The fact remains that we exist. We exist, and we count. All our days and moments and the years and experiences; they matter. They happened, and for a unique and glorious purpose they belong to us. Every memory, every word, every person in our past is part of our story. I tell them because we need to remember, to laugh, to cry, to let go, to hold on and to keep going. If it stops counting, if we let it disappear than perhaps we too disappear, cease, vanish among the crowds and masses and fleeting, purposes and meaningless noise of the world. We are not the only ones that matter, there are others, but this is our story and I hope and pray it heals parts of us that we didn’t even believe were broken.
We are here. My sisters and I. Three separate lives, occasionally crossing paths; passing and embracing one another. Here is our story in bits and pieces of my imperfect memory from my faulty perspective. Forgive me, hate me, love me, but laugh and cry and feel and accept and enjoy the places we have been together here on earth and look forward to the place we will spend eternity together in heaven. I write this for you, you are my audience, my cheerleaders, and the crowd that I seek to please and that I seek to reveal myself to.
Burning Danny’s Bed
Unfortunately we cannot choose our first memories. If so, many of us would choose to remember those first few moments when we were perfectly loved and adored and untainted by the world. When we were brought through the darkness by tender hands into the light with smiling faces and caring nurturing people all around us there to meet and respond to our every grunt and whimper.
My first memories are not awful, although they happen to take place in an awful place during a hideous time in our lives, and because I was the youngest my memories are vague and probably filtered by my baby brain. I was two years old when my parents divorced and maybe 3 when we moved into Danny’s house. It’s practically become a curse word in our family. “Danny’s”, a curse word we mostly have avoided using or talking about for the past 30 years. Some therapist’s call that denial. But we just don’t swear in our house.
Mom married Danny shortly after divorcing our father.
The US bureau of census says that 1300 new step-families are created every day, and 66 % of those marriages break up when children are involved ; can I just get an amen for that, in our situation. I know that Abraham Lincoln was raised by a step mother, Sarah Bush, who loved him dearly, treated him as her own and was given tremendous credit by Abe himself for who he turned out to be, so I don’t want to entirely defame the idea, but from experience and those statistics I read, I believe, often times it ends poorly and / or is an undesirable situation, particularly for the children involved. They (the children) come in broken from experiencing firsthand the separation of the two most important people in their lives, sometimes with impossible expectations, messy behavior and silent grief which they can’t express. Then they become a visual reminder of an ex-lover, they often become a back burner, extra side dish, with the new love that is at the forefront of mother’s life. They have un-met needs, are usually not loved unconditionally, a sidecar, a BOGO, they come with the package, and I have to add, in the animal kingdom, lions will kill the offspring of a female he wants to mate with. Isn’t that a little telling, mankind has more than proven himself to be just a little lower than beasts at times.
I remember very little about Danny himself. I remember things like his bare, white, feet walking around the dirty, dog-hair caked floors. Probably that was my field of vision. I remember the layout of his house and his balding head with black thinning hair. I remember ice cream sandwiches and that I hated them, even now for some strange reason they spur memories of his house and kitchen. I remember glamour dolls for Christmas and I remember my bedroom that I shared with my two sisters. They had a double bed and slept together being 8 and 9 years old they were always closer. While I lay alone, clinging to my green gingham blanket for dear life and trying to sleep with my sneakers on every night. I brought that blanket everywhere, that and a little basket that I carried around with my life’s contents. I called my blanket- NiNi. I actually still have it tucked into my top drawer in my bedroom, and after talking with my sisters they still have theirs, can you say dysfunctional.
Now that I am a preschool teacher I realize, rather I empathize with children who I see clinging to backpacks and stuffed animals. I never try to take them away. Usually I do find out these are the children whose parents are going through a divorce or whose household for one reason or another is in a state of unrest and insecurity. Children are tender and fragile little creatures who gravitate towards familiarity and routine. They need something to be the same, it’s like a home base, a landmark. Something that balances and levels them, like bearings in a cockpit. A constant, a control substance that tells so much about everything life. They are little so it doesn’t need to be big. They may think, “I will be ok even though it doesn’t feel good right now, as long as I have my teddy, or my blanket, or my small airplane.” Which is why they freak out if you try to take it. Don’t take it away. When things don’t feel safe to a child they grasp onto a transitional object that they know they can rely on even if it can’t breathe and isn’t alive, something they can control; clearly for me, it was a little green blanket with Winnie the Pooh stitched into the middle, and stuffed into a basket.
Trying to go to sleep with my sneakers on is one of my very first memories. I was probably about 4 years old. Mom came in to tuck me in, I thought, “I’ll trick her and put my feet under the covers before she comes in.” Most times it didn’t work, she would always catch me, but one time, this one time, it did. Maybe she was too tired or afraid of Danny that night, maybe she was hungry like us, or maybe she saw and let me wear them secretly hoping that would be the night we left. I got away with it, I remember waking up in the middle of the night and realizing I still had them on, and I was like, “Yes! Victory”. I’m not sure why I wanted so badly to sleep with my sneakers on, like it was some big challenge. But thinking back I suppose it had to do with how life was going for us at the time. “Going” being the key word. The divorce, moving then moving again and then again, sleeping here and there. Security wasn’t really a part of our lives and maybe in my baby brain I felt like if we had to go in the middle of the night, I wanted to be ready. There was also this popular movie out at the time that made a huge impression on me.
