GOD

Picture 025  We’ve lost the backbone of our lives, my husband and I. His Mom and sister, my Mom. And another young person to drugs. Hers wasn’t entirely intentional, though if you’re hooked on drugs, isn’t that a wish not to be here?

Losing people, dying, being the next in line, is just the way things are. Now he and I are what they were, the backbone. Good thing I’ve found mine, quietly there protesting when I don’t listen to the inner whisper that is me. But eventually I do listen, change my mind, say no, say yes, follow through.

God is there within me…it’s just hard to go deep enough to find her. And that’s no surprise really. I was trained not to have a voice in the most hideous of circumstances, where my child’s body was not mine. And I was to love the attackers, not protest and remain silent.

The god I speak of resides in us all. And when I pray, I pray to that which connects all human beings to each other.

Help! Guide me. or Help! for another who needs it.

My ideas are simple, but they are mine.

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CHAPTER 4: CHET

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In my house growing up there were six bedrooms: three downstairs, three up. Mine was sandwiched in between the two upstairs and decorated to my liking, just for a little girl. The sunny yellow walls complemented the matching bedspread with intricate threading woven through the soft cloth, little squares of yellow outlined in white. Mom’s bedroom, next to mine, faced the front yard and, after Dad died, Stevie slept there too in a separate twin bed by the window.

No one else besides Chet and me were home and the usually active, loud, busy household seemed oddly quiet. Mom had found work as a secretary and we were left on our own much of the time. Chet, fifteen, and the designated watcher of Stevie and me, was known for his happy-go-lucky good nature and charm. I loved and adored him, as I loved all my brothers, though a crack had begun to form deep below. Quite the lady’s man, he dated frequently and the girls couldn’t get enough of him. I couldn’t either. He made me laugh and feel good and always had a smile. You could not help grinning or feeling happy around him.

I sat cross-legged on my bed with an array of punch-out Barbie doll clothes I had received for my tenth birthday, the kind where you dress a paper doll Barbie with paper clothes that have little tabs to fold over the doll to hold them in place. I hummed while playing, the bright sunshine splashing onto the sunny yellow bedspread. Stevie had taken off with his bike down the road to play with his cousin. Warm summer air fluttered the frilly white curtains.

Chet came upstairs, looking into my room, dangling a pack of Wrigley’s gum in his hand, not the stick kind but the box with little pillows of gum crusted with sugar glaze.

His eyes were smiling, playing a game. He said excitedly, “You get it before I do and you can have it. I’ll give you a head start!”

I jumped off the bed into the hallway. He threw it towards Mom’s room where it landed on the floor by her bed.

“Go!” he said.

Loving games with prizes, especially those involving gum or candy, I raced after it, reaching it before he did, claiming the prize. I’d won! I held it up staring at the cellophane, straining to see at least one square of the sugary gum, but it was empty. I looked at it bewildered, but had little time to complain. His body slammed into mine, the rock solid force knocking the air out of me. He dragged me onto Mom’s bed, falling on top quickly, as if all in one motion, smothering me with his weight, his chest crushing air from my lungs, his shoulders, head, and face so close the minute heated air space between his head and my face lacked oxygen. My body roared in defense, bucking, twisting, and trying to pull away or get up but I couldn’t move. Fighting made it harder to breath and so much worse, like I might die if I kept it up. So I lay still. His fifteen years of male growth, massive and violent, overpowered my child-sized frame with deadening, brutal, iron heaviness. No breath came until I quit fighting. The brick wall stifling me had just one moment ago been my smiling brother.

During the unfair battle for my life and breath, my shorts and panties were roughly pulled down. He rubbed himself against me, also naked. Up, down, up, down. The two skins together felt horridly wrong, cold, and creepy. I felt sick and dizzy. He pressed faster and harder against me. He seemed to have finished whatever he started, cupping his hand down there as if to catch something, then left the room leaving me on my mother’s bed in a stupor. I could breathe again, I had air, but my world felt dark and cramped as if I were in a box. I stared off in the distance, going to a safe place inside, the outer me a shell.

And so it began. I became his toy.

More than all the attacks and abuse, it was the empty gum box and that moment in time that crystallized in my conscious and unconscious memory. I had been tricked. I had been tricked by someone I loved and trusted, a brother who, in normal circumstances, would protect a young sister. But instead, unconsciously, instinctually, as a matter of survival, that memory caused the total eradication of trust for any other human being ever. His treachery became a steady, deliberate series of planned attacks for the next few years, symbolized by an empty packet of gum.

