DISCLAIMER – For anyone who finds some of my commentary to be cruel, please keep in mind a few things. One – I have immense empathy for the mentally ill. I worked with troubled kids for twelve long, yet somehow fleeting, years. Many of the kids were mentally ill, and I simply adored them and also felt for their plight. Two – The people featured in this story are highly unlikely to ever see it. Beyond the fact that they don’t go scooting around the Internet with the greatest of ease, and the fact that I don’t publicly advertise this blog, I’ve also changed the names to protect everyone involved. Three – I found the escapade that I’m about to share to be a rather horrible experience. For the longest time, I looked back on it and shuddered. But when I would relay the events to others, I inadvertently made this whole thing funny through wry humor. Call it a coping skill, if you will. And I found a way to find the light side of the whole thing by poking fun at it. Even so, it took me another decade to get to the point of being able to write this all down. But hey, if you’re easily offended, just stop reading now.
PART I – Departure
If you are ever in a position where you have the opportunity to travel with your significant other’s family, don’t be too hasty in agreeing. Even if said family member offers to pay all expenses for everyone, it might not be worth it. Granted, everyone’s family is different, so take the tale that ensues for what it’s worth.
When my boyfriend (now ex-boyfriend – let’s call him Leroy) learned that his father, “Roger,” and stepmother, “Elizabeth,” were going to renew their vows in celebration of their wedding anniversary, and that they wanted him and me to be in attendance, of course we said yes. The ceremony was to be held in Great Falls, Montana. From Colorado Springs, it was a doable drive over the course of a couple of days, so no problem. Well, no problem until Leroy’s biological Mom, “Annette,” found out we were going. She asked to come with because her sister, “Joanne,” also lived in Great Falls, and she hadn’t seen her in ages. Annette said she would pay for everything – gas, food, hotel rooms – in exchange for a ride. Well, it’s not like we could really have said, “No.” I mean, how does one tell their mother that she can’t come with? So, we agreed. I don’t know if Leroy foresaw what was in store. Knowing Annette, I had some misgivings, but even I couldn’t have predicted the full horror show to which I was about to be exposed.
On the fateful day that marked the beginning of the journey, we headed over to Annette’s house to pick her up. She was all ready to go, which seemed like a good sign. We loaded her bags into the trunk, and then I offered to let her sit in the front seat. She declined and said she preferred the back. OK, sounds good. I told her that if she got at all uncomfortable, I’d trade with her, but she insisted she would be just fine. So, off we went.
Within moments, the first issue arose. Now, I should mention that we had already provided an itinerary to Annette. The days were mapped out and we had a specific time table of when we’d arrive back in Colorado Springs. I would have one day after arriving in which to recover before going back to work, and Annette would actually have 2 full days. Even so, she started fretting that maybe she needed to ask for more time off of work.
I gently told Annette that we’d be back in plenty of time, but if she felt she should ask for more time off, she certainly could. She didn’t. Yet, about 20 minutes later, she was fretting about it again. I pointed out that I had to be at work even before she did, so we would surely be fine. But, if she was worried, she should go ahead and call her employer and ask for more time off. She didn’t. And so began a pattern of fretting that would continue throughout the trip. I stopped even answering. The only reason I had tried to gently reassure her in the first place was that I knew Leroy could get impatient with her. So, I was trying to save her from that.
Shortly after the initial fretting over whether she needed more time off of work, Annette engaged in a behavior that may sound minor…but imagine this going on for hours and hours…and hours… She would suck on her teeth and then hum tunelessly. This was definitely working my nerves a bit, but I said nothing. I tried to tune her out, to no avail. I tried to engage everyone in conversation to mitigate the sucking and humming. No good. Annette was reading a book, and Leroy wanted to concentrate on the road. I tried to turn up the radio. Oh…no…Leroy didn’t like the radio loud while driving, and he didn’t want to listen to music. Only talk radio. I wanted to plug in headphones, but Leroy had already made it clear that he considered that rude. Well, if I could have gotten people conversing, I’d have tended to agree. But since no one was interested in interacting, I failed to see the issue. Honestly, who was being negatively affected if I saved my sanity with headphones? No one, that’s who. But Leroy was, frankly, a bit of a selfish jackass, so there you go. (Did I mention he’s an EX boyfriend? So many reasons, and some were showcased on this vacation. More on that later…)
So, we’ve got teeth sucking, humming, and fretting about getting back to town in time to get back to work, but zero effort to actually get more time off, despite endless fretting about it. But wait…there’s more. It turns out Annette is super worried about some masher breaking into her hotel room in the middle of the night. (For the record, Annette lives by herself in a somewhat secluded house at the end of a long driveway. She works evenings and comes home in the dark. No apparent concerns there, but now it’s entirely plausible that some random masher is going to force his way into her hotel room.) Well, Leroy and I both tried to reassure her that she had nothing to worry about. We’d get adjoining rooms in a decent hotel. We’d be right next door in case of emergency, but truly, she’d be secure. Nope…this new concern now became part of the pattern.
Leroy was becoming frustrated. I was losing my mind. But I was also trying to keep things calm so I wouldn’t have to deal with an annoyed Leroy, because he really was just so not awesome when he was annoyed or angry. No one needs that in their life.
