When I was eleven and in the sixth grade, my mother packed her bags and mine and took me away to escape from my father.
It occurs to me that this would nowadays probably be referred to as a “parental abduction,” but me? I was THRILLED. I had hoped and prayed for YEARS that she would divorce him so we could get away from his abuse, but she had always refused to consider it. We were Catholic, and my mother was old — she’d had me when she was forty-seven — yes, really — and had long since lost any marketable skills she once had; she wouldn’t have been able to support us on her own, most likely. I didn’t grasp things like that at the time, but looking back I realize she was trapped between a rock and a hard place.
(I sometimes wonder how it would have played out if this had happened today: My mother’s picture being plastered on the news, a possible Amber Alert, and that ugly word, “abduction” being tossed around. People feel very strongly about that sort of thing these days, but from my own perspective and firsthand experience, hey, sometimes these so-called abductions really ARE in the best interest of the child. Just my personal bias, there.)
Since Mom couldn’t drive, she and I took buses and trains to various places around our hometown. We stayed in a nice hotel for a couple of nights, thanks to a discount from her AARP card (see?), but then we had to start looking into other options. One of my older brothers and his wife took us in for a few days. We stayed at a women’s shelter briefly, and then a regular homeless shelter where we slept on floor mattresses and they served us chicken necks and bean sprouts, which I thought were gross. Apart from the food, I was having a wonderful time. I wasn’t in school, and I wasn’t anywhere near HIM, and that was all that mattered. I had brought a big paper bag full of my favorite stuffed animals, and my mother bought me some books and toys to keep me occupied, and they did. I was in heaven.
It didn’t occur to me how much my mother was struggling during this time. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what her plans were, if in fact she had any. I think she just had to get away from him because he had become particularly unstable, apparently because of my older sister’s impending wedding – he hadn’t approved of her engagement for some reason I was never clear on (probably the guy wasn’t Catholic, or something along those lines). Whatever it was, something had finally gone far enough for Mom to do something about it, and I wasn’t complaining.
She did speak to the authorities at one point, probably as a condition of staying at the women’s shelter. I remember urging her, pleading with her: “Tell them, tell them what he did to me.” She refused. She told them about his “tirades,” as she called them, but that was all. The matter was apparently dropped.
We took a long bus ride to my grandmother’s little seashore house and stayed there alone for a while, which only made heaven more blissful for me. It was one of my favorite places in the world. The phone would ring constantly and she told me not to answer it. We were on the run, we were in hiding, we were on an adventure! I loved it.
Then came my sister’s wedding, with me dressed up in the most garish, over made-up getup you can imagine on an eleven-year-old. Think JonBenet if she had lived. There’s a reason I don’t appear in any of the wedding photos. Mom was too exhausted from the whole ordeal to protest my wardrobe and makeup choices and was pretty much letting me do whatever I wanted by that point (not that I took advantage that much). To me it was all part of the wonderful adventure we were on: getting on an airplane, flying to another state (the tickets had been bought long in advance), getting to wear a fancy outfit that Ma would never have let me wear in the past. And best of all, Daddy wasn’t there. Heaven!
Finally, we ended up at Mom’s brother’s house, living with him and Grandma and my aunt and some cousins for a while. It was a nice, large home, and there were magazines to read and board games to play and heavenly of heavenlies, a DOG, a pet to lavish with love and attention! I really couldn’t have been happier.
Now okay, yeah, sure, it wasn’t a good thing that I was out of school for months. It’s certainly not ideal for a little girl to be shuffled around from shelters to relatives’ houses instead of having a stable home life. But you know what else isn’t good for little girls? Getting beaten with the buckle end of a belt for looking at Daddy the wrong way. Watching Mommy get strangled over the kitchen sink. Getting dragged across the room by your hair for playing “sculpture” with the butter.
“Parental abduction” though this may have been, even though I’m older and hopefully a little wiser, I still don’t blame my mom for taking me on this jaunt. Sure, she could have “just” gone straight to the police instead. But you have to remember, this was an abused woman with a young child who was trapped. She had no friends, had been isolated from her family, had no transportation of her own, most likely couldn’t hold down a job, and was certainly humiliated at being in this position in the first place. She knew (and pointed out to me whenever I brought it up) that the police couldn’t really do anything until something had been done to you, and by then it might be too late. She was certainly afraid of what might happen to me if the authorities really got involved and found out the extent of his abuse; I might have been taken away and put into foster care. And worst of all, everyone would KNOW. Everyone would learn our shameful secret, and that could never happen. That’s the kind of fear that abusers cultivate in their victims. Ultimately, the culture of secrecy that my father had enforced for all those long years — never let anyone know what goes on here — was too strong for my mother to overcome. But for a brief period there, she had the strength at least to remove me from that environment. I only wish she’d had the strength (and support) to follow through with it all the way.
Sadly, heaven eventually had to end and without much fanfare, we went back to That House again. There wasn’t any counseling between my parents that I was aware of, and nothing seemed different than it had ever been, so I don’t know what it ultimately came down to — maybe the fact that I needed to be back in school? Maybe Catholic guilt? You’ve got me. I’m sure there were lengthy discussions outside of my hearing, and I’m sure there’s a lot that I never learned about what went down. I don’t know where the hell the rest of my adult siblings were, and why they didn’t come together and help us somehow. They all grew up in the same house and knew exactly what we were dealing with; why didn’t they step up?
I do remember being forced to talk a short walk with my father while he tried to get me to tell him where we had been while we were gone, and I refused to say anything. That’s when this conversation happened:
“Don’t you love me?”
What I didn’t say: “Why WOULD I love you?”
I went back to class and had months of miserable catch-up work to do so that I wouldn’t fail sixth grade. At home, everything went back to normal — everything. Including him. It was as if the adventure had never happened.
That, I think, was when an idea started to form in my young mind: Since Ma wouldn’t leave him, maybe I could do something about the situation myself.
To be continued…