It became a very dark period. I continued to be used this way along with any friend unfortunate enough to play with me at the house or spend the night. I lived many years into adulthood with the guilt of what he did to my friends and cousin down the road.

Annie, my cousin and neighbor, used to play at my house as much as I at hers. He attacked her too but she told. Her parents talked to Mom. Annie could no longer come to our house. That made me feel bad, that our family was bad, but most especially me.

Now Mom knew about another brother. I sat in my bedroom opposite her, my face red and hot. The tears stung in their intensity, dripping burning shame into my lap.

“Tell me if anything ever happens again,” she admonished, as if I had the power to stop it.

That was the extent of any protection I’d get. My head slowly nodded yes as tears washed down, but I knew I’d never tell. I felt to blame, guilty and shamed, evidently experiencing much more remorse than the abuser who kept abusing me.

I began itching fiercely between my legs where I peed. And it didn’t go away. Instead the itching intensified. I felt afraid, more afraid of the itching than of him.

“I’m itching,” I said to Chet, after he was done with me.

He smiled as he left. “Oh you probably have a rash,” he said nonchalantly, then was gone from my room.

I became more afraid, panicky. Something was down there and I had to find out. I looked for Mom’s makeup mirror on her dressing room table, the special place where I loved to play dress-up, putting her sparkling blue diamond-like studded necklace atop my head like a tiara. When Dad was still alive and they went out in the evening, I often sat at her little table on the small stool, looking into the three mirrors set at angles to see all sides, adorning myself with her jewelry, pretending to be a princess. But I wasn’t a child anymore, suddenly I had become very old, the weight of reality changing me from ten to two hundred, as I robotically performed functions only an adult should know how to do—or have to do.

I lay on her bed, pulled my panties down, held the mirror over the area and saw bugs. I went downstairs for a cup, filling it with hot water. After finding tweezers from her dresser that she used to pluck her eyebrows, I laid again on her bed, held the mirror in one hand, and with the other plucked the minute spiders from me. Their little teeth stubbornly burrowed tightly into the soft, sweet flesh, but I pulled every one that I could and placed it in the cup of hot water, hoping to scald it to death.

This time I went to Mom.

She seemed quiet, then said, “We’ll see the doctor.”

“No!” I pleaded through tears of shame and fright.

The dread of our doctor knowing far overshadowed the revulsion and terror of what was down there, still stuck on me. So later she came to me with a small container of powder.

“I looked it up. This is DDT. It will kill them. Dust yourself down there in the morning before getting dressed and at night before you put on pajamas. I’ll wash all your sheets, nightgowns, and underwear,” she said, all business. Then she added, “Chet already saw a doctor and took care of it.”

I felt limp and emptied… he didn’t tell me.

This latest rush of shame watered my face, lips and chin, my face again hot. Knowing I added to her burdens of “all us eight kids,” which had become the mantra after Dad died, tormented me. But she wouldn’t expose me and, at that moment, Mom became both a life- long alliance and a place to dump rage.

Did we not go to the doctor because I begged her not to? Or could her fear of exposure have been greater than mine? And she was right, the DDT did kill them.

The abuse stopped, though not on my volition. I never had such power but believed I should have. Feeling real stopped too, as if I’d become invisible, a ghost of a person undeserving of the same rights, voice, or worth as others. Mom hired a high school girl that summer to watch Stevie and me so Chet couldn’t get at me again. I never told her about the others.

CHAPTER 3: CHRISTMAS AT GRANDMA’S

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The long old oak table gleamed like golden honey, someone’s effort to wax and shine evident in its warm glow. All six extensions were in place, stretching the usually small oval form from one end of the ancient farmhouse’s dining room to the other. Grandma and Aunt Sally hosted Christmas each year, one week before the big day, so we celebrated not one but two Christmases. Happy chatter filled the rooms bursting with all eight of us Wilkinson kids, Mom, Aunt Rita, Uncle Fred and their three kids, our cousins, Scott, Annie, and Larry.

Even the youngest, including me, were allowed to help properly situate the crisp white tablecloths over the seemingly endless length of smooth wood. A slight hint of pine arose as Scott and Don shook them before settling askew, as we helped pull the edges so it hung just right, one cloth slightly overlapping another. After storage in cedar lined trunks, they’d been ironed and starched, the soft thick cloth slightly stiff. The kid’s cloth-covered card table tucked to the side would be my seat, along with Stevie and my cousin Larry.

