The town’s preacher had taken a switch to my dad once. I don’t know how old my dad was at the time, but I do know that my grandmother hadn’t come to that knowledge long before she was banging on the preacher’s door.
“…but nobody answered it,” My grandmother told my sister and I one day while she adjusted her wiry 5 foot 2 frame in her arm chair to mime in motion what she was about to describe, “so I went around back and started banging on that door until the preacher’s wife came looking out through the screen, telling me that he wasn’t home.”
“Your husband took a switch to my boy,” my grandmother informed the preacher’s wife, “and if he does it again, either I’m gonna kick his ass or he’s gonna kick my ass, one, cause we’re gonna fight.”
Hearing my grandmother yelling at their mom, three of the preacher’s grown daughters had huddled around their mother protectively in the doorway, making it clear that my grandmother was outnumbered should the fight start at that moment. “But I had my big overcoat on, see,” my grandmother explained to us, then paused, took a pull off her cigarette and cleared her lungs before adding, “with my gun in the pocket and a bullet for every one of them.”
The conversations continued, but now with me only half involved. The story had struck a nerve and I was on the social autopilot I had already mastered, appearing engaged in the outside world while investigating my inside world and why what I just heard had made me so jealous. Eventually, I figured out that I wished I knew what it was like to be worth fighting over. The fact that I had been over the course of years hadn’t registered yet, I couldn’t get past the day I returned with my dad and one of his girlfriends from a golf trip to find out that the reason my older brother didn’t come with us, was because that weekend my mother had come to our house and moved him into her home to join my sister and step-father.
Originally, my mom had only taken our younger sister, but between my dad having my brother do things like cut all the grass in our rather large yard using scissors and the general nature of his temper which was quick and wanting of someone to intercede on his children’s behalf, it was decided that my brother would move in with her as well. The next time I saw my mom and asked why I couldn’t come and live with them too, I was told that there wasn’t enough room. Living with my dad was too terrible a thing for any of his children but me. Unlike my siblings, I was alone with him. There would be no intercession on my behalf. While I can’t remember whether I was in first, second or third grade, the suffocating feeling of standing in the room my big brother no longer occupied and knowing I was the only child not worth saving is something I’m not likely to ever forget.
To help me put things in perspective, my dad explained to me that he was saving me from my mom. She had always wanted a girl and she finally got what she wanted in my little sister. Between her first marriage and her marriage to him, I was the fourth boy in a row and by measure, the biggest of all the disappointments because each time for her only grew worse. I was born with especially long hair and my dad told me how he used to have to stop her from putting my hair in pigtails and putting dresses on me when I was an infant. Thus was the first shot in the fight over me that I hadn’t accepted at the time my grandmother told her story about a preacher taking a switch to my dad.
In spite of the things I was being told about how my mother treated me and the fact that some of my mom’s behavior supported what I was being told, I still wanted to join my sister and brother at my mom’s and have the luxury of knowing what it was like to have a TV in my bedroom like they did. In my dad’s house, he had positioned the table and our seating so that he could watch the TV that was strategically placed behind my seat so he had an eye-line to catch any attempts on my part to turn around see what I was listening to during school nights. At school when friends talked about what happened on different television programs, if didn’t happen on a weekend, I was only ever able to join in over what the characters said, never on what had to be seen to understand.
After my mom’s initial failure in court to gain custody of me, I had resigned myself that I would just have to figure out ways to survive and that was made easier by the children of the woman he would eventually marry. I was still subject to a good beating and other forms of abuse from him, but us kids had bonded as if we truly were kin to each other and that was something I needed desperately.