The Burning Bed was a true story about domestic violence. Farah faucet starred in it as the abused wife, who had an uncanny resemblance to our mother at the time. Her husband, had a striking resemblance to Danny. Their “situation” closely reflected the one we were living every day, and the way it ended for the man, permanently embedded a fear of fire into my little soul. IN the movie Farah faucet douses her husband, Mickey’s bed with gas and lights it up, having had enough of the beatings and no voice she watched her enemy go up in flames, perhaps I feared that could happen if mom had enough. I slept with my sneakers on.
- Every 9 seconds in the US a woman is assaulted or beaten.
- Around the world, at least one in every three women has been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused during her lifetime. Most often, the abuser is a member of her own family.
- Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women—more than car accidents, muggings, and rapes combined.
- Studies suggest that up to 10 million children witness some form of domestic violence annually.
Another memory I have from Danny’s is sitting on the bedroom floor in front of an old TV with my sisters playing Pac man, I watched, fiddling with a crochet needle and some loose yarn pieces from a latch hook kit. I probably had received it for Christmas but it was too difficult for me to figure out. It’s funny those memories we keep, the ones that have no photographs or feedback, no discussion boards or witnesses. But they are flashes, pictures, frames of emotions and visions we somehow store in our brains to prove we did exist and that one thing mattered to us, and often times those memories are the things we still believe about ourselves in the present. For example even today fire and being left behind are two of my worst fears. And I associate my sisters very much with fun. I never did figure that latch kit out, and I still don’t care for directions very much to figure it out now.
I actually started kindergarten when I lived there. Mom bought me a pair of pink jeans or pants. I remember sitting up stairs on my bed when she showed them to me, arms crossed and head down. I wasn’t happy one bit about the color and I was embarrassed to wear them, thinking back I was probably just embarrassed to exist, more likely. I made my mother take them back. Low and behold when I started school guess what all the little kindergarten girls were wearing? Yup – pink pants. Oh well. The mistakes we have to live with…I can think of worse.
The rest I have been told from others, and I accept and believe it and know, somehow the stories jog feelings or a consensus inside me. Like that we were always cold, and hungry and there was never food in the house or money and yes that makes sense given my obsessive tendency to hoard things, like food and clothes. One of our favorite stories is the one when the air conditioner fell on Danny’s head, we all laughed and we all laugh every time mom tells it. She tells that one and this one:
“We left there with our lives”, mom said, she waited until Danny left for work one day, a truck driver by trade, she grabbed a picture off the wall and her three girls and we left, and this time we did not go back. We had left several times before but always returned. And that was awful all by itself. Leaving, mom pulling us out of school and registering for a new school, then a few months later pulling us out of that school and re-instating us to the old school, back and forth. We lived with our grandmother for a bit until she remarried, and then an apartment with a million stairs to climb and
Then we stayed with dad on the weekends, and sometimes back with Danny. But this time the final time was the final time.
The picture my mom took was that of King David when he was still a shepherd boy. He is hanging off the side of a mountain with one arm stretched out to a single lamb caught on a cliff. Perhaps she felt as if God was reaching out and recuing her at that moment, and she let him. I was glad she chose to leave instead of burning Danny’s house down, which I’m sure secretly we all wanted to do. My mother always said, a man can only love or hate his wife as much as he does himself, once they are one flesh you’re at the mercy of his self-concept.
We were made in that house, even though it was only for a short 3 and half years, for me it was my most formative years. For my sisters, who saw and felt and remembered much more, it set them on a course, they have their own stories to tell, their own victories to claim and tears to save in bottles. Their own pain and the ripple effects that start so small and grow larger year after year. Of course our mother’s heart broke over it, she never intended to bring us to that awful place and she became our savior in that day when we left. Which is perhaps why we loved her so fervently and relentlessly after that. Clinging, like little rhesus monkeys, to the one soft person in our life.
One story Rachel, told me, while we were still living with Danny, is: that she had taken me for an overnight, I was in the back of her car “ ranting and raving” about a duck we had that got hit by a car and died, and that I wished I was that duck. Oh to be a fly on the window of that car. To know what else it was I said. I almost wept when she told me that story as an adult. For the little me, what horrible thing is happening for a 4 year old to want to die? I have dreams occasionally that I am there, with that little girl, that little me, I am comforting her, teaching her, parenting her, loving her. Because I am an adult now, and she is still little inside and needs me to lead her sometimes, even now, so she can grow too. This is what my therapist says. Sometimes we get stuck, parts of us grow and parts of us don’t. I think that little me, the one I dream about got stuck somewhere back there and every once in a while she needs me to pull her along, comfort her. I think that is the ‘me’ when I’m feeling despair , hopeless, weak , small afraid and overwhelmed, when I wish I was the duck, but now that I am a grown up I can comfort her, talk her down from the ledge. So maybe she grows a little slower, but I know she’ll make it, because I did. Thank God, we all did. We made it. Some missing parts and broken pieces, but we made it out alive and we know we are loved.
