Mom and Me
The very event of my birth set into motion a complicated and often tumultuous relationship between my mother, Carolyn B. and I. She was a 19 year old girl who had already experienced more of an adult life than most 30 year olds.
Her own difficult beginnings contributed to the woman she became and then subsequently helped shape who I am. This is my version of times before my birth which I have formed from stories told by my mom, conversations overheard, and various family sources.
She and her sister, Barbara, were raised by their paternal grandmother, Mama H., in Little Rock, Arkansas. Their parents were divorced and their mother, for a reason I don’t know, didn’t play any real role in their parenting. Their father, William ‘Bill’ H. lived off and on with his mother. Blanche H., who ultimately raised his girls. I know my mother adored her father, but I always got the feeling from her that he wasn’t an active authority or role model in her life. In fact he was a World War II veteran who turned to alcohol for escape after returning home from the war. When he chose alcohol his ability to meet his potential in life was gone and subsequently my mother was robbed of a stable father.
Mama H. did her best to take care of grandchildren. Her hardships were many, but her love for my mom was genuine and unconditional. Mom reciprocated by staying in line and keeping her distance from trouble. But somehow at the age of 14 trouble found her in the form of an 18 year old Air Force cadet from Colorado. His father had forced him to join the military in order to avoid the juvenile delinquency that awaited him. This young man would later become my father.
My mom became pregnant at the age of 14, married, and gave birth to a beautiful, healthy baby boy. He was named David B., Jr. It wasn’t long before their situation turned disastrous. My father was already well on his way to a life of alcoholism and harbored more than a little bitterness and resentment for his current lot in life. He did not respect my mom simply because she was from the south and he held his supposed northern superiority over her at every opportunity. Under the influence of alcohol he often became violent with my brother, David and my mom. In that state of mind he was quite dangerous. My mom tried to get away numerous times, but simply had no place to go. Mama H. would take her in for a day or two, but she was of the old school that believed you stick it out no matter what. She, too, lived with violence from her husband until he aged and became disabled.
When the Department of Child Welfare threatened to take my brother away from my Mom, she took action. She finally found the courage to leave my father and file for divorce. She found a low paying job and did her best to keep herself and David fed. Mom actually suffered from mal-nourishment during this time.
Somehow my father re-entered the picture with promises of changes and tear-filled apologies which coaxed my mom into a second marriage with him. He immediately told her that he wanted a daughter. So, when she became pregnant for the second time at the age of 19, she prayed every night for a girl. She was so afraid that if she had another boy, that my father would continue the violence that he had shown towards my brother. Mom’s second pregnancy was hard and long. It was like this baby didn’t want to be born.
Finally, two weeks after full term I was born. And I was a girl. According to my mother, my father was beaming and proud and treated me like a queen. While still beating my brother and my mother on a regular basis, he proclaimed that little girls aren’t to be spanked. This fact along with the circumstances in general made it virtually impossible for my mom and I to bond in any normal way. Her focus had to remain on the safety of my brother and of herself. I was already safe simply because of my gender. This dysfunctional dynamic continued for another two years when my mother again left and filed for her second divorce. Being so young at the time, I had no awareness of how the stage was being set for my family’s future. At the age of 4 that awareness began to penetrate my consciousness.
My mother met a man who would become my first step-father. His name was Ronnie M. and he was an artist employed by a furniture company to create their ad designs. His artistic talent was amazing and was especially so when you realized that his left arm had been crippled by polio and was essentially unusable. A year or so into their marriage Ronnie expressed his desire to have a child with my mom. Mom went along with it and may have actually found a way to enjoy that experience. Ronnie was so supportive of her and created this fairytale nursery complete with every Peanuts’ character on the walls that he painted himself. I remember watching him create this room. Being only 5 years old at the time, I remember feeling a little jealous of this new baby and all the fuss being made for its arrival. My brother and I had rooms in the basement which was dark and scary to me. I remember the bathroom was odd because the toilet was painted black. Just outside my bedroom door was a pool table and an area that was used for entertaining friends. I remember my room being big and impersonal and cold.
I’ll never forget the night my little sister, Shawna, was born. Some of mom’s friends had stayed with us that night while Ronnie and mom went to the hospital. The call came in pretty late that night that my brother and I had a new baby sister. We were allowed to stay up late that night waiting for the news.
There are gaps in my memory around this time, but one memory that is crystal clear was when I decided that my little sister was messing everything up for me. I was 6 years old and obviously felt abandoned or at least demoted in the family. Somewhere in my mind I had decided that it was Shawna’s fault.
One afternoon I went into her room while she was sleeping. I wanted to do something to her, but I just didn’t know what. Just seconds after I decided that poking her in the eye was a good idea, my mom came in and all hell broke loose. I don’t think I would have actually hurt her, but I have not lived down the attempt at it even to this day.
Not long after my sister’s birth, I began to perceive a subtle change in the house. This might also be attributed to the fact that I was now 6 and my awareness had matured some. Slowly Ronnie began to change how he interacted with me and my brother. He seemed to have less patience for us. He was no longer fun to be around. I remember deciding that it was best to avoid him if at all possible. My mom had begun attending Beauty School which left us alone with Ronnie more and more. I remember dreading Saturdays because mom was at school and Ronnie always had an endless list of chores for me and my brother to do. Everything from folding laundry, doing dishes to picking up all of the white rocks that had strayed from the flower beds into the yard. I remember wondering how the rocks were able to escape into the yard in such large numbers. That mystery was never solved and the Saturday white rock ritual continued.
