Terry's mother Carola Jean married at age fourteen (1948) and became a tenant farmer's wife. Terry was born eleven months later into a house without running water. Sister Vicki arrived. At age sixteen, as mother of two under two, Carola was broke and divorced (for the first time). Carola took the children to Colorado and her family. She married Davy. Little sister Patricia was born. Carola sent the two older girls to their biological father “for the summer” but did not return to pick them up – until nearly two years later.
In that time Carola had divorced and remarried Davy and sent Patricia to live with Davy's parents. They moved to Texas where Davy worked in the oilfields. (Terry would not be allowed to contact her biological father again until she was eighteen.)
Another sister was born. Carola frequented bars. She and Davy fought. (Terry would wake to find a man climbing out of her mother's bedroom window, Davy being gone for work.)
Then a move to Colorado. Carola got migraines and was often in a fog. Terry learned to care for her sisters (she was in the fifth grade). They took in a niece, to make six girls under the age of twelve in the house. More boyfriends while Davy was away for work. More moves. Terry continued to care for her younger sisters, sometimes when her mother was hundreds of miles away with a boyfriend. Another move.
When Terry was fourteen she overheard a friend ask Carola if she wasn't too hard on Terry. That experience released Terry from the burden of trying to please her mother.
Another move. When Terry began high school she was asked where she was from. “What could I say? I am from everywhere and nowhere.”
Carola divorced Davy and married “Mr. Rodeo.” The girls transitioned to life on a farm. Then Carola's short nursing career ended under suspicion (drugs). Soon Carola and Mr. Rodeo were fighting, then one night, gun shots. Carola took her girls to Davy, now living in California. He took them in. After a few months Carola took the two youngest girls back to Texas to divorce Mr. Rodeo. She never came back. Though not asked, Terry would not have gone with her. “Life had become more painful living with Mama than living without her.”
Davy had to work in Nevada but the girls stayed in California, Terry taking care of them. She graduated from high school and began taking some college level courses and working.
Her Mama called, asking her to move closer to Texas. Terry and a friend did, finding jobs. Her mother attempted suicide at age thirty-three. Terry was visiting and managed to get her to the doctor before she bled to death. Terry was eighteen. Carola was admitted to a mental hospital. Terry became responsible for her two sisters there (one having been sent to their birth father). When Carola was discharged she never came for her children but Terry ultimately insisted they go live with her.
Carola married twice more before she died in 1974 of an accidental drug overdose.
Terry ends her memoir with a reunion tour of “the sisters” through Texas towns.
Terry's writing, at times, is well done. For example, “The small oasis of normalcy and nurture that year and a half in Grand Junction came at suppertime, when my sisters and I gathered around our kitchen picnic table.” And, “Mama's fury had become as bitter as the howling winds sweeping through an icy canyon. No matter how hard we tried, we constantly fell short...” The majority of the writing, however, is nondescript, near boring at times. Perhaps that reflects her conflicted view of her mother. “That's how it was with Mama. One moment I admired her more than anyone, and the next I wished she would become someone else.”
Don't expect any “Christian witness” in this book. In an interview at the back of the book Terry is asked how she was so “resilient.” She said she always felt connected to something greater than herself but does not identify who or what that was. She adds that taking care of her sisters gave her a great sense of purpose. This is a great story of one woman's survival but none of the credit or glory goes to God.
Terry Helwig went on to marry (husband Jim of forty years) and they have a daughter. She graduated with an MA in counseling psychology and for many years was a human development specialist, writing, lecturing, and leading workshops on personal growth and spiritual development. She is the founder and curator of The Thread Project. She and her husband currently divide their time between South Carolina and Florida.
Howard Books (the Christian imprint of Simon & Schuster), 304 pages.
I received an egalley of this book from the publisher for the purpose of this review.