We are coming up on the 1yr anniversary of being in lockdown for a global pandemic. In March of 2020, the United States recognized that the COVID-19 virus was actually a threat and many states, like my own, imposed movement restrictions on their residents. It was only supposed to last a few weeks, a few months at most. Now it is January 2021 and we have no sign of anything letting up.
I am telling you this, dear reader, because I am stuck in my house with seven other people. My father-in-law, mother-in-law, and sister-in-law, and her 4 year old live with us. Our house is a two story with the upstairs being a separate apartment. This is where my in-laws live. I often hear them upstairs talking, watching tv, even screaming at each other.
My in-laws have some issues. Undiagnosed depression and anxiety among other things. Their own stories are tragic, but not for me to tell. Suffice it to say that they didn’t learn decent coping skills and when they are stressed from anything, they always turn to screaming at each other.
This has led to a lot of introspection and reflection of a lot of different things about my life. Knowing their story, I can understand why they do and act the way they do. As I hear their own dysfunction playing out, I am forced to wonder about my own family dysfunction and how it has affected me.
After all, I have nothing but time on my hands and few distractions.
There are many painful memories that lay dormant in my brain that show up at the most inconvenient times that deserve and demand to be recognized. So, let’s start at the beginning.
I was born in Nashville, TN in the mid 70s to parents who were barely educated, neither graduating high school or even getting a GED. Both had been married before, though I am the only blood child of my father. My mother had two daughters before me. We lived in a three bedroom house until I was around 5 or 6 when my parents were divorced.
My memories of that time are fragmented like most people’s are. I have trouble putting them in order and so I spend a great amount of time trying to figure them out. For years I didn’t understand most of them or understand the lasting effects they had on me. Asking family members never helped.
No one ever wants to talk about the past. It’s frustrating only having some of the puzzle pieces, but not all. Now, 40+ years later, I have a little more of an understanding of some of these memories after many hours of reflection and study.
One of the first memories I have is of my sisters hiding one of my favorite toys in the corner behind the recliner. It was really dark behind the chair and I couldn’t have been more than 3 or 4 years old. Whenever I tried to get my toy, my sisters would make a scary growl sound and scare me as if there were a monster there in the darkness. I remember how they would laugh at how scared I would get and how I would cry my eyes out not being able to get my toy.
Thinking of the darkness in the corner now, I can feel the trembling up my spine for the fear of it. I cannot have it completely dark in my house to the point where I take night lights with me when I travel. When you wake up in pitch dark and your brain cannot rationalize your location, a light can mean the difference between being able to calm yourself or having an anxiety attack.
This was when my mom was still married to my truck driver dad. Daddy would go on a days long run, Momma would leave to do whatever it was Momma did and leave us girls there by ourselves. I was at their mercy being 7 and 10 years younger than they.
They loved to torture me.
My dad drank. A lot. He would come home and find us by ourselves and get angry. I don’t remember any abuse, but I was very young. I was told about it from others, that Daddy used to beat my oldest sister, used to beat my mother. At one point Daddy, in a fit of drunken jealousy, hit my mother so hard he broke her jaw. I do remember her jaw being wired shut, but I never understood it until I was an adult.
The only memory I have of anything abusive between my mom and dad was my dad standing in front of the bathroom door, arms on either side of the frame, pinning my mother in. They were arguing, but no voices were raised. Daddy kept asking Momma a question, but I can’t recall what.
I remember being confused. I knew they were fighting, but didn’t understand. I was little, but not so little that I didn’t bring the broom when momma poked her head around the doorframe and asked me to bring it.
I often wonder what else I may have witnessed but don’t remember.
My mom was a single mom from the time I was around 5 or 6 years old when my parents divorced. After that, we lived with my grandmother until she married my step-father when I was around 8. We still lived with my grandmother for some time after that.
My grandmother’s house was built on the side of a hill. The front porch was on the downslope, the back porch was dug into the hillside. The front porch may have been 6-8 feet from the ground, then plus the 3ft of banister railing on top of that. To a small child, this may as well have been a mile high.
I loved that old house. My grandfather had built the bathroom and an extra bedroom onto it before I was born. It was surrounded by woods and a creek split the front yard. We would go down there and catch crawdads and tadpoles. I remember once putting on my Sunday shoes and trotted across the short sidewalk. I liked hearing the “clop” sound and pretended I was riding a horse through some fantasy world daydream.
There were also what we called horse apple trees in the yard. Weirdly green and bumpy balls of fruit would fall off these trees. Sticky, white sap would leak out of them. We would collect them to see how far we could throw them across the creek. Honeysuckle would grow in the brush around the surrounding trees. I remember pulling the little strings out of the center and licking the sweet nectar off.
Those are the good memories. I have other memories, too.
My sisters and cousins liked to hold me over the front porch banister, upside down by my ankles, and pretend they were going to let me fall. They would laugh and laugh and I would try to scream. I remember being so terrified that my voice left me. I could not call out for help because the words would not come. They always laughed at my terror.