We made a couple of stops for meals along the way, and that was a little better. At least if she was eating, Annette didn’t have the opportunity to suck her teeth and hum. But then, it was back in the car for another test of how long Dawn can maintain her Zen under some truly trying conditions. (I’m proud to say, I managed fairly well.) Thankfully, the day’s driving finally concluded, and we got our first hotel rooms. Only a little (a lot) more fretting about a masher and we’d be able to put a hotel room wall between us and Annette. Thank goodness.
Well, OK, hold on…not so fast. Apparently, the last time Annette traveled, the advent of the hotel room access card hadn’t quite made the scene yet. She had expected an actual key. She regarded this thing that looked like a credit card with the highest degree of suspicion. So, Leroy actually managed to be patient and kind as he demonstrated how you insert the card in the slot, wait for the little light to turn green, and then calmly and, like a non-crazy person, open the door. Easy, right? No, not so much.
Now it was Annette’s turn, and I hope my description, in the absence of a physical demonstration, is sufficient to impart how she would proceed to enter every single hotel room for the remainder of the trip. She started by setting her bag at her feet so that her hands were free, and then positioning herself sideways to the door, with one shoulder poised to deliver a blow worthy of a football player breaking through a defensive line. With one hand on the door handle, she bent her knees slightly, and proceeded to slightly weave in preparation of making her way through the door. With her other hand, she inserted the card into the slot, the light went green and, ZIP! BLAM! She ripped the card from the slot and slammed the door open, with her shoulder providing extra force. Police departments could forego their battering rams and just bring her along the next time they need to force their way through a door. I’m pretty sure she left a little plaster dust on the floor, because the walls definitely shook.
I probably blinked in shock for a moment, then said, “Um, Annette, the door will actually give you plenty of time to enter. It’s OK. And even if for some reason it relocked before you got through it, you can use the card again. It’s OK.” Head nodding, mumbling, a bit more humming. Holy hell…
Next, we showed Annette how there were doors connecting the two rooms. We promised to leave ours unlocked so she could get to us, should the dreaded masher make an appearance. I could tell she wasn’t satisfied, but we had done what we could. We bid her good night and arranged for when we’d meet in the morning. We settled into our own room, and I collapsed into the bed. I don’t know how late Leroy stayed up in our room watching television, but I went straight to sleep. Obviously, I was going to need my strength.
Really, the next day was an exact repeat of the day before, with the exception that Leroy was growing ever more impatient and annoyed, and I was having to intervene more to keep him from being just plain awful to his dear, sweet (but clearly not mentally well) mother. And since my nerves were pretty raw from the whole experience, I was having to dig deep to stay calm, and smile, and reassure Annette…every fifteen to twenty minutes. No joke.
And then there was another hotel, and Annette repeated her absolutely ludicrous entry into her room – ZIP! BLAM! I didn’t even try to address it this time. I just quietly escaped to the next room, got ready for bed, and laid there, looking at the ceiling and wondering whom I had upset in a previous life. Because, surely I was paying for something here.
PART II – Arrival and Meeting More Family
So, after two days on the road with Leroy and Annette, my nerves were a bit raw. Keep in mind, this was two whole days, punctuated by fretting over whether we’d return in time for Annette to work her shift, teeth-sucking, tuneless humming, and an utterly insane manner of entering hotel rooms. And let’s not forget the fear of some masher accosting her in her room at night. But it was about to end…at least for the moment. By mid-morning of the third day, we had arrived in Great Falls, Montana. The plan was to take Annette to the agency where she had rented a car, and then leave her, unchaperoned, to wreak havoc in whatever manner she wanted. I mean…to visit her sister, Joanne. We, on the other hand, would be joining up with the other side of the family – Leroy’s biological father, “Roger”, his stepmom, “Elizabeth,” and their assorted relatives.
We arrived at the rental car agency and Annette went about getting her car. After she got the keys, she proceeded to produce a veritable wad of cash from her purse, waving it about conspicuously and trying to give us some for whatever spending needs we might incur. Well, good heavens…this is the same lady who’s worried about a masher coming into her hotel room at night, and now she’s flashing a handful of cash? We quickly interceded, getting her to return the money to her purse and gently explaining that it wasn’t safe to go waving cash around like that. And by the way, why on earth was she carrying all that cash? Oh…well, along with those entry cards for hotel rooms, she doesn’t really trust any sort of card…like a credit or debit card. Great.
We declined the offer of cash, wished her well, implored her to be careful, and let her know we’d be catching up with her in a couple of days at her sister’s house. We would then begin our journey home. (Side note – return journey was slated to take us through Yellowstone National Park. How lovely, right? How grand! What could go wrong? What, indeed. I’ll just leave that tidbit there for now. Don’t worry – we’ll circle back to it.)
As Annette drove out of the rental car lot, tires screeching as she rounded the corner (I kid you not), Leroy and I looked at each other in horror.
“Um…I’m kind of thinking setting her loose unattended wasn’t a cool thing to do,” I mused.
“I’m feeling pretty guilty and irresponsible right about now,” Leroy concurred. Oh well…what was done was done, right? I mean, we couldn’t exactly engage in a high speed pursuit and wrest the car keys from her stubborn fingers. We shrugged, went back to our own car, and went in search of the house where everyone was supposed to meet up.
