Necessary Tears


My last entry was difficult to write, and think about. I’m debating whether or not I’ll leave it up, and wondering why I’m mulling over these things at all. It was a long time ago, and my family isn’t in my life anymore. That should be enough of a reason to move on, right? Yet at the same time I can’t help but think that it’s hard to reopen a wound that never fully healed.

During the trying times of my life, I was unaware that I was going through something adverse. So many things were normalised in my childhood home that I’m still discovering to be inappropriate, or inaccurate to this day.

For my own kids, my foster siblings that I’ve been taking care of for the last few years, I made five rules. Clearly defined, and never changing. They have different learning abilities, so I thought it was important to keep the list short, and easy to remember. It’s worked out wonderfully.

The rules from my childhood were impossible to follow. They changed often, sometimes on a daily basis. There were different rules for different members of the family. As we got older, the rules became more restricting and increased in quantity. There were unstated restrictions as well. Things that were implied, that we were supposed to figure out on our own, as though we were being tested. Failure meaning physical discipline and probably the appropriation (if not destruction) of cherished or valuable possessions.

Some unspoken expectations were very clear:

  • We owned nothing. Clothes, toys, books, etc. Everything purchased for us belonged to my parents. The privilege to use these things could be taken away at any time, for any reason (definitive or suspected).
  • Perception was everything. When in public we had to be on our best behaviour. Around other relatives we were to be unflinchingly obedient, and brag about our achievements. Drawing unwanted attention to the house was unacceptable.
  • Mother’s word was law. If she was upset with one child, and she demanded another one destroy something the offending party enjoyed; it had to be done without hesitation.

Throughout the ongoing changes in precedent, we rarely came to each other’s aide. Getting in the crossfire just ensured your own torment. If she demanded our presence during corrective measures, we stayed. If asked to taunt one another throughout it, we did. Though more often than not she would hit all of us for the slight of one, and then smile and wave her fingers in the air as though conducting a chorus of our cries.

Back then, I thought that my father was the better parent. He was quieter, calmer, and easier to approach because he wouldn’t immediately lash out verbally or physically. Years later, I realise how wrong I was. He didn’t defend us. He didn’t protect us. He was hardly ever around. For weeks at a time he would be away on business (CFS home assessments and apprehensions in the north; and I really wonder why he could tolerate the grief of children taken away from all they know, but not his own offspring).

He was Roman Catholic. He was my first catechism teacher. After first communion he gifted me a pink, leather-bound bible that only had the new testament in it. I learned how to read better while reciting the passages from that in our kitchen; pretending to give sermons.

We went to mass as a family every Sunday until I was 14. We made crafts to raise money for the church. Attended evening events I can’t even remember the reasons for. We all had church outfits. I loved religion at that age. Belief was something we all shared, at least that’s what I thought at the time. I prayed every night for my family to be safe and happy. Back when I did pray.

Even if my father was home, he wasn’t really present. Napping on the couch for a few hours after dinner. Laundry in the basement for a few hours before bed. If he did witness our “corrections” he’d turn and say something akin to you don’t have to do that or that’s enough to my mother, and then turn back to whatever he was doing. He never once took a step forward. I understand now that he did enough to clear his own conscience of the matter. Sinner saved.

While he was away it was so much worse. She would cry and drink, or drink and cry. Lay on the living room floor for hours, sleeping or wailing like a forlorn banshee. Always the same high pitched note, droning on until she barely had air in her lungs. Make-up smeared all over her face, but hardly a tear in sight. When I was maybe six, I tried to help her. I wanted her to be happy. I would give her my toys, bring her tissues, and tell her that everything was all right. I didn’t understand why my siblings avoided her until she grabbed me by my upper arms and held me tight while demanding inches from my face: Promise me you’ll never leave me! Don’t you ever dare leave me! I need you to look after me! I need you to take care of me! I need you! Don’t you love me? Promise you’ll always love me! Don’t leave! Promise you’ll always be there for me! Promise me! Promise me! Promise me!

It felt like I made that promise a hundred times. I often wonder if she believed me then. I wonder more often lately if she remembers it now.

The finger-shaped bruises were green by the time my father returned.

We all tried to tell him what she was like when he was away. She’s mean. She’s sick. She sleeps all the time. She hurts us. She takes our things. She would dismiss it as the dramatic overreaction of young minds, laughing as she did so. Pointing out faults and errors that never occurred to reinforce that we deserved the treatment. And my father would agree with her, telling us gently, You’re not being abused, you’re being disciplined. It’s hard on us as parents, too, but we do it to help you learn.

