I write. It’s what I do. I’m no longer a critical thinker, per se. I weave real-life stories, and I strive to illustrate the damages child abuse levies through my life experiences. I’ve become a ‘bottom line’ sort of person. People tend to ignore those things they find unpleasant. So here goes…
Early on in life, I learned to avoid adults in my surroundings. Fear was my constant companion—my tool for survival. It was the way things were. In church, my family sat next to others, with mothers tenderly holding their children; but I was sure they beat them when they got them home. My perception of the world was that all children had their share of secret scars and broken bones hidden somewhere. Not that all my broken bones were hidden: The tip of my nose pointed across my left cheek at a highly visible slant; the result of a forgotten event that had occurred when I was between the ages of eighteen months and two years. By the age of eight, I had gained enough knowledge to be sure it was my mother’s handiwork. I had seen her slap my little sister hard enough to rush them to the hospital to cauterize her nose. I just wasn’t old enough to realize we didn’t deserve it.
My father presented himself as a fellow victim, bearing my mother’s physical outbursts by sitting passively in a kitchen chair as she pummeled him about the head and shoulders. He had saved me from the buckle by removing it from the belt after my Mom had done too much damage to my backside. I knew he hated hitting me in the way that drove my mother. He only hit me when my mother drove him to take her place behind the belt, screaming at him, “Now hit her…hit her.” It was years before my gratitude diminished enough for me to realize he should have taken the whole belt.
My father spent hours peeping into people’s windows: watching their habits; waiting for moments when he could slip into their homes and take things they valued. He stole children’s piggy banks, jewelry, and little treasures passed down from long dead relatives. If he had time, he sat at their kitchen tables eating sandwiches made from food he found in their refrigerators. By the time I hit two years of age, my father had been caught and sent to jail for sixty-some-odd break-ins. It was well known my Dad had sat in many more kitchens than that of which they charged him.
By the age of five, I had taken to wandering away from home, searching for things or children with which to play. Dad had been released from prison and had come home. My baby sister arrived soon after, making it hard for my mother to reinforce her mandate that I stay in the yard.
Our small community ostracized my family. There were no invitations to birthday parties, no over-night sleepovers, no friends. People were not interested in inviting the children of a thief into their homes. Maybe Dad would come to pick them up, casing their houses while he was at it, and rob them when they weren’t home; or, worse still, in the night while they slept. Besides, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. The children might grow up to be just like Dad. I was left to my own devices.
At eight, I found nature. We weren’t close to forested or treed-in areas, so my excursions ranged far from home. I settled in thickets and watched ants, listened to birds and animals. Catching glimpses of deer was a particular delight. I begged my grandmother for books on wildlife. I was enthralled with the wildlife of Australia and promised myself I would go there some day.
I was content during the summer months, but fall brought me back to school, and most children knew enough not to invite me home. During the summer, I could convince myself my solitude was by choice. School brought back the pain of isolation. My behavior began to reflect the damages accrued by continued abuse, making me a difficult child for my teachers.
I was eleven years old when my father’s parole officer signed off on him. Part of his punishment had been the suspension of his license and the confiscation of the family car he used in the course of his robberies. Now, with the reinstatement of his driving privileges, my father spoke of a new beginning far away. He found a home for us in a small New Hampshire town in the middle of farmland. We packed our belongings and left.
After a few hours on the road, the dirt driveway leading to an old white farmhouse appeared. It was obvious that love was in the mix in caring for the house; although there was a slight bow ranging from the center of the roof towards each end. The smell of new paint, mixed with dust kicking up from the car tires, made its way through cardboard covering the holes in the floor of our rusty old Studebaker. I let my lungs taste them both, the sweet fruits of a new start away from the place where everyone knew and despised us.
I jumped out of the car, circling the house to finish the peek I had had at the yard from the back seat of the car as it moved down the driveway. My jaw went slack as my eyes scanned fields of waving vegetation lining the mown grass in the huge area that was the back yard. There was a break in the field to my left, and I broke from my trance long enough to sprint towards it. The pond I had seen from the road looked better close up, like one of those special places in a child’s book, with a perfectly formed boulder created to allow kids to throw themselves gleefully into the water. I had the whole summer to help bring that picture to life. Winter, I could deal with later.
“Jo-o-o-y-c-e…come help unload the car.” My mother’s voice broke me away from my perusal of the line of trees a half-mile away. I pulled myself towards her voice. Mom, her eyes meeting mine, poked a bag of clothes resting on the front of the car. My pup bounced towards me as I grabbed the bag, and we bounced off towards the house.
The front door opened into a small foyer containing a stairway to the second floor. To my right, in the middle of the house, was the dining room. To my left was a large living room with a working fireplace beautifully framed with fieldstone. I wheeled about and spurted into the middle room. My glance to the left became a hard stare as the land in the back of the house came into full view, first through a set of French glass doors and then through windows in the next room.
The bag of clothing rolled out of my arms to the floor as I turned and made my way to the doors. Trixie, the black and tan, Belgian/German Shepherd pup I had purchased with errand money, followed; her head lowered as if my slowed movements required her to be on guard. I pulled the doors open, letting them swing wide to either side of me, and entered the room. It was more than a sun porch. In fact, there was a door to a sun porch to my left as I stood just inside the French doors. The floor was a finished hardwood; the walls were freshly papered with awful, wide, colorful flowers bursting from them. My eyes hardly saw them; they were locked on the band of trees a half-mile away, lining the Merrimac River. The whole back, upper-half of the walls in the room were windows, lending themselves to the best view in the house, and I knew it had to be mine. I would no longer travel miles on my bike to sit among the trees. They were just down the gentle slope from my window.
