navigation menu+

I need to know where I got it so I can return it

Posted on 13 Feb 13 by in family fringes | 45 comments


Which one of my family members suffered from depression? Why am I asking you? Because no one in my family ever talks about it or has talked about it to me, and it’s possible, although not probable, they’ve talked about it with you.

I suspect it may have been my paternal grandmother. She was perfect, mind you. Never a more perfect person has walked this earth, the Jesus she so admired included. She cooked, she cleaned, she sang, she loved. She did all of these things even as her own mother couldn’t be bothered after 10 children to come up with a name for her, and so my grandmother was named Arthur by a cousin who at the time of my grandmother’s birth was dating a boy named Arthur. A boy too insignificant for my grandmother’s cousin to marry, but good enough, I suppose to have his 1922 girlfriend’s aunt name a baby after him.

Unless she was being teased in good nature, no one ever called my grandmother this name she hated. She went by her middle name Vernelle, Arthur V if you wanted to watch her roll her eyes with a little smile as she stood near the piano to sing a gospel hymn just for you. And Jesus. You and Jesus.

For sure, Vernelle had a nearly uncontrollable anxiety disorder. She drove her own car to work until she retired and drove her own car to church (my grandfather stayed after services to “count the money”) until Alzheimer’s took over. My grandparents lived on a small Texas island, racially segregated until the 1970s, and I don’t think my grandmother ever drove across the causeway onto the mainland. Not once in the 60 years since they’d moved from the countryside to that island did she dare. My grandfather did all the shopping for the household, both grocery and clothing and, until recently, I figured he was being chivalrous (he loved suits and finding her shoes to match). I see now she and I likely shared the whole big store phobia thing, and he was working it out for her.

My late grandmother in 2004 with four of her great-grandkids on her 82nd birthday

My grandmother in 2004 with four of her great-grandkids on her 82nd birthday

My cousins and I all have our hilarious stories about that disorder preventing us from making a move somewhere or another while in her care. We never knew she had any type of condition (except the medical anomaly of perfection) but thinking back on it: once we all started driving, before nightfall, she made us each choose if we were going to spend the night at her house or get on the causeway back to Houston. She couldn’t imagine driving at night and she wouldn’t let us—adult grandchildren with children of our own—do it either. And that time my cousin Ralph and I happened to be visiting at the same time. I was 22 and Ralph was 25, and we were a little bored once Wheel of Fortune ended and here we were on this island with nothing to do and Ralph suggested he and I go bowling.

The panic on my grandmother’s face. She intuitively knew she couldn’t say no to two grown children, but she knew her husband could. She stalled until my grandfather called and casually mentioned how their two grandchildren were planning to leave for the bowling alley (and maybe do some crack and kill a few prosties one never knows) and when she hung up the phone, the woman I have always loved more than life itself looked me straight in the eye. Your grandfather said no.

And who could blame him? Would you want to come home after a day of meetings to your wife, already testy after being named after a random boy only two people had ever met 72 years ago, filing a missing person’s report for two twenty-somethings who were six blocks away sharing a pitcher of root beer and comparing short stories? At 7:00 p.m.

My father, my grandmother’s youngest child, might suffer a little from depression. He and I are most alike of anyone else related to me, and he is very much like his mother: compassionate, worrisome, handing out money to the needy like it replenishes itself. Not wanting too many details about potential horrors that may panic him such as my son’s progress in private viola lessons or my teen daughter having a boyfriend. But my father is such a doer and my grandmother was, too. Errands, cleaning, church activities, school activities—my dad was the president of the PTA at a school his children never attended because that school needed a PTA president—all the things that make me crawl back under my covers every morning. Maybe they are better at fighting it than I am.

I should probably ask.


  1. Yes, yes, yes! I think mine came from my mother, based on everything I’ve heard about her. But because I was 2 1/2 when she died, I can’t know for sure. It seems as if knowing would validate it and in turn diminish it somehow or enable us to finally conquer it.

    I loved the story you painted of Vernelle and the part of you that you shared with us. Thank you!

