- No Ordinary Family
Death can come in fits and starts. At the time of impending death, family members are often confronted with periodic crises alternating with periods of interminable waiting. Waiting provides an opportunity for remembering the past. After years of separation, three Montgomery siblings reconnect at Four Corners Farm, their childhood home in Framingham, Massachusetts, to help their dying father.
In The Things Between Us: A Memoir Lee Montgomery provides a moving account of her father’s dying days, and in flashbacks to her childhood she illuminates the patterns of behavior in her dysfunctional family. She realistically describes the difficulties of caregiving; the constant crises; the confusion and impersonality of hospital care; and the tension created by the fatigue endured by family members. In looking back at her family, she says, “I have spent a lifetime haunted by us.” As she explores the complex relationships in a family torn asunder by her alcoholic mother’s behavior, she reveals what separates family members and what binds them together.
The Montgomerys of Framingham were no ordinary family, and the final months of Lee Montgomery’s father’s illness was no ordinary time. Giving support to the father in his illness was complicated by the presence of his alcoholic wife being cared for by a twenty-five-year-old male Bulgarian.
Family largely determines who we are and what we become. Lee Montgomery’s mother’s family was a family of privilege and position in Michigan, but it was also a family whose members moved in and out of mental institutions and jails. The father’s family, the Montgomerys, were New Englanders—WASPS who had been sailors, farmers, carpenters, and engineers. To the father, the first in his family to go to college, they were a disappointing lot. According to Montgomery, the financial failures of the grandfather fueled the father’s ambitions. Out of such beginnings, the fabric of family was created, and the Montgomery family, like many other families, endured despite the constant bickering and battling.
Montgomery says of her mother, “I will never be able to explain my mother, but I will most likely spend my life trying. She is the rock in the road that I will navigate around.” She sheds little light on the roots of her mother’s alcoholism, accepting [End Page xxxiii] her father’s explanation of family history and the loss of two babies. The father suggests that she was never the same after those losses. And with Montgomery the reader must accept the idea that we cannot always know the cause of human weakness. What Montgomery does is provide a compelling and heartbreaking account of what life is like for a child growing up in thrall to an alcoholic mother. The refrain of the father, “I wonder what is wrong with your mother,” is telling. It echoes the helplessness of families in dealing with an alcoholic family member. Montgomery concludes that her father’s protection of her mother was their undoing: “She could never get better; he could never leave.”
If childhood is the formative experience of an individual, one has to ask what it is like to live with a mother who liked to stay up all night drinking martinis and who dreamed of traveling with Johnny Mathis. What impact did the behavior of the mother have on the lives of the children? Contradictory images emerge as Montgomery replays childhood scenes. One recoils from the image of a small child crawling around on the mother passed out on the floor. “As a child, I was alone most of the time surrounded by animals and beautiful countryside.” In response she learned to live in an imaginary world. As Lee grew older, her mother turned to rescuing horses and gained a reputation for her research on the breathing problems of horses, a reputation that attracted a colorful cast of characters to Four Corners Farm. A bleached blonde, alcoholic mother who is prone to extravagant dress and flamboyant behavior and who is surrounded by eccentric hangers-on does not provide the normal support of childhood, but the...