This was also the time when alcohol and the effects of it came into my scope of awareness. Ronnie loved to drink and was usually more fun when he did drink. There was one day when I saw a different side of Ronnie under the influence of alcohol. He was sitting in the living room with a drink in his hand watching a Nebraska football game. He was from Nebraska and was an avid fan of the Cornhuskers. This particular game wasn’t going well because we began to hear angry yelling and cursing. And then there was the crashing sound. My brother and I ran to see what had happened and we found Ronnie with his foot jammed into the screen of our one and only television set. When he saw us watching him his anger only grew. I remember running outside and staying gone until I knew for sure that my mom was home from beauty school.
Episodes like that one became more frequent. I tried to be invisible but that didn’t always work. I don’t remember exactly what I had done to get in trouble but I’ll never forget Ronnie’s choice of punishment on one occasion. He had been drinking which I think made it easier for him to be especially cruel. He told me that I was bad and that he had no choice but to send me away to some home for girls where they would straighten me out. I remember crying and begging him to give me another chance. He would go so far as to pick up the phone and pretend he was talking to someone at this place and was making the arrangements for my arrival. This seemed to go on for an eternity before he would finally hang up the phone and laugh. I no longer felt safe. What’s missing from this memory is my mom. I don’t know if she was there or not or if she was even aware of Ronnie’s tactics and interactions with me.
The one common thread with all of these varied episodes was alcohol. As my mom was approaching the end of her training in beauty school, tension between her and Ronnie grew. There were many nights I was awakened by them screaming at each other. Sometimes I could hear one hitting the other and it was hard to tell who was doing what. I could tell that they both were drunk by their slurring.
My brother also took his share of abuse from Ronnie. Mostly I remember Ronnie hitting him. It happened fairly often. We wanted things to get better between Ronnie and Mom so desperately that my brother and I decided to put together a surprise anniversary party for them. With the help of a few of their friends, we were actually making it happen. We even arranged to spend the night with friends, so they could just enjoy the party and not have kids around the rest of the night. We were so proud of ourselves.
We came home the next morning expecting joy and gratitude, but what we found was far from that. The visual is still vivid in my mind even today. The smell of alcohol and stale cigarettes hit my nose and was overwhelming. As I entered the kitchen there were many glasses of half full drinks; some with cigarette butts floating in them. I noticed broken glass on the floor and quickly tiptoed backward out of the kitchen. I next entered our sunken family room which looked even worse than the kitchen. Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw across the room lying on the sofa. It was my Mom. As I approached her and then stopped in my tracks. She had been beaten so badly that her face looked something like hamburger meat.
She was barely able to speak but told us that she was going to be fine and to get the house picked up. Ronnie wasn’t there and I was grateful for that. We later learned that my mom had recently discovered that Ronnie was having an affair with his secretary at work. Not having a clue about this, we had invited her to the party along with many other friends and co-workers. After a few drinks, my mom had the courage to confront Ronnie and this woman about their affair. My mom was notoriously known as a ‘mean’ drunk. Irregardless, the result was that she received a beating by Ronnie that was quite severe. She had broken ribs to go along with her bruised and swollen face. This incident went unreported and life seemed to resume as if this had never occurred. But, that didn’t last long and there was one final confrontation that I also remember with odd clarity.
I guess my mom had been working towards getting out of her marriage to Ronnie. Once she graduated from Beauty School and secured a job she decided it was time. Unfortunately, the night she decided to tell him, we were all in the room and they had both been drinking. Mom didn’t break the news gently. She had so much anger towards him that I think she wanted to see him hurt and humiliated in front of us. Ronnie responded in his usual way and he pushed my mom to the floor. As she fell her head hit the edge of a tile ledge and she landed right in front of our fireplace, out cold. My brother, who was now 15 and thanks to puberty had reached a height of 6’ 4”, grabbed Ronnie and with one punch knocked him unconscious. We revived mom, and we all left that house and did not return until Ronnie was gone for good.
During all of this time that I’ve described I felt like an unwilling passenger on a runaway train. I withdrew and created my own fantasy world. My mom used to comment on how it seemed like I was from another planet. I felt singled out by her often. Dinnertime in particular was always a dreaded and scary time for me. With the full backing of my mom, Ronnie would force us to eat liver. I tried so hard to swallow, but the smell and taste made me gag I could not control it.
Also my mom watched my every move at the dinner table I can still hear the criticisms coming from her mouth. “Slow down…. Slow down, you’re eating too fast” “Quit that smacking, chew with your mouth closed”. Under normal circumstances all of this would be considered good advice for table manners, but my mom never let up. I never ate slow enough for her and no matter how hard I tried my ‘smacking’ would not cease to her satisfaction. As a result, I grew to be the slowest eater of all time. To this day, I am still the ob
For all of these reasons I never felt close to my mom nor protected by her. I was strange to her and she admittedly didn’t know how to deal with me. So, she chose not to. I grew up not feeling accepted, loved safe and as I got older I, in turn, didn’t go out of my way to accommodate her. I learned to keep to myself and do my own thing.
I separated myself from her and to this day it is a challenge for me, and for her to bridge that space I felt compelled to forge.