In one of Ernest Hemingway’s books about bullfighting, an alcoholic told another character that he went bankrupt “[g]radually and then suddenly.” When asked what prompted it, he replied, “Friends. … False friends. Then I had creditors, too.” My parents’ marriage ended the same way for the same reasons.
Stage 1: The Proverbial Straw
For 14 years, my father:
- slapped and choked my mom
- called her a slut
- told her that she was ugly and that no one else would want her
- prevented her from having friends
- recorded her phone calls
- monitored her odometer, and
- called home during work breaks to make sure she was there.
He even customized the white Bronco he bought her during the O.J. Simpson trial so it was the tallest, most recognizable vehicle in Amherst township in case she deviated from her well-traveled path to the school bus garage, grocery store, and pharmacy, and he had to go looking for her.
Since I never believed that my mom cheated on my father, and it would’ve been nice for her to be able to take my brother and me to the park, the mall, or the regional competition pre-Scripps National Spelling Bee when I was the only kid in my school district who qualified, I was always tempted to tell my father that his preventative measures didn’t make sense. If he had, in fact, walked in the front door and discovered my mom “rolling around on the floor” with his best friend as he claimed, she’d already proven that other men were attracted to her and she didn’t have to leave the house or have her own friends in order to cheat on him.
So you may as well just let her go wherever she wants to go and do whatever she wants to do, I envisioned myself saying.
I kept my proposed emancipation proclamation to myself because you don’t provoke someone who beats your mom, banishes pets, burns things that don’t belong to him, and threatens to shave your head and send you to military school. In fact, you avoid being in the same room with him.
For years, I felt like I let her down by not defending her. Sitting on the violet carpet she picked out for me after he ransacked my drawers, read notes from my friends, and saw what I’d said about my hideous green bedroom decor, I often cried through Depeche Mode’s “Little 15,” Madonna’s “Till Death Do Us Part,” and other songs that my mom could’ve written. I telepathically promised her that I would get her out of that house someday.
In the meantime, my father – who earned more than $80,000 per year but racked up debt and stayed with a woman he blamed for his “whole miserable life” because he was afraid that she would get part of his pension in a divorce – attended church every Sunday, sang in the choir, took theology classes, and invented new ways to torment her.
- Knowing how much she loved animals, he forced her to de-bristle a butcher-bound baby boar that he brought home from a hunting trip in a Styrofoam cooler full of blood and melting ice.
- Knowing how difficult it had been for her to overcome alcoholism after her mom’s suicide-by-cirrhosis in the early ‘80s, he pressured her to drink with him or face the consequences when he went to a bar and came home wasted at closing time.
- Knowing how terrified she was of water after seeing a kid drown as a child, he planned family vacations around Niagara Falls’ Maid of the Mist and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.
Twenty months after I moved out and just as my mom started to think my father’s theology lessons were maybe possibly somewhat sinking in because he bought “Phantom of the Opera” tickets for her upcoming 46th birthday, a friend of my father’s former best friend, Dave, walked into the bar across the street from Ford, had a few drinks, and told my father that she’d set a beer on one of the railroad ties that framed my parents’ gravel driveway, got in Dave’s car, and went somewhere to have sex before he and his wife moved to Kentucky earlier in the decade.
As my father learned that spending most of his adulthood controlling my mom, terrorizing her, and chipping away at her self-esteem hadn’t prevented her from cheating on him again – with another friend – he forgot every scripture he’d been taught about agape and forgiveness.
Like Nicole Brown Simpson, my mom began to chronicle the abuse. Like O.J., my father pretended to be suicidal.
According to the index cards that my mom hid in her purse, he drank throughout Independence Day weekend, which kicked off Ford’s annual two-week shutdown, and accused her of trying to ruin his vacation by refusing to join him.
“All I’m asking is that you party with me,” he said.
“I agreed to a couple of drinks thinking it would make him happy,” she wrote. “All it did was end in arguments. He kept saying we only had so many days left [because] he was taking the camper to Pennsylvania on the 14th and would celebrate his birthday by blowing his brains out. This was said several times in just a couple days.”
July 7, he yelled in her face that she was ruining his night and asked if she wanted him to kill himself.
“Then he went up to where he keeps his guns,” she wrote, “I went in and grabbed as many shells as I could and left the room. He tried to take them away, so I returned to the gun room and tried to use the phone. He ripped it off the wall. I pushed him out the door and tried to shut it. He grabbed my arm and repeatedly slammed me into the door jamb. [Then] he grabbed me by the shirt and slammed me on the floor. I felt something pinch really bad and [it] hurt so bad that I started to yell for Bo to get help. He put his hand over my mouth and told Bo to go back to sleep and not to listen to me. I hurt so bad [that] I had a hard time trying to stand. All the while he kept repeating that I was fine, stop faking, and that I deserved everything I got.
“I managed to get up and go downstairs to try to make another call. He ripped that off the wall, too. Went out the front door then realized I couldn’t leave my son. I went back to Bo’s room and lay all night beside his bed.
