Black and White

Detective Sargent Overstreet said it was the worst case of child abuse ever prosecuted in the state of Michigan. He said it was unique because there was no sexual abuse. The definition of sexual abuse in the 1970’s was more narrow than it is today. By today’s definition it was all sexual abuse because the reason we were being punished, according to my aunt, is that we were filthy whores. She made us confess to having sex with my dad. My aunt was a victim of incest. I’m sure of it now. She was also a victim of culture putting a premium on a woman’s virginity. Like most women of her generation, she was brainwashed. Women were either pure as the driven snow or nymphomaniacs. She said we were nymphomaniacs. We were 10 and 11 years old!

Notice how I say ‘we’ and I mean me and my sister. My brother was not quite 4 years old so she couldn’t get her jollies by tormenting him. In order for her to get what she craved, her victim had to be a girl, I think, and old enough to know the fundamentals of sex.

My dad claimed Aunt Ray worked in a ‘cat house’ before she married her first husband. She said she lived with some other girls and they all worked together. The other girls invited men over. The other girls were not ladies. She was always a lady and would not tolerate dirty jokes or stories. She was also very patriotic. She once slapped a German girl for making a snide comment about my aunt asking her for a cigarette. I think she saw her own life as if it had been a movie and she was the tragic heroine. I always saw the stories she told in black and white.

Speaking ill of the dead

grave

I found this image on Find a Grave when I was researching my family tree on Ancestry.com. I didn’t know my uncle was a Mason or that my aunt had joined the women’s chapter, the Order of the Eastern Star. I couldn’t believe these two were buried with the honors of this fraternity. My step-dad and my mom belong to these organizations.

I have a fantasy about visiting this grave site. I will fly to Michigan and my first stop will be a hardware store where I will purchase a sledge hammer. I will drive to the cemetery in a rented car and with the sledgehammer I will destroy these markers. My heart thumps just thinking about it. I will smash these headstones slowly and without fear of being detected. In fact, I will be glad to be observed, reported and arrested for doing it. I will not hire an attorney. I will speak on my own behalf with the records of the trial that took place. I will pay a fine or go to jail. I have the right to speak ill of the dead. These people do not have the right to lay among decent folk with headstones that represent them as good people.

Alabama state of mind

I drove from Mobile, Alabama to Pensacola, Florida to see my doctor today. Why do I drive so far? Because good doctors are hard to find. A good doctor listens. A good doctor realizes I am in touch with my own body and I know it better than he ever will. A good doctor has learned from experience I always know what is ailing me and very often prescribes medication based on what I think I need. I know my body and my mind very well because both have been exposed to extreme trauma. I know how much pain I can endure. I know how much fear I can survive with. I came to the realization several years after the fact, but what happened in Michigan made me a superhero.

So it takes about an hour to drive from Mobile to Pensacola. I am rarely alone but today I had 2 hours. I owed several people phone calls, but instead I listened to the radio. I turned it up loud and scanned the radio stations as I drove. I heard an inordinate number of my favorite songs, which I took as a very good sign, so I bought a lottery ticket. I had a dream I won a lottery by purchasing just one ticket. My dreams literally always come true. I had this dream many years ago when I still lived in Oregon. My dreams sometimes take a really long time to come true.

I wrote down the songs I heard, because I like to share them on Facebook. People reading this blog will probably be more interested in the songs than my friends on Facebook. So here are some of my favorite driving songs I heard on the radio today: The Stroke by Billy Squier, Mr. Jones by Counting Crows, I Won’t back Down by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Livin’ on the Edge by Aoerosmith and I Love Rock n Roll by Joan Jett and the Black Hearts.

My favorite driving songs have a heavy bass and interesting change ups. Like songs in action movies. I love movies based on comic books. I love Iron Man. Well, I really love the first movie. The sequels not so much. I really love The Avengers. Loki is my favorite character. The Avengers has the most awesome soundtrack. People who don’t know me well are always surprised that I love action and adventure movies and horror movies and prefer them to dramas (aka chick flicks). I also love gangster films. It’s the violence and fear. I am an adrenaline junkie. I experience a vicarious … well, not sure what. My favorite line from a movie is from GI Jane. I always come up out of my seat when she roars, “Suck my dick!”

