She sits across from me, all grandmotherly warmth, smelling like love and vanilla. Her winkles are soft, her skin softer and her eyes twinkle. I am so used to the oxygen tubes that surround her, they are now just a part of who she is. You’d see her at the mall, laboring along but smiling. Offering a compliment to the woman shopping with her kids, or chatting up the sales clerk and making them smile. She’s the grandmother you want to hug, knowing the hug would take away any fears, stress or insecurities you have, because that is just how her arms operate.
I asked her to tell me about a childhood memory that stood out.
“Loneliness. Fear.” She replied.
I had expected a moment in time, a snapshot into her younger days, that would open the doors to memories. Instead, those two words were her memories. Those words summed up not only her childhood but most of her life. Loneliness and fear.
“Get into the oven. I’m going to cook you.”
It sounds like some line out of a bad Grimm’s Fairy Tale. It isn’t. These were words she heard from the woman who was taking care of her. It wasn’t her mother, because having a mother was a concept she was not familiar with yet. She was 4.
She was shuttled between houses; her grandmother, friends of her mom, a loving couple who wanted to adopt her. Her mom refused. When her mom would come to visit, she never visited with her. She would tell her to go outside and play so she could visit with her friends.
Life was always changing, people were scary and fleeting.
“Whose boobie is this?”
Once she was in first grade, she went to live full-time with her mom and her new step-dad. This was the question he liked to ask her. It was a sick game to him. He’d ask, grabbing where there was nothing yet and leering at her, the smell of alcohol pungent on his breath. When she replied that it was hers, he twisted, painfully, just to show her who was boss. She never cried out. He didn’t last long before he ran off with someone else.
Her mom waited tables during the day and worked in a bar at night. She began staying home alone at age 8. It wasn’t so bad being home alone, she managed. But she would sometimes linger at her friend’s house after being told it was time to go home. She’d hide outside and look in through the window, watching them as they ate. It was like a scene from a movie; hot food, family at the table, smiles and full tummies. She would watch and tell herself that would be her someday; she’d enjoy hot meals and laughs. She went home to her salads and fruit in the fridge and waited for her mom.
“I’m going to F*&k you.”
Her mother married again, and Bob was everything she had dreamed a dad would be. He played with her, told her jokes, had a pet name for her. He made her mom happy and he accepted her. She relaxed, she felt safe, for the first time in her life. And this is how life went for the next few years until she turned 13.
She was changing after school in her bedroom one day, when she saw him in her mirror. He was watching through the door. She couldn’t have explained in words “what” the fear was, but she knew it was there. His peeking morphed into talks, with him assuring her this was for her good. “I am preparing you to be a great wife,” he’d say, as he spoke to her about things she didn’t fully understand but made her stomach hurt.
When she told her mom about the talks, her mother hissed, “That’s a lie. Don’t you be causing trouble.”
She kept quiet, until the day he said what exactly he was going to do to her. He made her go to the bedroom and then her world went dark. He was gone when she woke.
Her world stayed dark for years. She could say the words, “I was abused,” but they held no memories. The feelings were numb from the passing years. She grew up and left. But the abuse didn’t end, now it came from her mother. Her mother would bring up the past asking, “Are you sure he did that to you? Maybe you’re just making it up.” Her mom criticized everything she did and told family members her daughter had tricked her husband into touching her.
She got married, divorced, married, divorced and married again. The third time was the charm and it lasted. She’d decided to not have kids but when she found herself pregnant, it seemed right. She was excited, scared and sure she was having a boy.
“It’s a girl.”
When the Dr. laid her daughter in her arms, it happened. The first wash of unbridled and breath-taking love she’d ever experienced. “You’re so ugly,” she whispered and as soon as the words were out of her mouth, the cringed in shame. She held her daughter close, looking into her eyes and made her a promise.
“I will always love you. I will always protect you. You will never have to live in fear.”
It was a promise she kept and is still keeping. Her daughter is the first girl in 2 generations to not have to live in fear. The first girl to experience childhood as it should be, full of love, laughter and hot meals eaten at the table. She was the mother she always wanted, she showed up, she loved and she thrived.
People often refer to themselves as “survivors.” She didn’t just survive, merely hanging on clumsily to life, gasping for air and hoping for the best. She thrived. She worked hard, harder than those around her and made a good living. She kept her marriage intact, even through hard times, numerous moves and a complete breakdown once her childhood came back in memories, bringing the fear and loneliness once again. She picked herself up, dusted off and continued.
This happened to her but it did not define her. She found joy, maybe not every day (who does) but she found it. She thrived, she loved, she fought and she won. She won by not letting this ruin her. She won by leaning into love and not shielding herself with anger. She won.
She’s a survivor. She’s a mother. She’s us.