REFLECTIONS ON A VISIT WITH THE CALLA LILIES
DAVID TABATSKY, CONSULTING EDITOR
I’ve been fortunate to work on several books featuring ordinary Americans telling their personal stories of struggle, conflict, and hope. What binds these people together, and what resonates most with readers, are the recurring themes of courage, support, and love. These are the central elements in Calla Lilies and what I have discovered, after extensive phone conversations with Kay and visiting the sisters in Alabama, to be the strongest forces connecting a mother and her daughters.
As Calla Lilies so thoroughly documents, Teresa, Lisa, Tina, and Cynthia grew up in challenging circumstances––to say the least––as victims of a staggering and heartbreaking series of events. All too often, lives such as theirs become just another set of statistics for sociologists to study, to be written off as just more “unfortunate” victims of our society.
But these are real people with genuine disabilities, minimal coping skills, and little to no support. Surviving repeated child abuse, traumatic abandonment, teenaged pregnancy, insufficient education, alcohol, and drug abuse, multiple imprisonments, spousal mistreatment, rape, and chronic unemployment are anything but ordinary. Yet, that is mostly what they know as their deep-seated reality.
It’s a testament to each of them––and, in part, to a few segments of America’s social service system which do work––that they are still alive and have even made it to where they are today.
Teresa, having suffered the consequences of not being able to secure health insurance, has been sick for many years with high blood pressure, alcohol-related illness, and intestinal problems, surviving from one emergency room visit to another. She plans to marry her longtime boyfriend, Sonny, move out of their tiny trailer and into a real house, and take proper care of her health for the first time in her life. Meanwhile, Teresa dreams of planting her garden, having a day free from beer, and providing for her sisters and extended family. They call her the “Mother Hen,” and while she may reluctantly wear that moniker, I can see that nothing would make her happier than providing a security net for her entire family. Will Teresa ever find her long lost son and connect with him, or at the very least, achieve some sort of closure? Will she stop chasing him in yet another bottle of beer?
Lisa has finally gotten a break from the state. She receives a monthly disability stipend, which is barely enough to afford her a one-room apartment in a rundown housing complex full of deadbeats and desperate addicts. She is a proud woman; she wants to be an engaged parent to her two grown children but doesn’t know how; and she’s a loving sister, despite her self-absorbed existence. Years of drugs, both legal and illegal, have dulled her senses. I wonder how long she can keep going without serious medical assistance. Will Lisa stay out of trouble long enough to learn how to manage her pain?
Tina, after her boyfriend recently died, was living in the same housing complex as Lisa, but she was kicked out for reckless behavior. She is also struggling to keep her life together, staying with an old friend in a depressing trailer park and hoping her disability insurance will finally kick in, even though it will keep her mired in a loop of painkillers and further dependency. She can hold down a job, but she doesn’t seem confident enough to go out and do what she needs to do to get one and keep it. The doctor who prescribes her methadone treatment has arranged for her to see a psychiatrist, and perhaps this process will eventually afford her the self-esteem she needs to move forward with her life. Will Tina ever see her lost children? Or, will she continue to self-medicate, not just her knee but also her battered psyche?
Cynthia is living in Montgomery, just two hours away from her three sisters in Tuscaloosa. Still, she is determined to keep her distance from the family in-fighting and negative influences of her former hometown. After suffering possibly the worst childhood of all of the sisters, she is ironically in the best shape of them all right now. But her good fortune is tenuous, at best. She was remarkably lucky last year to avoid imprisonment and be sent to a rehab program, which has seemingly turned around her life. She is sober, attending meetings, volunteering at a local church, and being watched over by a handful of spiritual and pragmatic advisors. Will the Church and her Higher Power sustain Cynthia for the long term?
While each of the sisters realizes that their birth mother and the state shortchanged them, none of them feel like victims, and they spend little time anymore, if any, assigning blame. Well, maybe Lisa, who admits that she is still angry at everybody, to the point of being pitiful, as she describes it, herself. I would add that she has been wickedly hurt, and her anger is well-founded. The problem is, she’s never had any type of therapeutic help, which could relieve her of some of the inner torment she is constantly feeling and guide her onto a more positive track. This would benefit not only Lisa but set a terrific example for her struggling daughters, Ashley and Renee, each saddled by a lack of education and ongoing addiction problems.
Individually and collectively, the four Calla Lilies identify themselves as Kay’s daughters and feel the importance of kin. In some way, beyond being sisters, they are a family of lost children, and Kay, the only positive parental role model they’ve ever had, has been their constant crutch and emotional companion through decades of turmoil. Simply put, they worship her, like little kids who still view their parents as superheroes.
My three-day visit to Alabama was overwhelming. Despite the misery and shortcomings in their surroundings, I came away feeling a strong sense of resolve within each of them–– to prove to themselves, to each other, and their mother, Kay, that they could, indeed, “make it.”