I had wonderful neighbors on the country road where I grew up. Mrs. Martin’s husband could solve a Rubik’s Cube in record time. Mrs. Smith grew the best strawberries and was reliably generous with pints of them. Teenage Marissa was my favorite babysitter. (She brought books.) And Jeremy, five doors down, was my best friend.
In fact, all my friends were boys, which was fine by me. I would ride Jeremy’s bike and play with his G.I. Joes. Marissa’s brother taught me how to throw a football in a spiral, and I learned the rules of pickup basketball by watching the older boys play. On our first day of school, the boys and I all rode the bus together, and the camaraderie I felt with them — despite the dress and knee socks Mom had forced me to wear — made that day less scary.
One fall afternoon on the bus ride home, we took our usual seats and began chatting. Matty, who always sat in front of me, was big and brutish but goofy, and we all liked him. That day, however, when I chimed in with an opinion about the book our teacher had read, Matty turned, reached over the green vinyl seat, and grabbed my face with his huge hand, muzzling me like a dog. “Stop talking!” he said. He held his grip for another beat before shoving me back against my seat. I said nothing the rest of the way home, stunned by his sudden display of aggression and by the silence of my friends.
This childhood experience came back to me thirty years later when, after a magical dinner out with friends, the trattoria’s owner shoved me against a wall outside the restroom and demanded that I stop talking and kiss him. His hand on my throat reminded me of Matty’s. This time I did not stop talking. This time I fought like hell.
Yellow Springs, Ohio
Five decades later I shiver at the memory of mice scampering across my pillow in the cold winter months to make their nest in the middle drawer of the desk next to my bed. They came while I was half asleep, so the patter of their footsteps was like a dream to me, as if faeries were scurrying about their nighttime chores.
In the morning the mouse droppings among my hair curlers revealed that it had not been a dream. I wondered why the mice chose the curler drawer and not the top drawer, which held my troll-doll collection, or the bottom drawer, filled with crayons.
Once, when Uncle Mike was visiting, we heard the startling clap! of a mousetrap being sprung, and we peered between the metal chair legs in the kitchen. The tiny creature was fighting to free itself, inching the trap across the linoleum, making a noise like a fingernail scraping a tabletop. My brother Tony and I marveled at its desperate effort to escape death, until my uncle’s deep voice snapped us from our trance.
“Where’s your broom, Rena?” he asked our mother. “The poor thing’s still alive.”
One of our mother’s eight brothers, our uncle helped fill the male void in our single-parent home, often dropping by with a bag of groceries for his sister or some loose change for my brothers and me. Born Salvatore Savino, he’d changed his name to Michael.
“Here, Mike,” my mother said, handing him the broom. Our uncle told Tony and me to go watch TV; we wouldn’t want to see this. But his warning only piqued our curiosity, and we stayed where we were. Uncle Mike walked over to the mouse and pressed the broom’s straw bristles over the struggling creature to smother it. I thought about how it might feel to lie trapped against the cold linoleum, my body immobilized, unable to breathe. When it was over, Uncle Mike held the trap — and the lifeless body caught in it — at arm’s length and headed out to the garbage can in the alley. My mother took the broom into the bathroom to wash the bristles in the tub.
My stomach felt queasy.
“That was cool!” my brother shouted.
“Shut up!” I said, aware I had just witnessed a death. “You’re cruel,” I told him, though I knew this wasn’t true.
Afterward I imagined a nest full of orphaned baby mice whose parent had just died. How would they go on? Who would feed them? Keep them warm at night? Teach them how to make their way in the world?
J. had just turned six when my husband and I met her. She was the niece of some friends of ours who’d become her primary guardians after both of J.’s parents had gone to prison. Our friends also had three girls of their own, plus J.’s toddler sister, and they soon discovered that five kids were too many for them. Cute, feisty J., in particular, was more than they could handle. We were looking to adopt, so we thought, Why not take J. in?
We were aware that she’d had a difficult past. After her mother had gone to prison for grand theft auto, J. had traveled for months with her father, who manufactured and sold meth. Our friends told us J. had been sexually abused while living with her parents and later physically abused in foster care — all before she was five. Still, she was devilishly smart, personable, and charming beyond her years. Naively I thought all she needed to help her grow up were parents who would love and support her.
