Just One Night

December 20, 2006

My Aunt Melissa had two kids and two divorces by the time she was 18 years old. Around the time she turned 20, she met another man who wanted to marry her. At this point, I can only assume that she thought she was running out of options, so she said yes. Or maybe I am way off base and she really did love him. He seemed to to be everything she was looking for. He worked, he wanted to care for her children and he was a good provider for them. The way I always heard it, neither of her children’s biological fathers wanted much to do with her or the kids. My cousins, Dale and Josie, were adopted by him. His name was Jim. They never saw their biological fathers again.

When Dale and Josie were about eight and nine years old, respectively, my mom woke me up in the middle of the night to tell me that they would be coming over to spend the night with us, and we needed to find Josie some pajamas and make room for her in my bed. She told my brothers the same thing. Jim and Aunt Melissa’s house burned down. Everything they had was lost. I have no idea where they stayed, but Dale and Josie ended up staying with us for a whole week. I used to sneak out of my bed at night and listen to my parents talk through the vent in my bedroom floor. One night, Josie and I were doing this and we heard a discussion that made me feel horrible.

“Ann, the kids can stay here as long as they need to. Melissa can stay here if she needs to or if she wants to. That son of a bitch is not coming into my house. We have a daughter. I will not put my daughter in his path, and I will not put myself in the position of killing the piece of shit if anything happens. Your sister may think it’s okay or turn an blind eye, but we all know what goes on there. This isn’t even something we’re going to discuss. The answer is no. Don’t ever bring it up again.”

Mom didn’t reply to this, and I looked at Josie.

“What’s he talking about?”

“I don’t know. I’m sleepy. We’re not supposed to be awake anymore. I’m going to sleep before we get in trouble.”

Josie turned toward the wall and wouldn’t say anything else to me for the rest of the night, and the next morning she didn’t talk at breakfast. When we caught the school bus she sat by herself. They stayed with us for a couple days after that, and then they went to my Aunt Charlotte’s house.

By that time, the cause of the fire was known. It was arson. I don’t remember the specifics of it, but most of the town was fairly certain Jim had set the fire himself. He tried to suggest a few people who might have reason to roast him, his wife and their children, but no one was ever arrested. Despite being able to prove he had set the fire, the insurance company still refused to pay. He had a history of unfortunate fires. Two cars he owned had caught fire previously. A pool hall he owned also burned to the ground, but I can’t remember if that was before or after their home was destroyed.

They ended up moving to the next town over and living in a really old trailer after the insurance refused to pay for the house. They stayed there for several years. Josie never spent the night with me at my mom and dad’s again, but we did spend the night together at my grandmother’s. When I was twelve, I begged and pleaded with my parents to let me spend the night at her house. They finally said yes. I had never spent the night with my cousin Josie before, so I was kind of psyched. It was Easter. I was 12 years old.

That night, as we sat around watching McGuyver, Jim told Josie that he needed her in the bedroom to scratch his back. She sat their for a few minutes and didn’t respond.

“You better get off your ass and go do what your dad tells you to,” Melissa said. Everything she said always sounded harsh. Especially when she was going to bat for Jim.

Carrie came out of her parent’s bedroom about 20 minutes later.

“Dad wants you to go in there,” she said to me.

“Why? I’m watching McGuyver.”

“Just do it,” Melissa said. She didn’t saound as harsh with me. Just tired. Jim’s mom was there and she never looked up from the television. Dale got up and went to his own bedroom.

“Whatever.” I went into the bedroom.

“Let me see your fingernails,” Jim said. I held out my hands. “Perfect. I want you to sit on my lower back and scratch my upper back and shoulders.

I felt really weird doing that. I also didn’t know what else to do, so I did it. The room was dark except for the black and white static of a small tv. He had a sheet on. I didn’t think he had any clothes under the sheet.

“Hold on, I’m going to roll over and I want you to scratch my chest.” He held me on top of him. The sheet was still on him, but it felt so strange. It wasn’t like when my dad and I wrestled around on our living room floor and I ended up on top. He was moving my hips and telling me to keep scratching his chest.

