'Moonlight on Linoleum: A Daughter's Memoir' by Terry Helwig

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As a rule of thumb, it's a dangerous idea to criticize somebody's mother. However, when a book's introduction begins with a daughter unsure of what her mother's last name is, be ready for anything.

In "Moonlight on Linoleum," readers are taken on a journey through the author — and oldest daughter — Terry Helwig's childhood with her mentally unstable mother Carola Jean.

Carola Jean got married at 14 and had her first child at 15. Although she clearly wasn't cut out for motherhood, she ended up with six more kids (unfortunately one of her seven died and another wasn't biologically hers). The more kids she had, the more extreme her personality became.

In this family there was rarely a moment without drama or travel. The girls lived on an Iowa farm; in southwest Kansas; Fort Morgan; a West Texas oil town; near the Gulf of Mexico in Alvin; Denver, Colorado; and San Luis Obispo, California. Helwig went to 12 schools in 11 years, and managed to graduate high school on time and go to college. That alone is impressive considering the amount of stress she underwent as a child.

You name it. Her mother did it. Carola Jean divorced their stepfather Davy two times, remarried him two more and almost got married to him again. This was in the middle of her cheating on him with several other men (notably Mr. Rodeo and Dusty) and having a child (Brenda) with another man. She didn't shy away from beating the girls, taking them out of school when she didn't feel like doing chores or watching her own children, driving drunk, lying about her health, abusing prescription drugs, threatening to send them away to a convent and partying in "Timbuktu" (a place her mother always said she was going whenever she disappeared).

If you're wondering "What else could she possibly do?" that's not the worst of the things that those girls were exposed to, but the incidents above were the most consistent.

Some of their experiences made me wonder whether Carola Jean had the right idea to abandon Terry and her sister, Vicki, when they were two and three years old before the rest of the kids were born. Terry (literally) looked for her mother to return to her during the year they were separated. When she finally did come back, Carola Jean was frustrated about Terry's news that their stepmother would physically discipline them — only for Carola Jean to turn around and beat them herself, and worse. Her mother also refused to let the girls see their paternal grandparents or biological father Donald because he allegedly was not providing monetary support, but I was left wondering if that was really a good reason to abandon an otherwise loving father. Although Terry seemed to miss her mother more than her sister, their childhood with their grandparents, biological father and stepmother seemed far more stable.

At some points, I cringed and had to put the book down. Then I'd pick it up again and shake my head while I read another chapter, wondering how in the world any of them managed to keep their sanity regardless of their mother temporarily losing hers.

Anytime someone airs their dirty laundry about a family member, especially a mother, it's a brave move. Originally I wondered what positive outcomes I could take from the read, but there was a pattern of admirable father figures that seldom get talked about in today's novels and these guys truly had patience. I was also fascinated by the way the girls continuously made some of the most frustrating situations into fun games. I wish I could have as much fun as they did doing chores like ironing.

Even through some dark circumstances, this memoir was an interesting and eye-opening experience. It was comforting to see the two oldest daughters Vicki and Terry smiling and embracing each other in a photograph, especially considering they seemed to get hit the hardest. And the group shot at the end sealed the deal; no matter what these girls were exposed to, they conquered any obstacle no matter the size.

Moonlight on Linoleum: A Daughter's Memoir
By Terry Helwig
Howard Books, 240 pages, $25

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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