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.