    • A lot of my figuring it out involves flashbacks and “oh, yeah, that makes sense now.” I have a paternal aunt who is not shy about talking about it, but she is yet another family doer, so her depression is the good kind. Mine is the lazy, inexcusable kind everyone is embarrassed by. Like Uncle Joe who drinks beer all day from the couch and can’t keep a job.

      • “Mine is the lazy, inexcusable kind everyone is embarrassed by.”

        This just broke my heart. I am proud of you. And I would never think to call you lazy. Do not feed the negative talk beast — you are human and come with all of the frailties that humans have.

        Someone told me yesterday that the price of life is pain. That we all have it, that we all feel it. Anyone who says differently is in denial.

        Minute by minute, day by day. And much love, always.

        • I didn’t mean to break your heart. It’s just that everybody else’s houses are so clean and fresh-smelling and I run a well-organized writing community, if you get my drift. My worth is measured differently by different people. Thanks for being proud of me.

  2. You should definitely ask. I am the first person in my family diagnosed(and when I was, my dad actually said that Filipinos don’t get depression, which he believed). My mother has since been diagnosed with depression, which she continues to deny. But asking can only lead to answers, and that’s a good thing.

    • In my family, that’s much easier said than done. But I’ll keep thinking about it. I agree it needs to be discussed. As you may know, black people don’t get depression either.

      • You’re absolutely right — it’s easier said than done. If you ever want to talk, please feel free to e-mail me.

        • I’m terrible at talking about it. I’m one of those who thinks this will all go away with a fulfilling career and a healthy bank account. Just wait until I win the lotto, I say. Ugh.

  3. Such an interesting and thoughtful story. Your grandmother reminds me so much of my granduncle, who fulfilled a grandmotherly role in my life. He too, couldn’t go to any large stores, took care of us, and worried about us to an irrational degree.
    I think depression and anxiety are tied to hypersensitivity, or at least it is in our family. While other people seem capable of barging through life without a care, we are a high-strung group. And being of a English background, absolutely no one talks about this!
    At least sensitivity is a good writerly trait, no?

    • Ah, I like your hypersensitivity theory very much. That makes sense as it relates to my grandmother and my father since their level of activity is/was that of a normal person, whereas mine is much more inactive and depressed.

      So far, Filipinos, black people and the English don’t talk about such things. Who’s left??

      • Germans. You’re not depressed, you just need to work harder! When my dad finally admitted he was depressed and started taking anti-depressants, he felt so much better! Both my sisters are on anti-depressants, too. Somehow it skipped my brother and me. I love the picture of your grandma with her great grandkids!

        (I meant that Germans will say you need to work harder. I didn’t mean you personally need to work harder! Sorry!)

        • I got what you meant, ha. I’m glad you were skipped over. Did you ever look at your dad and your sisters before they got treatment and just wish they would shape up?

  4. On my mother’s side everyone talks about everything, right down to their last BM and what color it was (gross, sorry.) Mine definitely comes from that side, though I wonder a bit about my dad’s side too, at times. They don’t talk…your grandmother reminded me of mine on that side. Depression is such a wily bastard.

    • It’s not that she never talked about it, she had no idea there was anything to talk about. Her brain belonged to one medical condition or another since she turned 50. She was a wonderful woman and I wish I could handle life with half the elegance she did.

  5. Don’t you wish you could give it back? I’d have to break my bipolar in halves or quarters to dole it out properly, but it would be so nice. “Here, Mom, a quarter back for you. Dad, here’s your quarter, and the other half to both grandmothers to share between them.” Really, though, I think mine came down the maternal line, type two, and my sister’s came down the paternal line, type one. She always had harder swings, and unlike me, she was institutionalized several times in her life.

    Depression is its own beast to be sure, but yeah, one I’m sure you wish you could mark, “Return to Sender” and mail on its way.

    • Did I forget to mention my phobia of the post office?

  6. I wish depression wasn’t something that got passed down; life would literally be so much happier. Also, I don’t like the thought of passing it to my future children. If only there was a way to keep it to myself…or like you said…give it back.