I didn’t realize that, in many ways, J. was already grown up. From a young age she’d had to create security for herself any way she could. She existed in a state of hypervigilance and pushed hard against even the most benevolent authority. In short, she was exhausting.
We managed to give J. the trappings of a “normal” childhood. She took ballet lessons, read fantasy novels, went to basketball and church camps, and had overnights with friends. She excelled academically despite having social problems in school. We also kept her in therapy.
Around fourth or fifth grade J. calmed down for a bit, and I was hopeful the change would last, but puberty came early for her. By eleven she had a larger bra size than I did. By twelve she was boy crazy. She had her first baby at seventeen.
Today J. is thirty-five with three children of her own. A college graduate, she takes parenting seriously and has never abused drugs or alcohol. Yet her traumatic childhood still haunts her. She suffers from bouts of depression, and her inner turmoil can burst through at any time. I can’t help wondering, with her intelligence, determination, and talents, who she could have become if she’d had the chance just to be a kid.
I flunked my driver’s test twice when I was sixteen. The complexities of parallel parking, in particular, eluded me. I blamed the family’s huge green-and-white 1959 Ford station wagon, which we called the Whale.
Mom finally declared that I just wasn’t ready to learn to drive. Our father usually left the parenting to her, so I was surprised one Sunday afternoon when Dad grabbed the car keys and said to me, “Let’s go.”
He drove us to a large, empty parking lot. My heart skittered as I slid across the bench seat to the driver’s side, while Dad got out and positioned himself at the Whale’s right rear tail fin. He would be the other car that I would park behind.
I eased past him in reverse and angled the rear bumper toward an imaginary curb. Then I shifted into forward and nosed the car into place a couple of feet from my father, who’d turned to face me. But when I was ready to stop, my foot found the gas by mistake, and the Whale surged forward. I screamed and hit the brake.
My father lay spread-eagled across the car’s wide hood, his wide eyes staring at me through the windshield. I can still see the terror on his face.
He edged his way to the ground and slipped into the passenger seat. Neither of us spoke. Finally I took the key from the ignition and held it out to him. He shook his head and said, “You can’t quit now, or you’ll never learn. Take us home.” Then he added, “Let’s not tell your mother.”
I am seventy years old and still haven’t fully recovered from my childhood. My father died when I was three, leaving my mother, my two brothers, and me to carry on as best we could. With little education and no job skills beyond housewife, my mother would have difficulty finding work; so we three boys were split up among family members. When we were reunited two years later, my brothers and I were like strangers, and I became the target of frequent brutal assaults — physical, verbal, and sexual — at the hands of my older brother, six years my senior. The hours between the end of school and when our mother got home from work were filled with terror for me.
My mother certainly saw when I was bruised or bloodied, but what could she do? After-school care was out of the question; she could barely afford to feed and clothe us. There weren’t any social programs in the fifties that could have helped.
At school the nuns — bitter old women dressed in black — took over the task of crushing my spirit while my brother was busy with classes. With the exception of two teachers who were young enough to remember what it was like to be a child, these sisters of God were more likely to deliver a slap in the face than any tenderness. I was told that I was stupid and if I could not keep my hands off my penis, I would burn in hell for eternity. Apparently my private parts did not belong to me, my body was disgusting, and I was not worthy of Jesus’s love.
By the time I got to public high school, my older brother was married and gone, but my liberation came too late. I was too broken to fit in, a fat loner, easy prey for the jocks and delinquents. I owe so much to a kind teacher who befriended me and helped me get into college. He and I remained good friends until the end of his life.
My oddness stayed with me into adulthood. I found myself relegated to the margins of social groups despite many kind and wise people who helped me heal. I spent most of my working years self-employed and was never successful in the conventional sense.
What I did have was an amazing wife and an equally amazing son. He had the kind of childhood every child should have — I made sure of it. I also reconciled with my older brother and now appreciate that, as a child, he was suffering, too. We all are, to one degree or another.