My fear was their entertainment.
I still struggle with my fear of heights as there hasn’t been any coping mechanism for it unlike my fear of the dark. My only way to cope is to have others change lightbulbs in the ceiling fixtures in my house. Simply standing on a chair or step stool sends me into a trembling fit that makes the fear worse. Many times it can take 20 minutes or more to get off the chair or step stool once this process starts.
Another of my earliest memories of living at Granny’s house the first time was something I never thought much of until relatively recently. I put it out of my mind and all but forgot about it. It must have been soon after Momma and Daddy divorced as I don’t remember my step-father being in the picture. One of my cousins from Utah came to stay with us. At the time I didn’t think it was weird. I was excited to meet a family member that lived far away.
I thought I had a friend in my cousin who had to have been an older teenager. He was always very attentive to me and felt like an older brother at first. I had never seen him before then, only heard of him, and hadn’t heard of him since. One of those far away family members you only know in name.
I remember him giving me things. He once gave me a small tape player/radio and my very first cassette tape-Wham!. I used to listen to it all the time. I loved that little radio, too. It was one of my most prized possessions. As a small child, this was huge. No one ever just gave me gifts. We were poor, so anything I had was usually from a celebration, never just because.
My next memory of him was confusing to me for a very, very long time. It was when I was standing at my dresser playing and he came up behind me, sliding his hands over my shoulders and down the front of my body very similar to what lovers would do to each other. All I remember is that it felt wrong. I ducked out of his hands and ran into the living room with the other members of the family. I remember my breath coming in short bursts and just wanting nothing to do with him.
I never told anyone what he did. I didn’t know exactly what to tell them. All I knew was it was weird and wrong. I often wonder why he was sent hundreds of miles away to family he didn’t really know. It’s weird, now, when I think about it.
Then again, that kind of behavior is often hidden.
When my mother married my step-father, I wasn’t overly happy. Not that I cared that much if she remarried, but he never struck me as someone I wanted to be around. At this point, my oldest sister had already been married and so it was only my other sister – the middle sister – and myself in the house.
My step-father would shower the middle sister with gifts to the point I was jealous of all the things she had. I rarely remember getting anything while the middle sister was living with us with the exception of maybe Christmas or birthday. Even then I don’t remember those holidays at all.
I do remember my sister’s gifts though.
One of those gifts was lingerie. It was what was called a teddy, though I am not sure what it would be called now. It was peachy colored with lots of lace. I thought it was the prettiest thing I had ever seen. There were even polaroid pictures of her in it. Even though I was very young and didn’t understand, I wanted a teddy, too. I resented my sister for getting all the pretty things and I resented my step-dad for buying them.
At some point the middle sister left, eloped, and moved out of state with her husband. That left me alone in the house with momma and my step-father. It was then that my step-father started buying me gifts. Usually little gas station trinkets. A t-shirt here, a hippie necklace there. They never really impressed me as I was a new teenager with all the teenage angst that goes into such things. I spent all my time in my room with my radio making angsty mix-tapes.
There was one time he decided to buy me underwear. It was ugly as hell, high french cut, black, flowery, and lacy. Nothing a 13 or 14 year old girl would wear. I wondered why the hell he would buy me such ugly clothes, but it never occurred to me to question why my step-father was buying me underwear.
It never seemed to occur to my mother, either. She liked to remind me how he was trying to be nice and generous. She liked to remind me how his previous wife miscarried twin girls and how excited he was to have us (me and my sisters) to be a father to. I remember thinking he wasn’t my father and he had no reason to think he was.
As an adult and a parent thinking of these things, I have a range of emotions that go from icky to straight up anger and disgust. These thoughts also compound the already complicated emotions I have for my now deceased mother. I cannot imagine being with a man that picked out and bought my daughter(s) underwear or lingerie. I also can’t imagine having pictures of one of my daughters in said clothing.
I read recently that being overly independent is a sign of trauma. That those who refuse to ask for help are dealing with the trauma of never being able to trust or having anyone there to help, so they are constantly taking care of themselves. They -we- learned that we can only trust ourselves to do anything. No help is ever coming.
When I read this, I identified with it immediately. I will help anyone when asked as I know what it is like to not have help when I needed it. I also have an issue accepting or asking for help because so often I would scream with no voice and no one to save me. I have had no choice but to help myself. I realize the other memories as close calls to something more sinister. It is terrifying to think of what could have happened to me had those perpetrators been different men.
So many questions populate my brain as to why none of them ever thought anything was amiss. For a long time I never thought I was a victim when I was a child, but now I see that I was or could have been quite easily.
I have been struggling for a few days on how to end this. So many things go through my mind that makes me want to ramble on about all the other things I have had to deal with. Most of them are repercussions of the things I spoke about here. Many of them I am not sure I want to explore at this time.
In the end, it comes down to rethinking how we raise our children. What we consider acceptable and what things we choose to look past. Perhaps we need to rethink the idea of loyalty and family and loyalty to family.
Perhaps some families don’t deserve loyalty at all.