Now, I’m just going to interject something here. Roger and Elizabeth (obviously not their real names,) were absolutely the most wonderful people ever. I’d been to their house for holidays on several occasions, and they were the warmest, most welcoming folks you’d ever want to meet. Their house boasted 2, enormous sofas and numerous other chairs in the living room. None of the furniture matched. It was old and worn. But it was there to ensure everybody who might possibly stop by would have a comfortable place to sit, and in that regard, it did its job admirably. You could count on a home-cooked meal, good conversation, maybe a game of Yahtzee, and tons of laughter when you were around them. Whether you were one of Elizabeth’s three biological sons, or her adopted daughter, or her stepson, you were all equally loved. And that was extended to whatever spouse or boyfriend/girlfriend might be around. When you were there, you were family, pure and simple. I have NOTHING but positive things to say about those two, and warm memories. I mention this for two reasons. First, I just recently learned that Roger and Elizabeth (and Leroy too, actually), are all now deceased. The deaths were not related. I actually don’t know what happened to Leroy. His parents were older and had some health issues. I know Elizabeth passed after a short illness, and Roger followed her soon after. In any case, I was sad to hear about his parents. (Annette is still going strong, last I knew.) Secondly, as I start to describe other aspects and members of this side of the family, please keep my high regards for Leroy’s parents in mind.
We arrived at the house where we were, in essence, attending a family reunion that had been arranged to coincide with Leroy’s parents renewing their wedding vows. The house was a decent sized, 2 story, older home on the corner. It was sort of cute, actually. An old foursquare that was heavy on charm, with lots of wood trim and whatnot. So far so good, right? We were met before we even got inside by Leroy’s sister, Melanie. She’s another gem, by the way. Super smart, accomplished, and loved her brother. She acted as hostess, though it wasn’t her home. She swept us inside and started introducing us around. Leroy knew some, but not all, of the people who had arrived. I knew no one outside Roger, Elizabeth, Melanie, and Leroy’s three brothers.
The owner of the house was, I believe, one of Elizabeth’s cousins. I’m pretty sure that’s right. Or maybe he was her brother. There was a lot to take in… I can’t for the life of me remember his name, but he will remain indelibly etched in my memory as “Cousin Eddy.” If you recognize the reference, you’ll understand why as I go on.
As we entered the home, we were ushered into a sort of sitting room or parlor, and it had recently undergone a facelift. The walls had been painted scarlet red, but the white trim hadn’t been attacked yet. The paint job was SO recent, the paint can still sat on a sheet of newspaper, a dried and crusty paintbrush sitting on top of the can. The edges hadn’t quite finished being cut in, either. Apparently, the go to move for a massive family reunion at Cousin Eddy’s house was to renovate, but they seemed to have run out of time to completely finish before the relatives started to arrive. Too bad they didn’t opt to clean things instead. But I digress. Black, leather furniture had been added to this room as well. Melanie whispered that she was calling the room, the “Bordello of Blood which gave us the giggles.
We were then maneuvered into the kitchen, and we were offered margaritas. The blender for these proffered drinks was scary, to say the least. The pitcher seemed OK, luckily, but the base was crusted with old food particles and dried…well…actually I don’t know what all was dried onto it. The buttons were equally grimy, except on the top surface. It appeared that the blender was actually getting quite the workout, judging by the smooth, shiny tops of a couple of the buttons. The blender was pretty representative of the kitchen as a whole – there was lots of grime, lots of random items on the counters, etc. The floor hadn’t seen a mop in so long, it was hard to say what color the linoleum actually might be. I fervently hoped there was enough alcohol in the margaritas to kill any possible germs, and gratefully accepted one. I don’t really drink as a rule, but right about then, alcohol was extraordinarily welcome.
From there, we went out front and found Cousin Eddy, who was showing off his fancy grill. I’m honestly not sure what was special about it, but he was very proud. I wouldn’t know one grill from the next, though, so I took his word for it. He was asking people how they wanted their steaks done. Melanie piped up and said, “Rare – bloody…I want to be picking hair off it!” I looked at her, astounded. Until recently, she had been a vegetarian. And now she wanted a RARE steak? She gave us a meaningful look, nodding emphatically. I can take a hint.
“Yes, rare for me,” I said.
“I’m good with rare,” said Leroy.
“Good!” said Cousin Eddy, “Because we don’t believe in cooking anything more than medium rare around here.”
That was followed by him gesturing to his front yard, which was a fairly nice size. Not huge enough to require tons of work (despite the overwhelming evidence that it hadn’t seen the likes of a lawnmower in quite some time), but enough to have room for a small gathering. “I think I’m going to just CE-ment over this whole yard so I don’t have to mow it anymore,” he said.
“Oh, yeah! And then you could paint it green!” said Melanie. Bless her – she was a bright point in that whole scene. But I also had to choke back a laugh, because I generally find irreverent things to be highly amusing. Time to retreat before I chortled at the wrong thing.
Leroy, Melanie, and I wandered around to the back yard, where a lot of the younger children were playing, I was immediately alarmed. The back yard was strewn with various bits of rusty junk, including derelict vehicles. At the center was a large trampoline, which was the main draw for the kids. But this trampoline was truly scary. The springs were rusted, it tilted slightly on the uneven ground, and part of its bounce surface had torn free at the edges. There certainly wasn’t a net around it. BUT, there were parents in attendance, and they seemed unconcerned. Right then I was truly glad I had no children who would want to join in on this precarious bounce fest. I was also pretty sure I was up to date on my tetanus shot, but one can’t be too careful, and this back yard was a trip to the emergency room, just waiting to happen. We all opted to leave before we could be called on as witnesses to some disaster.
We meandered back inside and somehow found ourselves back in the kitchen. This seemed to be a good opportunity to get myself a refill on the margarita.
