I was dating this boy that had a huge crush on my best friend. Which was fine. I didn’t like him like that either. If I’m totally honest, I probably had a crush on her too. ANYWAY….! Everyone had a crush on her. She was that girl in high school and to this day I still have no idea why she chose me to be her sidekick for those few precious years. It was like she reached down into the gutters and pulled me into the light. I was a NOBODY and even worse, a SCUMMER before she decided I was worthy.
The three of us had just scrambled up my porch and threw open the door to my apartment ready with our usual shouts of “Hi, Mom!” “Hi Ms. Arnett!” “Hi, Crystal’s mom!” before closing my bedroom door behind us. My house was the best for hang outs because even though there weren’t any snacks, my mom was pretty oblivious to our mischief and gave us a lot of space. I’m a mom now and looking back, I have to add that it was far too much space. She was a great mom, but for some reason, she just did not parent me once I became a teenager. She treated me like a little adult. I could come and go as I pleased for the most part.
When we opened the door, we found a young man dressed in a suit and tie holding a paper out for my mom to sign.
“Whoa! What is going on here?!” I was freaking out because my mom was illiterate and there was no way that she knew what she was signing. I wasn’t going to say that in front of my friends but also, WHAT WAS SHE SIGNING?!
“Hi, young lady!” um this guy was like 5 years older than me. Maybe. Ugh. I hated him instantly. “I just sold your mom a new Vacuum!”
“We don’t need a vacuum! Mom! What is going on?”
“Let me show you how it works. You will not believe the dirt that you had in this carpet!” He holds up a bag full of filth that he informs me (in front of my friends!) that he cleaned out of this one small patch in our living room floor. Now I was boiling. And I was so embarrassed I thought I might puke. This was a touchy spot for me. I had only just started bringing friends around to my house when I hit high school because before that I was too ashamed of our poverty. My mom was too sick and too depressed to clean our house and I was too young to care about cleanliness. Plus, I was my mother’s daughter and the only time I can picture her cleaning was when she was helping my aunt at her work.
Mr. Salesman pointed to a square of carpet that was about 10 shades lighter than all of the surrounding carpet. It probably had never been vacuumed. It was gross. I could see it now and so could my friends.
Still, we didn’t need a vacuum! We had one. “Oh my God! This is such a SCAM! You did not get that much dirt out of that tiny area of carpet!” I snatched the paper out of his hand. “Give me that! What did my mom just sign?!”
It was worse than I expected. The vacuum was more than $1000. My mom was unemployed. In fact, she had never in her entire life held a job on the books. Babysitting for pocket change was just enough to maybe buy us a few of the odds and ends that food stamps and HUD housing voucher didn’t cover. That vacuum would take us YEARS to pay off. We couldn’t even afford the lights and heat as it was. We were not only month to month, we were on the pay $10 here and $10 there and hope that they don’t turn it off plan!
Maybe he didn’t know that. But he could have looked around and figured it out. I mean we were the kind of poor that you could see.
I did not know what to do. My panic was greater than my shame. There was no way we could pay that bill but there was my mom’s signature right on the bottom. That was one of the few things she could write. I would always write out the letter or wherever and then she would write Thank you. Deborah L. Arnett. You would think that since it was the only thing that she could write that maybe she would have perfected it but no, it was so messy and shaky like a kid learning cursive for the first time.
I took the contract with me and I went outside. I needed space to read it through and try to see if there was a way out of it. My friends followed me. I was humiliated and pissed. The boyfriend watched helplessly as tears spilled all over the papers. He was a goofball. Silly and mischievous and not the most practiced in navigating difficult emotions. But his reaction was exactly what I needed.
“You know what?!” He reached for the papers. “Nope. Give me that.” Riiiiiiiiip. He grinned from ear to ear as he shredded the contract. “Your mom didn’t sign nothin’.”
The 20 year old vacuum salesman descended my porch steps pretty quick. He was red in the face and spitting words at us that I could not even hear. I could not believe this boy just did that! We dated for maybe a week longer and I never even kissed him, but that boy was my hero that day.
The icing on the cake was that the carnival was in town and we saw Mr. Vacuum Salesman at the fried dough stand. The boyfriend went directly into action. “Hey, look everybody! There’s our friend Hoover! He likes to steal from poor people! Hey, Mr. Hoover! Where you goin’, buddy? Come back! Maybe you can sell us a vacuum!” He followed him shouting for everyone to hear until he left. He was probably just another poor kid at his first job from the next town over but I guess he learned a lesson that day.
My mom didn’t even care that we weren’t buying the vacuum or that her teenage daughter’s boyfriend ripped up a receipt of sale on a major purchase she made. It was like she had been under a spell and once the paper was ripped, the spell was broken. She literally did not react or at least I don’t remember any reaction.
She must have known that it was a trash decision, but also this was the same woman who watched the game show “BIG BUCKS NO WAMMIES!!!” Where she would shout that at the television and cheer when the contestants won money and actually take it personally when they lost. She would enter for the Publishers Clearning House Sweepstakes every single month and buy things on credit (who would give her credit? Oh right! Publishers Clearing House, the company that is famous for scamming poor people into thinking they were going to win big!) So, maybe she didn’t realize it was a bad purchase. Who knows?
My mom had elaborate plans for how she would spend our money when she finally beat multi-generational poverty by winning the million dollar sweepstakes. It is actually when I remember these plans that I realize how deep my moms delusions and anxiety were.
This woman who could not do basic math or read or write would sit me down and explain in elaborate detail about how if we won, we would lose our state medical insurance and she would have to pay for all of her AIDS meds out of pocket and so we wouldn’t really be rich because we would have to put aside for that. We would have enough money though to get my grandparents out of the trailer park. We would get ourselves a nice double wide and they would move in with us. We once had a landlord that lived in a double wide trailer across the way from our single sized one and it became the epitome in my mom’s mind of comfortable living.
I do not share my mom’s desire to win big but I did partner outside of my class and although it wasn’t a conscious decision it basically was the same as winning big. In the United States, partnering outside of class is one of the few ways to climb the class ladder. Its not as impossible as opening your door to find the Publishers Clearing House delivering a giant million dollar check, but still not that common.
I haven’t spoken to the boy/class hero in many years, but I might send this to him. This marked the beginning of a shift for me away from shame about my poverty to a healthy anger about our society’s class system.
About a month before my mom died, I stopped going to school. It was January of my Junior year in High-School and everyone was thinking about mid-terms and how this would decide the rest of our lives. I wasn’t thinking about the rest of my life at all. I was thinking about my mother. I was thinking about how she was my whole life and that maybe I would just die with her. Not that I was suicidal but that I couldn’t imagine a reality that did not include her. I thought I would evaporate without her.
