So the following is the beginning of the memoir I am writing. I am not sure what the end result will be, but what I do know is putting this on paper has been incredibly cathartic.
God put a million, million doors in the world
For his love to walk through
One of those doors is you
I. Forward to the Novel
As I watched the taillights of the unfamiliar car fade into the morning fog, the sound of gravel crunching under the tires, my heart ached. Not just a temporary tug like “Oh, I that’s so sad; I can’t believe that is happening…” but ached like fire emblazoned in my veins shooting throughout my body. My sobs caught in my throat, sputtered over my lips and met with the snot pouring out of my nose. I was certain of only one thing: The tears were never going to stop. Hot, salty wounds sprung forth from my tear ducts- tiny crevices never designed for this overflow. I was in the midst of my husband, my eldest daughter, my ex-husband and his wife. I was a hot mess, and I no longer cared. It didn’t matter that my hair was knotted- angry snarls that matched my mind racing or that my face resembled the scarlet hue an infant has when his newborn needs were met with colicky yips, black globs stained my crimson cheeks making a mockery of any joy that may have once shone there. As I heaved into my husband’s chest, I screamed, “I KNEW she would be fuming. I KNEW better than to lie to her! I told you!” I fell to the ground, my lip trembling, every facial orbit filling with grief. My very countenance was skewed, frozen in pain and anguish. I was sure I would never smile again.
That on a cool, still, summer July morning was the beginning of the beginning.
1. The Backstory
My story is just like anybody else’s, really. I don’t have a superpower; I didn’t make a million dollars by my 21 birthday. I am not even an atheist-gone-Catholic. I am a regular, middle-class mom from the Midwest. What makes my story unique is that it’s your story. What has happened in my family can happen in any family. My story is not exclusive, but inclusive. My hope is that you will see yourself in these pages somewhere, seek help if need be, or merely seek solace in the notion that you are not alone.
The youngest of nine children, I really never fit in. I was born blonde, a self-imposed curse in my family of raven-haired beauties. Always sticking out the wrong way, I tried desperately to be noticed but to blend in. Never taking credit when it was owed to me, I learned early on that to be proud- no matter how small- was sinful. I would spend the next 45 years in doubt, denial, and desperation. I wanted people to take notice of me just because I was me- not for anything special. And that never, ever happened.
In fact, too often, I was overlooked. Whether it be a small speaking role in a grade school play, or being the starting pitcher on the high school softball team, I was overlooked. I was never given a chance. Or so I believed. The role of victim as well as learned helplessness went hand in hand in my life for decades.
But growing up was hard in my house and I can say without a doubt the most terrifying day in my childhood centered around my sister. It was a hot, June day where the sun beats down relentlessly. Playing cops and robbers outside was our favorite game. I, of course, was the bad guy. My job was to take a load of bricks to the back of the empty snowmobile trailer, run forward and subsequently smash my sister’s leg under the hitch. I’m not sure how trapping the good guy was going to help her cause or how I was going to get away and with what, but the point is for one of the few times in my life, I was tremendous. Suz was stuck like super glue between a crafter’s fingers! The problem is, I was overly tremendous. The hitch came down with such force, I broke her leg in three places and it was a compound-through-the-skin-kind-of break. Suz was always so brave and still is today; she stepped up and attempted to walk. Not a good idea.
Enter my other sister (did I mention I have six?) who began tearing into us for fighting as usual and on Father’s Day of all days when she heard Suz’ piercing screams. Needless to say, Suz was swept up, the fire department was called, her bones were somewhat set on the dining room table, my dad turned yellow and threw up, the fireman observed the ornate looking door knobs, and they left for the hospital.
When I think back to that day, a few, peculiar details stand out: The heat, the screams and the fear I felt in my heart. I recalled watching out the window as the medical responders pulled away in the long red station wagon of an ambulance. I hid under my bed for hours as I was sure I was in huge trouble for nearly killing my sister, disrupting Father’s Day and for playing behind the garage when I wasn’t supposed to. To my then happiness, no one came. Hours slowly crept by. With each little noise, I was convinced my time to be punished was coming. Finally, at some point, I gave up fighting and fell asleep. I awoke shivering under my bed with wet pants – I was afraid if I got up to go to the bathroom, I would be discovered. I must have been hiding all night long.
When morning broke, I was told she would be in the hospital for a week. I could not visit, they said, because I was too little. I have no idea how I passed the time that week, but I do know she had a long, painful recovery with a cast from her toes clear up to her pelvis. Her summer was shot.
Looking back, I feel sad for that little girl. Not my sister; she got my and the whole family’s sympathy then. No, I feel so sorry for Little Me. I was scared, alone, guilt-ridden, and no one came to tell me it was all okay; that what had happened was an accident and that she would heal and life would go on. I don’t recall if I prayed or not or even if I had asked God to help me. I was just so little, so vulnerable.
So, you put the book down and call me a liar. This is not MY story you say. Yes, it is. Keep reading.
