My first memory of her is a body curled up, sleeping with her back to the living room, South Carolina sunlight streaming in the windows. I was three years old, and my mother was napping. Almost every memory of her after, no matter what age I was, includes a couch.
That first couch was a deep red with a Spanish styled print. I don’t remember that from being three, but from having sat on the edge of that couch right through seventh grade. That couch moved from Tennessee to South Carolina to Texas.
It’s always puzzled me, that couch. Red? My mom loved yellow and orange. Spanish? She hated all things Latin. A shield with crossed swords hung on the wall along with what I think was a painting of a bull fighter or something. The coffee table was a heavy wood with Spanish style turned spindles and doors trimmed in burnished brass. Where in the world did all of that come from?
She liked to call me to come sit on the couch to talk to her sometimes. She might ask about my day at school, what boys I had crushes on. Interestingly, she rarely asked about my female friends. She asked about teachers. She told me that I must go to college.
She lay there and smoked cigarettes, drank Coke or Pepsi with lemon, and watched television for my entire childhood. Soap operas, game shows, and classic horror and sci-fi were her tv of choice. She didn’t mind if I joined her for game shows or “Lost in Space,” but when it was time for “Guiding Light” or “Days of Our Lives” I had to make myself scarce.
She never got up and went to the bed in the bedroom that she shared with my dad in name only. Sure, her clothes hung in a closet in that bedroom, and there was a dresser where she had drawers of underwear and socks and chiffon nightgowns left from her bridal days. But she rarely went in that room. She was on the couch 24/7. One time, when I was about twelve, I got out of bed to get a drink of water and found my father laying on top of my mother on that couch. Sex happened on the couch. Meals happened on the couch. Sleep happened on the couch. Her life was lived on the couch.
Right around my eighth grade year, we bought a new couch: sort of a nubby weave of lime green and golden yellow. I didn’t sit on the edge of that one quite as often, as the divide between my mother and I began to widen. Confiding in her was dangerous- if I shared something I was worried about she would use it against me in an angry moment. Her own depression began to sink her into an apathy of lethargy and sleep.
Perhaps my most vivid couch memory was the day it tipped over. Let me set the scene:
It’s summer, 1979. I am out of school, my dad is at work, and my little brothers are outside playing. My mom seems…off. Her speech is slurred, she’s holding on to the walls as she makes her way to the toilet. I call my dad at work, he asks if I can just stay nearby and keep an eye on things. So I grab a book (most likely a Ramona Quimby story) and catalogs and settle down on the shag carpet for a quiet day of reading and looking at clothes in the Sears Big Book; and I watch.
My mom comes back from a bathroom trip, sits down on the couch, then pitches forward headfirst over the coffee table. Her feet were tucked up under the edge of the couch, so it flipped backward.
Turns out she was completely strung out on pain killers. This was the day we learned about my mom’s addiction.
My mom was…difficult. When she was young, people tell me she was engaging. A tremendously talented athlete. In many ways she was brave- she could face down a speeding softball, catching it and pivoting to throw it to first base in the blink of an eye- this was a gift that I saw a glimpse of when she convinced me to join the church softball league with her during one of the infrequent “good spells.” She was fast as a whippet, graceful on the field despite the numerous broken noses and arms (fearless on the softball field, nothing would stand in the way of getting on base or stopping that ball- not even her face).
She was also beautiful. there are photos that show this to be true, even after she married my dad and had me. Big blue eyes, golden olive skin, blonde hair coiffed to perfection, and impeccable style in clothing, she was a knock out.
But something changed for my mom. Depression and probably bipolar disorder intervened. I say “probably bipolar disorder” because that really wasn’t a thing that was being diagnosed in the early 1980’s. Instead, she was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic, which isn’t quite right, but maybe as close as a 1982 psychologist could get.
Women didn’t typically have careers in the late 1960’s and 70’s. They were housewives. I don’t know that my mom found much joy in this. I think she was lonely and bored. It’s not that she didn’t love us. But she was just too sad. So she slept a lot, watched a lot of TV, got depressed, then got addicted, then got crazy. All on the couch.
The last time I visited my mom in her section 8 apartment, where she was living alone, my husband and I slept on the double bed that my grandfather had given her. She said she had tried to sleep on it, but she just couldn’t. She was still sleeping on a couch. This time, an old couch that I think might have come from the Goodwill store. She died when she was living in that apartment.
When we packed it up, my husband and I took the bedroom furniture, but not the couch.
And when I enter a home, friend’s home, or even my own home, I don’t sit on the couch unless there just are not any other options.
A few months ago, I decided I would try to join my husband on the couch- that’s where he likes to hang out. I spent about a week propped up against the arm rest, tucked under a blanket, and having flashbacks to seeing my mom living on her various couches. Not just chilling for a bit, but living. I moved back to my chair.
It’s funny how we are shaped in the strangest ways. An innocuous piece of furniture that exists in nearly every American home can become a subtle, subconscious reminder to me of that child, preteen, adolescent, then young married woman that I was, who observed the long, slow decline of my mom from happy and vibrant young mother to lonely and sad woman. And then, because I can, because somehow I figured out how to step out of her shadow, I rise each day. I sit in an office chair at work, I read in a wicker patio chair in the evening, I watch TV from my comfy chair and then sleep in a bed with my guy every night.
I just never sit on the couch.