MODEL HOME: A Memoir
Creative non-fiction was my first foray into the writing world. I wanted to capture the feelings and emotions of my tumultuous childhood living with a mentally ill mother and her eventual suicide.
My mother was an interior designer. She knew how to create ambiance. Growing up, our home sparked of custom design, personal touches; it felt loving and solid. Until, one day the flimsy facade was revealed. MODEL HOME is a story of hope and heartache. It’s about the choices we make and the repercussions on others.
Setting the Groundwork
“I’ve written hundreds of pages about and for my mother: essays, short stories, the start of a novel; several versions of this memoir, construction paper cards with a smear of crayons and a dab of glue, journal entries, letters, and blogs.
When I first began, I was seventeen. No, sixteen. Before that, even. I sat at an avocado-colored cabinet in the unfinished basement of our new house on Carman Woods Drive. We had only been in the house about a month. My knees were covered in scrapes and bruises from traipsing in the woods. Mom was unpacking, snapping thorough the tight brown tape containing all her precious sewing equipment. She wiped her brow and looked up, briefly, before hefting out her Bernina sewing machine.
“Hey!” I said. “This would be a perfect desk for me,” I clamored up onto a chair and pulled it closer, my fingers blanching with strain, the chair legs scraping against the concrete floor. “Can I have it? As a desk?” I twisted so I could see Mom better.
She was lost in memory, her mind flying away like a kite on a warm spring day; that’s the way her face looked anyway.
She snapped back from wherever she was and said, “Why do you want that ugly old thing?”
“It’s not that bad,” I insisted.
She made a humpf sound and turned back to the box she was unpacking.
“For me, with memoir, you already have the characters and plot and you can’t change that, but everything else is up for grabs.”
~Shannon Leone Fowler
Years ago, when I was 11, I sketched this farmhouse. Gave it to my Dad for Christmas. Forgot about it. Decades later, renovated this dollhouse for MY 11 year old.
From MODEL HOME:
I cannot go to the basement where my mother’s work space had fallen to shambles. I cannot possibly walk into the playroom where the dollhouse I began constructing the day she went berserk, the day she said that thing about chopping me into bits. I know words have power, how they hook into an individual and wind through generations. That’s what happened with that horrid statement. A dark smear of anger hovered in me gut. I hated my grandmother then. Why would anyone say such a terrible thing to a child? Did her mother say it, too? Maybe, probably. But I liked Grandma Edith. She couldn’t possibly utter something so vile, could she? I decide right then I’ll never say anything like that to any child, ever. I would end the cycle.
My Grandmother as an infant with her mother then again as a 5th grader and finally, senior year.
From MODEL HOME:
My home resembled the unfinished dollhouse, the wood glue growing hard and crusty on the carpeting, the thin, plywood walls splayed outward with nothing to anchor them, and the various ornamentation—doors and window sheeting, trim, and shingles—stripped away.
Top left: My first home in Springfield, MO, c. 1977. Middle left: Home-uncertain. Said of the woman: “This was Mary. Everyone said she was crazy.” Bottom Left: Springfield, MO home under construction. Right: Me with pet dog, Sissy. “The house on the hill” in a St. Louis suburb.
From MODEL HOME:
No one knows my childhood home. It’s situated at the bottom curve of Carman Woods Drive on its own lump of land carved from the lot next door, with its L-shaped driveway and grander foundation. It is not old and stately, with a plaque marking a cornerstone, like the Victorians lining Manchester Road, their residencies long turned restaurants and ice cream parlors, banks, and paint stores. The house was built in 1979 by Kemp, a mass builder of the St. Louis suburbs at the time.
Once, as a child, dad and I rode our bikes to the single lane asphalt drive near the entry of the subdivision, shrouded in a thick sway of trees.
“These were the model homes for the neighborhood,” he explained. “They showed people what the finished home would look like if they chose to build here. You could pick model,” he pointed out the variations—the ranch, the two-story with side-entry garage, the Colonial-style with center front entry and a bevy of windows, the story-and-a-half—they looked different than the finished subdivision—cleaner and bigger; with more detail-and perhaps—love.
Grandma Edith, c. 1929. Original 1st grade essay. Ruler: I had to write my name on everything.Newspaper clipping “A little help from a friend,” Springfield News-Leader.
From MODEL HOME:
For weeks, I barely look at the newspaper clippings (me, aged three on a bike with training wheels, a push from a neighbor girl with the caption: ‘A little help from a friend,’) the lined handwriting paper, the construction paper cards from my childhood. There are cards to my mom—HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY!—and those to dad—SO SORRY, DADDY—(what was I sorry for?), I found stories I penned, and scraps of Smurf gift wrap.
But one stands out, it is written on newsprint paper in careful penmanship.
My name is Leslie. I am seven years old. My favorite food is Shelroni. I like school for two reasons. I like lunch and I like show and tell. I have zero brothers and zero sisters. I have one dog, named Sissy.
The writing means something to me, but I can’t articulate what. I set it aside.
I find a photo of Grandma Edith. Ten years old, same as my daughter. Her expression is part solemn, part mischievous. She sits with hands folded over a book, open and inviting. A splay of freckles glide across her cheeks and nose; her strawberry blonde hair is cut in a pageboy. Though the photo is in sepia, I know her shirt is white and trimmed in red piping. The book is navy blue. Her skin holds the same creamy tone as my own daughters’.
I ask Jim for photographs of his grandparents. He hands over a pile of thick photographs edged in white. I sift through and find images of school buildings, class photos, and decide the theme of the laundry room: education.