“Spent the next day laying [sic] on the couch debating whether to go to the hospital. It hurt so bad. He kept after me all that day, wanting to know if I was going to be up to going to ‘Phantom of the Opera’ or if I was going to waste his money and ruin even more of his vacation. Kept telling Bo that we were going ‘unless Mom ruined it.’”
Six days after my mom’s birthday, on O.J. Simpson’s birthday, the three of them ventured to Toronto to see the musical that she’d always dreamed of seeing. Afterward, my father further destroyed every memory of the occasion by wrapping her hair around his fist and slamming her head against the passenger window throughout the five-hour drive home to northeast Ohio. He told her that he hated her, demanded a divorce, and said he would sell the house and keep lowering the price until she got half of nothing once his debts were paid off.
Instead of shooting himself on his own birthday six days later, he took my mom and brother on a booze cruise on Lake Erie. He capped the evening by taking them to Hooters.
Stage 2: The Confession
By the time I saw my mom again the following year, she’d lost 25 pounds and weighed less than a 12 year old. I wouldn’t have recognized her gaunt, sunken face if I’d passed her on a sidewalk. Though it was early spring and sweater weather, I was grateful that we always sat on the porch swing, so I wouldn’t have to look into the vacant, spooky eyes that repeated concussions had caused. She added to the chill in the air by telling me about:
- the Toronto trip
- the mini strokes she’d been having
- the ruptured eardrum and permanent ringing
- the cars that crept past the house at night, and
- the Ford semis that honked as they headed west on Route 2 toward the factory.
She didn’t feel safe, she said.
She led me into the house and up the stairs, where she sifted through jewelry boxes, gave me sentimental pieces, such as the choker she’d worn to her prom, and admitted through tears that she’d cheated on my father. Twice. With his friends.
That’s when it dawned on me that she already had. I just hadn’t realized it when I’d called to ask why my father requested a paternity test a week after my 23rd birthday, and she’d told me about his encounter with the stranger at the bar. As she’d marveled at the odds of these two people meeting, I’d scoffed at my father for believing that my mom would leave my brother, her sole reason for living, unattended. That memory prompted another epiphany: My father accused me of lying and collaborating with my mom all my life because he thought I babysat my brother while she f_cked his friend(s).
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath.
“I’m sorry,” she said, head hanging, shoulders heaving.
To her credit, she didn’t blame the men or make excuses for the infidelity. To mine, I didn’t storm out of the house or berate her with questions like, “What the f_ck is wrong with you?” or “How could you do such a thing?” I already knew the answers anyway. Even if I hadn’t been following in her footsteps, the fact that she’d left my diabetic, epileptic, and mentally handicapped brother home alone – or home with me without telling me that she was leaving – told me everything I needed to know.
The irony would’ve amused me if my parents were fictional characters. After everything my father did to prevent my mom from having another affair, he facilitated it by forcing her to start drinking again. And there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that the man who took his disabled son to church to reap pity from the pastor (a fellow Ford employee) and parishioners had also told his friends about his messed-up wife who was sexually abused and neglected as a child. Between her upbringing and my father calling her ugly, she was easy prey for any guy who paid her a compliment and treated her nicely.
As we stood in front of my parents’ dresser, where my father’s rifles reflected in the mirror, empathy competed with resentment, which unfurled like a blooming flower as I wondered how different my childhood would’ve been if she hadn’t done whatever she did or if she’d apologized for the first affair instead of denying what my father said he saw for 14 years.
When I opened my eyes and looked down at what was left of the strongest person I’d ever met, it was difficult to stay angry. What she did was wrong and obviously made my father question his virility given his evolution into Billybob the Badass – as T.D. Jakes has said, “I never saw a man who beat his wife and liked himself. … What you see outside is a reflection of what’s going on on the inside” – but she didn’t turn him into a tyrannical lunatic. He did that on his own and enjoyed keeping everyone under his reign on edge by slamming doors and punctuating sentences with his fist on the breakfast counter, making my mom’s teacup and spoon quake in their saucer.
I draped an arm around her shoulders, careful not to pull the hair that she’d gathered into a scrunchie at the nape of her neck, but I grew up in my bedroom, detached from the family, devoid of affection. I’m not a hugger. I offered little if any comfort.
After she dried her eyes, I carried a jewelry box to my car, took a couple of pictures of her and my brother with the camera that I kept in my glove box, scooped up the 13-year-old Siamese cat that she asked me to take “just in case,” and said goodbye.
Miko and I cried all 29 miles home, where I curled up on my soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend’s bed and sobbed for hours, certain that I’d just seen my mom for the last time and devastated that she wasn’t just preparing to die, she was preparing to be killed.
Stage 3: The Escape
After moving out of my parents’ house, I braced myself for a phone call telling me that my mom was dead or that she’d been beaten so badly that my father was in jail. When it finally arrived, I was making up for all of the REM I’d been deprived of while living with my abusive father, my seizure-plagued brother, and a boyfriend whose deviated septum perpetuated my insomnia. In case I didn’t feel guilty enough, my mom reamed me for sleeping through three phone calls and a message on my answering machine.