I couldn’t breathe. Finally, I managed to get off of him.

“Where are you going?’

“McGuyver’s on. I want to finish watching it.” I left them room, but felt like I left the world. I couldn’t think, I didn’t even know what happened or why I felt the way I did.

Josie sat on one end of the couch and I sat on the other for awhile. Finally, I told my aunt I wanted to go home. She didn’t want me to. I cried and cried and told her I was sick and I missed my mom and dad. She finally called my mom.

“You need to come get this little brat of yours. Don’t ever expect me to keep her all night again. This spoiled brat bullshit is just that. She’ll be ready. Get over here now.”

Mom and dad came and got me and I just told them I didn’t like Jim’s mom and Melissa was being mean. They never mentioned it again.

The following week, in school, I told my best friend Sara what happened. Sara was a pretty street smart kid. Spent a great deal of her childhood living in foster homes, group homes and with whatever family would take her in. I told her I didn’t think it was a big deal, but I just wanted to tell someone. The very next day, I got a note in my math class to go to the guidance office. Sara told our guidance counselor what I had told her in confidence. The guidance counslor, in turn, notified Social Services.

Within a day’s time, my mother’s family literally blew apart. Lines were drawn and sides were chosen. My parents were horrified and have not, to this day, gotten over the guilt the felt at having allowed me to spend the night there to begin with. Melissa had to move out or face losing her children. My grandmother let her move a trailer into a lot next to her house. Dale and Josie spent every night there. Melissa divided her time between there and Jim’s home. My grandmother asked my cousin Leigh, whom I have always been extrememly close to, why I would lie about something like that. Leigh told my grandmother I didn’t lie.

“Gran, why do think none of us were ever allowed to spend the night over there? My mom and dad told me they were always afraid that would happen.”

Gran believed none of it. My mom’s half sister, Maya, who lived in Florida but spent most of her summers here, came forward and said he tried to touch her breasts when she was 14. Gran didn’t put any stock in the word of her first husband’s child with the woman he left her and her own children for, though. Mom’s sister Charlotte believed me when my parents and I were around, but when Melissa and Gran were around, she thought I was a wicked little liar, too. Charlotte’s husband believed me, though, and managed to get Dale and Josie to move in with them.

Melissa did divorce Jim, although it was 13 years later. One night, over a bottle of Jack Daniels and some Christmas cookies, between just her and I, she apologized and told me she knew about it all along. She also told me about the beatings she endured. She told me about the shotgun that was held to Josie’s head as she slept one night when Melissa was thinking about leaving. She told me that Dale was not immune from the sexual abuse either. She showed me scars on her body from cigarettes he put out on her. Even though she and Jim had been divorced for 3 years at this point, he would call her often, begging for “his Melissa” back.

Melissa found love again, with a man who was 25 years older than her, but a very nice person. One night, he had gone out hunting. He came back, and his home was in flames. Everything he had was gone. It was arson. The insurance paid out, but no one ever knew who started the fire. Not officially, at any rate. Surprisingly, he married Melissa anyway.

My gran and I have made up and are on good terms now, although we don’t talk about what happened. It really hurts me that she still speaks to Jim all the time, though.

My mom called me a couple of months ago and told me that Jim had lung cancer and was dying.

I hung up the phone and smiled. And then I sobbed.

At what point does forgiveness make sense?

The Smell of Shame

December 19, 2006

I cannot manage my money. It is humiliating. Somethings are even more humilating, though. Today, I bounced a checked to my boyfriend. He knew when I wrote it to him that I could not really afford it, knowing that it if he didn’t help me I would not be able to buy Christmas presents for my family. Maybe Christmas presents should not have been bought, anyway. I don’t have enough money. This week I have been hit with $500 in car repair bills. He helped me with those, but he needed paid back.

