Celebrating My Mother: She Can Fix It!

She Can Fix It!

I knew it was January because another car engine sat in our living room.

After the excitement of Christmas faded, my restless mother decided to rebuild our 1970 Grand Prix. She didn’t have a shop or a mechanics education, but she did have a library card and a neighbor who would answer countless questions for a case of beer.

Mom’s fascination with mechanics began with an old gasoline powered washing machine. At six, she disassembled the monstrosity and stacked the pieces together in the most sensible arrangement she could think of.  When she reported her experiment, her irate father insisted she put the washer back “the way she found it.” Mom assembled the pieces more convincingly, and plotted her next mechanical adventure.

In the 1970s, the family passion was underwater photography. Factory-made underwater camera housings never satisfied Mom. She had no tolerance for poor design or awkward functioning.  To meet her specifications, she modified every camera, strobe, and battery pack she came across.

Consequently, our guest room housed projects, not people. Spread on the floor, our good sheets hosted O-rings, tiny bolts, clips and mysterious metal bits. The arrangements seemed haphazard, but Mom knew if anything was out of place. Once, I tiptoed across one of her projects, lodging a teeny screw between my toes.  I tossed it back on the sheet absently. Three days later, Mom advised me to hand her future wayward parts.

Mom and the Engine

In the mid-1980s, a series of hurricanes wiped out my parent’s favorite diving spots, requiring them to economize for more exotic trips. This meant long boring winters for my mom. With no exciting place to go or camera gear to tinker with, she turned her eyes and hands to auto mechanics. For most of the eighties, engine re-builds swallowed late winters and early springs.

One year, Mom decided to rebuild our 1970 grand prix Pontiac. This was to be my car.   Some kids got junkers or fancy sedans. My mother built me a racecar–a 455 cu in (7.5 L) V8 with a hot cam.

The Pontiac turned into a family member before I ever drove it, settling itself in our living room.  Its metal and grease smell permeated our house in a pleasant, friendly way, like the subtle cologne of a favorite aunt.  On windy March days, curing silicone gaskets gave off a vinegary odor, reminding me of Easter egg dye and spring holidays.

As spring ushered in desert wildflowers, I helped out, holding casings or pumping molybdenum lubricant into joints. Mostly, I watched or poured the occasional glass of wine.

One glorious April day, quite close to my birthday, the neighborhood assembled to celebrate the placing of the Pontiac’s engine. Champagne filled our glasses while our loving neighbors popped the tops of Budweisers.  Sputtering to life amidst cheers and whistles, we christened the car “The Blue Bomb,” since the engine rumbled “Baa-bomb—baa—bomb—baa–bomb.”

1970 Grand Prix

The occasion was momentous enough to warrant a visit from Dad, who famously despises social gatherings. Nevertheless, he entertained a cluster of senior ladies for a full twenty minutes, before stoutly shaking hands and excusing himself.

Mom, the guest of honor, discussed automotive mechanics until her companions became uncivilly inebriated. The balance of the evening was spent at the kitchen table, nibbling nachos with wives and daughters. The specifics of these conversations are lost on me but I can recreate the mood in a flash.   The atmosphere was convivial; a feeling of warmth and acceptance united the women around the table. Mom was the neighborhood Rosie the Riveter. “She can fix it” became “I can fix it.” We all sat a little straighter, spoke a little louder, planned a little bigger.

A week after the engine-starting, Mom, Dad, and I took the Blue Bomb on its inaugural drive.  Mom planned the maiden voyage with precision. A new engine must “settle in” through a complex combination of long distance driving and oil changes.

We drove to Gallup, NM and back. Dad followed us in the family van, filled with such a quantity of tools that care was taken to distribute their weight equally over the vehicle’s axels.

Windows down, we zoomed across the weedy, flowery desert. As we approached Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, Mom opened the engine up further, tearing along at maximum speed to seat pistons and O-rings. Toes tightened and the Pontiac resonated.

As sure as Vikings exalted the majesty of the open water in their longboats, my mother and I embraced our own frontier–a car speeding amidst a sea of desert flowers. A future of possibilities swam before us; we can fix it resonated in our ears.

The Fan

A Sunrise for Mom

A Birthday Wish

Dark Nest

Domestic Diversity

stuff

I am a messy house expatriate.

My mother, who loves burgeoning stuff, feeds a heightening bedside nest of fliers, letters, and newspapers.  In the garage, boxes dating to the early 1970s crowd to the ceiling. Time travel through receipts, magazines, and greeting cards would be a breeze.

Mom had only one household rule regarding clutter: keep a clear path to your door in case of fire. That was it. I could keep my room in a book-ridden, toy-stacked, plate-layered maelstrom of disarray as long as a firefighter could drag me out through my bedroom door. More than one third grade boy marveled at the delightful chaos of my room.