Next we set out plates, then silverware, cloth napkins, glasses, coffee cups with saucers, salt and pepper shakers, ladles, serving forks, and the sugar and creamers. Doing my best to fold the napkins with precision took time, and then the silverware had to be placed in exact order. Annie, older by seven years, held court, directing us younger helpers, then added the finishing touches by lighting all the candles. The room warmed with a soft glow, the flickering light beckoned for all to gather.

Uncle Fred stayed reclusive even among us. He’d force a smile, and then remove himself from the lively gathering as quickly as possible with excuses of a hot football game back at his house across the road. I couldn’t understand why he’d leave the gay party. His structured smile always softened when he said “hello‟ to me. But Aunt Rita rocked with holiday fervor, pounding out carols, while I sat on the piano bench next to her, following along, loving the songs of Christmas, and loving even more that she knew how to play them, turning the pages when she nodded her head. Mom and Aunt Rita exchanged a look that cooled the atmosphere briefly, and it wouldn’t be until years later that I’d learn what caused that soured rift, Mom used instant potatoes in her dish to pass instead of making them from scratch.

Sitting down for the big meal was just something to get done with, barely tolerated, especially by the three of us at the little table. It seemed to take forever to eat. Warmth and activity filled the kitchen along with smells of roasting turkey, bubbling gravy and other mysterious tempting aromas wafting from the oven. We moved through the bustling kitchen quickly with gentle scoldings. “You kids stay out of here,” could be heard from one smiling chef or another.

We jumped into the living room, exploding with excitement to examine the tree again, which filled the bay window alcove. The floor-length windows shimmered with brilliant colors reflected back, mirroring the festive scene, intensifying it. Underneath, prettily wrapped presents in assorted shapes awaited happy hands, the old- fashioned, fat, colored bulbs enhancing their mystery and attraction brightly. Silver tinsel, thickly adorned, streamed downward, glittering with movement in the air current. My favorite ornament sent bubbles into its colored liquid when plugged in, the water inside the tiny tube heating up. The tree’s branches hid several white envelopes slipped in-between branches, but those didn’t captivate us. Our eyes quickly skimmed past them to the gifts below.

Moving constantly with high-test kid energy, the tree securely the same as only moments before, I flounced to the other end of the living room, braking at the treat table to study the candy dish. Its contents overflowed with beautiful striped colored candies of various shades—yellow, green, orange, red, and some swirled with two colors together. That would be for later, the sugary thin brittle ribbon, fun to break into bite-sized chunks, crunching the sweetness, trying to detect each individual flavor: mint, cherry, orange, lime or lemon? The opened box of chocolates next to the fancy ribbon twirls didn’t stand a chance.

Not old enough to be trusted to fill the punch pitcher, I followed Don out to the frigid breezeway where the tall kettle held gallons of fizzy red holiday punch. He used a long-handled porcelain covered dipper to refill it, and I rubbed my arms up and down jumping in a circle to stay warm. The breezeway kept the punch at a perfect temperature without freezing it. Reentering the bright kitchen felt like suddenly being wrapped in hot blankets.

Feasting time approached. Potatoes were scraped into serving bowls, gravy and the rest of the fixings all transferred from cooking pots to Grandma’s multi-colored Fiesta ware. The rolls were handed to me, and I set them on the table before joining Stevie and Larry at our own table. The others began to gather ‘round and settle in for Grace.

Finally sixteen people seated themselves and our eldest cousin, Scott, led the prayer. We bent our heads, clasped our hands, then the meal began, the quiet suddenly erupting with tinkling silverware, clinking dishes and, “Will you pass the gravy? Do you have the pepper?”

No one bothered to tell us what food we had to eat, a plus for the separate table, but once we were done, we had to sit there till everyone else finished. The wait felt like an eternity. Then the clearing began which we helped with, glad for some activity. After the dishes were delivered to the sink area, we flounced impatiently on the couches near the tree, while the clatter of washing dishes continued in the kitchen. Next? Dessert.

I suddenly perked up. I guess I could wait a little longer, but the question begged, which one? Grandma traditionally offered a two-layer chocolate cake topped with fudge frosting, so massive you needed a sharp knife to cut through the deep wad of fudge that dropped off the edges of the almost black confection. Aunt Sally ensured someone had made a run to the city creamery for the perfect, special, peppermint stick ice-cream, pink, and sweeter around the real pieces of slightly crunchy red and green candy mixed inside. And the required pumpkin and apple pies filled the counter, served plain or à la mode, along with dark, rich, freshly perked coffee from Grandma’s plug-in percolator.