    • Oh the guilt about how I’ve already passed it down, but although my oldest makes a mean cocktail, she is allergic to barbiturates. No drinking for her. My middle kid is most like me, but a boy. He may have it relatively easier. My youngest is just like his daddy, so let’s say he’s in the most trouble of everyone.

  7. I always love simple yet interesting stories of every day life, of past, of family. I would think your grandma had some stories worth hearing. And coming from a family with lots of mental illness, I enjoyed reading from a different perspective.

    • I’ve always said my riches are found in my family. Even with the normal family dynamics, we get along well. Sometimes I feel pushed around and when I dig in my heels, it causes friction. Other than that, we support each other nicely. Unless my kitchen isn’t clean when one of my parents stops by. That’s Armageddon.

  8. Great post. I love the title of this too — really quite brilliant. This week I would definitely give my bipolar and depression back, and I know it came from my maternal grandmother. That whole side of the family is all kinds of crazy — and it was always obvious. No mysteries for me, but I hope you figure yours out and I hope in so doing you learn how to deal with your own depression better. She’s a bitch (I’ve decided depression is female).

    • Depression probably is female what with her lack of self-care and keeping her car all trashy.

  9. Is that Jordan in the pink t-shirt? I must know. Anyway, if you didn’t already have a touch of depression you signed up for more when you got interested in writing. Sorry.

    • Yep, that’s Jordan in the pink shirt. She was 9 years old and Jon Alex had just turned three.

      You’ve hit the nail on the head. My grandmother and father likely have that hypersensitivity winopants mentioned in an earlier comment and, since I’m the writer, I got the full-blown version of depression.

  10. The title of this post is perfect. It amazes me how much is passed down the line. Obviously, looking back as adults, we can piece together so much (I’ve looked through the family for hints of where Matt go ADHD and dyslexia). For my husband’s sake, I hope Alzheimer’s is not hereditary (not supposed to be). But depression is something I really wish wasn’t passed down this way. It affects so much.

    Even though I understand what you are sharing with us in this post, about you, it was a fantastic story of your grandmother and your family (done with humor as well). That picture is great!!!

    • Thanks, Gina! That is one of my favorite photos of my grandmother. I have a few others in digital form, but couldn’t find them before the challenge grid was closing at yeah write. Ah, deadlines.

      If Alzheimer’s is hereditary, I may as well find me a nice cot at the Salvation Army before the kids get home from school today. All hope is gone.

  11. You told this family story so beautifully. I am fascinated by the hereditary aspect of mental illness. My dad’s parents both suffered from severe anxiety and depression. My grandfather denied it, and was locked in a vicious cycle of damage control until the day he died. My grandmother is a little more accepting of it, but barely. My dad inherited it from them and is just, at the age of 60, starting to accept and deal with it. My sisters and I luckily escaped the worst of it, but I have cousins, aunts and uncles who all suffer in varying degrees and would happily hand back their illnesses to my grandfather, if given the chance.

    • I’m just glad your family is bringing it up and questioning it so someone can even be in denial. I had to diagnose myself by reading hospital literature while in Stephen’s Ministry training when I was 33 years old. No one in my family knows it could apply to them.

  12. Great story, Erica. So good to see your writing on the grid. You’ve read enough of all ours, for sure. It’s really hard to ask the hard questions, isn’t it? Especially to ask the ones you love the most.

    • When I first started yeah write, my main question was: it is okay if instead of commenting on your blog, I send you 15 people to comment on my behalf? That’s been my tenet ever since. I read 90 percent, comment on 10 percent, but I’m there for everybody 100 percent. Thanks for being there for me.

  13. Your title is hilarious!! I love that your grandmother is perfect. That says so much about her all by itself — about her and even her anxiety. Title & perfect — two concepts that’ll walk along with me for a while!

    • Thank you. Did you know that’s how I choose my five favorites for the grid? Whichever ones stay with me for the two days are the ones I vote for on the third. I love that you love my perfect grandmother.

  14. That picture is the most precious thing! And I’m still in shock that your grandparents island was segregated until the 70s – WHAT? Your family history seems so rich and wonderful, despite the warts (which are normal in any family).