Surprisingly, I evolved into a neatnik of unbelievable proportions.  I overhauled and organized the house so every pen, pencil, and paperclip had an assigned and official place. Other kids might have thrown parties when their parents went out of town.  I re-painted the bathroom and chipped up the kitchen tiles. Once, I even tore out the faded paneling in our kitchen to replace it with textured drywall. I still remember my parents muted “that’s nice” response, as if they feared praise might encourage me to re-carpet the house while they slept.

Mom bore my frenzies with patience and good cheer. She knew order and uniformity soothed me; perhaps in the same way collecting and stacking soothed her.

order

Some take the condition of your home to be a metaphor for your inner life. An unruly home symbolizes tangled thinking, or laziness bordering on neglect. The spare and overly organized dwelling suggests a tenant so tightly puckered that they might squeeze the breath out of you if you sat next to them.

These notions emphasize differences between people and do not reflect the important matter. The important matter is not how you keep your house but how you keep your family.  My own messy mother accepted me each time she put the scissors in their special bin.  She encouraged independence through home improvement projects and gave me my own kingdom to alphabetize and straighten.

I, worshiper of straight clean lines and neat labeled boxes, luckily have a similar son. If one day he should metamorphosize into a keeper of things, I hope to teach him to manage his collections with curious bins and spruce labels. Fill life with acceptance and support regardless of where your loved one falls on the spectrum of glorious messes and immaculate houses.

 

Dear Friends,

Due to serious illness in our family, my ability to respond to comments is diminished. Thank you for reading.

 

Autistic History: My Grandfather’s Story

veteran2

People ask, “Where are the autistics of ages past?”

I can name one: World War I hero, Purple Heart recipient, and mental hospital veteran—my grandfather, W. B. Mueller.

Grandpa served on the infamous Western Front. He told few horror stories, except to say rain fell interminably, dysentery was widespread, and rats ate the dead and the living with equal zest. He also recalled that the murky trench water emitted a stench so profound it permeated his provisions. Grandpa swore every meal tasted like corpses.

As he crouched in the trenches, shells exploded above him with furious violence, shredding soldiers in the line of fire. One such shell barrage pinned down Grandpa’s squad outside Château-Thierry. Five marines perished beside him. A pinkie-sized shell fragment tore through Grandpa’s leg, lodging at an irretrievable depth.

Western Front

Grandpa would have recuperated quickly and returned to battle in modern times, but without antibiotics, he became gravely ill. Months of infection dragged into years of chronic pain. A decade later, his leg was amputated. The ill-performed surgery left Grandpa with an often painful sometimes itchy phantom limb.

After the war, an intractable terror of roiling, murky water dogged Grandpa. He traversed bridges shaking and white-fisted. My Dad recalls dark flourishes of sweat spreading across Grandpa’s suit as he drove over the nearby Fort Loudon Dam for annual family gatherings.

Following one such trip, Grandpa incinerated his war memorabilia along with piles of neatly raked autumn leaves. No one connected the horror of trench warfare to Grandpa’s phobia of turbid, churning water.

Post-discharge, the American Textile Woolen Company hired Grandpa as a fabric designer and supervisor. Promotions and decades of prosperity followed. He proudly purchased a home and a procession of automobiles which he used to impress my much younger Grandmother.

He also flattered Grandmother with frighteningly sappy poems and letters, a delight to her twenty- year-old heart.  Grandpa continued to write odd verses and jingles throughout their marriage. He entered his creations in five and ten dollar contests. The prizes were a boon during the Depression and allowed my Grandmother to buy a wild assortment of hats and dresses. Grandpa hit the jackpot a several times, winning grand prizes ($50!) and publishing poetry in regional magazines.

Great Grandpa
The family’s affluent life evaporated after the textile plant closed in the 1940s, but not for lack of opportunity.

Grandfather, a valued artist and designer, was given a remarkable chance: a paid relocation to a newer, larger factory in Missouri.

However, this did not motivate Grandpa.

He refused to leave his house or hometown and rebuffed my grandmother’s pleas to accept the offer. She wrote in her journals that she suspected “his scorn for change” and “river jitters” underlay his refusals. In an ill-fated move, he turned his backroom hobby—gun repair—into a profession.

No one realized that the textile plant provided Grandpa with much more than an income. It supplied him stability and structure—a place to be, a job to do, and none of the social schmoozing a small business requires.

The expanse of self-employed free time dazzled and distracted him. Repairing guns and rifles in a timely and consistent fashion proved to be an unattainable challenge.  The Athens Gun Club failed.  Grandpa spent the one year anniversary of his venture at the Central State Hospital for the Insane.