We never talk about it, comfortably, it’s hard to talk about an elephant in the room. That part of life no one wants to re live or remember or even accept happened, it’s too hard and angry. A ten year old girl should never have to remember holding a knife and threatening to kill a man for beating her mother, children should never have to stand against a wall frightened at loud voices and slaps and thumps fearing the worst, we should not as children know the worst, but we did, and they do. We shouldn’t know how to distrust men at such a young age, or how to hate or feel ashamed. Children should not want to sleep with their sneakers on, or have to eat ice cream when they haven’t eaten all day. They shouldn’t.
Danny died last march, I got a text from mom. I had dreams of his house, his dogs, and his supper table, him leaving and us running. He had two children, older than us. One who, became our abuser? We never talk about him. But it formed fears and feelings of shame and I grew a death grip of protection over my own children. I dreamed about little Danny’s bedroom. I dreamed about being afraid and little tiny black bugs crawling everywhere. I dreamed I found my purse and there were my little things and my toys inside. It was dark and I was alone in the house. Perhaps a dream, perhaps a memory.
I wonder where everyone was, grandparents, aunts, relatives, and our father. Why did this happen, how? I may never have an answer to that question. People get busy with their own lives which can be overwhelming, it’s hard to get involved in other peoples issues, and it’s scary. We were the other people. Fear is a silent, often self-destructive dissent. Why didn’t we speak or ask? Why didn’t people ask questions, and why do I now? We may not have answers, or the questions may be the answers. People never knew, they weren’t around, and it did happen.
I heard Danny “turned around”, left his wicked ways and began a prison ministry to broken men. He’s part of my story, our story and sadly for me one of the first parts. But there are other parts too. Better parts. Perhaps his house and that time was a storm, a big rain with thunder and lightning and hail, the kind of storm people run into their own homes and lock the doors and board the windows up and get into the basement to wait it out. And after it’s over, everyone slowly emerges, timidly to see if it’s safe. They slowly pick up broken branches and fallen limbs, rake debris and work cautiously around dangerous electrical lines. After a storm like that there are definitely some rainbows, some greener grass and a lot of growth, it just takes a little time.
When you see someone you love like your mother in such a life threatening situation you take on a role and a purpose which is: protect the protector at all costs, we have never let that go. We still through bitterness and anger at times, through tears through fear we protect the protector. And sometimes it makes for an unhealthy family dynamic.
I suppose we don’t need to talk about it too much, we were all there, we all know what happened to us, more or less, we were all effected but more importantly…we all lived through it and came out alive on the other side, and something formed in us, along with all the poopy stuff, something of utmost importance in a person’s life…resilience. Resilience is something many affluent children lack today, and end up in psych wards and with prescription meds. But If we lived through that and we were ok, what else can we live through, probably anything. If there’s a solution to that problem, there’s a solution to every problem. If we, like that little lamb In the picture, can be rescued from Danny’s house, a dangerous, deathly mountain ledge, and Danny can be rescued from a burning bed than there’s hope for this dying and lost world.
Without digging up all the dirty details we can remember, from a safe distance, that we made it through a really tough time. That life is full of disappointments, and mistakes and Danny’s, but there are rainbows and lemon drops too, promises from Jesus, and white garments and faith. We can draw on that, on the rainy days that have nothing and everything to do with Danny’s house all at the same time. It’s a tool if we make it one, we can also make it a weapon. We can listen to a painful story and sympathize, comfort, and talk anyone off the ledge, we somehow have the ability to separate the life threatening from the other. On the days when it is our own pain, we get through by reminding ourselves, this isn’t a big deal, we move on, because we have done it before and survived. It’s a beautiful thing…a rain storm that is.
And even if we only burned the bed, the house and everything in it in our wishes, hopes and dreams, guess what happens after a forest fire – LIFE! Danny’s wasn’t the only awful thing that happened and maybe not the worst. Another thing that came out of Danny’s, is that, you can make mistakes and be redeemed. You can make mistakes and still be good and loved, and holy and successful, because we saw it, we saw our mother do it. Even if we think about killing ourselves we will be the people who never do it because we have been at the bottom of the barrel and survived it, so we know, weaved within our little minds and frames and hearts – it will work out –and we will be ok. She made a mistake, she was forgiven and she moved into a life full of blessings. Sometimes the end isn’t the end, but the beginning.
I know it was hard but we can’t let those times be our springboard any more for life, we have to tell ourselves that it happened and it sucked, we remember it only when we need to remember how strong we can be. But what we are not is scared children who are helpless and weak and unheard. We are not victims, we are not ever going to let anyone hurt us or someone we love again. We are not the unwanted and the unloved. We are not hungry or alone. We have new stories, better ones. We may not choose our first memories, but we can make our last ones.
“and not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the holy spirit who was given to us.” Romans 5:3-5
So we traveled through the wilderness, we were born there, but we are headed to the Promised Land, so let’s exult!