One night, while I was asleep in bed, I woke up to a horrible sound. I flew out of bed and searched for my mother. Had she fallen off of the couch? She had never slept in a bed or a bedroom in this apartment. Our living room had always been her space. She wasn’t there. I ran to the bathroom, but she wasn’t there either. I told her not to get up without calling to me for help! Where was she? And then I saw her foot, curled the wrong way coming out from underneath the kitchen table. I ran to her, the tears already pouring down my face. “Mama! Mama! MAMA! Are you okay?!” I reached my hands under her sweaty head and found a goose egg the size of my fist already forming on her forehead. It was the ugliest thing that I had ever seen. “Mama!” She opened her eyes and mumbled something that I could not understand. I bent down and picked her up like she was just a baby. I was not as tall as my mom yet, and I was only 115 pounds, but she was already wasting away. It wasn’t even hard for me to pick her up. I carried her limp body back to the couch and I tucked her back in. I sat with her all of that night and watched her chest rise and fall to make sure that she wouldn’t leave me.
Sometime that night, my whole life changed. I knew before the sun even came up that I would not be going to school that day. That I would not be going to school any day in the near future. I wanted to be there for my mom and take care of her and spend every second that I could with her.
That also meant that I would have to write a difficult letter to my boyfriend. He was the love of my life, but things had gone terribly wrong since he left for the army. He was a few years older than me, and almost as poor. He didn’t have the option of college or a job waiting for him, so he took the only chance boys like him were told they had. At first he hated the military. He would write to me constantly about how he was desperate to get out. Over time, those letters started to change. He would write things that I had never heard him say before. He was suddenly vocally racist and turning into a man that I did not know let alone want to spend the rest of my life with. He was furious when I told him I was not going to make the trip to Georgia with his parents to watch him graduate from military training. He could not understand how I could choose my mother over him. She was dying! Why would I be so focused on the past with her when he was my future! And he needed me!
I was alone. My best friends were all older than me and either graduated or were graduating. I hadn’t seen my half siblings since I was a small child and I had no one that I felt safe with or seen by. I turned to my best friend, who was a boy, for comfort. I am not proud of cheating on my boyfriend in the army, and to this day, I feel guilty, but I was scared and I needed someone to hold me and love me and take care of me and I had always been taught to turn to boys for that. Not taught by example, boys in my life had mostly been a source of trauma and violence, but in the stories that we are fed. This boy was different. He was gentle and kind and I felt safe with him. The night that my mom finally died, it was this boy who sat with me as I said goodbye. He went home well after midnight after his mother called frantic to our house looking for him. He was an upper-middle class boy from a good home and I honestly remember feeling a little guilty for scarring him with an AIDS death. That was for people like me. Not him.
When he left, I laid down beside my mom. We had since gotten her into in-home hospice care and they had brought a hospital bed right into our living room. It was pushed up against the wall where our couch should have been. Above my mom’s head was a small prescription note ripped from a doctors pad at the hospital. It said Do not Resuscitate. I had fought for that note but I also hated it. I wanted to be strong enough to do this. To let my mom go, but I needed her. I felt selfish. I said the right things. I held her hands. I whispered into her ear that she could go and that I loved her, but my heart was shattered and I didn’t mean a word of it.
I wanted to scream at her, “Mommy! I need you! Please don’t leave me!” but I knew that would not make a difference, and besides, she was already almost gone. Science and medicine would say she was still there, but I had felt her leave already. I had felt her squeeze my hand after not being able to acknowledge anyone for days and then I had felt her spirit leave me.
Now, I was laying with her body, still sweating and breathing, but barely. I will never forget that moment in the early hours of January 20, 2004. The way she looked, and smelled and breathed and lived will forever be etched on my soul. I wish that I could remember her voice too, but she had already given up on words. My mother’s voice is like that thing that you can almost remember, but not quite. It sits on the tip of my own tongue and I try to let it out. I try to hear it..and I almost do. Sometimes. Sometimes I hear it in my dreams. But these visits are never the kind that I am so desperate for. They are not the visits from the mother who would hold me and rock me and love me. These are the visits from my mother who was so deeply traumatized that she became the abuser. She chases me in my dreams. I do not fight back, but I do protect myself. I run away or jump out of windows to avoid her swinging weapons at me. Sometimes, she catches me and I can see her wild eyes glaring into mine and she is trying to kill me but I always make myself wake up. Then I can still feel my heart pounding and my voice is screaming in my head, begging her to stop. To love me again. To not hurt me anymore. Both of those mothers existed in real life. I wish my dream world could remember both.
I never defended myself against these attacks, although I didn’t just stand there and take it either. I would run away if possible and dodge anything she could throw at me. One time, when I was finally almost as big as my mom, not too many months before she died, I grabbed my mom’s fist as it came flying at my head. I did not hit her back, but I did use my newfound strength to hold her back from continuing to abuse me. We crashed into a chair and I used that opportunity to bolt out of the house. I ran all the way to a friends house and pretended that I was just bored and looking for something to do.
My grandmother found us walking downtown and stopped the car right beside me on the sidewalk. I gulped and gave my friend an “I’m sorry for what is about to happen” look. She had no idea what was going on. I was humiliated by my abuse and never told her, or anyone, what was happening. My grandmother snatched me by the hair and dragged me to her car. She whipped the door open and threw me in the backseat. I might have been almost as big as my mama but I wasn’t even close to as big as my grandma! She lit right into me, saying some nonsense about how my mom called her crying and how she wouldn’t tolerate me beating up on my own poor mama. Well, I opened my mouth to respond and tell her what was really happening when she turned around to face me in the backseat and smacked me HARD across the face. I gave up and just cried the whole way back to my apartment with my mom. I didn’t even have enough fight left in me when I got back to object to my grandma demanding I apologize to my mom. I just said, “I’m sorry” and locked myself away in my room.
I was not completely innocent throughout this time either though. I know that I didn’t deserve any of that abuse, but I DID deserve some kind of punishment or something. I was convinced that I was trash. That I did not matter and that no one loved me in the world. And so it was that I fell prey to every evil small town America can muster up. Boys and alcohol and drugs were my primary source of pain and pleasure and I was not giving my mom an easy time at all. If she wanted to protect me, she was going to have to stand in my way and I had learned that she no longer could. At some point I simply stopped sneaking out of my bedroom window and started walking out the door. My mom gave up too. I would look over my shoulder and say, “I love you. Good night. See you in the morning.” and she would say it back. No questions about where I was headed or who would be there or how I was getting there. We both just wanted to make sure that no matter what happened, those would be the last words we said to each other. On one hand, because we knew too well that our time together was not going to last and also because I felt like it was a magic spell almost. Like if we always said those words, then we would see each other in the morning and my mom would never die. The night that she finally passed, she was not able to say those words and I chose not to. Instead, I said, “I love you. It is ok to go now. I love you so much mom.” Maybe they did hold a little bit of magic. Who knows.
I thought of all of this during the weeks of no sleeping that my mom was dying at our home. After her fall, I committed to not sleeping unless the hospice nurse was visiting during the day, so that I could be sure that she wouldn’t try to get out of bed alone again. I remember staring for hours at that little note on the wall above her. D.N.R. I wanted to tear it off the wall so many times. It was such an important piece of paper, but it was just barely taped there. It looked like someone had just taped it up in a hurry because it was crooked and only attached with a tiny piece of tape. But I had fought for my mom to have the right to die at home. I had stood up as tall as I could and looked directly in the eye of the doctor in charge of my mom’s care. He would not discharge my mom without giving someone the discharge orders so that someone would know how to take care of her since she was no longer cognitively or physically able. She really had never been.