The thing is, he is in a position to help me financially. I know what his investment portfolio looks like. I also know that he likes to pretend that it doesn’t exist. I also know that in a given week he earns several thousand dollars. I know that the hemorrhages money, too. It is not his responsibility to pay my way through this world. I know that he thinks I am immature and irresponsible when it comes to money. I know I am these things.

My most important job as a child was to get the mail. I was to sort out all the bills and only present my father with junk mail when he got home and asked about the mail. My mother hid the bills under her mattress. My father earned at least 4 times what my mother earned, but her job was to manage the family finances. She had free rein with the checking account. My father took out cash for his weekly expenses every payday and never questioned her management, for the most part. Sometimes, when I was really mad at her, I would let him get the mail. Even a regular phone bill with no long distance charges would send him into a fit. When it was stamped “Past Due,” things got ugly.

My father was an Electronics Warfare Specialist at an military base near our home. He was paid very well, and truth be told, we should have been much better off than most of our neighbors and family members. I know we were far better off than most of our family. No one would have ever known it from looking at us, though.

My mother grew up in abject poverty. She was born in 1950, and her father left her and her four siblings when she was nine years old. Her youngest sister was two at the time, and my grandmother had just suffered a stroke that left her partially paralyzed on her left side. She was 30. Grandmother could barely walk. She drug her left leg and her left arm was curled up at her side. Grandfather couldn’t stand the stress of caring for the children and a crippled wife, so he hit the road. He married a woman 3 years older than Mom’s older brother, who was 14 at the time, had five more children, and moved to sunny Florida. They never recieved any money from him, they never recieved a Christmas or birthday card from him, and they certainly never received anymore love from him.

My grandmother did the only thing she could do. She ignored the pain of her condition and found any job she could to support her children. Truthfully, it wasn’t much different than when he was there. The primary difference was that she now drug her leg when she walked. Often, she worked three jobs to keep a roof over their heads. She tended to work at restaurants, so she could bring home leftovers for the family to eat. Her parents helped when they could. They watched the youngest children and provided clothing for them.

My mother’s family did not have electricity until she was 16 years old. That was 1966, for those of you who are even more math challenged than me. 1966 was a little late to join the electric revolution, but better late than never. Dental work was an impossibility for my mom and her siblings. If they had a cavity, my grandmother would instruct the dentist to pull the tooth, regardless of where it was in their mouth. She reasoned that all adults eventually had false teeth anyway. My mother had the misfortune of having two cavities on her front teeth. She really was a beautiful girl, and she spent about 3 months of her sophmore year without front teeth. I cannot imagine what that must have been like for her. Her grandparents finally scraped up the money to buy her a bridge, but socially, the damage was irreperable. You can imagine how her peers might have treated her. To go from rotten teeth, to no teeth, to fake teeth was not easy. She associates with no one from her high school days.

My mother’s sisters both got pregnant at fourteen and fifteen, respectively. They each also had another child and two divorces under their belts by age 18. Mom’s older bothers joined the military. One voluntarily enlisted in the Marine Corps at the height of Vietnam. You know…”They draft the white trash first around here anyways.” The other enlisted in the Air Force. By this time, Mom was about to graduate high school. She was engaged to a man that my grandmother thought was a wonderful catch. He came from a family with money. He also beat my mother. Grandmother told her that sometimes you had to put up with certain things in order to have a better life. She almost disowned my mother when she broke off the engagement for good.

My mother’s upbringing affected her, naturally, in very intense ways. The poverty mindset ingrains itself and never leaves. Whenever bills came, and my father would act like an ass, she would most likely think he was goin gto leave her. That’s the best reason I can come up with for her fear of him seeing them. Yes, he did act like a jackass when he had to pay a bill. He would never have left her, though. Her poverty mindset also showed in other ways. Most of our clothing came from yardsales. My father refused to wear clothing from someone’s garage, and he would get pissed when she bought us other people’s junk to wear, so we were never allowed to tell him wear it came from. They could afford to buy us new clothes, but my mother thought it was a waste of money. I remeber begging my dad to take me school shopping. He never wanted to do that, though. Instead, Mom would load us up in the car and hop from one classmate’s garage to another. I would hide in the car until she drug me out, sometimes literally and almost violently, to hold some grubby t-shirt up to me to see if it would fit. Sometimes, a classmate would recognize an article of clothing and mention it. To this day, I cannot accurately describe the shame and humiliation I would feel.

