Balance

A frantic sound is coming from the laundry room. I drop the book I’m reading, race in, and open the aging pale-yellow washer that doesn’t know how to stop itself. I redistribute the clothes, shut the lid, and stand watch for a few minutes to make sure it stays balanced.

■ ■ ■

On a humid July evening, my mom, aunt, cousin and I are gathered in a hotel room in Tuscarawas County, Ohio, where all of us were born. I’m the only one who didn’t grow up here. We are looking at stacks of family pictures. We come to a blurry black and white reprint. On the back, someone wrote, “Christmas Day, 1948.” A tiny woman, head encased in a billowy white saucer of dust cap, stares from behind large, round glasses. She is neither smiling nor frowning. Seated alone on a sofa, she wears a forgettable dress, and her hands are folded in her lap.

“That’s your great-grandmother, Minnie,” Mom says. I’ve only heard of Minnie Mouse and Minnie Pearl, a comedian from the TV show Hee Haw, who always left the price tag on her hat. Later, I will find one document that reveals Minnie’s full name: Wilhelmina.

Minnie died just six weeks before I was born in 1952, and she’s buried not far from where we are sitting now. This is the first photo of her I’ve ever seen. Often, when I look at a family photo, I sense a connection to the person. Not this time.

We pass the photo back and forth, sip our drinks, and listen to the hum of the air-conditioning.

Mom: Well, she wore that dust cap all the time because she was bald.

Aunt: No, she wasn’t.

Mom: She certainly was.

Aunt: No, she was not. I helped get her ready for her funeral and she had a full head of hair.

I want to scream. I couldn’t care less if Minnie had hair or not. This is not why I study and write about family history. I want to know stories, to understand people.

I roll my eyes at my cousin, who tries to redirect the conversation: “We know her parents were German immigrants.”

Slowly, we review all the research we’ve completed, which hasn’t yielded much: Minnie had eleven brothers and sisters. Her father was a coal miner, who died when the youngest child was four. Minnie’s mom never remarried.

Minnie married at eighteen on Valentine’s Day; her first child was born soon after. She had three more sons, and then stopped eight short of her mother’s offspring tally. Minnie was the mother of my beloved grandpa, the one person who was patient enough to sit with me hour after hour while I attempted to sound out words, slicing and dicing them into meaningless parts, then trying awkwardly and often unsuccessfully to put them back together. If she raised him, there must be something about her worth knowing.

■ ■ ■

On a Monday morning before work, I go to the dentist.

He refers to me in the third person when speaking to his assistants, lamenting the fact that I can’t keep my mouth still long enough for him to make a perfect impression for a crown. More appointments are scheduled; I grind my teeth and am at risk of shattering the ones I haven’t already damaged. As I walk to work, pelted by a late April sleet, I wonder how much of these dental fees will be out-of-pocket and why I didn’t ask more questions. At my office, I hang up my wet jacket, wrap myself in a bulky sweater, shut the door, turn on music, and sob quietly.

Anxiety had made guest appearances in the past, but now she came to stay. Too many major life changes might have contributed: a change in my job, with much more responsibility; my husband’s retirement; my daughter’s graduation from college and move out-of-state; my mom’s increasingly delicate health.

I begin to wake daily at 3:30 a.m., my core painfully contracted, my limbs jittery and disconnected. My thoughts spin out of control. I imagine potential disasters and how they might play out: I would forget to turn off the stove and burn down the house. I would cause a major traffic accident. I would fail to submit grades and lose my job. The list is endless, and I am unable to get back to sleep.

Most people weren’t aware of my anxiety. To those closest to me, I might have seemed self-absorbed. And I was, but only in the sense that I was terrified of making mistakes. I lost my sense of humor, which had always helped me when I felt awkward or inadequate.

I went to my doctor, who suggested therapy and prescribed daily medication which made me tired and lightheaded, but still anxious. I stopped taking it and tried an over-the-counter supplement that seemed to help. A therapy virgin at fifty-six, I began to attend weekly sessions. My goal became getting through the work day. I went home, did any necessary chores, and sat in front of the television while drinking wine. I watched the entire Gilmore Girls series multiple times, happy to escape into the weird small-town life of Stars Hollow.