    You do so much Erica, you should be as proud of yourself as we all are of you! My house could be a lot neater too but there always seems to be other things more important. It’s good to recognize that sometimes.

    • Oh, girl, Texas wasn’t freed from slavery until two years after the Emancipation Proclamation and the ratification of the 13th Amendment. We are suh-low when it comes to civil rights of the poor and disenfranchised. Trivia: my grandfather was instrumental in bringing much of the equal pay and affordable housing for black residents of that island. He has a housing development named after him and everything.

      Thank you so much for the encouragement. I love our humble little writing collective.

  15. You mean the money doesn’t replenish itself?
    Those “salt of the earth” types always amaze me, tirelessly doing all the things that need to be done. I always thought they must be just about perfect. It’s sad to know that depression can get them too. If you get all those qualities, is it a fair trade off? Likely not, but at least there’s a lot of good medications for it.

    Great yarn, spun by a great storyteller.

    • Even thinking about working tirelessly makes me tired. I think that’s how my grandmother (and maybe my dad) handled it: by keeping busy and not dwelling on it too much.

      Thanks for the compliment. Good to see you on the grid again.

  16. I am hoping you are writing Arthur Vernelle’s story, because it needs to be told. You have such a gift: humor, compassion, and rigor, all in one sentence. Unflinching and full of love. Dang. If for no other reason than your gift of putting words together, you should get the hell out of bed & stumble to a typewriter. Did I just write that? I mean computer, of course.

    • I’m in bed with a laptop. I’m hoping that’s close enough. I walked with my two boys yesterday about six blocks and had to get a hip replacement before dinner. It’s a cruel, cruel world.

  17. I don’t know where mine came from. I’m adopted. It’s good you can joke about it with your sibs. My sibs and I don’t talk about it. My sister drinks too much and my brother has depression, but since we are all adopted from different sources, there is no common thread. And they don’t talk about anything. I think they consider me the “crazy” one of the family though. LOL I love your title; that is just great! Is there a 90 day return policy? haha Thanks for this post.

    • Oh, my siblings and I don’t talk about it at all. They wouldn’t understand me in the least bit. I am also the crazy one, but I think they use the term lovably irresponsible.

  18. I really enjoyed reading this. You really tell a full story in a condensed format. I like to think that some people live with their heads and some people live with their hearts and some of us have immense difficulty managing the flow between the two. So happiness is always laced with sadness and we are sad when most people think we should be happy. It is a confusing way to live. There were several years where the pharmaceutical industry managed to erase many of those things that made life difficult, but that eraser was imprecise and it took away too much of the good with the bad and I won’t give that away again. They also made me fat which was depressing so, you know, counterproductive. So during the bad times, I may cry and not want to move but I still manage to appreciate the ability to feel something, even if it is sadness. I really enjoyed your story and you have a really unique dark slant in your sense of humor that probably comes from the same place as the depression so even though it isn’t fun, it has some benefits. I really hope you feel better soon. Hugs.

    • Your comment has me lost in thought. I can’t even properly reply to it. When’s lunch? After your move? Lemme know.

      • Ha! Yeah, okay, I was having a really hard time saying what I mean. In fact, reading it over now, I think that is probably the most incoherent comment I have ever left anyone ever. Congrats on being the lucky recipient! I am in your neck of the woods relatively frequently so next time, I will text you for lunch! Move will probably happen mid summer.

        • The crazy thing is: I knew exactly what you meant. I was reevaluating my life because of it. Ha. See you soon…

  19. I love seeing this picture of your family and the story you’ve told here. I’ve just been starting to look back at my family tree with adult eyes and see things that make sense to me now. I look at my family, and my husband’s family, and wonder what of that has been passed to me & possibly onto my children. Thanks for sharing this. You do so much for so many, so always remember that.
    And I’m envious that you and the other Jenn will be in the same ‘hood in close proximity to Tookies!


  1. not one time did she ever forget who Vanna White was | free fringes - [...] we were waiting out the school year, it was a no-brainer to move in, as full-time caretaker, with my …

say something