In addition to inflicting harm on my sister, I was raised in an alcoholic home. My dad, God rest his soul, was an absolute train wreck. One day he’d be laughing with us kids, playing softball in the yard, making homemade potato salad and the next he would be snoring away on the couch, a recouping tiger ready to pounce on anyone who dared disturb his slumber. His relentless pursuit of perfection was a trap. If he came to us and demanded that we show him if our bedrooms were spotless, we would either open the door in fear because it would be a mess or red-faced and hot because in the event that it was clean, he would berate us for thinking we were better than we were. No matter what, we were wrong. He had a better way, a smarter way and HIS way. If we thought differently, we would be scolded for acting smarter than he was.
I recall the sound of gravel giving me the willies for years after I moved out. After literally feeling my stomach in knots and having a distinct edge to my mood, I made the connection: It was a reminder of when my dad came home. The end of our driveway was gravel. Located on a fairly busy street, he would often have to turn quickly to make it in the drive thereby upsetting the gravel and tossing it askew. For years, the sound of crunching gravel was an association with the anxiety I felt upon my dad’s arrival home. I never knew what mood he would be in or what kind of dad was going to be present.
My mom, on the other hand, had discovered Al-Anon early on in my childhood. Having a sober, sane parent who tried to do right by us kids was the only sense of normalcy I would have for decades. She would help us by giving us tips to get us through our days. For instance, if someone would call for my father, we were to simply say, “I don’t know where he is and I don’t know what time he’ll be home.” This was my mom’s way of allowing us to be honest with the caller so we didn’t feel guilt. But it was more than this; it was a simple answer to an often difficult question. As children in an alcoholic home we had no idea what each day would bring. For all we knew, my dad would be home in two minutes, or he might be gone forever. His life and his whereabouts were a mystery my whole life.
And, truthfully, I spent many nights wishing he wouldn’t come home. It was too hectic, too disruptive, and far too disappointing as I hoped that each day would be different, that somehow, our lives would be normal like I perceived my friends’ to be. One particularly embarrassing moment was the night he actually did remember to come home as he was to take my sister Suz and me to the Father-Daughter Dinner through the Girl Scouts. The idea was for the daughters to cook a nice meal for their dads, bring it in a picnic basket and set a beautiful table in the school gym. Well, that isn’t how it turned out. Instead, my dad ran us through Kentucky Fried Chicken and picked up a ridiculous meal. Because eating out was an enormous treat on our family’s limited budget, my sister and I were pretty elated. That moment of glory soon faded, however, as we entered the gym and we were in the midst of the other girls and their doting fathers. There unfolding before our eyes were rows of girls dressed to the nines smiling, laughing as their dads – also in nicely pressed shirts and ties helped to set the tables with the beloved little girls. They dads oohed and ahhed over the daughters’ handiwork. The linens and cloth napkins were also crisply ironed, splayed delicately over the tables; some even had little vases with flowers in them that their dads brought as a thank you for their girls’ hard work. If I could have never been there, never have had to relive that moment in my head many, many times, I swear I would be a better person today. My wrinkled, second-hand store dress and barely-there soled shoes suddenly highlighted just how out of place I felt. The heat roaring in my cheeks was nearly unbearable; I felt awkward, less than, and humiliated. This was yet another time in my life I believed I would never measure up to those around me. Any feeling I had of being envied by others for our “expensive” meal was sooned dashed. In an attempt to create humor or maybe to relieve himself of any ill feelings he may have had, my dad stated, “It’s a good thing we brought our own food. I wouldn’t trust you girls to cook anything for me anyway.” Slam. Dunk. Thanks, Dad. I feel tremendous now. Little Me shrunk into the background.
The summers after my seventh and eighth grade years in school would have been relatively normal with the exception of two events. The second was a result of the first so I’ll do my best to describe the primary account so the second makes sense. Like most parents during the early 80s, my mom did not allow me to date. That wouldn’t happen officially until I was 16. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t interested in the boys. They scared me, without a doubt, but I was interested. So when a friend asked if I wanted to work at the concession stand at the ball diamond for extra money, I jumped at the chance. It would only require some evenings and weekends which wouldn’t interfere with my babysitting job. The first couple of times I worked, it was pretty boring. My coworker was another girl I didn’t know very well as she had attended the public school, but she was nice enough.The adult in charge was some man named Frank who was I’m guessing around 70. We were allowed to eat the candy for free, the boys often came up in between games, and we were outside so the overall deal wasn’t too bad for the $20 for two games.
However, had I known what would have developed soon after I started, all the free candy in the world wouldn’t be worth it. Frank was a pedophile and he molested every one of us girls as we were working. At first, I wasn’t even sure what was happening; I just knew he was leaning in too close, too often from behind me. When I asked Diane, the girl from public school, if this had ever happened to her, she just laughed. “Oh yeah. Old Frank is a pervert, but who cares? We get free candy, and he’s harmless.”
I couldn’t shake the guilt. I felt like there was something wrong with me because I was fearful. I thought maybe if I hadn’t been so sheltered in my Catholic school, I would be able to handle this better. I recall feeling so foolish and unsophisticated because Diane laughed at me. I decided at that moment in time that no matter what, I was going to learn how to tune him out, do my job, and eat the free candy. Telling my mom was not an option. I was too afraid she would come after him but that she would be powerless in the end. No, it was better if I didn’t tell her so she wouldn’t worry. Besides with my alcoholic dad, she would be a mess with no support. It was best for me just to deal with this on my own which would be just as a child with no self confidence would do: nothing.