“Listen, I know you want your mom to go home. If you want that, I need to speak with an adult. Isn’t there someone that you can reach who can come here and get the instructions for her care so that we can discharge her safely?” -The young handsome doctor that everyone in my town seems to love and admire.
“No. There is no one. There is me. I am her caregiver. I am 17 years old. If I was 18, would you give me the instructions?”
“Yes…I would. I need to give the discharge paperwork to an adult. Not to a child.”
“I am not a child! I am the one who has taken care of her all of these years! Can I call a relative? Sure! I could call up my grandma or an aunt or uncle, but it won’t be them at our home making sure she takes the right meds or holding her hair back while she pukes or making sure she eats enough and stays hydrated. It will be me! So, you tell me what is safer, giving the discharge instructions to an adult who won’t be there or to a child who will be?”
He looks at me. I think he hears this. I know that it is not only my age that he is weighing the risks of. He has also heard of my reputation. He is close with a parent of one of my classmates. Also, it is a small town so no one is free from their own reputation. What if he sends my mom home with me and I just leave and go out drinking? Looking back I can see that his intentions were probably good, but in that moment, I hated him. I hated that he was adored and I was hated, that he was all powerful and I was weak. That he held my mom’s final wishes in his hands and could stop me from giving her what she wanted.
“Please. My mom wants to die at home. Please don’t keep her here.”
Finally, he helped me make a plan. I would need to fill out some paperwork and we would need to keep that note in a clearly visible spot that an ambulance crew would definitely see if they were called to our home. And so it was. My mom got her wish to die at home. Over those next few weeks, I panicked more than a few times and pushed the emergency button that would get me a hospice nurse on the phone immediately. I knew there wasn’t anything they could do except keep her comfortable, but I was still terrified of what was happening. I was committed to helping my mom die at home, and I never would have let them take her, so I am not sure what was going through my head when I would slam down on that button. I think I just needed a witness and I needed someone to know that none of this was ok.
Being with my mom as she died is a sacred gift that I am incredibly grateful for. She accidentally birthed me at home (well in a truck, not in a hospital) and then I intentionally helped her transition out of this life at home. It made sense to me that I would share that moment with her. We had always shared everything.
Losing my mom was terrifying for the many years that I anticipated it, but when it happened, it was not scary at all. It just was. After she died, I took one last look at her. I tried to memorize every detail. I knew that it would be the last time that I would see her. She wanted to be cremated. Then I walked to my room, pulled the covers over my head and went to sleep. I have no idea how long I laid there or if I was even really asleep. I know I wasn’t crying. I was numb. I was numb for a long time. I remember “waking up” in my high school English teachers house and realizing that I lived there now and realizing that I had been sleepwalking through my life since my mom’s death.
That morning that my mom died, the local funeral director came into my room. He knelt down beside my bed and pulled the blankets back so that he could see my face.
“Crystal, I know this is hard. I need you to answer a few questions for me so that we can arrange a funeral for your mom.”
“I can’t do it. Isn’t there someone else you can talk to about this?”
“Crystal, there isn’t anyone else here. I promise it won’t take long. I just have a few questions.”
“What was your grandmothers maiden name? What year did your mom’s husband die?…” I answered these questions calmly, but with hot tears streaming down my face. I thought of the irony that when I wanted to be considered grown up enough to take care of my mom, the system saw me as a child but when I wanted to be left alone in my grief, it didn’t matter that I was a child. I was the only one there.
Just a few months later, my only grandfather died and I sat on the porch of my uncle answering all of those same questions again with that same funeral director. This time I screamed at him, “Why are you asking all of these questions again? You know all of the answers! How many of my relatives have you buried? My father, step father, cousins, grandparents! You know this. Are you trying to hurt us?” This poor man was actually a sweet guy just doing his job, and I hope he forgives me and understands that my rage was not meant for him. I was mad at death and AIDS and poverty and drugs and all of the world for allowing my family to be vulnerable to these predators.
There is not a day that goes by that I do not wish that my mom were still here. I miss her so deep in my chest. It still hurts to think about. I know that she would have softened in her old age. I tell myself that she would not have chased my children around with knives as she chased me. Grandparents are gentler with their grandchildren than with their children. I know she would have loved my three angels almost as much as I love them. I will never have her back. But when it hurts the most, when I miss her so much that I can not breath, I let myself close my eyes and remember that day.
The day she died. and it brings me peace. The early morning hours when it was just us again. Curled into each others arms in a sweat soaked bed. Her hair matted to her face and clinging to my shoulder. Our fingers interlaced as I said goodbye and as she left me. I will forever grieve my mother, but i am also eternally grateful that I got the privilege to guide her to the other side. I am not sure what waits for us after we die, but my mom was a believer in Heaven and God and the Angels and so that is where I picture her now. Singing off tune with the angels and giving my little babies angel kisses before sending them over to me on this side.
I am sitting in the public library trying to focus on what is real and in front of me to slow down my brain which is spiraling into anxiety and fear. I am scanning the room for exits and checking to see if the door we are near locks. It doesn’t. I try to make my eyes stay focused on my oldest, happily absorbed in a book. I see my son building blocks with my toddler. I also see a man walk in weighted down with heavy bags. I try to make eye contact so that I can gage his mood and if he is a threat. This is not uncommon behavior for me, but given the latest news cycle of mass shootings, my alarm bells are louder and easier to set off.
I hear a lot of debate about guns and the causes of mass violence, but I am not hearing a lot from the people who live in the communities who supposedly love guns and benefit from having easy and constant access to them. I am sure there are many people from my neck of the woods who would have a different analysis and experience than me, but I know for a fact that there are just as many women and children living in the war zone that I grew up in. I have learned that if I can not find what I am looking for, then I need to create it. The stories that follow are just one girls experiences of growing up poor in gun-loving rural America.
The first time I held a gun in my hands, I was only five years old. I was sitting criss-cross applesauce on the edge of my dad’s bed. My dad, my real birth dad, was dying of AIDS so he lived all of his days in a hospital cot that was in the living room of the apartment that he shared with his wife (not my mom) and my four siblings. I spent a lot of time curled up in that bed on the weekends when I was at their home.
My dad reached under his pillow. He pulled the gun out and although this is my first gun memory, there must have been something before this, because I sensed danger. Already the hairs on the back of my neck were raised and already I was terrified. Even in the arms of my dad who called me “Face” and “Sunshine” and told me he loved me at every chance.
He was saying words, but I do not remember them. My memory of this moment is a silent film. I can feel the weight of the gun in my hands. I am already trained to play along with men, even dad-men, and act like I am interested in whatever they say so that I do not make them angry. I examine the gun with my eyes and try to force a smile at my dad. His eyes are not smiling. He looks sad. He looks scared. Why is he scared?! If he is scared then I definitely need to be scared too. I do not know what shifts but I feel it in my body as my dad takes the gun out of my hand. Now, I feel that cold metal that was just in my hands, pressed against my head. I can’t breathe. What is happening? Then. My brother, the oldest one. The one that I am also scared of. He enters the room and without thinking, I dive off of the bed and run out of the room as fast as I can. I know that my dad can’t get out of bed to chase me. I will be safe now. Not only does he have AIDS, but he had Polio as a child and his immuno-depressed state has somehow reactivated the polio and stolen his ability to walk even with a cane as he used to.
