I can recall a specific day working at Starbucks- my father appeared, out of the blue, and when I saw his face it was like my stomach dropped all the way to my feet. I could feel my face flush, could see my coworkers eyeing me, but I didn’t know how to swallow the knot in my throat. My father and I had even been talking recently and things seemed like they were progressing in our relationship but it was still there, under all of the hard work and forgiveness: the conditioned fear.
I have these misguided feelings (perpetuated my entire childhood by the reinforced idea that things were okay; things were normal; we could manage) that what I went through growing up was not justifiably traumatic. I have known others who had it much worse and in a very awful sense, that phrase has become a mantra in my life. But here is the truth: a tiny voice inside of me, trembling but sure, has always told me a fact I have no scientific evidence of- It’s wrong and you know it. So many times in my life, especially my youth, I heard something or saw something that someone older or more qualified than me could explain, could justify. I have outgrown the need to listen to these voices above the fire in my gut.
You see, I saw my father do terrible things. Sometimes I wish I had never seen them and yet I am softer and harder for it. I like to think (and maybe I have to, as a defense mechanism) that it made me stronger.
I have so many fragmented memories, like pieces of glass. All I ever want is to look into them at myself but they require the sacrifice of cutting open old scars. Some of the things my sisters tell me I simply cannot remember; other things I can recall in grossly vivid detail. I wish I could watch it like a movie; see myself and see things play out but with the knowledge we wouldn’t be with him forever.
When my sisters, mother, and I lived at the shelter we each had to attend weekly therapy sessions with a woman named Ellen. I really liked her; she was round and jolly but had this way of making you feel like you had been through something worthy of talking about. She really listened. I remember during one of our sessions I had started describing the disparity between how my father treated Amy, the oldest, and Emily, the second oldest. It was something that even now, a decade later, I desperately want to understand. It was like he pitted them against each other for his own entertainment; like he was keeping them forever against each other so that they could never be completely and truly against him. As I was describing this to Ellen, she got a funny look on her face that even then I could read as wisdom. She asked me where did Melissa (the youngest) fit into all of this? I was quick to answer, Melissa was the baby. She could do no wrong in anyone’s eyes; my father probably loved her most of all. And then she did that thing that doctors and psychiatrists and therapists probably long to do their entire careers: she opened up my fucking eyes. “And what about you, Mary?” she said. “Where does that leave you?” And it was in that moment I realized I had been an outsider, watching these things happen to my family without ever really feeling like I was part of it, like maybe I shouldn’t be upset because I wasn’t necessarily loved or hated by my father. And I remember looking at her face, that face that was trying to help me get to the right conclusions, and I started to cry. I knew it then; my place in the abuse that happened to my family was the exterior of a shell; I was the watcher, never the direct victim.
It was easy to feel like you had the power to stand up to him when he was not in your face. We would all rally together and hype each other up; fantasize about all the things we would say to him. But God, the moment he was in front of you, it was like your throat closed up and you couldn’t breathe, and the room got too warm and you were vulnerable, so completely vulnerable. Amy was really the only one who could stand up to him, and I think this is part of the reason all of my sisters and even my mother have this quiet, devoted respect for her.
I don’t remember Spot. I have heard though that Amy was supposed to be watching me outside (I was four or younger at the time) and Spot bit my heels so I got upset and my father took Amy and held her over the fence with his hands on her neck because there was a large dog in the neighbor’s yard that she was terrified of. I was told he died of worms but only just recently found out my dad clipped his nails to the quick and he bled out in a box in the garage; howling all night, scratching the sides of his prison- quickening his death.
I do remember my father bringing home Joey, a German Sheppard puppy and he was so cute and warm and I loved him and he peed on newspapers in the house for a while. I remember my father putting Joey in a barred cage, sticking sharp sticks in on all the sides, preventing Joey from moving unless he wanted to be stabbed. I remember watching it, on the top of the deck, my mother pleading with him, and I feel her protection inside the memory (she may have told me to close my eyes or go back inside the house). I remember seeing my father punch Joey square in the face, I can still hear his cry. I can still feel the horror of my heart shattering with the realization that not only could people be this evil, but my father, my daddy, was this man. My mother had shouted for him to stop, ran to him, and he had pushed her. I remember so clearly he had looked at my sisters and I crying and said “It’s just an animal.” I remember when things got bad my mother took him away to my uncle’s house so he didn’t have to be abused. But she brought him back when things temporarily got better; and then Joey just started running away. He ran away all of the time. None of us could blame him. And then one day, he ran away and my father threatened to beat the living daylights out of him when we found him and I stayed up all night that night praying that Joey would get far enough away that my father would never find him. And he must have, because he never came home.
Then there was Lucy Mae and my father said she “slid off” the deck in the backyard and fell off and broke her neck. She was already buried when Melissa and I got off the school bus that day and my mother had to explain there was an “accident.” I wonder how many facts about my childhood were not the truth and I wonder if I could handle knowing.
So much of this I have struggled to get out, not only emotionally because of the trauma, but also mentally, trying to figure out what to tell people and how to say it. The hardest part is, I forgave him for all of these things because he is a sick, sad, lonely man but I have to say, I am still afraid of him. He still scares me more than anything else.