I was working for an organization that drilled water wells in undeveloped areas of Africa, and Lion was the organization’s director for South Sudan. He and I were on a trip to evaluate wells in remote villages when we got lost and met two boys who agreed to help us find our way. Lion gave up the front seat so they could navigate. Aafaq was fourteen and wore an orange button-down shirt and dress pants with sandals. He stepped into our Land Rover like a full-grown man, as if he owned it. At twelve his friend Maalik, in a striped soccer shirt and cutoff shorts, was less sure of himself. From the way Maalik’s eyes grew wide when he felt the air conditioning, and the way Aafaq smoothed his palm over the sleek dashboard, I guessed that neither of them had ever been in a car before. Roads were uncommon in the scrublands of South Sudan. People traveled centuries-old walking paths every day, sometimes for hours, just to get a gallon of water or to buy charcoal or rice from the market.
As the Land Rover bounced over the rough dirt roads, Maalik stared at me. I figured he had never seen anyone with skin as light as mine. He asked Lion questions in Dinka about me: “Where does she come from? Does she have kids?”
Later Lion told me, “Maalik said your hands are soft now, but if you went to cattle camp, you would toughen right up.” He explained that, during the dry season, children took the cattle to water, traveling very far from their homes.
“How do they know where to go?” I asked.
“They just know.”
“Who watches them?”
“But they’re only children.”
“This is how we live here. We have been doing this for centuries.”
Childhood in this place wasn’t anything like what I’d experienced in the U.S. Twig-thin youths were responsible for the survival of their cattle, as well as their own. They faced down thieves and wild animals. I understood then why Aafaq had gotten into the Land Rover like a full-grown man. At fourteen, he was one.
Rochester, New York
I was born into religion the way some people are born into poverty. Our front yard was a thicket of hand-painted signs quoting Scripture — Revelation mostly. I felt closed in by the word of God. There was no place where He was not watching. My siblings and I tried to be good, but even our thoughts were dirty.
There was a Bible in every room of the house. We ate our meals to the sound of our father’s supper-time sermons. He preferred the wrathful God of the Old Testament and believed in the Devil, whom he saw everywhere, especially in me. He would rip the belt from his waist, push me forward, and bring the leather down hard upon my bare skin: One lash to cast out the Devil. Two for the glory of God. Three. Four. I lost count at fifteen.
I, too, believed in this Old Testament God. It was Jesus I had lost faith in. His mercy had to be a lie.
My mother came from nothing and married into nothing. Surely she had wanted more: A little sun with the rain. A bit of Jesus’s love. She cried until I could not stand to be in the same room with her. She said she wished she were dead or had never been born. She promised we would be sorry when she was gone. On nights when she wouldn’t stop wailing, I doubted this last one was true.
One dull December day the creek froze, and the bridge iced over. Still my father walked for hours in the biting wind, going door to door, trying to save souls. He came home brittle, his rage close to the surface.
Mother was cooking supper. I was playing records, the contents of my collection scattered across the floor. The fire was lit, and the house was warm, almost cheery. My father heard the music and snapped. It was Satanic, he said. This was his house and, by extension, the Lord’s house. How dare I play such trash? His foot came down again and again and shattered every record I owned. He threw the record player out the open window, then came for me with his fists. He beat my head against the floor. I tried to crawl beneath the kitchen table, but he knocked it over, grabbed me, and lifted me into the air with those hands that were larger than my head. He threw me into the wall. My mother stood shaking and whispering, “Jesus,” over and over. She began screaming out the Lord’s name just before she ran, leaving supper to burn.
She was gone for three days and three nights, like Jonah in the belly of the whale. When they found her in the woods, she had no clothes on, and her limbs were scratched from the winter branches. My father prayed over her, beseeching God to cast out her demons, but the demons remained. She died less than a year later.
That was twenty years ago. I don’t see my father much these days. He and I have nothing to talk about. I still pray, more out of habit than belief. I no longer expect the prophecies in Revelation to come true, but when it is dark and I am alone, I still catch myself waiting for the world to end.
Playa del Carmen
In 1953 my family lived on Ridge Avenue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Every morning my siblings and I would wake to find a layer of soot on our windowsills, belched out by the steel mills overnight. We would scribble our names in it with our fingers.
My brother Wade died when he was just four months old, and afterward our family slogged through each day in a fog of grief.
Into this fog came our aunt, who arrived unannounced and changed our normal routine. She towered over us kids, but she didn’t frighten me. Mostly she kept to herself and never said a word. Her silence filled each room she entered.