When my mom comes to pick me up with her new boyfriend, Tom, I am still trembling. I am still not forming words, which is unlike me. If I am not talking, something is not ok. My mom would not let it rest until I gave her the details of what happened. She is furious and over the course of the next week her fury and fear are building and building. The story of what happened is building and building and I can no longer at this age decipher between what happened and what was my mom’s interpretation of what happened.
That Friday, my mom locked the doors and turned the lights off when my step-mom, Jane came to pick me up. When Jane demanded that my mom send me with her so I could see my dying father, my mom let loose on her. If not for that locked door, I can only imagine the brawl that would have ensued. Instead, I was witness to a knock out drag out screaming match. The hysteria died down and we let our guard down and turned the lights back on. Then the police came.
Boom! Boom! Boom! “Open! Up! It’s the police!”
Now my mom is not mad. She is terrified. We are white and therefore incredibly privileged, but in a small predominantly white town, it is this part of town, the low income housing side, that sees the most police aggression. Still, I am her only child and she has nothing to lose. She will not put me in harms way. “NO! I will not open this door! I will not let you take my child back to that place!! Please! He put a gun to her head! He put a gun to my daughters head! I won’t let you take her!”
“We have a court document that states that the child needs to be with her father right now. We need you to open the door or we will be forced to bust it open.”
My mom is frantically dialing the court ordered lawyer. She isn’t getting ahold of anyone. She isn’t sure what to do. My step-dad is just recently released from Prison and she does not want to get him in trouble over this. He is hiding in the bedroom. I am hiding too. I am curled up in my mom’s closet under a pile of clothes, squeezing my eyes closed and crying. I have heard from my mom that my dad was trying to kill me. That he wants to die and that he wants to take me with him.
The police are in the house. I can hear my mom sobbing and begging them not to take me. They demand to be told where I am. They are in the room. My mom’s room. I am trying to be silent but I am still gulping for air. I can see through the slats in the closet door that they are tearing the room apart. They look under the bed. They look in the clothes basket. They knock everything off the dresser. I am not on the dresser, but clearly they are mad that they have to do this job and they are acting big and tough. It works. I am more scared than I was on my dad’s lap with a gun pressed to my face.
They open the closet door. I do not wait for them to lift the clothes and find me. I throw the pile off me and while they are realizing what is happening, I make my escape. But I am small. I am a kindergartner. They grab for me, but I hurl my body underneath the kitchen table. I cling to the leg of the table, while they cling to my legs. I am sure they are trying to talk to me and tell me I am safe, but I do not feel safe. I am screaming at the top of my lungs, “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” and that is when they finally let me go. They finally see how scared I am. They tell me mom that they will send over a social worker and that they will not make me go to my fathers this weekend but that we will need to go back to court and get this all worked out.
The trauma continues through the court process where they make me testify in a room full of adults. Men. Some of them police with guns holstered onto their hips. They will not let my mom go with me to testify because they are afraid I won’t tell the truth with her there. They make me do this many times over weeks and months to make sure that my story does not change. My accusation is pretty serious. They search my father’s apartment and never find the gun, but they also never send me back there. The next time I see my dad, he is on his death bed in a hospital and I am there to say goodbye.
My exposure to guns did not die with my father. The second time that I held a gun in my hands, I was seven years old. My step father hands me the gun and directs me to point it up the hill in the yard behind our trailer. He tells me he is training me to hunt groundhogs. This gun is nothing like my father’s gun. It is much bigger. It is almost as big as me. My step-father is laughing at how ridiculous I look trying to hold the weight of it up on my scrawny shoulder to steady it. “It’s got a kick! So get ready! It will probably knock you on your ass!” He is cackling at this.
I hate this. I don’t want this gun in my hands. I am afraid, but I don’t want to prove my step-dad right that I am a weakling good for nothing girl child so I take a deep breath and squeeze the trigger. The shock of the force and echo of the blast knock me flying to the ground. I want to cry and run away but I want to impress my new dad more. So, I get up. I smile at him. I ask, “Did I do it right? Did I do a good job?” and only after he hugs me do I allow myself to touch the throbbing spot on my arm where the gun has left an already spreading bruise.
As much as I don’t like the feel of a gun in my hands, I really don’t like having the gun in someone else’s hands even more. I have mentioned that my step-dad put me through a rigorous “training” in some of my previous writings. Basically, he was incarcerated for most of his life and so I believe he put me through exercises that he was put through in prison. Some of the training was fun. He would take me on long jogs, he would count my push-ups and sit-ups and reward me when I met my goals. 100 sit-ups without stopping would earn me a baby doll that I desperately coveted. (I earned that doll by the end of first grade.) but the training got more and more sinister. One of his favorite “drills” to put me through was a “game” where he would instruct me to run up the steep hill behind our trailer and avoid being hit by the bullets that he was shooting at me. “Remember! This is important! It is hard to hit a moving target. Keep moving! Keep zigzagging up the hill! DO NOT RUN IN A STRAIGHT LINE!”
I do not know if he was actually shooting at me, but I know that I was running like hell and I was hearing the gun firing behind me. Whether it was all just to scare me and he was really shooting at me or not, I will never know, but I never got clipped with a bullet. I believed that I felt the bullets zinging around me although in my adulthood I wonder if it was only the wind because how could he have actually been shooting at me?
The only time I know that he was definitely shooting live bullets at me, was the time that he pointed a b-b gun point blank at my head in the living room of our trailer. I was a child and he was pissed at something I did. I ducked just as the bb left the gun and it shot right over my head. My mom was sitting right behind me and her head while sitting was right where my head was while standing. It was too fast to see where it hit her, but I saw her reel backward with her hands to her face and I again let out my loudest scream, “MOMMMMMMYY!!!’
I never saw my mom hold a gun, but from time to time I would see her take out a single bullet that she kept, “In case she needed it.” She would hold it in her fingers and turn it this way and that. I knew what that bullet was for. I lived in fear of that bullet. I knew I would lose my mom to AIDS, but I feared I would lose her to the bullet even sooner. I still have that bullet. I keep it not for the same reason as her, but because I want something that my mother touched.By the time I was a teen, Tom was also lost to AIDS, but still gun culture survived around me. It was not uncommon for me to go on dates with boys out some back road, not to go “parking” in the woods, but to shoot at cans and get to know each other. (In case any of the boys I dated in high school are reading this, I much preferred the “parking” to the shooting. Thanks though.) Anyway, by this time, I had been trained well and I knew that men wanted a woman who was strong enough to hold a gun. I would wear my sexiest cut-ff daisy duke jean shorts and hold that gun like I meant business. If you weren’t looking closely, you might think that I liked guns. You might think my heart was beating face and my face was flush with romance, but no. My body was panicking and I was just already pretty good at controlling it to appear normal. Because to not love guns was not normal. I can’t tell you all of my gun stories. It would take too long and what is the point. You understand my story, I think. But even if we didn’t live in the middle of a mass shooting epidemic, I want you to know what it feels like to live in the belly of the gun-loving beast. I never felt safer with a gun in my home.
