U.S. Army Medical Corps devoted the last decade of his career to treating soldiers at Fort Lee redeploying from combat. He was a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Professor of Education at UVA. His renowned Mental Health course taught the value of exercise for a sound mind.










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