Which brings me back to the bounced check to my boyfriend. I have a closet full of clothes, and I do not need anymore. Except…I do need more. I need those new clothes to help erase the embarrassment and insecurity I still feel. So, I buy things. Sometimes, I don’t even take the tags off and wear them. But they are new and they were bought in a store and no one will ever look at me and say “Didn’t you buy that shirt at my mom’s yard sale for a quarter? It used to be mine. I didn’t like it anymore, and we sold it with all of our junk. Hahahaha…you’re wearing my junk!” Sometimes, my need to have new clothes overrides my ability to pay for them. I still remember how yardsale clothes smelled. They all smelled the same. I will never allow that scent to be on my body again.


December 18, 2006

I was born in 1976 to parents who were ill-equipped. My mother had a horrible upbringing and my father was raised in a “spare the rod, spoil the child” atmosphere. My older brother’s birth was traumatic, to say the least. I mention him now only because his birth seems to have had a profound effect on my life, which began 3 years later.

Daniel was a very large baby, and my mother was a very small woman. His birth involved forceps being unsuccessfully used at the last minute and what she describes as an abusive medical staff. She was alone in the delivery room because my father was in the military, and also because fathers just didn’t particpate all that much back then. He was too large for the birth canal, and when he came out, he had a gash on his head from the forceps and his eyes were both blackened. My mother’s pelvis was fractured. The doctors had decided against a ceserean for whatever reason. They compared the damage from the birth to a bad car wreck. I was told this story over and over as I grew up. My brother had some pretty severe learning disabilities, and he also developed epilepsy as a teenager. He went to different schools than I did, because our school district was not equipped to teach him. Even though we lived in the same house, I never really got to know him. Now, as adults, we are cordial and polite to each other, but really don’t have anything to say. It is a shame, too, because he is one of the nicest people I know.

When I was eleven, as I listened to my mother repeat the story of Daniel’s birth for what had to be the millionth time, she told me how lucky I was to have even been born.

“You know, we seriously considered having an abortion when we found out we were having you. You know what that means, don’t you? It means you would never have been born.”

Surprisingly, my mother never drank in her life. I think we all would have been better off if she had, though. Throughout the years, I have thought about that conversation often. My mother looked at me with a grave expression and told me about my near early demise, and I always felt as though she wanted me to hug her and thank her for not aborting me, promising to always be a good girl. I remember looking at her, feeling hurt, confused and at the same time, relieved. I finally knew that she didn’t completely want me, that I wasn’t just imagining the coldness and distance. It felt better to actually know that she was indifferent about my existence than to think I was crazy. The relief was a double edged sword, though. The other side was pure, razor-sharp pain.

I made up memories whenever friends would reminicse about their own childhoods. I would talk about happy days spent climbing trees and running through fields, skipping rocks in the creek and camping in the backyard. It wasn’t always a lie. I did climb trees. Usually, though, I was crying and looking for a place to hide. I ran through fields, too, but I was running from angry voices and fists. I tell stories of a bucolic childhood, spent picking blackberries in the summer, but I never mention how my mother would be apt to pummel me with her fists as I shielded my head and face if I broke her favorite berry bucket or ate too many while I was picking them.

When I think about my childhood, I always feel as though I am walking a wire. If I fall off the wire on one side, the hurt I always tried to hold down will break free and pull me into a mire of sticky blackness. If I fall off on the other side, I will just keep falling and falling into confusion and nothingness. Sometimes, I wish I would fall on the wire itself, and be cut into two pieces.

Most of my life has been spent doing just that…destructing.