Our aunt had lived with her brother for most of her life, but he’d recently died. I heard the adults say that she was “touched in the head.” She never tried to help out, and she broke household rules, which aggravated our mother. I shared a room with our aunt, and I watched her from my bed as she slept facing the wall. Despite our physical closeness, she and I lived in different worlds.
Then one night at dinner our mother asked our aunt to say grace. We all bowed our heads, hands folded, as she began to recite in a booming voice, “Holy Bible, book divine . . .” She paused. I opened one eye and saw her pick up her fork. With a shout she said, “Big potato, thou art mine!” and she stabbed the largest potato on the platter.
Mom and Dad did not move. We kids held our laughter, eyes bugging out. Finally, inhaling deeply and saying nothing, our parents picked up their utensils, and we ate.
Our aunt went away not long after that.
On a sunny June afternoon, the last day of sixth grade, I walked out a side door of my school and headed home. I hadn’t gotten far when I realized Gwen was coming after me. I remember her perfect flaxen braids, her sneer, her compact strength. As soon as I saw her, I ran. My thick, gold-rimmed eyeglasses slid down my nose while my feet pounded the dirt. Gwen trailed me by forty yards, but she was charging like a racehorse, closing in.
Gwen and I attended the same Catholic church. I never told my mother how Gwen bullied me. I have no idea whether Gwen’s mother knew how mean her daughter was.
Maybe Gwen yelled, “Chink!” that day. Maybe not. I ran because I didn’t want to find out what she would do when she caught me. As we passed the baseball diamond, I felt what the expression “hot on your heels” really meant.
My lead nearly lost, I suddenly stopped, turned, and spit in Gwen’s face. She froze as my saliva landed on her skin, and during those seconds I pivoted and dashed down the school’s asphalt driveway. By the time I saw my street, I didn’t hear her footsteps in pursuit.
I was safe, and also shocked to discover that I had an animal inside me who could hiss and spit when threatened.
My father died three months ago. When Mom listed the house, it sold quickly. Today the carport and driveway are lined with my father’s belongings, including his shaving mug, dentures, and hearing aids. Buckets of tools sit in the gravel. Garden tools lean against the fence.
“Hold the screen door, hon,” my mother says, cradling Dad’s hand-carved ebony bird lamp, a souvenir from his tour of duty in the Philippines. The bird has a cracked beak, and one broken wing hangs loose. I haven’t seen this lamp since the day it fell off the end table and onto my two-year-old brother, Fred.
Fred had been born in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, on Valentine’s Day 1957. Though he was my mother’s seventh child, the pregnancy and delivery were difficult. My mother came home from the hospital without him and told my siblings and me that a part of his brain was missing in the area that controlled his muscles.
In November of that year my father changed jobs, and our family moved south to New Mexico. I was eleven, and after the move, helping to care for Fred became my responsibility. I was allowed to hold him in my lap but forbidden to carry him, as he was quite heavy and his neck was too weak to support his enlarged head. With enough pillows tucked around him, he could sit in a high chair while I fed him minuscule bites of Cream of Wheat and applesauce. He was particularly fond of ice cream and smacked his lips in anticipation of each spoonful. He loved to play peekaboo and laughed when I sang him silly songs. He never cried, except that one afternoon when I was watching him, and he reached up, caught his fingers in the crocheted doily hanging off the end table, and pulled. The lamp came with the doily and landed on Fred.
Two weeks after the accident my parents took Fred to Los Lunas Children’s Hospital and Training School. The people there could help him better than we could, they said.
My mind was full of questions I never asked: How were these doctors going to help him? Who would play with him? Wouldn’t he miss us? Was he ever coming home?
A little over a year later, on September 20, 1961, my parents received a call from Los Lunas. Fred’s physical symptoms had become life threatening. He couldn’t eat. His tongue continually blocked his airway. Our parents rushed to be at Fred’s side but arrived too late.
I stare now at the bird lamp, lying on a makeshift plywood table with various objects from my childhood. Though it was precious to my parents, I loathe it. As a child I thought it was my fault that my brother had been sent away — that his accident with the lamp had been the catalyst. I buried that guilt along with all my unanswered questions: Was he afraid? Did he miss us? Did he feel loved?
Two years ago I moved into a small house on a quiet street in town. It was late October. Leaves crunched underfoot, and daylight faded early. I had noticed the basketball hoop in the street while moving in, and one night I heard a bouncing ball and the chatter of young voices.