Sometime later, I was handed a paper plate with a small, seared bit of meat on it. I helped myself to a couple of side dishes from the many offerings in the dingy kitchen and grabbed some plastic ware, before finding a seat in the Bordello of Blood room. To my relief, there was a dog in the household, and as is often the case for me, the sweet dog decided I was his new friend and stuck by my side. Not only was I thankful for a friendly face and someone with whom I was comfortable talking, but he was going to prove to be invaluable in helping with the steak. Because let me tell you, that was the most completely, thoroughly done steak I’d ever encountered in my life. Thank goodness I hadn’t asked for it to be medium rare or, shudder, medium! It might have resembled a charcoal briquette more closely than it already did!
My first plastic fork broke immediately upon trying to pierce the petrified bit of meat. I went to the kitchen for a second, which also thoroughly failed. At that point, I helped myself to a handful of forks, hoping it would be enough to get through the meal and also save me returning to the kitchen every few moments. With several broken forks added to the pile of fork corpses, I finally succeeded in cutting a small chunk off of the steak, and popped it in my mouth. I proceeded to chew…and chew…and chew some more. After a bit, it was clear that I was never going to actually make progress on this hunk of meat, so I looked around, trying to figure my best move. No one was paying any attention to me…no one but the dog. I quietly and subtly removed the bit of shoe leather from my mouth and gave it to the pooch, who happily helped me dispose of the evidence. I know – you shouldn’t feed someone else’s dog. But these were desperate times, and I’m sure it was better than the grocery kibble he normally ate, right? Plus, now that I’d given him that little morsel, his allegiance to me was thoroughly cemented for the duration of the evening.
After that, I managed to carve a few slivers off the steak that I could simply swallow without fear of needing the Heimlich maneuver, since trying to break down this meat by chewing had so far proven futile. It’s possible the dog got a little more as well. In any case, between the two of us, we made enough of the steak disappear to be polite.
Now, keep in mind, this was the end of the third day of this trip, the previous two of which had been spent traveling, while this one had been spent visiting people. Leroy and I had yet to get to our hotel room and relax. I was tired. He was tired. We were largely surrounded by people we did not know. And it’s worth noting that I’m very much an introvert, so I was really past the point of having a good time by now. The margaritas did help, I admit. And I never got typhus or anything else, so I guess the appearance of the kitchen and the blender were worse than the reality. Or maybe I just have a strong constitution. Anyway, I digress. My consternation must have been clear. I’m told I should never play poker – my feelings are apparently quite evident on my face. A coworker once told me I have a wonderful, “Are you freaking stupid?” look. I also apparently sport, “Oh my god, please get me out of here” fairly well. One of the many random people who was there looked over, laughed, and said, “Oh, you must be wondering what is up with all these crazy people!” Well, something like that. I smiled awkwardly, pet the dog, and began desperately looking around for Leroy, who had casually abandoned me some time ago. I finally found him.
“Hey, we really need to get to our hotel room, and I’m exhausted. Can we go?” I was practically begging. But for once in his self-centered life, he took pity on me. Well, no…he didn’t. He was as anxious to go decompress as I was. I had just provided a good excuse was all. He told people I was tired and so we were going to depart and, thankfully, we made our escape.
The Motel 8 room wasn’t exactly a five-star accommodation, but right about then, it was the most luxurious thing ever. For one thing, it was quiet and free from other people. Good enough! Oh, and it was clean. It was a good start.
The next day involved some socializing and basically going over what would be involved with Roger and Elizabeth renewing their vows the following day. It started with breakfast at a rather well known buffet. For some reason, wherever I’ve been in Montana, people seem to just love to take their guests to that particular establishment. I fail to find the appeal. Seeing children fishing food out of the troughs of food with their hands, and other stellar moments along those lines, have kind of caused buffets to lose their appeal, but who was I to complain. It could be worse, after all. And it was one of the few places that had seating options suited for large groups, so that was a definite draw.
The day proceeded uneventfully from there. Not much to mention, honestly. But we did return to the buffet for dinner later that night. I’m serious – they love that buffet chain there.
The following day was the big event. Again, not too much worth mentioning. There was a very nice little ceremony, and I will say that the love and devotion that Leroy’s parents showed for each other was quite touching. Again, these were absolutely wonderful people. I felt that the trials and tribulations of this trip were all worth it in the interest of supporting them. They truly did deserve it. Of course…there was still the return trip to endure. But more on that later.
We spent the remainder of the day with Leroy’s father and stepmother and various relatives, back at Cousin Eddy’s house It was casual and not terrible, honestly. Even for an introvert like me, it was OK. A bit too peopley, but OK. The Bordello of Blood was, perhaps, not the most well thought out design choice, and the kitchen was grimy in the extreme (I never checked out a bathroom – After the kitchen, I was entirely too terrified to see what a bathroom in that house would look like!), but on a grand scale, these were pretty decent, honest people. I mean, Cousin Eddy could thoroughly massacre a steak, but we all have our flaws. And not a one of them sat around sucking their teeth or humming tunelessly, so there’s that. And, they had a dog. I’d probably miss the dog when we left… Oh, and we had to reconvene for one more meal at that buffet. That, I would NOT miss.
Another night at the Motel 8, and then it was time to retrieve Annette. Now, before I get too far here, Annette HAD mentioned something about having spoken with her sister’s daughter, who had said Joanne was doing things like putting tape on her hands and face. Surely something was lost in translation there. It couldn’t be actual tape, right? That’s honestly what I thought. I had more or less put that out of my mind, or at least categorized it as, “Can’t possibly be right.”