So the shuffling for chairs began again as everyone sat to ingest the sweets, complaining of how full they were. We picked at our desserts and chattered as the ice cream melted in our dessert cups, excited that soon we’d be ready for the tree. This time clean-up went quickly. Paper plates with Santa faces were dropped into large trash bags, held by Scott or Don. Some took their coffee with them as they left the table. And then the time came, we blasted into the living room. Finally, the tree!

Sitting cross-legged on the floor, as close to the tree as possible, my fingers clasped and unclasped impatiently as we eagerly awaited the dispersal of gifts. The main event had begun. Everything we’d been waiting for over the last several months culminated into this, wishes to be answered, dreams to come true.

When the Sears Wish Book had arrived before the snow flew, Stevie and I pored over every page. That catalog represented the bible of toy heaven. It held beautiful color images of toys we had never imagined. Our wish lists grew long. Then the studied list had to be organized from most wanted on down. This serious business took time and diligence, more fevered energy devoted to it than to any dedicated to homework. When the list felt just right, perfectly displaying our hearts’ delights, only then did we deliver it to Grandma.

And wishes do come true. The previous year my list topper had been a doll that pooped and peed, vacillating between her and an Easy Bake Oven. The dolly that pooped won out. Over time, the wish list matured, and included a glorious long-haired, blond Barbie doll, complete with extra fancy clothing: a long silk gown, heels, a purse, and of course a tiny hairbrush and comb, accompanied by a closet-like case to keep her and the numerous accessories in. Little hangers were even included, like a real closet, with small drawers below for shoes, hats, or jewelry.

As preadolescence approached, gifts that plugged in would become desirable; the most favored, a record player able to handle 45s and 33s, with a little attachment to hold a tall stack of the smaller one-song 45s. One after another, the latest hits dropped down. After all of the records played, they were flipped over for the songs on the other side to reverberate. “Pretty Woman” echoed through the bedroom walls repeatedly, as my friends and I danced and gyrated. But this year all the rage was Chatty Cathy—pull the string in her back and she talked!

I barely sat still. Scott seemed to take quiet pleasure in drawing out the process. Grandma opened a black leather handbag that looked just like the one she already had. Aunt Sally’s gifts were given out one by one, always a book of interest, and especially chosen to meet the tastes and needs of each recipient. I loved reading due to her tireless efforts, reading all the golden books out loud to me, as we lay together on the couch at night. I cherished books, and my gift anxiety for my long awaited dolly was momentarily relieved while opening a hardcover storybook that now belonged only to me. My ability to read hadn’t evolved to thicker chapter books, but with years to come I’d receive many grand titles including the Nancy Drew series of which I read every one, My Friend Flicka, The Yearling, and so many more treasures that took me to far-off places.

The time had arrived. A big, gaily wrapped box was laid on my lap. Noise, light, and laughter stopped, tuned out; all that existed was the pretty paper, ripped off immediately. There she lay, gloriously beautiful Chatty Cathy. Opening the box, my arms enveloped her close to my heart; my smile surely must have matched the joy I felt inside. The little white envelopes handed out next weren’t even noticed, as I got acquainted with my new friend who talked. I swooned with rapture. She had gold ringlets and a frilly blue pinafore dress. She never left my side, going to bed with me that night and all the nights after. Christmas was complete and everything I had ever wanted, I had received.

 

CHAPTER 2: EIGHT

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Dad died and chaos ruled.

One night I woke in the dark, scared. A shadow at the end of the bed moved towards me. Breathing halted. I had night terrors before, but Daddy wasn’t there anymore to carry me around in his warm arms, calming me as I slept. Was I dreaming or awake? The specter slunk around the bed, creeping closer silently. It was black, quiet, crouched and coming for me. Iced with fear and still half-asleep, I couldn’t even scream for my mother.

When it slipped gently onto the edge of the bed, my terror immediately abated; air once again filled my lungs. I knew who it was: not a phantom but Danny, a brother I loved and trusted. He sat lightly next to me, his face hidden in the dark. I had known his voice for my entire young life: familiar, soothing, very kind, and the last thing I remember.

Softly, so tenderly, the words dripped out of his mouth like warm syrup and melted butter, “We’re going to play house,” he whispered. “You’re the mommy, I’m the daddy.”

During my next bath I began screaming as if stabbed and dying; that’s how much it hurt. The soap seared my vagina as if a sharp hot blade pierced me, though I didn’t know the name of that part of me yet. Danny’s twin Don, the ‘good one,’ came running, his eyes wild with fright for what he might find. When I told him through my tears that the soap hurt, he seemed disgusted and left the bathroom as quickly as he had arrived.