We moved as a family twice not too long after the marriage and in subsequent years my mom insisted that though my dad had legal custody of me, he had in effect, kidnapped me, because she had no knowledge of how to contact me during that time. When she told me this, it came to mind of one night when my step-mom found me in the aisles in the library and told me that my mom was on the phone. Confused, I asked her pardon so she would repeat what she said. After she did, my step-mom walked me to the front of the library where my dad was waiting to hand me the pay-phone receiver. Taking it, his presence looming over me was a silent warning that I had better watch what I said. I wondered the rest of the evening how she knew to call me at the library, but knew better than to ask. The use of pay-phones while my father hovered would happen periodically, but never from the same location.
Since, I had long given up on any notion that I would live with my mother, the evening my dad called me into the living room of our house and warned me that what went on in our house was to remain in our house, I spent the rest of the night mentally combing through who I had told what to in the previous days that might have gotten back to him. There was a sincere enough threat in his voice for me to recall it a few days later when I was sat in front of a judge without any prior knowledge of what was going on and asked about my life in our house. While I know enough now to know that the warning I received was more about him not being able to come up with any other recourse to get me to stay with him, at the time, I was only ten and had no doubt that if I told that judge too much and he didn’t move me out of that house, I would likely get myself killed regardless of assurances that I was safe. The judge wasn’t going home with me to make sure of that. Ultimately, I told some, but not the worst of my life with my dad in the name of self-preservation.
What I so conveniently forgot while sitting in the room with my grandmother and sister that day was coming home from school a week or two later, and the initial shock of catching my step-mom emptying my dresser drawers and their crying and hugging and pulling at me to keep me from leaving. I was in sixth grade the first time I felt like I was worth saving and it had more to do with my three step-siblings not wanting to see me go than the changeover of my custody. I was in my twenties before I was able to give that day the significance it deserves.
I mention this because over the past week, I had a conversation with someone who thinks that they are the sum of their hardships. It isn’t a minimization of what has been endured to find the strength to transcend it and find a way to turn the experiences into something that makes you a better person. Not that that’s an easy thing to do.
Anyhow, that conversation reminded me that those of us that have lived intense childhoods sometimes need to tell our stories to reach those that still think they are alone and surrounded only by those who have no clue what it truly feels like to be nothing of value to anyone and know it. Recovering from that is a lifetime battle, but it’s one worth waging because you never know what you may discover about your life that you never saw coming.
My case in point is this last story regarding a fight on my behalf that took place when I was in the fourth grade. I only learned about this from a family member a couple years ago and that discovery was purely by accident.
One weekend my grandmother was supposed to babysit me and my dad’s live-in girlfriend’s kids while he and his girlfriend went on a golf tournament trip. I only saw my grandmother briefly though, before the shouting started and us kids were ushered deeper into the house by the girlfriend. While I remembered that night and the fighting, I had no idea that it was over me until a relative started talking about the argument between my grandmother, my dad and his girlfriend and I recognized it as one that took place on a particular Friday evening.
After picking my grandmother up and bringing her to our house, my grandmother realized that the girlfriend’s kids were given what had been my bedroom when it was just my dad and I. Of all the occupants, I was the only person sleeping on the floor. My grandmother began with the cursing, refused to watch us and forced my dad to take her back home because she wasn’t going to watch us with me sleeping on the floor. He went on to his golf tournament alone after taking my grandmother home while the girlfriend stayed home with us kids, but my grandmother wasn’t done. She called the house periodically and as soon as the girlfriend picked up, my grandmother would begin cussing her out. When the girlfriend stopped answering the first of the two phone lines my dad kept for the house, my grandmother started calling on the second line and cussing the girlfriend out to the point that the girlfriend stopped answering both phones altogether out of fear it might be my grandmother. I’m not sure how many days it took, but it worked. Sort of. While I was still never given a real pillow, I do remember the cot I was given to at least keep me off the floor and halt my grandmother’s phone attacks.
In closing, I think it necessary to point out that my life living with my mom was different. Not better. There were quite a few things my dad did right and I think it an injustice to ignore that he attempted to do right, but like many, tried to do so without facing his own demons first. Here is a post referring to one of his successes.