Letters Collection

Unlike my schizophrenic Uncle Leo, who was floridly delusional or my bipolar Uncle Will, who absconded with a school bus to sell pretzels along the East coast, Grandpa did not exhibit psychosis. Nor did he drink, take narcotics, or skip out on debts. He simply succumbed to episodes of “hysterical anxiety” and vanished, reemerging in a mental ward within a few days.

Perplexed doctors had no word for grandpa’s condition other than “mental illness” and his complaints of an aching phantom limb contributed to this assessment. Rest and rejected pain medications were their only recourse. Within a week, Grandpa stabilized and returned home.

“Nervous spells” and hospitalizations followed Grandpa for the remainder of his days. Likewise, stigma shadowed him, causing Doctors to manage him with a disheartening skepticism and restraint.

Death found Grandpa’s several months after a freak accident.  A falling brick glanced off his head, causing a concussion and trigeminal neuralgia. Also known as “the suicide disease” for the agony it elicits, trigeminal neuralgia produced such intense and prolonged facial pain that he insisted on radical experimental surgery for relief.  Grandpa died on the operating table as surgeons severed the affected nerves. It was his 68th birthday.


When we speak of advocacy, we look forward, toward our progeny. Let us also look backward, to our ancestors, who bore grief and heartache without understanding why.

Recognition is a fine memorial wreath.

World War One Poems

Autistic History Month

Schizophrenia Revealed: Accepting Uncle Leopold

#Schizophrenia Revealed: Accepting Uncle Leopold

Uncle Leopold

Uncle Leo was the sort of fellow who didn’t care if Dad collected rattlesnakes for spare cash and curiosity. Dad, for his part, was unfazed by Leo’s tendency to hoard rocks and weave captivating, if odd conspiracy theories.  So, in in the late 1950’s the two graduate students roomed together.

Dad usually vanished over weekends, spelunking, exploring, or just being manly. He’d leave his destination with Leo, “to help the authorities find the body,” lest he didn’t make a timely return. Near Christmas, 1961, as Dad left for a weekend trip, Uncle Leo ignored his parting jests. Engrossed in cleaning his gun, Leo absently scuffed his feet at the kitchen table.

Dad blew in Sunday to find Leo still cleaning his gun–the floor beneath him scuffed to the concrete.

Dad packed up his unresponsive roommate for the three-day trip back to Ohio. Uncle Leo never spoke, never ate, only stared.

My future grandfather and ten inches of snow met Dad at the train station. Leo shivered as Dad handed him over to Grandpa, who said little but squeezed Dad’s hand tight. Uncle Leo went straight to the Athens State Mental Hospital—birthplace of the lobotomy.

Mental asylum

They treated his schizophrenia with two seasons of the “miracle drug” Thorazine before Uncle Leo bolted. He preferred flying saucers and CIA persecution to the blunted, stunted world of Thorazine.

Meanwhile, Mom and Dad met, married and moved an hour south.

Throughout the 70s, Uncle Leo visited with Mom and me.  Unannounced, he materialized in army fatigues, concealing weapons and clenching notebooks. Mom required Uncle Leo to unload his guns during visits. One time, he refused with prickly, whispered intensity.

Silence choked the kitchen. My feisty, outspoken mother did not insist. Instead, she hustled me out the back door to visit a neighbor. Dad came home soon after and had a quiet, brief talk with Uncle Leo. When I was summoned home, a weeping Uncle Leo apologized to me for making our home “a scary place.”

I felt sorry for Uncle Leo–a quiet talk with my Dad was much scarier to me than my uncle and a boatload of guns. His sadness and remorse gnawed on my brain at nighttime. I pictured his blotchy sunburned face, streaked clean by channels of tears.  Why was he so sad? What did Dad say? Was I somehow to blame?

My Uncle Leo

Years passed before I could grasp the fear which seized my mother, or appreciate how my father resolved the situation. Dad did not threaten Uncle Leo; he assured him he was safe. Our house was CIA-proof and Uncle Leo was not allowed to bring his fear into a house with his adoring niece in it.

And I did adore Uncle Leo. His arrival meant strange surprises: bottles of minerals with supernatural properties or odd homemade dolls with intricate embroidered faces.  Then, he told stories.  Amazing, bizarre and a little incomprehensible, his tales of adventure and persecution entranced me. His narratives left me so deliciously agog that my mother issued a disclaimer with every visit: Uncle Leo’s stories were just as fictional as Grandmam’s ghost stories.

In my mind, however, his sincerity outweighed Grandmam’s theatrics. I could imagine orange glowing ufos burning hieroglyphic notes in the desert sand to Uncle Leo, who had to scramble to find them before The Company agents did.

Two years after the gun incident, Uncle Leo quit visiting.