Anyone that hits their children, discipline or not, deserves to fucking die.

When you start doing something like that regularly, while convincing yourself that it’s appropriate, where do you define the cut off? At what age does your child become a human being worthy of a reprimand instead of violence? Where’s the limit? Age 9, before they reach double digits? Age 12, before they become teenagers? Age 13, or up until your daughter starts her period? Age 16, or when they have their first job? Did you even draw a line in the sand before setting down this path?

The last time my mother hit me I was 21. It was the day I moved out.

She kept everything. All I had were the two instruments I took out of the house the week before, 16 pounds of my journals & creative writing that I could never leave unattended because she’d either read or ruin them, and the clothes I was wearing. I spent the first night away from my family with my at-the-time boyfriend. I didn’t sleep at all. I officially moved in with my friend the following day, and she bought me pyjamas so I had something to wear while washing my clothes.

In my memories, it was a sunny day. The grass a vibrate green, and leaves on the trees. Blue sky, fluffy white clouds, and a warm breeze. In reality, it was November 5. Nature was greying and readying to sleep for the winter. There were stiff brown leaves all up and down the street. I know this, but I don’t see it that way in my head. Perhaps its a subconscious metaphor of the turning point in my life. Not even my mother’s sarcastic parting words sound as dark as they did when I first heard them.

You can go… I’ll let you go so you can get this out of your system. But I know you’ll be back… because you’re weak. You need me, and I’ll still be here when you have to come home.

All the steps I took in preparation for attaining my independence were discarded by her with a smile on her face. She thanked my friends for coming to help me move, while simultaneously refusing to let any of them in the house to clear out my things. Once they were settled in their cars she had my back pressed against the side door so she could hiss about her embarrassment and my betrayal.

I had a cellular phone in my mother’s name, that I had to get rid of because she would fill up the answering machine with her wails, or have my foster siblings repeat messages she dictated in the background, or worst of all, she’d hold the phone near when they were crying and asking where I was. She told her friends and our extended family that I had run away. When they began phoning to call me selfish and talk about the effect my actions were having on my mother, I realised none of them actually knew my age. They all thought I was a minor. I dropped the phone off at one of the provider’s locations with money for the current bill.

Applying for credit, I learned that she had filled out applications to subscriptions services (magazines, movies-by-mail, music-by-mail, monthly books) in my name and racked up a few thousand dollars in debt. When I finally did get a part time job, and my own cellular phone, creditors began to hound me.

Being outside of that environment consistently (and indefinitely), was more jarring than living in it. Mostly because the shit I constantly had to listen to her say to me had taken up residence inside of me. All I knew about close-knit interactions up until that point was ridicule, neglect, and cruelty.

I went with my friend (& new roommate), her husband, and their dogs, outside of the province to visit her family for December holidays. It was not a spur-of-the-moment decision. Everything that had occurred leading up until then reinforced that it was not time for me to reconnect with my family.

Mary is such a kind and compassionate person, whose support and guidance I have come to trust deeply in the years since. I know now that she doesn’t have a malicious bone in her body, or a twisted thought in her head. While we were out shopping and socialising one day, she innocently walked away from me and I didn’t notice until I was unable to find her. I told myself not to worry, she couldn’t be far. I walked some aisles and continued perusing. I eyed the check-out line. I looked inside the women’s bathroom.

Panic started to set in when I went to check on the car in the parking lot but realised I wasn’t certain what it looked like because we had come in someone else’s. As I was walking back up to the store entrance, my mother’s voice started to roar between my ears. Laughing at me. Calling me stupid. Telling me I was getting exactly what I deserved for being an ungrateful child. I didn’t even notice Mary waving at me until she was walking over.

I broke down, and she held me. She figured out pretty quickly why I was upset, and reassured me. I apologised. I don’t know why, but I did. I felt like I needed to.

I’d known her for five years, and had been living with her for nearly two months. In that instant, I realised that this woman was effectively a stranger to me. And yet she was treating me with more patience and consideration than my own kin. It was a painful thing to comprehend then, and sixteen years later, it still hurts to remember that I had no idea how to respond to her actions.

My thoughts were racing between being relieved that I hadn’t been abandoned, and questioning what I could do for her to keep her from leaving me behind.

Being openly emotional, without experiencing backlash, was the stepping stone that allowed me to begin building trust in the life I was forging away from my family.

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