Basketball had been my life as a child. In the evening I would shoot hoops in my driveway until it was too dark to see, and every morning I read the box scores in our local newspaper. I’d ultimately become a high-school basketball coach, but it had been fifteen years since I had played under the glow of streetlamps.
I put on sweatpants and went out to meet the neighbors. The boys, all between the ages of twelve and fourteen, stopped and watched me approach.
“Are you any good?” one of them asked.
I told him I’d coached high-school basketball.
“But are you any good?” he replied.
They divided into teams: three of them on one side and me and the smallest boy on the other. It was a fair matchup, and we played for more than two hours. At some point, sweat seeping through my jacket, I forgot about our age difference and got lost in the game. The boys argued as if I were one of them, played physical defense, and laughed when I slipped on a stray piece of gravel.
After game number seven they high-fived me good night and left for their respective houses. I went into my new home, cheeks flushed and fingers raw from the cold. As I turned on the hot water in the shower, I realized I had not experienced that sort of exhausted fulfillment since playing in my own childhood driveway.
The following evening there was a knock on my door. One of the boys stood there, his friends already shooting baskets behind him.
“Ready for a rematch?” he asked.
Jarrett Van Meter
Asheville, North Carolina
When people learn that I grew up the youngest of seven and the only girl, their usual reaction is, “Oh, you must have been treated like a princess.”
Hearing this, I think of the daily pinching, poking, slapping, kicking, wrestling, hair pulling, strap snapping, skirt flipping, and teasing. I think of fifteen years of being sat on, farted on, burped on, snuck up on, and tripped anytime I walked by, until I hid under my bed or behind the water heater for relief. I think of fighting like a feral animal for a cookie. (The dish was often empty by the time it came to me.) I think of flailing just to get in a kick to the shin or slap on the arm as one brother or another laughed and braced his hand against my forehead.
They fired baseballs and footballs at my back as I ran for cover. They locked me outside in the cold or inside stifling steamer trunks. They wouldn’t let me into their boys’ club and mocked my efforts to be a girl. I never prevailed — not in a brawl, an argument, a footrace, or a game of checkers. My mother would put me in a dress for church and then cluck disapprovingly because I was battered, smudged, off-kilter, not what she’d hoped for.
“Sure,” I say to the people who assume I was a princess. “They cherished me.”
The first thing I notice about people is their teeth. If they are beautiful, straight, and white, I’m filled with envy; if they are in bad shape, I feel empathy.
The summer I was sixteen, I went into the hospital to have all my teeth removed. I had to hide at home for two weeks while my dentures were made and my mouth healed. I wanted to die. Even now, at seventy-six years old, that shame is still with me.
My parents were lax in teaching their children hygiene. I don’t remember ever being told to brush my teeth. In elementary school, when they gave each of us a toothbrush and a sample tube of toothpaste, I looked at them with curiosity.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s my school employed a visiting dentist. I was terrified of his sharp tools and had a recurring nightmare of him chasing me around the desks in my classroom with his pick.
My mother and father both wore dentures. You’d think they would have learned their lesson and passed it on to us: “Take care of your teeth!” But if I woke up crying with a toothache, as I often did, my mother would say, “Go stick a clove in it.” This helped temporarily but didn’t solve the problem.
We lived in a small town, and the only dentist was about ten miles away. We had no car and had to walk a mile to a bus stop. I went to the dentist only when my parents could no longer bear my crying.
My father was an alcoholic, depressed and unemployable. My mother was depressed, too, after the drowning death of my brother Douglas at the age of ten. I was six when he died, and I saw the firemen trying to revive him. My father would sit for hours in his chair and drink and look out the window at the jagged rocks from which Douglas had fallen into the ocean.
If I meet you, and you have nice, straight white teeth, I imagine you feel confident and good about yourself in a way I never will.
I am sitting on a peeling blue bench in the courtyard between two elementary-school buildings. Student artwork decorates the windows. A cool breeze whips through. I force myself to make small talk with the other parents, as if by acting normal, I can make my life become normal. Like them, I am waiting to collect my third-grader. Unlike them, I will not be shuttling my daughter to ballet or soccer. Instead I will drive her to the local hospital for her weekly blood draw. After-school activities are impossible for her. Even playing quietly at home demands too much energy. I will be lucky if she makes eye contact when she emerges from the building, usually last, and drops her backpack at my feet.