One evening, I had to work alone with him which meant all of the fondling would be directed at me for the duration. So many of the details are blurry, for which I am thankful. I do recall leaving a touch before I was supposed to making up some lie about how I had to help my mom. I rode my bike as fast as I could out of his view and hid in the bushes with my bike until he finally passed by in his beat-up, yellow station wagon. I waited about ten more minutes to be sure he was good and gone and then I rode home. I was petrified that if he saw me ride away, he would have followed me home, and then would start showing up at my house. I was so scared by that point and I was sure I had to have done something to have egged this on. I was his favorite he would tell me. My stomach would turn flip flops in disgust as I would escape into my mind. With each passing time, I would build up another wall against people, my trust slipping at a steady pace.
By the time the summer had ended, the damage was done. I was convinced this was normal behavior of not just old men but also that of any guy and that I had prompted it to happened. I had convinced myself that if I told on him, he would find out where I lived and the situation would be much worse. My mom would blame me and tell me I had to have provoked him. After all, I overheard the moms at school once telling my mom I was sure to be a heartbreaker when I go older. She wasn’t amused and said she would rather have me sent to a convent that I would probably amount to trouble in the male department. I had no idea what she meant, but in my 13 year old mind at that moment, I thought I had an idea.
The following summer, I had an opportunity to go with my friend to her lake house in Michigan. It was complete freedom for us. We had no curfew, no rules, no guidelines. All a terrible combination for young girls just entering high school. I was a real late bloomer and was very naive in the ways of the world. We went to a party where I had my first beer. Three Budweisers later, I was ripped. Weighing roughly 105 pounds and having no experience with alcohol of any kind, three beers did to me what cyanide would do to a dog. We stumbled back to the lake house around one am and had to be up at 6 am to take a boating class so we would be certified drivers of her father’s boat. I experienced my first of hundreds of hangovers that morning. My friend’s dad had to know what was up, but he, too, was alcoholic so he made no mention of our escapade.
What I learned from that moment was that I could talk to guys while I was under the influence of alcohol. Prior to that time, I clammed up afraid they were all like Frank. But the beer did something to me; I had confidence; I was funny; I wasn’t completely shy and lost in the woodwork. I had my crutch which would come in handy for the next three decades. From the first drink I ever had, I was alcoholic.
Later that same summer, we met some local guys who wanted to go boating with us; my friend knew their older siblings so I wasn’t concerned. We consented and spent the day with them. Never mind that they were smoking pot and hopping out of the boat as we were traveling at high rates of speed. No red flags either when mentioned they would be juniors in high school. Why in the hell wouldn’t they want to hang out with some recent 8th grade graduates? Nor was I even remotely worried that they color had enough beer in their color for half the lake. So when they suggested we go talk to one of their grandmas who lived on the other side of the lake, I thought that was a great idea. I even told myself they couldn’t be that bad if they wanted to spend time with their grandma on a beautiful summer day.
As they docked up, the cute, tanned one asked if I wanted to meet his grandma. Sure, why not? So, I hopped out with him and headed up the gravel path. When we were out of sight of the boat, he leaned in and grabbed me close. His hot, nasty mouth was all over me. I pushed back and asked where his grandma was. He laughed his head off. There was no grandma. He moved in again this time pretty aggressively. I wasn’t that drunk and I took off running back to the boat. Needless to say, I was made the butt of the jokes for the rest of the day. I didn’t care that much, but it was the last time any of those boys ever talked to me again. I figured I must have done something wrong and was even more confused.
But that time, I did do something different; when I got home, I told my mom about how I fended off some guy who was a liar. I was absolutely so naive. I really thought she would be proud of me and that would be the end of it. She was proud, don’t get me wrong. But then she started asking questions like how did we meet them, what were we doing riding around in a boat with guys, where was my friend’s dad when all of this was happening. I lied about the rest of the details. Somehow telling the truth to my mom didn’t seem so valuable anymore.
Fast forward to my sophomore year in high school. My mom was working late that night (She went back to work while I was in 8th grade after being home since she married my dad some 35 years earlier); when I came in with two of my friends, there in the center of the kitchen was an oversized trash can which was overflowing with rakes, shovels, garden hoes, and brooms. Attached to it was a note that read, “Pick up your fucking room. You are a fucking disgrace. I work too hard for you worthless kids to treat MY house like this.” Shame burning up through my ears, I pulled the note off and quickly said, “Oh my dad is such a jokester.” It was at that moment he came tearing out of the bathroom to scream at me some more. I was insistent that my friends come into the living and watch a movie with me on our new VCR. “Mom said I could have friends over.” I was putting my foot down on this nonsense. He continued to scream and scared the shit out of my friends; not unexpectedly, they bolted. (By the grace of God, these two fine ladies are in my still-existent circle of friends.)