She had been gone six months, but I grieved as if she had left my life overnight.
Mother’s reticence and insecurity made her an enigma to her daughter of almost fifty years. We rarely spoke. Her journey through pain, my struggles to survive, and our shared nightmare resonated as the echo of our existence together.
Most days after her passing, my hours were filled with lonely lamentation for a woman I had craved to know yet failed to reach. So those dark and dreary mornings of cold coffee and warm tears had become my regretful norm. Hearing the metal-on-metal clang of the mailbox lid always brought the hope of a brief reprieve from sadness, as I would lose myself in sale catalogs and junk mail. That chilly winter morning of January nineteen ninety-seven held more than the promise of discount savings, it delivered a future. A path un-like any I had ever dared to dream…
At the bottom of the random solicitations, rested an envelope addressed to “Resident.” Usually I tossed “Resident” mail first, since the addressee was a tip off it was purely a sales pitch. Not needing a new roof or siding, it flew into recycle faster than you can say “Leave me alone!”
As I lifted the “Resident” mail into the air to be tossed, the word “College” caught my eye. Barely having graduated from High School, college was never an option. Besides coasting through my classes, my gender also got in the way. In nineteen sixty-eight, I only knew one girl who was groomed for and excited to go to college. Our over achieveing classmate made it very clear she was “Only going to college to find a husband.” A chill goes down my spine just repeating that quote.
The flyer from the local Community College just down the road, filled me with excitement! Perhaps what I needed these last six months was just a distraction. My best friend and I co-owned a commercial cleaning business. Our contracts were with car dealerships, so our work schedule started after the dealerships closed at night. Two of my three children were adults, residing out in the world. The third was a teen-ager. Needless to say, he preferred his fun-loving friends to a very sad mother. So, most of my days were spent living in my head, in the past, in isolation.
After a few supportive conversations with my college graduate husband, the mailer was filled out and sent in. It took less than a week to receive the acceptance letter from the college. A wave of jubilation swept over my entire body! I was accepted! I am glad I didn’t know what “open enrollment meant” at that time. One would have thought it was Harvard. Years later, I would realize, for me it was.
In my minds-eye I can still see my forty-eight-year-old face pressed up against the glass entrance door panel, straining to see what I had gotten myself into. Briskly passing down the hall were students younger than my own children. Most of the instructors that crossed my view, I could have birthed! Age aside, no one else was dressed in “mom jeans,” and I didn’t even own a scrunchi. I had worn the same older woman short haircut for years. Not to mention, I had used a pretty heavy hand with the cosmetics that morning, in hopes I could fool everyone into thinking I was just another student. No one else was wearing tomato red lipstick and false eye lashes.
It was “flight or fight” time! I could see my parked car from the cold shadow I was hiding in by the door. It would be so easy to just turn and run. What would I have told my kids to do?
Throwing my grandma style handbag over my shoulder, I pulled off the fake lashes, tossed them in the snowbank, and joined the ant style march of sleepy students down the hall to academic mania.
Entering my designated classroom, I was amused at how many of the students called me by the instructor’s name. Looking around, the realization that I was the elder of the class became apparent to me and all the turned heads. Its not that the school didn’t have mature students or “non-traditional” students as we were referred to. But work schedules and family life prohibited most of them from taking day classes. So, my age and my outdated fashion sense made me an anomaly in almost every class I took. I soon embraced and relished in the playful title “class mom.”
The true life-changing gift of academia wasn’t exclusively my access to an education, but the ability, or at least the courage to express myself, and with time tell my stories.
Having little need or desire to put pen to paper in the past, I was initially terrified and intimidated to write anything. Quickly I learned, if I was to get a passing grade, I better hone my writing skills. With the support of a patient team of educators and a newfound love of the learning process, my journey began.
I didn’t know what to expect of my aging literary voice. Would it be bitter, cautious with details, vague to protect the innocent or brutally honest? I was painfully aware I was no Earnestine Hemmingway, and the critic that lived in my head, criticized my every piece and effort to share.
In the beginning, writing my truth and my past was random and hidden at the bottom of my book bag. I would eventually realize that what I wrote, was second to that I wrote.
There had been moments in my childhood that I instinctively knew my survival depended on keeping our secrets. Decades later, on a dark winter morning, I would realize, sharing secrets is also a form of survival.
Surrounded by scattered papers and various class textbooks, homework took priority over sleep, again. Returning from the dealerships at one in the morning, sleeping for three hours and getting up to do homework left me exhausted and depleted. Add mother, wife, and homemaker, and I was wearing thin doing homework till dawn. While immersed in the wonders of Anthropology, a memory of profound childhood abuse filled my brain and pushed away the ancient history lessons.
As if in a trance, I filled page after page with details of my broken childhood. Three stories would pour onto notebook paper usually reserved for lecture notetaking. Tears flowed as freely as the words that regurgitated from a pen that could not stop moving. Words blurred under the torrent of unexpressed anger and pain.
Secret after secret was revealed and illuminated with the rising of the morning sun. My husband awoke to his wife blankly staring out the kitchen window, unaware of the movements around her. I pulled myself out of a gaze that had carried me back in time. Begging him to “please take my stories and hide them from the terrified little girl, that will throw them away!” He did, so I didn’t.”
Over the course of the next six months, I would secretly search the house for the horrific stories that defined my childhood. Half hoping, I would find them, and half fearful I would. I had exposed “the Monster” to the world and to my adult self. I never would have told the secrets if mother was still in my life. These were her secrets as well. My siblings and fellow survivors would allude to the horror that was our shared life, but to give it permeance and exposure on paper might not be acceptable or kind.
Just days before Spring break, the school paper announced the launch of a quarterly literary magazine. With a cockiness fueled by good grades and months of confidence building support from classmates and instructors alike, I was ready to share my hidden writing. Almost as if intuitive, my husband had pulled the banished writing from its hideout and placed it on my dresser just a few days before the announcement.
I had to believe mother was sending her blessing from above, as even her mother didn’t know about the cruelty she had endured. I would be her voice. But my four sisters and brother did not choose their silence. It was fear of great harm that stole their voices away. Would they feel safe if I told their stories for them. Again, I had to ask myself, what would I have told my kids to do?
On a warm summer evening, my siblings surrounded me, hesitant and yet eager to hear their stories told by one who knew the depth of their painful youth. When the third and darkest story was finished, a hush filled the space as if to smother the words that were finally said aloud. The most timid and shy of my sisters, whispered and then boldly shouted “You have to tell! You can’t, not tell!” Her brave declaration brought forth a multitude of cheers, from faces drenched in soothing timeless tears.
I would go on to write from our collective broken heart, tell stories that spoke of cruelty, and become an active advocate for the protection of children.
My true self and purpose were born the night our shared secrets placed me upon the shoulders of my beloveds, to carry our stories into battle!