I wander over to the window and find her classroom empty. It is PE day. I imagine my daughter dragging herself around the blacktop, trying to keep up with her peers. The short walk back to her classroom will be enough to make her wince in pain.
I hear the bubbling of children’s voices and am shocked to see my daughter walking between two girls who have slowed their pace to match hers. The three are giggling, bumping elbows, and cupping their hands around their mouths to whisper about something. The teacher gives the girls a stern look, and they quietly shuffle into class. My daughter sees me and waves. I smile and wave back, tearing up. Her interaction with her peers may seem trivial, but to me it is monumental. After more than two years of chemotherapy, it is the surest sign of her recovery.
Santa Cruz, California
As the youngest of four daughters in a family for whom police intervention was the norm, I kept a low profile. It was safer to be invisible, both at home and at my Catholic school, where classes of fifty children were taught by strict nuns. My grades were good enough to keep me out of trouble, and if I needed to be alone, I would take refuge in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, or on the roof of my apartment building, or at the library, because I loved to read.
When I was ten years old, Sister Mary John gave our class a homework assignment: we were each to imagine ourselves as a child in one of the early American colonies, and then write a letter to a friend about what our life was like.
I chose the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1628, and I wrote to a girl I’d met on the ocean crossing from Liverpool. I imagined that she and her family had continued farther down the coast, and we’d promised to write each other at every opportunity.
In my letter I described the winter that had just passed, the terrible nor’easter storms that blew smoke back down the chimney and into our hastily built homes. I wrote of having to sit for hours on backless benches in our unheated church while the minister condemned our many sins; of my mother’s tears and my father’s anger and frustration. I described the back-breaking labor of planting a garden in rocky soil and how the puzzled natives stood at the perimeter of our settlement and watched as we bungled one project after another. I described how unkind people had become, and how judgmental of each other. “There is a woman in stocks in our town center,” I wrote. “Her crime was to stay home from church today, complaining of pain in all her joints. She is near seventy.”
I wrote that I wished we had never come. We had exchanged one type of religious persecution for another. And I signed off with an appeal for my friend to write back soon, because I missed her so.
I turned in my homework on a Friday, printed longhand on lined paper because of my illegible cursive. Other students had put their homework into neat folders, but in my home there was no money for such luxuries.
On Monday morning, while we waited to be led into the building, I saw my teacher huddled in conversation with another nun and seeming to point in my direction. I wondered what thing I had done wrong, for that was the only time adults paid me any attention. My face reddened, and my palms became sweaty.
We marched into school, up several flights of stairs, and into our classroom. Sitting down at the desk I shared with another girl, I looked up to see that our blackboards — front, side, and back — were covered in writing. It was my letter. “Dearest friend Emilia,” it began, “I take pen in hand with hopes that you and your family have survived the winter and are flourishing.”
Other classes came through to read my letter. The principal congratulated me. Girls who’d never talked to me before were suddenly friendly. I was no longer invisible.
That night my teacher phoned my parents to congratulate them on raising such a talented daughter. She’d never had another student like me, she said.
My entire family was speechless.
Santa Rosa, California
I hadn’t learned to read or even tie my shoes, but I already knew to do whatever my father said without question. And I knew this would be one of those times I wasn’t supposed to talk about, ever.
My father had brought me to a run-down hotel in San Francisco. He looked nervous as he knocked on a door. When it opened, he steered me in by my shoulder. Inside I saw bright lights and two naked men on a bed. A few other men with clothes on were standing around, and there was a movie camera, which stopped whirring when we came into the room.
One of the men on the bed saw me and said, “What’s she doing here?”
“That’s my kid,” said my dad.
“No one said anything about a kid,” the man on the bed said, and he got up and pulled on his pants. “This is wrong.” He picked up his shoes and walked out.
This is wrong. His words confirmed what I had felt in all the hotel rooms before this one; all the places my father had trafficked me to adults with forbidden desires. What was happening to me wasn’t normal, as my mother claimed. Not even secret normal. It was wrong.
It would take me a decade to become confident enough to walk out like that man did. It would take years of floundering as a young adult before I could find solid footing in the world. It would take knowing that it was possible for an honest man to care about me before I could find one. It would take lots of therapy before I could reach a place of gratitude, calm, and, yes, even joy.