My idyllic summer lazed on. I could not remember being this happy during my short life. My mornings started with a long stare at The View with Trixie by my side, and then a rush to join it after I threw on my clothes and filled my belly with a quick breakfast. I basked in the solitude of the View, finding every hollow and nook, settling into my favorites to create my fantasies. I hid in the brush when the migrant workers, hired by the owner of the land, entered my territory to pick blackberries, making them fill the role of invaders of the small world I called mine. I went down the road and helped milk the cows, shoveling out the manure troughs behind them. I explored the countryside; making my way deep into the woods to find special places I could call my own. I was at peace—for a while. My pup, already half grown when I bought her, was growing into her role in life. Trixie was a practicing watchdog. My mother threatened to get rid of her if she did not stop barking at those things she viewed as foreign to her domain. Trixie was my guardian and best friend. I was the center of her life, and she was the center of mine; something my mother couldn’t tolerate.
to find special places I could call my own. I was at peace—for a while.
My pup, already half grown when I bought her, was growing into her role in life. Trixie was a practicing watchdog. My mother threatened to get rid of her if she did not stop barking at those things she viewed as foreign to her domain. Trixie was my guardian and best friend. I was the center of her life, and she was the center of mine; something my mother couldn’t tolerate.
By late summer, my parents resumed their bickering. My father lost his job. “They probably caught you stealing,” my mother said. Her mood darkened, and she lashed out at whatever was in her path. I avoided her as much as I could, but there were times when she sought me out. It was harder, then, to keep Trixie out of her sight. I saw the looks my mother gave the dog and knew it was just a matter of time before she made me give her up. I saw our new beginning slipping away.
I woke one morning with Trixie setting up a din over something in the View sitting just up over the headboard of my bed. My mother marched in; her face screwed up in anger.
“What is that dog barking at?” Her voice was almost a whisper.
“There was a man looking in my window, Mom. She was just protecting me.” The words were out of my mouth before I could catch them. If she caught me in this lie…
The anger drained from her face. She looked out over my head at the field behind the house. A path had been broken into the waving grasses, probably by some animal. Fear sparked in her eyes, and I knew her imagination had filled in the blanks. A lonely farmhouse—nearest neighbor a half mile down the road… I let the breath sticking in my throat pass slowly through my lips. I had deflected her from my dog—this time; it turned out I had done much more than that.
Trixie became a heroine. The local sheriff came down to take a report on the intrusion into our lives. The farms in the area hired prisoners from the local adult and adolescent detention centers to work milking the cows and tend the crops. There was talk of maybe someone taking a liking to the area and coming back to nest a bit. My father was given a 22 rifle by the farmer who rented our house to us and was told to call if there was trouble. “We take care of our own here, Wendell,” he said to my Dad. My dog was the star of the hour. A good guardian was a necessity in the country.
A few days after my lie, my father walked into the house with the sheriff again. It seemed that someone had taken out some of the screws in one of the sun porch windows and loosened the rest. I saw excitement in my father’s eyes when they met mine and knew his hand had held the screwdriver. I had set something into motion that I dared not stop. My father went so far as to rouse the neighbors to go on a hunting party in the wee hours of the morning for a phantom that had woke him from his sleep while trying to break into our house. He carried his rifle like a badge of courage, using it to whip the neighbors into a frenzy. He shot it off, spouting about the man he saw milling about in the loft, high up in the barn. It was obvious to me now that a change in our surroundings could not change my father. It had simply given him an opportunity for a new role, and I was ashamed of the part I had played in it.
I never knew if my father used the opportunity I provided to invade our neighbors’ homes, but I fear he may have. We were pushed out of the community a month later. I never asked why. It wasn’t important. The pain of losing the View was too strong. We moved to a nearby city. My father had dumped our rusty, yellow Studebaker for an old black Oldsmobile he had neglected to pay for. The previous owner, the sheriff, had come in the night and taken it back. Living in the city was necessary so he could walk to his new job. Trixie had an affair with the dog next door and was given to a man on a farm before the pups were born. She died several months later when a Mac truck struck her on a winding country road.
Time stripped my painful childhood memories, giving me peace for some years. I had fleeting visions of running and crying, but nothing that lasted long enough to cause me to wonder. I grew older and had children of my own.
On a hot summer day, I brought them to one of my hideouts in the vicinity of the old farmhouse. It was a stream, deep in the forest, which flowed through a spot that created a swimming hole. The path I had walked as a child had become a construction road. A log cabin, pretending to be rustic, sat near the spot I had claimed as a child. I pulled out a picnic lunch and arranged it in front of my children. While they ate, I slipped into the quiet water flowing down from the White Mountains. For a brief moment, the crisp feel of the water wrapped me in the peace I had experienced in this place as a child. I emerged, taking my place between my children, watching the skin around their eyes wrinkle as smiles widened on their faces. I realized then that the View I wanted my children to move towards—the View that gave them respite and safety—was one with me in it.
My children are grown now. The memories of why mothering had been such an important task to me returned long ago. My children never suffered broken bones, and the guilt surrounding my culpability in my parents’ actions has been resolved. A few months ago, my twenty-three-year-old son told me he had a dream in which he was a small child again.
“In my dream, Mom, you took care of everything,” he said, “I had no worries. I felt safe.”
I had to turn away from him to hide the moisture building in my eyes. I had done more than I dreamed possible. Now—when I return to The View—it is with my children.
Copyright 1999 Joyce Bowen
About the Author: Joyce Bowen is a freelance writer and public speaker. Inquiries can be made at email@example.com
Sobre el autor: Joyce Bowen es un escritor independiente y orador público. Las consultas pueden hacerse en firstname.lastname@example.org
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