Chapter Four: Role Models (Lessons My Parents’ Abusive Marriage Taught Me – Part 1)

During a tearful sermon titled “One Life,” Joyce Meyer told a Winston-Salem audience about the abuse she suffered as a child. Like me, she prayed that her father would die or that her mother would leave him. Neither happened, but God gave her the strength to get through it, she said.

Since then, she has learned to be grateful for the experience.

“I cannot explain this to you, so don’t even ask me to … and I know this sounds crazy — but I’m glad it happened,” she said. “You know why? Because I’m a better person now than I ever would have been. I don’t know how to make any sense out of that, but I know that I know that I know that God has redeemed me, and he has taken what Satan meant for harm and worked it out for good. And I’m a better person than I would have been had it not happened. … I’m stronger. I know God better. I understand people’s pain. And I believe that it’s made me able to reach out to you in your pain and your need.”

I can appreciate that and feel the same way when I meet selfish, callous people or read their comments in response to a news article. But I will never be glad about the way I grew up because I can’t imagine how scared my mom must have been each time my father grabbed her by the throat.

Still, I wouldn’t have traded her for anyone else in the world, and my parents prepared me for my own relationships.

Lesson One: Sometimes Good People Do Bad Things

My mom taught me how to read and write when I was two, so by the time I was in third grade, I was blowing through the hardcover Stephen King collection that my parents bought from some book club and never touched while other kids my age were bringing Judy Blume and “The BFG” to show and tell. Two years later, proficiency test scores reflected the horror writer’s prowess as a high school English teacher because I was spelling, reading, and comprehending what I read on a freshman or sophomore level.

Despite my advanced comprehension skills and King’s characters, who taught me that people are just as bad as boogeymen, I never believed that my mom cheated on my father. The fact that he said it every day of every year didn’t faze me for the following five reasons:

  1. She denied it;
  2. He’d accused me of things that I hadn’t done;
  3. I’d overheard him exaggerate about various events to friends on the phone, so he was an unreliable narrator;
  4. He called her a slut. I went to school with sluts – I knew how they acted, dressed, and wore their makeup. My mom didn’t do any of those things. In fact, she suffered from low self-esteem after being molested, starving herself skinny to be less appealing to her priest and stepfather, chipping a front tooth in gym class, and replacing all of them with dentures in her early 20s, so she deliberately disappeared inside oversized sweatshirts and relied on one swipe of Maybelline mascara to accentuate her gray eyes and divert attention from the flesh-colored mole she hated; and
  5. My mom was the nicest, most selfless person on the planet.

Whereas some women would have pulled a Casey Anthony or Susan Smith to get rid of my mentally handicapped, diabetic, epileptic, and autistic brother who required 24-hour-a-day care, my mom endured nearly two decades of beatings and strangulations to give him the best life that she could. And despite the fact she’d never gone to college and neither WebMD nor the Internet existed back then, she kept him alive 10 years longer than doctors predicted he would live after failing to diagnose his epilepsy for years.

I didn’t profit much from that devotion since I often resented her for making me listen to what went on in that house and retreated to my room for 11 years of self-imposed solitary confinement the night my father knocked her out. But prior to that, when first-grade classmates stopped calling me Miranda Panda (something cute) in favor of Miranda Miller Caterpillar (a bug), my mom turned it into a good thing by drawing happy-faced caterpillars with heart-tipped antennae, writing love notes above them, and tucking the slips of paper between my grilled cheese and Hostess cherry pie before walking me to school. Twenty years’ worth of boyfriends have benefitted from her teaching me that little things mean a lot.

Mom was just as empathetic toward animals and emptied an entire box of tissues when she took me to see “Bambi” in 1982. A year later, she bolted out of our duplex, yelled at neighborhood kids to stop hitting a scrawny, ash-colored German shepherd with sticks, stepped between the stray and the animal warden’s gun, and then pounded on our landlord’s door and begged him to let us keep the dog, so it wouldn’t be taken to the pound and put to sleep.

After we moved to Amherst with Asher in tow, animals sniffed her down like sonar and waited for her on the welcome mat. She tweezed thistles from paws, disinfected BB gun wounds, and cried even harder than I did as she cradled a cat on the kitchen floor while it died from leukemia or scraped one from the road with a snow shovel, placed it in a Hefty bag, and buried it in the corner of our four-acre field. Each time, she came back in the house, ripped a paper towel from the roll, blew her nose, and said, “Never again.” Then she’d drive to Lawson’s for a gallon of milk, spot a pair of kittens nestled against their dead mother in the middle of the road, and bring them home.

Once Amherst shipped my brother to another school district because special ed teachers couldn’t handle him, my mom took a job as an aide on his bus for $5.83 an hour. Throughout her 18-year career, behaviorally challenged brats smacked her and threw shoes at her while she strapped in children with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, and other disabilities and asked them about their day. She paid those kids more attention than their own parents, so they made her presents in art class, and nannies thanked her with cards and gift baskets.

A shrink would chalk her compassion up to codependency since people who were abused or neglected as children often become caregivers and rescuers, but her empathy was genuine and palpable. And to me, the animals she tried to save, the children who rode that bus, and everyone who met her and told me, “Your mom is so nice,” she was Snow White incarnated or a saint – neither of whom would cheat on her husband.

Nine days after my 23rd birthday, she taught me two valuable lessons:

  1. The fact that you don’t believe something doesn’t make it any less true; and
  2. You can live with someone your entire life and still not know what he or she is capable of doing.
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