We arrived at Joanne’s house. The Addams family probably would have loved this place. It was an old Victorian, awesome in its own way, but which had definitely seen better days. The yard was large and sported several trees and bushes that looked as if they’d love to be put out of their misery. The porch was a large, wraparound affair with peeling paint on the columns, but it had a ton of potential. Waiting on the porch like a sad little welcome committee were several teenage boys. They were pallid and all had an air of desperation about them. I was starting to get a very bad feeling. They were apparently expecting us. They greeted us unenthusiastically, then led the way into the house. Later, I would learn that these were cousins of some sort or other. There would be a lot of cousins before we were through.
Upon entering the house, we found ourselves in a gloomy living room with practically no light. The first thing I noticed was the wadded up, black trash bags and crumpled tin foil haphazardly attached to all the windows. It wasn’t a tidy covering to keep out light…or alien brain scans. It was more like a failed attempt at modern art, but I suspected the true purpose was closer to my theory on blocking those nasty, alien brain scans. There was no rhyme or reason to it, but it definitely did reduce the glare of the outside world. That’s for sure. And now my spidey senses were freaking out a little. This simply could not be good.
Just then, out of the gloom, emerged a small and oddly-shaped woman. She couldn’t have been over five feet tall, but she had a lumpy body covered with sweatpants and a sweatshirt, which made her head seem small in proportion. On her feet were a pair (yes, a pair) of those walking casts…but there was no apparent injury involved. Maybe they had been chosen for their comfort…or for those nice, wide Velcro straps which would make putting them on and taking them off a breeze. I don’t know. She had on a pair of oversized glasses straight from the 80s, and as she drew closer, I saw what appeared to be something white in the shape of an Abe Lincoln beard on her face. What the…??? Was it cold cream maybe? She stuck her hand out to shake mine, and I saw that she had scotch tape wrapped all around her fingers in multiple layers. And then my gaze returned to her face and I realized that what I had originally mistaken for cold cream was actually layers and layers of pieces of that same scotch tape. At this point, my self-preservation alarms were starting to really go off. Was this person even safe? Shouldn’t there be a thick layer of plexi between her and me? Because truly, this wasn’t right. Yes, this was Joanne, and the reports of the tape, as it turned out, were NOT highly exaggerated.
Joanne told us to sit, and I started gingerly lowering myself onto the edge of a seat on one of the sofas. My body didn’t want me to get too comfortable. I had to stay perched on the edge and ready to run at a moment’s notice. Just as I had lowered myself past the point of no return, Joanne said, “Oh, be careful – that sofa’s broken. Glorious. I felt the whole thing shift unnervingly as I finished my descent. Well, too late now. As Joanne settled into an overstuffed recliner, I got a better look at what she was wearing, and I realized the source of the lumpiness. Poking out from the cuffs of her sweatshirt and the open toes of the walking cast were the edges of toilet paper. The woman had stuffed her clothing with toilet paper. I can’t even begin to imagine the thought process that led to this, much less why she was covering her face and hands with scotch tape, a dispenser of which was on a tray table in front of her. Periodically, she would tear off a fresh piece of tape and stick it on herself, or tear a length of toilet paper from the roll situated on that same tray table, and stuff it into her clothing as she rambled about…OK, honestly, I was so distracted by the toilet paper and the tape that I have zero idea what she was talking about.
Now, let me stress again, that I have immense empathy for the mentally ill, and this lady clearly qualified as such. On the one hand, I had intellectually sized her up as not being a danger to herself or others (probably…at least, not quite yet), but my lizard brain, the part responsible for fight or flight (and which normally urged me to fight), was firmly advocating for flight right at that moment. Just as I was processing how horribly wrong this whole scene was, Annette made her appearance, and that did NOT help with the overall feeling in the room. Why? Because she was giggling and laughing like a mad woman. It was a laughter tinged with a bit of hysteria. She greeted us enthusiastically, and then went on to say that she had just been laughing for the past 2 days. Um, good? I mean, she certainly seemed to be pretty elated, but I also wondered if she had totally cracked at this point.
About this time, a middle-aged gentleman entered the room, and he seemed to be the picture of stable and normal. Oh, thank goodness. Oh wait…we have an update. Annette whispered far too loudly that this was Gary, and he’s a paranoid schizophrenic. Oh dear. But he SEEMED sane, and I was pretty willing to accept that right about then. He suggested we all move outside into the back yard. Well, certainly having things in the light of day seemed a little less threatening, so I was all for it. We emerged into sunlight, which I was afraid might sear Joanne’s skin after her time living in the gloom, but there was just a faint sizzle and a hint of smoke, and then all was well. (OK, that small bit was, in fact, hyperbole. But I swear that I am not exaggerating in any way on any other element of this story. It is absolutely, frighteningly accurate.)
I’m not even sure how or why, but random people kept sort of showing up in the back yard, and each was greeted enthusiastically. It was becoming quite a crowd. I spotted the unhappy looking teenage boys hovering at the edge, looking like they wanted to be anywhere else…anywhere at all. Most of the throng seemed well-adjusted enough. They ignored the tape on Joann’s face and the toilet paper stuffing, and acted like this was just another day. Well, I could live with that. And then a guy who might very well have been Charles Manson made his appearance, and I was on high alert. Should we be calling the authorities? Where had this guy escaped from? But he was immediately greeted with, “Hi Randy!” Oh, good…he’s related to them. At this point, the various cousins in the horde ranged from seemingly sane to clearly not well. Some had the same helter-skelter look that Randy had, and others seemed somewhat lost and confused, and some were overly cheerful, but most definitely seemed a half-bubble off. You could almost feel the air crackling with danger, and the whole thing felt incredibly surreal.
