This column was published in the Tri-Valley Herald on September 25, 2008. The young woman I interviewed is a student in my English class. Her story touched my heart.
In July 1975, her new baby sister arrived, she said, “in the guise of a chubby cherub wrapped in a pink fuzzy blanket.”
Eyes peeking out, round as the July moon, the new baby stole all the attention from the two-year-old sister.
“I’d become invisible even to my favorite aunt,” said the 30-something woman who lives in the Tri-Valley and who asked that her name not be published. “And this aunt usually hugged and kissed me and twirled me around in her arms each time she came to visit.”
As time passed, she grew to love her little sister, playing together from dawn to dusk in a home full of sweet aromas, of herbs, garlic, onion, and tomato sauce. A blend of music and languages made up the background of their childhood—French, Spanish, Croatian, German, and sometimes even English, though English was never spoken in a complete sentence.
“It was fine with us,” she said, “because my little sister and I had our own language.”
But among today’s memories lurk dark recollections of sexual abuse.
“We’d take refuge under our bunk beds, hand in hand, our hearts pounding as our father walked past with his dirty black steel-toed boots looking for us,” she said. “Either one of us would do if he found us.”
Another memory is of palms-up punishment, red welts rising from sticks whipped across hands for slamming the back screen door or running in the house or other small infractions.
“If a tear was shed, we’d get double,” she said.
What haunts her most is the memory of the nightly ritual when her little sister would scramble up the side of the bunk bed to join her. Together they would wait for the sound of keys in the front door, then the opening and closing of the refrigerator door and the cracking of beer cans one after another.
“Five, six, seven,” she said, “as we held our breath.”
Next came staggering feet and wicked laughs echoing down the hallway outside of their room. On cue, they would plunge into the safety of blankets, plugging ears so hard it hurt, plugging and unplugging for hours, checking for the sound of soft whimpering of their mother from the bathroom.
Then snores from the living room would signal the terror that night was over.
“In the morning we’d run to check on our mother,” she said. “We often found her in the kitchen washing a single dish over and over, staring out the window as if in a trance.”
Daylight brought playtime in the park, being kids again, a mother in dark glasses, swings flying up and away from the night before.
“One night, when I was about 10, I decided I wasn’t going to allow this any longer,” she said. “My father was chasing my mother through the house with a gun.”
From a crack in her bedroom door, she watched, and then warned her sister to hide in the bed as she ran to the kitchen for a knife.
“I draped myself over my mother, who had fallen and was crying,” she said. “I wasn’t sure what to do next, but as he sneered at us, something snapped.”
Her anger came to a boil and wielding the knife a voice emerged she hadn’t known she possessed.
“If you’re going to kill her, you’re going to have to kill me first.”
She doesn’t remember what happened next, but she does faintly remember her father locked in the basement, and paper bags of possessions being quickly loaded into a station wagon. She remembers her mother driving them to her aunt’s house, where little girls didn’t have to plug ears, where the anticipated nighttime sounds now were crickets and frogs.
“Many people have looked at me in shock when I say I wish I’d never had a father,” she said. Yet today, assisted with therapy, she strives to replace the devastation of her childhood with positive thoughts. In fact, she occasionally speaks with her father, a man whom she has come to realize was no doubt abused himself as a boy. Growing up in a foreign country, he’d married and brought her mother to the United States to run away from his own childhood terrors, to purse a dream that became a nightmare for a mother, two innocent girls, and for a lonely man still struggling for a better life in America.