But that man who spoke up gave me the first clue I needed to find my way out.
I just found an old snapshot of myself. The date on the back says it was taken in my senior year of high school. It makes me sad to look at this young girl, who seems so distant from the person I am today. Am I sad because that seventeen-year-old is now fifty? Or am I sad because I don’t remember that girl very well, and I feel like I’ve lost her?
She is sitting on her twin bed, smiling at the camera. What is she thinking? Is she happy? What does she want from life? I wish I could zoom in on the image like I can on my phone. Instead I hold the photograph close to my face to better see the details of the room. There’s the headboard with the built-in bookshelves that hold her clock radio and her favorite books. I know there’s a boy in the framed picture of the sunset, but I can’t remember which one. The desk next to the bed is covered in scraps of paper with quotes that moved her, and the diary and journals where she attempted to capture her days. The bulletin board reveals her love for Care Bears and field hockey. On her wall is a cross section of a tree stump with a lacquered picture of Jesus surrounded by children.
I want to reach out and touch her big ’80s hair and hold her young hands. I want to sit on her bed and talk all night. I want to tell her that the boys she cries over — the ones who mess with her head and make her feel she’s not good enough — don’t matter. Not really.
At seventeen she has no idea she’ll soon make careless decisions that will take her down a path ending in heartbreak. If I could, I would warn her to go to college out of state, so she will never meet him, never become his wife, or his victim. But then she would miss so much. She wouldn’t be there when her nieces and nephews are born. She would miss holding those babies who would become her greatest loves. If she went away, she would be absent at Sunday dinners with her parents and brothers and sisters. She would miss the picnics and games of softball and hide-and-seek on the farm. She wouldn’t get to attend the weddings and funerals of people she loved or watch her parents grow older. She would miss so much.
So maybe I wouldn’t tell her to change her plans. But I would crawl into that twin bed, lie down next to her, and hold her like I might the daughter I never had. I’d tell her not to judge her self-worth by how much she weighs, or her looks, or her job title, or how much money she makes, or what her husband does, or the house she lives in, or whether she’s married or divorced, cheated on or abandoned. I’d tell her that fixing other people is not her responsibility.
I’d tell her what it’s taken me most of my life to realize: That God doesn’t require perfection. God values her so much, he has tied her very soul to him, to keep her from getting lost. That is all she needs to know.
San Diego, California
My parents divorced when I was five years old. My father had a temper and threw things when he got angry: food, cats, knives. He even slammed me into a wall when I was two. He remarried, and I spent weekends at his house, where he continued to be a frightening presence. When I was seven, he lifted me by my ponytail and threw me on the floor because he didn’t like my table manners. Once, he called me into his room and shot a pistol loaded with blanks — as a joke, he said.
When I grew older, I refused to stay at Dad’s house. The distance helped our relationship, and I came to view him as more childlike than cruel. I often felt I was the one parenting him. He could actually be very sweet, and when I was in my teens, we became surprisingly close.
I eventually went into therapy for depression, and as I told my family’s story, I was reminded that my father had suffered in his childhood. He was six when his father died suddenly, and his mother put her kids in an orphanage and never returned for them. Dad’s feelings of abandonment were worsened by the physical and emotional abuse he suffered at the orphanage. He finally walked away at the age of fifteen.
When my sister had children, Dad’s behavior toward his grandchildren at family gatherings went beyond mean: yanking babies by the arm or tripping toddlers who were learning to walk. My sisters kept the kids away from him but said nothing. Everyone was afraid of him. When I talked about this in therapy, my therapist told me, “Do something you couldn’t do when you were little: stick up for these children.”
The next time I saw Dad squeeze my crying two-year-old nephew’s arm, I yelled, “Dad, let him go!” The room went silent. Surprised, Dad pushed my nephew away and said, “I didn’t hurt him.” From then on I spent family gatherings calling Dad out on his behavior. And he behaved.
I was in my thirties and living across the country when Dad called me in the middle of a workday. We talked for more than an hour, just like we’d done when I was in high school. A few days later he had a heart attack and died. At that same moment, three time zones away, I woke from a sound sleep and burst into tears without knowing why.
He’s been gone for almost thirty years. When I think of him now, I see him as a little boy.