Meanwhile, Annette was continuing to giggle and shriek hysterically. Between giggles, she was introducing people and pointing out who all was a paranoid schizophrenic. She said, in a matter of fact tone, “it runs in the family, you know.” My filter had been pretty abused over the past few days, and without missing a beat I turned to Leroy and said, “Well, this certainly doesn’t bode well for you at all.” He didn’t have a response.
Frankly, I had a number of issues with him, and seeing all this was just solidifying what I already knew – the relationship was doomed. I just really had to get away from all of that. It was genuinely the beginning of the end. But that’s a different story.
Meanwhile, I was anxious to just get away. I maintained a polite and pleasant veneer, but I was so overly done with this whole thing. It was time to go. Could we just go? Please…I want to go. This was one time when Leroy’s impatience was a great benefit. He was anxious to get going too, although for separate reasons. Hey, whatever it took. He announced that we needed to hit the road, and we made our goodbyes. Luckily, Annette had already returned the rental car the day before, so that was one less thing to worry about. We loaded her luggage into the trunk and got her situated in the back seat, where she continued to cackle. Meanwhile, trying as hard as I could to look casual, when in actuality I was almost panicky with the need to flee, I blurted out that it was nice meeting everybody and shut myself into the passenger seat. Leroy slid behind the wheel, and it’s somewhat possible I subconsciously hit the “lock” button for the doors. I can’t say for sure. As we pulled away from that whole unsettling scene, Annette asked me, “So, what did you think of everyone?”
Unable to come up with a more diplomatic reply, I simply said, “I’m in a stunned state of speechlessness.” This set off a whole new round of cackling as she repeated, “Stunned state of speechlessness!” several times.
Oh, holy hell. To whomever I wronged off in a previous life, I am SO sorry…please make this stop.
PART III – Yellowstone Meltdown
It was time to start our journey back to Colorado. We had planned this out quite a bit in advance, and had decided to go through Yellowstone National Park on the way home. I feel that it’s pertinent to mention that our entire itinerary had been provided to Annette well in advance of this journey. Starting at the point where we were picking Annette up from her sister’s house, the plan went something like this:
Day 1 – Pick up Annette from Joanne’s house (Great Falls, Montana) and head south; find a hotel just outside Yellowstone, in Livingston, Montana, to spend the night.
Day 2 – Casually make our way through Yellowstone, taking in as much as possible throughout the day; find a hotel outside the park to spend the night.
Day 3 – Finish the journey home
Now, coincidentally, a few years earlier, I had sold a horse to someone who lived in Livingston, Montana. I had convinced that person to sell him back to me, and we were planning to come get him in a couple of weeks. We had told Annette that we wanted to go find where he was (we had the address) and check on him, as well as get a feel for the area so we would be familiar when we came back to get him. We’re talking a fairly brief fieldtrip, essentially, but you’d have thought it was a major upset to the schedule. You’ll see…
Other than Annette’s maniacal laughter, which did sort of die down as we made distance between ourselves and her sister’s home, the trip south was relatively smooth. We did have the same theme as on the way up, with all the fretting, sucking on her teeth, and humming, but I had almost accepted this as normal by this time. We did remind her of what the plan was from here, including checking on the horse. We also mentioned that a big reason for finding a hotel in Livingston was to avoid the costs of hotels inside the park. There should have been no surprises.
We found a Best Western that was offering rooms at, what we thought, was a fairly reasonable rate. This was actually off season, just getting into autumn, so it was a good time to get a deal. Annette, the same lady who had wanted to pay for everything and who had flashed around a handful of cash, suddenly balked at the price. We pointed out that this was actually a good price for the rooms, but we could look for something a little cheaper if she wanted. Well, she didn’t want anything as gauche as a little motel. She preferred getting a brand name room. If that’s what she wanted, this was what it would cost. She suggested going into the park to find a room. We firmly pointed out that anything inside Yellowstone would surely be more expensive. Then we said we’d pay for our own room. It wasn’t a problem. No, she had said she’d pay for our hotels and meals on the journey, and by golly, she was going to. And yet, no decision was getting made. We seemed to be at an impasse. Best Western was too expensive, anything else was not nice enough, and she wasn’t going to let us pay. The conversation was progressing in a circle, if you could call it “progressing.” Finally, she acquiesced and we got rooms at the Best Western. I was ready to punch myself in the face.
Following the customary manner of entering her hotel room as if conducting a prostitution bust (see Part I if you’ve forgotten how Annette was handling the task of getting through a hotel room door using a key card), we made sure she was all settled. It was actually fairly early, so we told her we were going to go find the horse real quick, and then we’d come back and go to dinner.
You’d have thought this was the first time we had mentioned going to find the horse. “What? How will you find him? If you don’t find him, will we have to stay another day? Maybe I should get more time off of work!” Oh, holy…
“Annette, we know where the horse is and how to get there, so there shouldn’t be a problem. Even if we can’t find him, our schedule will still stay in place. We’ll be going into Yellowstone tomorrow morning, regardless. We’ll be getting back 2 full days before you need to go to work, but if you are really worried, for the love of all things holy, just call them already and ask for extra time!” It’s entirely possible that I had lost patience with her. I was trying to be calm and polite, but my frustration was probably starting to show a little. Well, this set off some nodding, humming, and mumbling, but we made our escape while she was still distracted.