The photographs go into frames.
I revisit that essay I penned when I was seven: Shelroni. Sissy. No brothers. No sisters. My mind goes elsewhere, my eyes grow dreamy. I’m part sad, part nostalgic.
Once, I learned Shelroni was an old recipe that carried my mother through when she was a girl, made first by her father and then, a staple she made for her family, when Cathy demanded the children cook instead of her.
Before, when I asked my mother for the recipe, she chuckled. “Really? That recipe?” We were on the phone, and I imagined her inhaling her cigarettes, and grinning.
“Yes, that one.”
“There’s really no recipe. It’s simple.”
“Okay. What is it?”
“A small box of Cremette shells. One can of tomato soup, but don’t add water or milk; a stick of butter, a dash of sugar, salt and pepper.”
All I could think was: a whole stick of butter?!
For dinner that night, I made Shelroni and pigs-in-a-blanket. Broccoli, too. I explain it was one of my favorite meals as a kid. The girls gobbled it up. They asked if my mother made it for me and I nodded, yes, yes, she did. I wiggle my tongue into the shell and taste the buttery sweetness. I let it fill my body, my mind with simple, homespun memories when life felt safe, secure, and uncomplicated.
My mother is represented in that laundry room in so many covert ways. It’s her eye for design and color that infiltrated my ambitions to paint and pry up that floor. It’s her grandmother, Edith, in that frame that could be the mirror image of my youngest daughter, Kelly. It’s my mother’s Shelroni that fed and nourished me in my childhood.
And now, those class images, my handwritten first grade essay about Shelroni hang in that room, a room made for cleansing.
I feel like I finished that room with help from a friend.
Summer, 1989. Police escort summoned so my mother would allow my father, sister, and I into the family home. Her interior design workroom shown on right. Note her father’s stained glass window propped behind. Master bedroom on left. Her custom draperies and Waverly wallpaper and a scowl. These photos taken just weeks following her second psychiatric hospitalization that summer.
From MODEL HOME:
When my mother’s belongings were piled on the front driveway, I fell into a state of quiet hysterics. My breath hitched as my father and his friends shuffled items from the basement, their muscles bulging with the heft of sewing machine cabinets, bolts of fabric, a typewriter. I paced the house and wrung her hands, catching glances of the strangled activity from her bedroom window.
“Memory and perception come together, often, to make imagination. They do not make invention.”
– Patricia Hampl
From MODEL HOME:
On Valentine’s Day, my mother tried teaching me how to arrange fresh flowers. Isnipped the ends from the stems and made sure they were of various lengths, at my mother’s request. I followed my mother’s instructions as to where to place the ‘show’ flower, which she called the ‘thriller,’ next came the ‘filler,’ finally the ‘spiller.’ My made the entire arrangement then told me how gifted she was at the art of flower arranging, “I almost had my own flower shop, but you were too young to remember.” I did not think flower arranging was rocket science. When my mother said, “Don’t you love it? See what I taught you,” I shrugged. My mother was deflecting; her perception nothing more than an optical illusion, the flowers masking her true feelings and aptitudes. They would wither and die, the petals fading, then crumbling, the water transforming into a rotten shade of tea.
Senior Portraits. My Grandmother, Mother, and me.
From MODEL HOME:
When high school graduation was upon her, my father said, “You should consider inviting your mother.”
I considered the grim reality of having my mother’s presence at the ceremony, “No,” I shook my head.
“You might change your mind, in a year or two, and by then, it’ll be too late,” my dad said.
I only had so many tickets. Could I spare one for her mother?
I do not notice my mother until after the ceremony, milling in the lobby. That’s when she stopped, tugged at my gown, “Y’all look alike in those get-ups, it’s hard to tell who’s who,” my mother paused, stroked my cheek. “Of course, you’re prettier than most, like me.”
A cold swell moved from my stomach to my chest, thundering and resting in my head. I was desperate to find a familiar face—Dad or Diane—but could not locate anyone in the sea of mortar boards. “You’re not the valedictorian, I see.”
“So much for medical school.
“It’s your story, it’s your life, you have the right to tell that, but you can’t just tell your story alone because everyone’s stories are connected.”
~Sarah Perry, author of MELMOUTH, among others
From the time I was about 10, architecture and design mesmerized me. I was constantly drawing floor plans of homes–often in class–and would escape into my own little subdivision of perfect symmetry. These were all free-handed on loose leaf notebook paper with a #2 pencil.
From MODEL HOME:
I would sketch the plans for a new subdivision, one with intact families and not a single ounce of dysfunction. I was the architect, anything could happen. First, I drew intersecting streets, a giant U shape, islands and cul-de-sacs, and a winding lane as the core artery. Next, I added rectangular-shaped lots, with most opening to common ground, a feature I loved about her own house. I sat back and assessed her work. All I had drawn, with the exception of the lots, were curvilinear, rounded. This, I thought, was my signature shape. There were no sharp, angled edges, just smooth gentleness flowing from one form to another, like beads on a necklace. I gave the subdivision a name, Oakwood Farms, and imagined a placid, bucolic slightly-rural setting filled with dogwoods and redbuds, a lush field, bubbling creeks, and arched bridges, much like the landscape portraits my mother hung on the walls at display homes. Perhaps Oakwood Farms was an old homestead with a rich history of its own, vestiges of life buried in the soil children would relish in finding: an old baby spoon, a photo with scalloped edges, the rusted scoop of a shovel. Again, roundedness.