My mom would have been 55 years old today. She would have loved her three grandbabies. She would have drove me insane but also kept me whole. I honestly can’t imagine what she would have been like had she been given the gift of long life. I never imagined my mom as an old woman or as a grandma…even though I always knew I would be a mama.
My kids already know about AIDS, and oppression and poverty and sexism and racism and all of the factors (ok, most of the factors) that led to my parents dying of AIDS, but how to tell them who my mom really was? I never knew my mom before AIDS. She was diagnosed when I was only three months old. The mom that I grew to know and love was depressed, deeply anxious, paranoid and traumatized. She was in a constant confusing state of waiting to die and fighting for her life.
Today I sat my kids down with the blue plastic bin that I have carted around since my mom died. The “my old life before my mom died” bin. I fried up some summer squash and let my daughter share a cup of coffee with me, because her grandma Debbie would have loved that. I wiped clean every sticky jelly spot from our breakfast table and removed every glass of water. I reminded the kids that the photos we were about to take out and touch are sacred to me.
Slowly, I reached back in time and examined each picture with new eyes, just as my babies were. It is amazing how different they all look with a little perspective and an adult’s eye. Like I noticed medicine bottles lining our living room wall when we lived back in public housing. My eyes had never focused on that detail before. Why would a woman who was keeping her diagnosis a secret be so careless as to leave her med bottles out in the open where anyone could see them? Did she not realize people would be suspicious about a 22 year old mom needing so many meds? What was in those medicine bottles in the late 80’s? What medicine was my mom taking at a time when doctors did not have an effective treatment plan for even the most wealthy and privileged patients, let alone a poor rural woman?
Even after all these years, the pictures are still just crammed into the box, alongside childhood journals and funeral home guestbooks. Today as I touched each photo, I began putting them into a photo album that I picked up at Goodwill. Already, having some of the task done, I felt an ease. They felt a little safer. Why did I wait so long to do this simple task that I wanted so badly?
As I was deciding which pictures deserved a spot in the album, I was also pulling aside my favorite ones of my mom. The ones that show her as a full person. The one of her laughing her face off with her sister at my cousin’s birthday party. The one of her dancing with her father at her wedding. The one of her holding onto her parents and niece and nephew for dear life after her sister lost her youngest child in a car accident. The one of her getting skinny again at the end.
There is so much I don’t know about my mom. I dont know her birth story. She was one of eight children. She and her twin came right in the middle of my grandmother’s pregnancies. Was it dramatic because they were twins? These days, they would have most likely been a cesarean birth but 55 years ago…probably not. Did my mom tell me the story and I don’t remember? She told me my birth story a million times. (future blog post about that. Spoiler alert, I came into the world in the front seat of a pick-up truck!) I called my Aunt Brenda to wish her a happy birthday today and decided to ask her to tell me their birth story, but she wasn’t home. Makes sense, it was her birthday. She still uses a landline, so I just had to keep calling and keep hearing the endless ringing. I will try again tomorrow. How lucky I am that even though I don’t have my mom, I have her twin! If not, her birth story would almost definitely be lost along with my mom and grandparents.
I wish I could tell you what my mom was like before AIDS. I wish I could tell you what her dreams were. All I know is that she was spunky and rebellious and found a way to look cute even without a penny to her name. I only ever saw glimpses of that mom though. The mom that raised me was a born again Christian who wore cat sweaters that she bought second hand and a fanny pack (before it was trendy!)
Somehow I got the idea to listen to a song that I hadn’t heard in 15 years, My Immortal by Evanescence. It came out a month and a half before my mom died, but I don’t remember listening to the words until the day my mom died. Imagine being alone in the apartment that your mom just died in at 17 years old and that song comes on out of no where. I sobbed today in my kitchen still remembering every single word.
You used to captivate me by your resonating light
Now, I’m bound by the life you left behind
Your face it haunts my once pleasant dreams
Your voice it chased away all the sanity in me
These wounds won’t seem to heal, this pain is just too real
There’s just too much that time cannot erase
My Immortal by Evanescence
My children had been working on making yard sale signs while I was making a cherry cheesecake (my moms favorite!) and crying and singing in the kitchen. I hadn’t realized that my oldest was tuned in until I felt her arms wrap around my waist and felt her suddenly crying into my chest. I ran my fingers through her hair and reassured her that I was ok, only sad, but ok, and she said, “I know mom, I just wish I could have met her!” and just like that I saw myself pulling all three of my kids into a big snuggle and heard myself telling them that they have met her in a way! “You know how much I love you and you love me? That was the same with me and my mom and that is how she would have loved you. She was funny and loving and kind and fierce and….and…I guess I am a lot like my mom come to think of it, so knowing me, and if you can imagine a person who is like me and my aunt Brenda mixed together, that is like who your grandma was!”
and so I guess I do remember who my mama was. because I am her. I can still feel her deep in my chest. She is that achy spot, but she is also that well of love that I have for my kids, her grandbabies. She is the way I hold my lips when I am angry and the way my hips pop out when I am feeling sassy. She is most definitely my temper but also my joy. It is not the same. I miss her so much. I wish she was here tonight to hold me like I hold my kids and tell me I am safe. but this space and time that I created for her almost brought her to life for me. It almost made her memory real enough for me to hear and see and smell. It is enough for now. I will pull it all back out at the next big milestone. The anniversary of her death. World AIDS Day. but for now, mama. Good night. I love you. I won’t see you in the morning but that is ok. I will remember you and I will love you forever.
My mom was 22 years old when she was diagnosed HIV+. I was there, but I was only 3 months old, so please forgive me if I get some details wrong. I am doing my best. I have only the pieces whispered to me from relatives and the memories of the stories my mom shared with me when she was alive. These things were never said in full voice and never ever in mixed company.
I want to imagine what this time period was like for my mom because I never had the privilege of knowing her as an adult. Almost..I was 17 when she died. But as I mother my own children, I am reminded that children are incapable of understanding their parents as full people. And that is ok and good unless you never get the chance to grow up.
I imagine my mama cradling me in her arms. Bottle pressed to my lips. She is numb. She is in shock. She is begging God to save her. To save us. She has been living with my father and his 4 children for the past year, playing step-mom to my half siblings and homewrecker at the same time. Most of that year, she is watching her own belly grow with her miracle baby that doctors told her she would never have. But now everything is crashing down around her. Of course it is. You don’t interject yourself into the middle of a marriage and not have some fall-out.
But she did not expect this. No one did. Who would have expected in 1986 for a heterosexual woman in rural America to be diagnosed HIV+. and yet, just the day before, my fathers ex wife had shown up sobbing at the door. Her message was unbelievable and yet it was true. She had been diagnosed HIV+. 6 months to live. Maybe more maybe less, but there was no cure. There was not even a decent treatment. She would suffer and she would die and she would leave behind 4 children ages 6-12. But what about my father? What about my mother? What about all of us kids? We all needed to go get tested. How long was the waiting period in 1986 to get results for an HIV test in a town of less than 2000 people? How long did these mothers, and fathers need to hold their babies wondering if they would at best be orphans and at worst be lost to the epidemic as well? No one knew much about HIV yet, let alone a poor illiterate woman. There was more misinformation and stigma than scientific facts.