As expected, we quickly found the address where my horse was, and spotted him in the field. I called to him and he came over, and I let him know I’d be coming back for him in a couple of weeks. He was not looking to great, so I was really glad I had decided to buy him back. I might tell that whole story another time. But for now, suffice to say our little mission was successful, and we returned to the hotel.
Annette seemed genuinely surprised to see us. I really think she thought we’d be gone for hours, looking for the horse. But no, it was still early. We asked if she was ready to go get something to eat, and she seemed relieved to find that her fretting, at least on this particular subject, had been for naught. We enjoyed a fantastic meal, and she had almost returned to her happy-go-lucky, slightly batty self. I was considering it a win. But you know that expression about the calm before the storm? Yeah…that.
The next morning we were checking out of the hotel and, as might be expected for an establishment this close to Yellowstone, they had a lot of pamphlets, etc. for the park. They also offered a guide book for the low, low price of just $10. Annette wanted one, so she bought it. If only we had realized the hell that this would unleash.
As we headed for the park, Annette was in the back seat, going through her guide book and digesting the information therein. At one point, she asked what we wanted to see most in the way of wildlife. I thought the bighorns would be pretty awesome, and of course, bison. I politely asked her what she was hoping to see. “Bears!” she said, full of excitement. OK, cool. I wouldn’t mind seeing some bears…from a distance.
We did, indeed, see some bighorn sheep on the way in. That seemed like a promising start. And before long, we were at the first attraction – Mammoth Springs. Now, if you’ve been to Yellowstone, you already know this. But for those who’ve never been, to see most attractions, you park your car and then walk along a path to whatever it is you’re seeing. Some of the attractions are fairly close to the road, and others require a bit of a hike.
So, we parked the vehicle and got out and started heading down the trail that led to the spring and it’s huge mound of mineral deposits that had given it its name. But within a few strides, we realized Annette was lingering at the car.
“Um, Mom?” said Leroy. “Are you coming?”
“Oh, no, I’ll just stay here. You guys go.” And she actually got back in the car. OK then…
As we resumed our walk down the path, I asked Leroy, “Does she realize she has to walk to see things?”
“I don’t really know,” said Leroy, “but she’s the one with the guide book, so I would think so.”
We took in the sites, took some pictures, and then went back to the car. As we got in, Leroy said, “Mom, you do know you have to do some walking to see things, right?”
“Oh, oh yeah. I’ll walk to the next one.”
It’s worth mentioning that she had been inordinately excited about seeing Yellowstone ever since it was first mentioned. So, OK…she was just off a little at first, but we’d be fine for the next sight, right?
The next attraction on the way was the Paint Pots. I had been looking forward to this one. We parked again and Annette stoically accompanied us as we started making our way across a wooden bridge. As a side note, at that time, the trees in Yellowstone were largely just little saplings. A fire some years earlier had decimated many of the larger trees. This gave the landscape a bit of a barren appearance. I wonder how much it’s grown in since our trip through the park? But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that you could see for considerable distance, and most areas felt pretty open. There wasn’t really anywhere for things like large wild animals to hide. If there was something out there, you’d know. Good news – it was all clear.
We were halfway across the bridge when Annette suddenly turned on her heel and started marching back the way we’d come. “I don’t like this. I don’t like this! You just go. I’ll wait at the car!”
Leroy tried to reassure her. Nothing doing. She insisted we go on our way, and she’d wait at the car for us. Well, I was darned if I was going to let her disrupt this trip, and I think Leroy was about in the same place. We shrugged, and resumed our way along the path. What we didn’t know was that it’s a considerable walk back to the Paint Pots. We’re talking about a half hour just to get there. So here we are, walking and walking and realizing this wasn’t a quick jaunt. And just as the Paint Pots loomed into sight, I had a horrifying realization.
“Leroy? The car’s locked!” See, this hadn’t been a problem with the last stop, because Annette hadn’t closed the door to the car yet before getting back in. This time, we had definitely locked it and walked away.
The look on Leroy’s face was one of shock and horror. This was simply not good. Well, but, we were already almost at the Paint Pots, so we might as well have a quick look before hurrying back, right? And that’s what we did. On the way back, we were walking pretty quickly. One might have almost said we were scurrying. And as we drew within sight of that wooden bridge we had crossed at the beginning of our walk, what we saw was enough to chill the blood. There was Annette, standing at the rail in the middle of the bridge. As we first caught sight of her, she was staring off into the distance, but as if she sensed our presence, she slowly turned and stared at us. Have you ever seen a praying mantis when it catches sight of a fly, and then tracks its movements with an almost alien coldness? This was a lot like that. She kept her eyes fixed on us as we drew close, absolutely no expression on her face. And then when we were close enough, she gave it to us.
“Well! I’ve just been waiting here, SCARED out of my mind!” We were both trying to apologize as she huffed and stomped off in the direction of the car. We told her we were sorry, we didn’t mean to leave her locked out of the car. Leroy even pointed out that she was the one who had insisted that we keep going. (Really, if we’d realized she was going to freak out and go back, we’d have probably thought to give her the keys, but she had taken us by surprise with her sudden about face.) Yeah, that was getting us nowhere.