Though the pain ebbed along with the suds trailing down the drain, the terror of living in that house did not. The next day, Seth walked by my bedroom.

“Danny fucked me,” I said.

Seth said nothing, but his eyes glazed through me as if I were stabbed with an arrow. His nonchalance quickly disappeared, immediately replaced by a laser of revulsion. My bravado and confidence in telling big brother, who I knew would save me from the nighttime monster, vanished in an instant.

The look in his eyes became etched on the slate of who I was to become. Those eyes emptied me, devastated me. That moment shaped my core, shame the bedrock I grew from. I don’t know how I knew the word “fuck.” I don’t remember Danny saying it, but I know that he did. The memory of the attack still hasn’t surfaced. I am not ready for it, and may never be.

Once I had been a child who spoke the truth; it was part of the canvas that was me. I was born with it. I am not that woman today, though I look for her. Seth told Mom what I said. That was the first time she became aware of my vulnerability, but not the last. I didn’t go to a doctor. I was left on my own after attacks to my body, like a dinghy cut loose from the main ship. I have felt alone ever since.

The fat that accumulated immediately after Danny’s attack became a permanent addition to my skinny kid frame. Mom loved to cook. She fed me, I ate. She didn’t keep him off me, nor her other sons, but she loved me with food. Once a slim child who ate only when hungry, I transformed into an eating machine who devoured food for other reasons. Waking in the night, sick from the day’s eating, I went to Mommy for help.

As she lay there sleeping, I laid my hand tentatively on the cool sheet over her shoulder. “Mommy,” I whispered. I’m going to throw up.”

Half-asleep, she rasped, “What do you want me to do, spit straw?”

I went to the toilet and threw up. I kept eating and throwing up, my little tummy unable to contain all the food needed to numb out the nightly attacks, to feel loved, to survive. Some part of me believed a fat body was an ugly body, so safer, anything that would keep him away. It didn’t work. And maybe, as who I was slipped away, growing a bigger body kept me from disappearing altogether.

 

It’s OK to Cry

Picture 056  I might not even know why. But if I settle into myself, sometimes tears fall. I let them. Better out than in. Tears wash. Saline solution is used to clense wounds. I used to hold them in, without knowing I did or why. Maybe I spun too fast to cry, away from myself.

But sometimes now when I feel the most settled, tears come. That’s ok. Maybe it’s because of what I gave up to move on. Or maybe it’s because life continues to offer new challenges. A fellow writer told me once there was a sadness about me. That’s ok too. It’s ok to be however I am. Joy and love cause me to cry. The beauty is slowing the whirl to settle into me; the center, the soul, the spirit.

And whatever I find, I am just glad to be there, in me, the pieces together, even if the edges are rough, and where the pieces healed, bumpy.

Yes, I’m sad to have given up the pretense of ‘family’, those people born from the same mother as me. But I had to. I survived. And in the process, found me…

I’ve looked for a very long time-

FALL

Picture 251  A melancholy descends upon me as the birds leave and summer releases her grip to fall. I fall.

I miss my Mom, and my friend Sue. Two women who knew me, though my friend ‘mothered’ me better.

I don’t want to move, as still as the air around me. The hummingbirds hover near-by sipping syrup, but they will leave soon too.

I know I should walk, bike, or go get groceries. But I sit and soak up the cool morning air, the sun, the chirps of the birds that are left.

And allow the time I need to feel what is…

FULL TIME JOB

Picture 059  You wouldn’t think being ‘nice’ to yourself is a full-time job. Show kindness. To me? That’s ok? Seems as though one would be born to look after oneself, put themselves first, above all others, it’s called survival. And if you come through childhood intact, you do that…naturally. But many of us don’t. I didn’t. I hear voices clanging in my head every minute, every second. And who are those voices? A disapproving teacher, mother, brother, friend of brother, neighbor, cousin, friend? Oh there are many. I can’t decipher one from another just that they are not loving- or ‘nice’.

So it’s work, but how delightful as each day I discover anew (when I remember to counteract what has become familiar, those mean voices now mine), it’s ok to show myself kindness. A daily discovery, a goldmine. I’ve been told many times I’m ‘sweet’. That might translate to ‘doormat’. Of course I want to please you so you don’t hurt me. So where is that ‘sweetness’ for me?

Be kind, to me. How hard can that be? It’s a full-time job.