My mom must have felt cursed. She had grown up in an evangelical church and knew the lesson well. If you disobey God, he will strike you down! Her dream of becoming a mother was now being held over the fire.
There must have been waves of new things to fear and grieve. While she waited on her own diagnosis, my father gave her his decision. If he came back positive, he would leave us and go back with his wife. He had hurt his real family enough. He would care for his wife and care for their children if she were to go before him. As it turned out, she was the only survivor from all of the diagnosis. I am so happy for her. Honestly. I wish my mom was here too, but I am glad that she made it.
You already know the rest. My father was positive. They had been living together out at his sisters trailer. He would move back into his ex-wife’s apartment and my mom would stay with her now ex boyfriends sister in a tight fitting trailer on the same land as her ex boyfriends mothers house. The grandmother of her new baby. Can you imagine all of the mixed feelings that all of these characters had for my mom who had swooped in and taken my father out of his marriage? Can you imagine how they felt about her after he finally went back to his wife? Can you imagine how they felt about me? I was allowed visitations with my fathers side until I was about 6 years old and even though I was so small, I can still remember, if only viscerally, which relatives loved me and which was saw me as the product of the homewrecker AIDS diagnosis fiasco.
My mom was eventually given an apartment in the housing projects for single mothers. She and I would live there alone for the next 6 years. I would visit my dad on the weekends.
If you have been following my stories, you know all of this. But here is what you might not know yet. My parents were forced to get their HIV tests at the local health clinic. The clinic was the best and only option for healthcare unless you had reliable transportation out of town and health insurance coverage to go somewhere else. The clinic was staffed by an ever changing physician from away and local nurses. In all of my pediatric years at that office, I never had the same doctor for more than 3 consecutive years.
They promised my parents confidentiality but what were the laws and protections in place in ‘86? They promised that the diagnosis would not leave the clinic, and maybe the physicians believed that. I mean, they were from away and maybe did not understand the ways that information is shared in small towns. The nurses knew the truth. They didn’t even hide their disgust and hate when my parents entered the room.
They put rubber gloves on immediately and glared at my mom on the plastic paper covered bed. She clutched me and fought to remain calm and dignified while they threw the thermometer into her lap and said, “take your temperature and then leave the thermometer on the paper to be disinfected.” They wouldn’t touch her. They wished she wasn’t in there at all. Maybe they were genuinely scared. Maybe they didn’t know the ways HIV is transmitted from one person to the next. Maybe they already hated her for being poor and trash and were used to throwing her away. Maybe this was just another round of their abuse.
My step mom was the first to receive her diagnosis and the first to face the violence of stigma. She was sitting in a booth in the diner in the middle of our small town. My siblings were fighting over plates of chicken tenders and ranch and one basket of fries. Money was tight and eating out was more about the experience of doing something out of the house than actually buying food to eat.
She thought she noticed a waitress staring at her. She thought she noticed the waitresses whispering to each other behind their hands. But was that even new? How much whispering had been going on about her over the past year as her husband moved in with another woman who was growing his baby? Her stomach was probably in knots but the doctor had told her to keep living. To go on as best as possible for the sake of the children. They would not have her for long and she should try to spend time with them.
“SHE HAS AIDS!!! I HEARD IT FROM A RELIABLE SOURCE!!” The diner staff had been escalating each other. Ew! She was sitting right at the table, eating off of the silverware and plates! They would have to throw everything in the trash. They were getting angrier and angrier. How dare she put them all at risk! Now they were out for blood. They were on the attack.
My step-mom quickly got up from the table. She tried to get out of there fast, but she hadn’t paid and she had 4 kids to corral.
“Do you deny it?!” They wouldn’t let her get away that easy!
She didn’t lie but she didn’t confess either. “Who told you that?!”
“The nurses from the clinic saw it on your chart! We all know the truth! You have AIDS and so does your cheating husband and his slut girlfriend too.”
Did my step-mom defend herself? Did my big brother who is a pain in the ass but also a fierce protector to this day, stand up and defend his mom? Did they all even know yet what was going on? Had their parents sat them down and explained that they had been diagnosed with a virus that had just finally been given a name and that society hated everyone who had the virus?
By some miracle, none of my siblings tested positive. Even I tested negative. Who knew that the evil corporate scheme to convince low income mothers to pay for formula instead of breastfeeding would actually save my life? I mean, I lucked out by being born negative in 86 to a positive mom. Now, babies have a good chance of being negative thanks to testing and really effective medicines, but in 1986 my chances of survival would have been near 0. Especially if you factor my class background in. Even if HIV+ babies were surviving in the early years, factor in malnutrition and trauma and I would not have had a chance.
My mom had always told me that no one knew she had HIV. or at least that almost no one knew. Wishful thinking I guess, but I believed her. We needed to believe that the people in our town did not know we had this vile mark upon us. We had seen the reactions even from those who loved us the most, and we knew that the reactions from strangers would be worse.
Most of my mom’s family eventually came around. As the years passed and they became more convinced of the science that you can’t catch AIDS from sitting next to someone or even giving someone a hug. But in those first years after diagnosis, my mom and all of my parents faced the need to say goodbye to relatives who were terrified of them.
My mom was one of many. She didn’t talk much about this time period, but there was one story she was willing to share. One story that left a scar that she could still feel years later. She took me over to her sister’s house. Not her twin, but one of her sisters houses, it honestly doesn’t matter anymore which one. She was excited to bring me over to play with my cousins who were about the same age. We were all perfect little mischievous toddlers and she was desperate for a relaxing and nourishing afternoon of family and silliness.
Maybe my aunt didn’t have a phone to call ahead or maybe my mom was the one without a phone. This was in the time before cell phones so it wasn’t as expected to call ahead. Either way, when my aunt answered the door, it was clear that this visit was both unexpected and unwelcome. Still ,she wasn’t a total monster. She opened the door. She let us in. She even let my mom place me on the floor to steal the ball from my cousins or whatever other toddler thing I did with my time back then. But when my mom reached down to comfort my cousin when he started to cry…well that was when my aunt needed to say what needed to be said. “NO! Deb! NO! Please don’t touch my kids.” Did she look angry? Afraid? Embarrassed? Sad? Did she love my mom and feel bad saying these things?
My mom was obviously hurt. Did they fight? Or did they talk it out. I mean they must have to some extent because my mom did not pick me right up and walk out the door. Not yet at least. Maybe her loneliness and despair pushed her to work things out even though she was not the one in the wrong at all. “Why did you let us in if you don’t want us here?! So, I am allowed in but I am not allowed to touch my nephews is that it? Hunh?” My mom was a fiery woman but she was also deeply ashamed so I can not imagine if her words were loud or forced.