As we unlocked the car for her, I opened the back door to let her in, and leaned forward to apologize once more and see if there was anything else she needed. She responded by slamming the door closed as hard as possible, and if I hadn’t jumped back out of the way, I think she would have killed me by slamming the door on my head. Thank goodness I have good reactions sometimes! But now I was pissed. I counted to ten, then got into the front seat and said, between clenched teeth, “Annette, please don’t slam the door like that. You nearly caught me in it!”
Leroy continued to apologize profusely. Annette stared out the window and refused to acknowledge him.
The next stop was a waterfall, and this one was literally right off the road. We stopped and asked Annette if she wanted to come see it. She refused to answer. I said this one was just a few feet from the car – she would be able to see it from the road. She said shortly, “Nope! I’m not getting out of the car again until we get to our next hotel!” Was she kidding? She was not. I was done with the conversation. I’d had about as much as I could take of irrational behavior by this point. Pouting definitely wasn’t something I was going to put up with. Leroy and I walked over to view the waterfall and I relayed what had happened. I said, “I’m done with this. Her behavior is ridiculous.” He agreed, but it was his mom, so he wasn’t going to say too much, and I didn’t blame him. We took some pictures of the waterfall, then returned to the car.
When we got in, Annette said, “I’m sorry. I know I’m behaving badly. (Had she heard me???) It’s just that it’s perfectly natural to be that angry when you’re that scared!”
Well, this was the crux of it, wasn’t it? Leroy asked immediately, “Of WHAT?” It was broad daylight. What was she afraid of? A masher jumping out and tackling her? I honestly had no idea.
But she answered promptly, as if we were the idiots here. “Well, bears!” She said it like it was the most obvious thing ever. Now, again, I’m going to point out something about where she lives. It’s in a small mountain town just west of Colorado Springs, and it is positively known for all the bears in the area. She lives on a quiet street, in a little house at the end of a long driveway, and comes home in the dark more often than not. But she’s never expressed a fear of running into a bear there. However, now, in broad daylight, with open views due to the tiny trees, she’s afraid some bear’s going to come charging out and start gnawing on her leg or something. And this is where I finally lost it on her.
“OK, the thing is, it’s not perfectly normal to be this scared! I mean, seriously, how do you live your life being this afraid all the time! Get some help already!” Yup, my filter had become a wide-mouth duct somewhere along the way, and I was not holding back. I believe I ranted for another few moments before Leroy gently patted my leg, signaling me to let it go.
And that was it – the Yellowstone adventure was basically over before it began. We didn’t stop again. Leroy had decided he was done. Personally, I’d have stopped at every freaking attraction and spent as long as possible taking it in, while Annette fumed in the car. Petty? Perhaps. But I had been looking forward to this adventure and I didn’t feel like letting Annette’s neuroses derail me. Unfortunately, Leroy had decided otherwise. So nice of him to decide for everyone. In any case, he refused to stop for any more attractions. He was driving through the park with grim determination. We made our way through the remainder of Yellowstone in record time. Annette didn’t utter another word, but did continue sucking her teeth and humming. No reprieve there. What should have been an all-day affair was over in mere hours, and we continued south, through Wyoming and into Colorado.
As evening encroached, we found a small hotel to stay in. Annette slammed into her room with all the fury she’d shown on every other hotel room door, but this time she wasn’t coming back out. Leroy knocked on her door and asked if she was going to want some dinner. She yelled, “Go without me!” So, we did.
The next morning, we resumed our journey the rest of the way home, with Annette continuing her stony silence. We stopped to eat, not really asking for her input at this point. She nibbled at her food. We tried to pay the bill. She refused to accept that and paid instead. As far as I was concerned, she had ruined what would likely be my one opportunity to see Yellowstone, so I didn’t argue about her paying, and didn’t try to engage in any further conversation. I also didn’t have much to say to Leroy. Between his impatience, and the rampant mental illness running through the family, and the fact that he decided for all of us that we wouldn’t see the rest of Yellowstone, he wasn’t really giving me warm fuzzies.
And really, there’s not much to tell about the trip itself. We finished the journey home in near silence. We took Annette to her house and helped her unload her luggage. She didn’t say a word. Just grabbed her wheeled suitcase and flounced off to go inside. (On the bright side, she was now home a full day earlier than originally planned, thanks to our abbreviated trip through the park. Guess she’d get to work for her shift! Yay.) Leroy left her other suitcase on the porch, and we went home. Once there, and having gotten a shower and some time to settle in, I turned to Leroy and said, “If she ever offers to pay for a trip again, just say no, OK?”
“I think we can agree on that, at least,” he said.
A few weeks after this trip, Annette had apparently vented to Leroy about “That Dawn” (her favorite way in which to refer to me) and how out of line I was for suggesting she needed to get some help. In a rare moment, Leroy defended me and told her that actually, I was 100% right. I found this out after she saw a professional and got on some medication. She thanked me profusely and gushed about how much happier and relaxed she was now, all thanks to me telling her to get some help. Silver lining, I guess. I decided not to let her know how much I did not appreciate her ruining Yellowstone. No point, really.
I think I’ll try to get back to Yellowstone someday. When I do, I’m going with my dear, sweet guy with whom I’ve shared the last 12 years. I have no doubt we’ll get along fine on such a trip, and we’ll both thoroughly enjoy it and each other’s company. But no one else will be coming with. I think it’d be best to keep variables to a minimum, don’t you?