Maybe the conversation that’s grown louder will finally lead to that elusive sea change
My 5-foot-2 mother never seemed taller than when she was staring down my birth father after his latest violent explosion.
I knew violence in my life practically before I knew how to talk. My first memory is of being screamed at for not being able to recite my good-night prayer, yelled at by a man often close to flying apart. Once violence has been introduced in a household, it’s always lurking just below the surface, a submerged predator ready to attack.
It was supposed to be a pleasant Sunday family dinner for our burgeoning unit. An infant sister might have been sleeping in another room when my parents and I sat down to eat, my mother at one end of a table she had managed to fill with china bowls and platters of food. There was a black wall behind her. I stared ahead at another that featured pictures of the smiling and crying faces of comedy and drama, a reminder of the acting dreams mom still harboured as a member of the local amateur theatre Curtain Club. Even with three children before she was 21, she was determined not to let her stage dreams die.
Dad sat at the other end of the table, staring unsmiling at my mother. Life is confusing for a kid just a few years into language, adults appearing to have their own secret dialect. My world often seemed over-lit, and loud with confusing bangs and shouts that made it hard to understand and to sleep.
I don’t remember what my father said to my mother, shouted at my mother. I just remember tension building, a process set in motion that I had no control over but whose results would affect me deeply. I stared hard into my plate, carefully filled with mashed potatoes dripping with gravy, roast beef and bright yellow corn. The corn was like a light in the puddles of brown that might shine me home.
And then the entire dining room table rose up from dad’s end of the room, its contents hurtling into the air and pop, pop, smashing into the wall behind my mother and onto her body. Dad was standing full up now, as if regarding his efforts. My tiny mother was on her feet not saying a word. I remember the glass milk bottle especially, its white contents splattered against the wall and dripping like pale blood along the black surface to the wood floor below.
Food ran down my mother’s face, but she refused to wipe it off, instead turning her attention to the pieces of broken dishes, her eyes fixed not in this room but somewhere else, not blinking, not reacting.
I would later imagine she was contemplating ways out. But all I could think about at that moment were the faces of comedy and drama frozen like mine now was as I tried to determine what fate this latest outburst of violence would bring. Was everyone staring at us? My reaction that day still puzzles me and is an occasional source of guilt.
Dad eventually turned his back on the wreckage and disappeared from the room. I helped mom pick up a few broken dishes, but she simply said, “It’s okay, Mikey.” She was in control.
My father was making strange noises in their bedroom I thought he might be crying. I went to investigate, and he was a pitiful mess. Maybe he was afraid the police would come again. They showed up mysteriously at my house from time to time, and they weren’t there about a missing pet, though I rarely understood the real reason. There was little likelihood that he was feeling remorse if he was, why would he keep doing it? What I felt that night from him was fear. There was none of that coming from Mom. Like so many other little kids, I struggled to make things right, having plenty of feelings of responsibility for something I had no control over.
It wasn’t the first time I had seen my mother be brave under impossible circumstances, and it wouldn’t be the last. And despite the violence my father meted out, sometimes verbal, sometimes physical, he always seemed weak and out of control to me.
I remember another puzzling night, armed police officers standing outside my parents’ bedroom talking in threatening tones to my father, who appeared to be scrambling to appease his interrogators.
Mom was bruised but seemed in control again, confidently speaking reassuring words. I stood back from it all and just hoped everything would be okay, that the police would leave and not take anyone with them.
I remember going with Mom to the doctor’s office and hearing her explain a black eye or a broken bone as some kind of accident. More puzzling words to me, and I could feel the doctor’s suspicious gaze.
But she did eventually escape to be-come a single mom, when divorcees were viewed with suspicion – damaged goods, maybe sluts. A high school dropout with a razor-sharp mind, she went on to become a highly successful businesswoman and de-voted much of her life to fighting sexism, especially in the workplace.
She was always proud to mentor younger women on their way up, and she started an organization called the Association of Women Executives (AWE). Get it? I was often in awe of her and her strength in staring down male violence. And I saw her share her hard learning and good advice with my sisters and her granddaughters, wise words from painful lessons that she managed to always share in an affirming way, regardless of the horror she’d gone through.
I never dreamed of some Parent Trap family reunion after the Frank’s Moving Van drove away from my formerly violence-racked home. I knew it was good we were getting out, no matter where we were going. We were leaving for a tiny apartment in Flemingdon Park, but my six-year-old mind was certain we were going somewhere better.
And considering how uncertain my world often was, the day my mom said “Enough” and safely extracted us and herself from an unending cycle of violence, I learned yet again that a small, powerful woman was capable of overpowering and overwhelming a bigger bully of a man. At a time when police were still counselling women to “not fight back,” I saw my mom successfully fight back every day of her life.
There were many times we could have died he often threatened to make it happen.
My mother had to make her escape largely on her own, although family and friends eventually came to believe that the charming guy she’d married was a violent abuser. We still don’t want to believe the words of women when they share terrible tales.
Maybe that conversation, which has grown louder in this country over the last few weeks, will finally lead to the elusive sea change. Somewhere, my late mom is cheering all the women coming forward to tell their stories and expose us to awful truths long buried under shame and fear of not being believed. Silent No More? I hope so, and I know my brave mom would hope so, too.
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