“No, Deb. That is not IT. You can come here. But you have to understand! These are my children. You can’t expect me to not protect them! You can sit on the couch but that is it. You need to sit on a towel and I will throw it away when you leave. You can not touch us or eat or drink anything. And you can not use the bathroom here.”
My mom was understanding now. Now she was pissed. And humiliated. I was oblivious still slobbering on the toy that I had swiped from my cousins fingers. She scooped me up and barrelled out the door. She turned back and made sure my aunt was looking before screaming, “I won’t be back, Don’t worry!” while rubbing her hands up- and down any surface she could reach. Honestly, she didn’t blame my aunt. I mean she was terrified of giving me HIV as well, but still, let my aunt sanitize her whole apartment. Let her tear the door off the hinges and burn it.
Every word of this story is the truth. Or as close to the truth as I can get. Not every word or thought, but the scenes and actions are all true. The story involving my step mom at the diner was only used because she had shared it herself in a local paper decades later when it was clear she was going to be a long term survivor and was living in a different community. Out of respect for her and my siblings, I would never have shared a part of our shared story involving them directly unless she herself had already shared it publicly. Just to be clear about this piece. I am sorry if I have not captured the scenes or emotions perfectly.
I fell in love with the little kitten right away. Living on a farm out in the woods, I was around animals all of the time, but I had never seen a creature as beautiful as this kitty. Her fur was smoky grey except for the blue-black of her paws and ears. Her eyes were almost purple. I was being raised without my siblings so this kitten was my playmate, my comfort.
We must not have had her long though because she was still only a tiny kitten when she died. When she was killed. It sounds crass but honestly, I can’t help but wonder why Tom would destroy something that he just bought when we were so poor we were hardly eating. I mean, Tom wouldn’t be moved by the violence, but money, he cared about.
But this was bigger than the physical violence. This was part of my “training.” Tom was planning this from the moment he came home with her. From the moment that I showed signs of attachment. This big 30 year old man labeled the kitten “mean” and “aggressive” right away. I would cradle her on my lap and wonder what he was seeing. I hadn’t heard about “gaslighting” yet. Was she a vicious monster and I just couldn’t see it? Tom was so wise. He knew so much more than me. Better to trust him. But watching a kitten scamper around the trailer, jumping from the chair to swat at the strings from a tear in the curtain, I just couldn’t see it.
One day, I came home from school to find Tom with that glassed over look in his eyes. I didn’t smell beer so it wasn’t that. What was going on? Where was my mom? I don’t remember her in this scene at all.
He led me into the living room and told me, “We have to kill the kitten…you have to kill the kitten. She is a horrible, violent creature and we have to kill her before she gets too big. I will show you how and then you need to do it.” He then picked up the tiny animal in just one hand and used his other giant paw to show me how to break her neck. His hands were so huge, you couldn’t even see her tiny face when he wrapped his fingers around her neck. I felt like I couldn’t breath. I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach watching this scene.
He handed the cat to me. I was shutting down. I couldn’t do this, but I also couldn’t not do this. “Come on. Put this cat out of her misery. She knows what is coming, you are torturing her! Do it! Kill her! God, you are so weak! Just FUCKING DO IT!” For hours, Tom loomed over me while I cried silently holding the kitten, trying to will myself to do it. At one point I needed to go to the bathroom to vomit. I pretended I just needed to pee so that I wouldn’t let him know how weak I really was.
When I returned, Tom had filled a bucket with water and was still holding the kitten who was crying in his grip. What was the bucket for? “If you are too weak and stupid to kill the kitten the right way, then we will try another way. But you WILL KILL THIS CAT one way or another! Do it this way. Hold the cat under the water until its body stops moving.” Tom was demonstrating how the head needed to be completely submerged. My head was swimming. I couldn’t see clearly. I thought I might faint. He put the tiny cat in my lap. I couldnt move. I couldnt hold it and feel its tiny heart beating beneath my fingers. I couldnt even feel my own heart pounding within my own chest. It felt like I was dying with this cat. We were going to die together. Right here in the trailer. Tom screamed at me to get on with it. I saw the cat clinging with her nails to the curtain. Her body looked so skinny with her fur soaking wet and her eyes popping out of her head in terror. Were we feeding her all this time? Was he killing her from the moment we brought her home?
I do not know how long this lasted. It was hours. I know that, because it was dark when I finally made my way to bed, without eating anything. Without being offered dinner. I didn’t deserve to eat dinner. I was weak and lazy and couldn’t be expected to do anything.
Tom had to snap the neck of the kitten himself. I don’t remember the moment he killed the kitten, only the process. The lesson. That was the point anyway. It wasn’t about the kitten. It was about me. It was about teaching me to fear him. About breaking a connection that I had to another living creature. About domination and control.
Tom had spent time in juvenile detention and was later incarcerated in the prison system. I always wondered where he learned his cruelty and violence. Maybe it was every step of the way. He was also deaf and had been bullied for that his whole life. His parents had died when he was small. His mom of illness and his father had apparently walked in front of a semi truck in broad daylight. I don’t know how old Tom was when this happened, but he and his siblings were scattered into the foster care system. None of this adds up to an excuse for his abuse. None of this excuses the ways he tortured my mom and I. And it doesn’t make me feel love for him….but it does allow me to feel compassion for him. I know how trauma can cause us to do things that we would never otherwise imagine ourselves doing. Sure, I didn’t grow up to be an animal killer child abuser, but I also had gifts that he didn’t…. like most of my childhood with a loving mother. An abusive, loving mother, but still.
That night, I curled into my bed in the darkness. I wished I had a nightlight. Or a sibling or anyone who could see me and make me feel more human. I was grateful it was over. I was grateful the cat was gone. I was sorry that I couldn’t do it myself. I was disgusted that I made it suffer so long. Why couldn’t I just kill that kitten right away so that it didn’t have to endure this torture?
This was not the only cat that Tom killed. There were two more. Snowball and Tiger. He took care of the other two himself. He knew he couldn’t count on me. I was never going to be tough enough.
The next morning, I woke up, walked myself up the dirt road to the bus stop and went to school. I was in second grade. Looking back, I wish that I had drawn a picture in crayon of this event or maybe let it slip during show and tell. But I never did. I protected Tom. After all, he was trying to toughen me up so that I could survive this world. I was a girl and needed to have my weakness trained out of me.
In some completely twisted and mentally unstable way, I believe that Tom genuinely thought that he was doing this for me. He was only preparing me for life the ways he himself had been prepared. As horrific as it truly is and was, I still believe Tom was trying to parent me. He was trying to love me. and at the time, I didn’t know a better love. at the time, I loved him back. This is one of the aspects of domestic violence that I want the world to understand. Sometimes we love our abusers. Sometimes we don’t leave because we are scared, but sometimes its also because we love them. My mom for example, chose to be buried with Tom. Even in death she chose to stay.
Yesterday, I was in the kitchen, putting groceries away when my dog started going crazy in the driveway. A small girl stood bravely waiting for me to notice her. She came just far enough up the driveway to be seen but stayed back far enough that my big loud dog couldn’t jump on her. At first I thought that she had come for an old bike that I had told her she could have when I saw her walking to school one day. But then she started to cry. And just like any child and any mom would do, we both instinctively moved to each other until she was pressed into my chest and I was wrapping my arms around her in a hug.