“What if I’d needed you?” she asked at the conclusion of her lecture.
“What happened?” I replied, overriding the question and the tone that said she was still holding a grudge from when I was four and slept through my brother’s first grand mal seizure, her panic, and the arrival of an ambulance while my father worked the night shift. From that incident forward, she’d accused me of resenting him and stopped short of accusing me of wanting him to die. In time, the first accusation came to fruition, but she always seemed to forget that once we moved to Amherst, I cracked my door every night, so I could keep one ear on what was going on downstairs and the other ear on Bo’s bedroom across the hall. From 1984 to 1996, I yelled for her every time his convulsions shifted the Hot Wheels on his headboard bookcase like we lived on a fault line.
Despite the acrimony, she refrained from telling me that I was the cause of my parents’ latest go-round. According to the police report that I read after my mom died, she and Bo went to her divorce lawyer’s office when it opened July 26, 1999 – a year and one day after my father called me about the paternity test. Her lawyer dialed 9-1-1 and told the dispatcher that my mom was “visibly battered and very shaken and was bleeding.”
When the officer arrived, he noted:
- “blood stains on the left shoulder area of her shirt, [which] was also torn at the collar”
- the reddened left side of her face
- bruised wrists and fingernail indentations in her right wrist
My mom told him that my father had come home from work and demanded my address. When she said she didn’t have it, he accused her of lying and went to the bar.
At 1:30 a.m., he kicked in the door to my brother’s bedroom, where she’d been sleeping on the floor with her keys in her pocket for months. Disregarding all of the smiling stick figures my brother had drawn that said, “Please don’t fight anymore,” my father beat her until 3 a.m., when he went downstairs to sleep on the couch.
My mom refused to press charges because she was afraid of what he’d do to her, but thanks to the O.J. Simpson case, new domestic violence laws had been passed across the country. The officer explained that once an officer sees visible signs of abuse, he has to make an arrest. My mom begged him not to and tried to persuade him by saying she’d called the local domestic violence shelter, but the intake people refused to allow my brother, who was five days shy of turning 20, to stay there with her, and he needed her. She had nowhere to go.
The officer called the county prosecutor to have him explain the law to her. Then he called the domestic violence shelter to vouch for the fact that my brother was disabled – i.e., harmless. A woman said she would call my mom that evening while my father was at work.
He never made it that far. My mom went home and told him what happened and that there was a warrant out for his arrest, so he went to the police station to “straighten things out.” They Mirandized him and put him in jail. Since it was a Friday, he’d be there all weekend. Possibly until Tuesday, my mom said.
“So what’s going on?” I asked. “Are you leaving?”
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” she said.
“What do you mean you don’t know what you’re doing? If you think he was pissed before, how pissed do you think he’s going to be after three or four days in jail?”
“You need to get out of that house,” I said. “He’s going to kill you when he gets out.” He’d driven all the way from Ohio to Maine to kill a bear that he’d never even met, for God’s sake. What was there to think about?
She sniffled as she started to cry. “’That house’ is my home,” she said.
I closed my eyes and tried to calm down, realizing I was starting to sound like the “Why doesn’t she just leave?” people from Phil Donahue, Geraldo, and Oprah audiences. My mom had never lived on her own. She was scared. And she’d spent years renovating that place. I knew what she was thinking: Aside from my brother and me, it was the only thing she had to show for her time on this Earth.
“I understand that,” I said. “But who’s going to take care of Bo if you die? You know I can’t do it.”
Her call waiting beeped. It was my father. Again. She said he kept calling collect from a payphone, commanding her to bail him out.
“I’ve gotta let you go,” she said.
But I’d said enough. By the time I showered and drove to the house, she’d picked up boxes from the grocery store and started to pack everything that she and my brother owned except for Christmas ornaments that he and I made in school and other sentimental items that she didn’t have time to retrieve from the attic.
Monday evening, a coworker who’d just helped me move into my own apartment and I drove separately to Amherst to help move everything into a self-storage unit. Once it was locked, my friend went home, and my mom handed me the bloodied Calvin & Hobbes T-shirt that she’d worn to her attorney’s office along with the index cards that my father had found and annotated with the title of a Kenny Chesney song and other details, presumably while looking for my address.
“I want you to hold onto these for safekeeping,” she said.
“This isn’t what I had in mind all those times I mentally promised to get you out of there,” I said, avoiding the words “that house” as I returned her hug goodbye. “I’m so sorry,” I said, referring to the address I should’ve given her and the paternity test I should’ve taken.
She began to cry, said she loved me, and climbed into the Bronco that the domestic violence shelter wasn’t able to hide well enough from my father. I waved bye to Bo, who was already in the passenger seat.
Leaving the self-storage lot, I let them get half a mile ahead of me, so I could cry without my mom seeing me in her rearview mirror.
All of this … for sex, I thought.