Home

Uncle Leo shot himself dead when I was fourteen. His story unfolded in yellow legal pads, crowded with capital letters.  The Company’s campaign of malicious activities culminated with his poisoning: they had infected him with cancer. His last despondent words were printed neatly in black felt ink: “Cleansers not working. Will not suffer.”

Poignantly, the medical examiner reported that the vast quantities of “cleansers,” (i.e. bone meal/vitamins) he ingested to purify himself contributed to the sickness he mistook for cancer.

If only we knew.

Clean-up was dreadful. Spooked by the quantity of weaponry, strange wires and eerie notes, local law enforcement minimized their efforts. Mom and Dad walked into a house floored  inches thick with newspapers. Military ammunition boxes lined the main hallways. Snatched from his highway job, sticks of dynamite cluttered his shower floor.  Hazardous chemicals and poisons shared shelves with bottles of aspirin and laxatives.

To add to the unnerving chaos, Uncle Leo had booby-trapped several rooms. My folks encountered a rusty shotgun half-heartedly rigged to a doorknob.  The kitchen housed a heavily chained refrigerator festooned with locks and seemingly wired with explosives.  Fortunately, the wires dead-ended in a closet. Mom and Dad, nevertheless, used a mattress to protect themselves as they pried it open. Inside, a large steel firebox secured a single head of cabbage.  Mom wept over the sadness of it for days.

A raw and painful reminder of his mental decline, the months it took to clear Uncle Leo’s property crawled by. Shocked by Leo’s disturbing living conditions, Mom blamed herself for not visiting him or questioning why his visits ceased. Dad sympathized and carried his own burden of guilt.  I reacted by destroying things when my parents weren’t home.  I hammered old electronic stuff in to bits and buried them in our backyard.

Broken Years later, Mom and I unearthed a demolition project. Mom laughed and said, “Ah, one of your Uncle Leo relics.”  I must have gasped, because she touched my shoulder, and added, “Everyone works through grief differently.”

I still think of him.  Uncle Leopold altered the course of my life.  I was not content to be an engineer or mathematician. I needed to know why some people were different and what to do about it. Some answers live in text, but most come from relationships with schizophrenic people.

My current views of neurodiversity and autism acceptance sprang from these connections. You can’t cure a person with schizophrenia, but you can give them control over symptoms that distress them. You can accept them as beautiful and whole people. Isn’t this what any person, regardless of circumstance wants?

Accept

In Praise of Fathers on the Autism Spectrum

Today I spoke to my Dad for three minutes on the telephone to wish him a happy Father’s Day. Dad is notoriously uncomfortable on the phone, so we keep conversations short. It does not matter. Dad knows I love him. We can cram a world full of emotion into the tiniest sentence.

This brief exchange compelled me to examine fatherhood on the autism spectrum.

My Dad worked incredibly hard to support our family. Daily, he coped with anxiety and insomnia. To fit in with his co-workers he memorized jokes, stories, and scripts.  He stuck to lists and written instructions for organization and daily living. Long before Asperger’s syndrome diagnoses reached our family, he handled life with aplomb.

fathers day 2
Dad, singing at a campfire.

I am deeply proud of my father.  Please permit me to generalize wonderful things about my dad to all fathers on the autism spectrum:

  1. They share with you. I once asked my Dad how to tie a knot. Heh. For the next three weeks, we explored the history of knot making. Not only did dad personally show me how to tie dozens of fancy, complicated knots, but he gave their full background and a stack of illustrated books to study.
  2.  They will be honest with you. At six I asked my dad if Santa was real. A pained expression crossed his face. He said, “The spirit of Christmas is real.” I pressed, “So Santa’s not real?” He shook his head, “Santa is an idea. He represents the giving spirit of Christmas.”  Over thirty years have passed, but I remember the moment vividly. He respected me enough to tell the truth.
  3. Their enthusiasm is contagious. When my Dad talks about his favorite subjects, he glows. You not only see his incredible joy, but it washed over you. He loves spelunking and mineralogy. Ten minutes with him and you will dream about sparkling crystals and mysterious caves
  4. They are loyal.  Public school distressed me. Every four months or so, I crashed and missed three or four weeks straight. The school system so harassed my mother over absenteeism, that a school administration meeting was scheduled so my father could attend. Wild-eyed and fearsome, Dad defended me so staunchly that the issue was resolved for the remainder of my school days.
  5. They will understand you. My Dad always had great compassion for my war with anxiety. When I was 25, I dropped out of college for the fifth time. Heartbroken, I felt like an utter failure. He took my hand and told me it would be okay. He promised me that as a family we would find a way to finish school and select an agreeable career.  In the ten years it took me to get my degree, he never begrudged my tuition. He accepted my struggles long before my Asperger’s diagnosis gave a name to my difficulties.