“Oh, Sweetie! Are you okay?” I quickly glanced up to see if any adults were with her. Nope. I pulled her away so that I could look into her eyes, “Sweetie, is anyone hurt? Are your parents okay?” I was worrying that some emergency happened at home and she was coming to me for help. Once I realized that she had just come home to find that her parents weren’t back yet, and she had gotten a little scared and came looking for safety, I relaxed a little. I led her inside and quickly served up a bunch of after school snacks even though I had just told my kids they had to wait for dinner. They just gave me the look that all children give to their mothers when they break their own rule.
Once snacks had been shared and we learned her name, she made herself right at home painting nails with my oldest daughter and singing a song from school with my son. She was a joy to have, even though my partner and I were starting to get a little anxious about how to reach her parents. She joined us for dinner and right as we were debating what to do as our own children’s bedtimes approached, we saw her mom out on the street. All ended well and everyone was safe. The end.
Except I couldn’t sleep last night at all. This child was in my mind and also my own inner child was remembering. I love being the safe place that neighborhood kids know to come to when they are in trouble. It is intentional that I make it known that our home is a kid and neighbor safe zone. In fact, I am happiest when my kitchen is full of an assortment of my children’s friends and kids who just needed a place to sit or a hot meal. My partner jokes that I love when they call me, “Mama Crystal!” and that I eat it right up. And it’s true. Partially because I love children and partially because I always want to be the safe adult that I always needed and never found when I was that age.
So, I got my kids to sleep last night, we brushed our teeth, read our book together, snuggled, tucked in and soon they were snoring. But not me. I just could not slow my brain down.
When I was seven years old, the same age as the sweet girl who joined us for dinner, I too came home to a locked door. My mom and I had lived in low income housing for single mothers for all of my early years and we had just spent our first night in a different and new place. It was a tiny trailer. After this trailer, I lived in a series of other trailers and so I can tell you that yes all trailers are smallish but this one was TINY. I had slept that first night and all of the nights that followed for the next year, on a rust colored armchair in the living room. My mom and my new step-dad claimed the only bedroom and slept on a small mattress on the floor.
Luckily this move had not taken me out of the school district, but I did have to ride the bus for the first time. I was terrified to be alone with all of the big kids all the way up through high school yelling all around me. When I got to my stop, no other kids got off so I walked the long dirt road past the cow pasture, past the creek that smelled like sewage and past the other trailers that dotted the fields along the path. When I spotted the little white and red one, I knew I was home. But Tom’s car was not in the driveway. Maybe he went somewhere alone without my mom, but since he lost his license for drunk driving, he rarely went without her in case he had to switch seats real quick if he got pulled over or something. I saw them try that once and it worked out about as well as you might imagine. I mean white privilege meant that no one was shot, but the cop didn’t buy the story they made up that my mom was sick and so Tom had to drive and he was trying to get her to the hospital. We weren’t even headed in the right direction!
Anyway, I was trying to be hopeful when I approached my new home that my mama would be there. But when I tried the handle, the door was securely locked. I sat down on a big rock that served as our stoop and took a library book out of my backpack. I loved to read and so that distracted me for a little while. But then it started to rain. I was worried that I would damage the book and then my mom would be so angry at me if we had to pay for it so I shoved it back in my backpack, zipped it up tight and slid the whole thing under my bottom and on top of the rock, hoping that it would stay dry.
The rain and the passing time without my mom was starting to wear down my hopefulness and anxiety was creeping in. Anxiety and I are old friends by now, but I didn’t even know that word then. I started contemplating what I would do if it got dark and my mom wasn’t back yet. The rain continued to crash down on me. Maybe if there had been other children at my bus stop I would have considered going to their trailer to wait, but since there were none, I stayed put.
The only people that I had met on our dirt road was the landlord. And the landlords were not just your everyday ordinary landlords, which would have been intimidating enough. No, these people were Pentecostal preachers who lived on a farm and had turned their home into a homeless shelter. That is how we had found this trailer. When my mom took Tom in, because he was homeless, we got kicked out of our public housing apartment. I hadn’t yet gone to church yet with them to see the full display of their worship which was exactly what you are picturing if you know about “tent revivals” and “holy rollers!” If you don’t know what this means, don’t worry this will make its way into a blog post at some point.
I looked over at the big farm house that served as the shelter as well as being the church and their personal home. A large sign was posted in the front that said, “Christian Training Center” and looming over it all were three giant crosses posted on the hill behind their house. Naw, I was staying put!
I have no idea how long I waited in front of my trailer, alone and scared and with no one noticing me. But eventually I saw headlights cutting through the country dark which is way darker than any other dark, and heard the muffler of Tom’s car. I wanted to be relieved when they finally pulled in. I wanted to feel safe and whole now that my parents were back, but there are dangers far more severe than being alone in the cold and rain at 7 years old. I could feel the tension even though no one was saying anything to me. No one said, “Crystal, honey! We are so sorry we were late!” No one wrapped me in a hug and noticed that I was soaked to the bone. But I noticed that my mom’s arm was in a cast and her eye was blackened. I was not new to step fathers. I knew what had happened without anyone telling me.
It turns out they had car trouble, maybe the tire went flat? Something like that. Obviously it was my mom’s fault. Or maybe she said something the wrong way while he was trying to change the flat and offended him. Or maybe Tom didn’t know how to change a flat since he had been incarcerated for most of his life and probably no one taught him and he reacted to the shame by proving his manhood another way. I don’t know but all of those scenarios seem plausible because they all played out over and over again while Tom was alive.
I learned to be afraid all of the time. I learned not to go to a neighbors for help because it was my job to hide our secrets. To hide the shame that Tom beat my mom. That he was a raging alcoholic with a violent temper. Maybe our Pentecostal Preacher landlords wouldn’t like that and kick us out.
Looking back, I think there was no need to hide any of that. We learned every Sunday that men were the supreme rulers of the home and women and children were meant to obey his every command. The preacher would have applauded Tom for doing his manly duties by keeping us in line. For all I know he did applaud him. I never saw that, but I also never saw any intervention when Tom shot at us in broad daylight out in the yard or when I let a scream slip out when he stabbed the mattress a half an inch from my mom’s belly.
So, I couldn’t sleep last night as my body and mind tried to disentangle my story from the story of the little girl who came looking for safety. Had I given her enough care? Was she safe? Was she going to be punished for coming to me for help? I would have been. I played all of her words back through my mind and replayed her mom’s reaction when she found her at my kitchen getting her nails painted in sparkles by my daughter.
I will probably always be triggered when I am faced with the traumas of children in my community. But I hope that I will also always be able to balance my need to feel that enough to acknowledge it while remaining open to creating a safe place for all of the children who need it. The greatest healing that I have ever experienced as a survivor of domestic violence and significant childhood trauma, has been through mothering my own children, the children in my community and mothering myself. Giving children the love and care they deserve helps me realize that I deserved that love and care too. Mothering has been the greatest form of healing and I love every minute of it.