I finally told my mom what was going on. She didn’t acknowledge that I’d gone to therapy. For all I knew, I was the first person in our family to do so. We never talked about these things. After a long pause, she said, “I hope your doctor can fix it.” We never mentioned “it” again.

I walked three miles most mornings, using the treadmill in the basement if I was not able to get outside. I also began to meditate, but sometimes I felt more anxious after I meditated. The therapist I saw suggested I try Sudoko; I told her I preferred crossword puzzles. “You need to do something that doesn’t involve words,” she said. They seemed to help.

Most Sundays, I never left house. I read novels, took naps, and wrote. And I got a different dentist.

■ ■ ■

I continue to write whenever I have time and energy. I take summer writing classes. I look forward to retiring, so I’ll have more time to write. I don’t know yet whether it helps my anxiety or makes it worse. I remember my mom telling me, when I was a child, that people who thought too much “lost their minds.”

When we drove past Massillon State Hospital, originally known as Massillon State Hospital for the Insane, and I stared at the turrets of the looming brick buildings, I tried not to think so much. Sometimes there were patients walking slowly along the paths. I wondered if they were looking for their lost minds. I keep coming back to my notes about Minnie. I call my mom. “I need to know more about her. What was she like? What do you remember about her?”

After a long conversation, and some follow-up e-mails, I have this: Minnie was small but feisty. She kept her house spotless, scrubbed the woodwork until all the paint was gone, boiled the laundry. She bargained with the butcher for the best cuts of meat. She ate every meal at the dining room table, on a tablecloth she had washed, starched and ironed herself.

Minnie wasn’t social, not a churchgoer, didn’t go out much, didn’t drive, she loved to listen to baseball games on the radio. When angry, she could “burn the ears off a truck driver” with a string of German curse words.

I search an online newspaper database. There are eleven matches for Minnie’s name. Most are obituaries of family members, and two are about her own death. On February 18, 1931, Minnie made the New Philadelphia Daily Times when she injured her left hand in the wringer, sometimes called the “mangle,” of her electric washing machine.

I imagine this tiny, sturdy woman in her billowing dust cap, darting quickly from one household chore to the next, the scent of bleach in her wake. And I hear her, hands fisted at her side, as she curses at the grocery delivery boy for bringing her inferior produce.

I type up my new notes. As I reread them, I underline phrases: didn’t go out much, scrubbed the woodwork, boiled the laundry. My twenty-first century mind translates: depression, anxiety, agoraphobia, OCD. I think of all the things I’ve been doing to recover my mental balance, and I wonder how Minnie coped.

■ ■ ■

I retired. I began to build my days around exercise, meditation, reading and writing. These things made me feel better, and I now I had time for them. I thought anxiety had decided to leave me alone, or at least sit quietly next to me. Nearly a year later, I got a new car. It had a keyless ignition. Every time I sat down in it, I had a panic attack.

My doctor helped me try a new medication. As soon as we established a therapeutic level, I began to notice a difference: I could drive without being terrified. I slept at night, and woke up without that feeling of dread. When I sat down each morning with a cup of strong, black coffee, I looked out the window at the seasons. I loved all of them, especially spring, with its lush lilacs and clusters of birds at the feeder.

I began to look forward to both time alone and social events. My sense of humor came back, and my husband and I joked that I was “Jimmy Buffet mellow.”

■ ■ ■

My washer finally needs to be replaced. The new one occasionally starts to do the off-balance dance but it quickly stops itself. A soft chime goes off and a digital readout reports, “UE” (uneven). I move the clothes around and watch it resume its cycle.

I imagine Minnie standing to my right, in housedress and dust cap. She peers at the machine. Her eyes are huge behind her round glasses.

“Fancy, schmantzy,” she says. “But does it get the clothes clean?”

I laugh. I won’t even try to explain cold water settings.

I put my arm around her, and say, “Minnie, did you too savor the spicy-sweet scent of lilacs and the morning’s first sip of strong black coffee? Wake up before dawn most mornings, your heart in a fist?”

Melissa Ballard studied fashion merchandising, worked retail, and was a bank teller and a public school camp counselor before  attending college as a first-generation student. She has since worked as a speech-language pathologist and a college instructor. Melissa has written essays for Belt Magazine, Brevity, Under the Sun, and other publications.

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