I was a rather gentle and timid child. My older sister was the hard ass. She fought my fights. But that all changed after what happened in Michigan. Not immediately. I had an experience with a bully (a boy) in 6th grade (a year after what happened in Michigan) that I still feel ashamed of. I didn’t stand up for myself or fight back. I remember thinking what a sissy the kid was for hitting a girl. He hit me in the stomach with his fist. It was a familiar pain. I was so surprised a boy would hit a girl. The pain radiated from a point in the middle of my belly. I hadn’t got my period yet, but on reflection, it felt like a period cramp that pierced me like an arrow. My sister was friends with another school bully, a girl. Even the boys were afraid of her. This girl beat the hell out of the boy who bothered me. I was impressed. I had a talk with myself. I thought, after what happened in Michigan there is really no reason to be afraid of kids at school. There is nothing a kid can do to me that will be worse than what Aunt Ray did. Nobody can ever hurt me again. And even if I can’t win a fight against a bully, I won’t just stand there and let someone intimidate me with words or let someone hit me without hitting them back. This all happened in Alabama. We went to Florida after we left Michigan but we ended up back at my grandmother’s. My mom’s mother. We always went home to Bayou La Batre no matter how far away we moved or how long we stayed gone.

So from then on I was spoiling for a fight. We moved to Mississippi. I had two chances for the rest of my education to actually fight. I didn’t start the problem. I didn’t think I could win but I wasn’t about to back down and agreed to meet the girls after school. After I stood up to the two biggest bullies in junior high school (girls!) no one ever bothered me again. All I had to do is show up and show I wasn’t afraid to take a beating. Nothing happened. The bullies talked it down. Which felt like a triumph to me. My attitude was not reserved for bullies. I didn’t tolerate mean teachers or principals or any adult who abused children. I wasn’t afraid of anyone. I was constantly arguing with my mother, who saw running away from her attempt to smack me in the face as an act of aggression toward her. I was just supposed to stand there and let her slap me.

Oh I found my words at age 13. Did I ever. It was me and me against the world. My teenage indignation was amplified by what happened in Michigan. I was a gentle and nurturing person. I didn’t start shit. But if someone else started shit, you could “stand me up at the gates of hell,” but I would die before I backed down. I defended myself, and my friends and the weak against bullies. I really do not think I would have been a brave person if what happened in Michigan hadn’t happened. I would have kept letting my sister or others fight my fights.

I think this is what they mean when they say you can always find the good in something bad. Maybe I wouldn’t have been a coward if what happened in Michigan hadn’t happened, but I know for sure I am fearless because it did happen. I don’t want to fight but I am glad to know I can if I need to.

I guess music and movies give me a vicarious feeling of good triumphing over evil.

Dirty Blood

My dad said his grandmother’s hair was so long it nearly touched her feet. She sat on the steps each morning, unbraided it, brushed it and then rebraided it. His grandfather raised horses and kept bees. From all I’ve heard they were kind, decent people. Not his mother’s parents. He didn’t talk about them as if he knew them personally. Maybe he didn’t. But what happened in Michigan was his mother’s mother’s fault. I’ve been watching Ken Burns, “The West.” The frontier used to be Ohio. My people came from New York to the frontier of Ohio, and then to Michigan. It is easy for me to imagine my dad’s parents and the time they lived in. They were raising a family in the 1930’s.

I have a theory about my aunt’s disgust with our blood. I have researched our genealogy and there is reason to believe my dad’s grandmother was of Native ancestry. The white men who first came to Ohio and Michigan as trappers and fur traders often took Native women for wives.My dad had the same black hair and olive skin as his dad. I always thought my grandfather looked like a gypsy. They had some kind of dark blood. I believe my grandmother’s mother was a racist. She may have believed my oldest aunt was illegitimate. Maybe that is why she treated Aunt Lee, who they say looked more like her mother, better than the other kids. My aunt Ray talked about our blood as being dirty and full of disease. I know now that it is common for racists to think such things. I absolutely believe that some of the things my aunt said and did to us were things that had been said and done to her. I was 10 years old when my parents left us with her. She was 10 years old when her mother died. She and Aunt lee went to live with their mother’s mother, in Ohio, while the boys went to their dad’s parents in Michigan.

My grandmother’s mother looked down on country people. She wanted her granddaughters to be ‘ladies.’  They owned a mercantile store, so of course they had every new and faddish thing. And I wonder and I almost know for sure, that my prattling on about wanting to be an English lady like the heroine in my favorite book brought back a lot of really bad and hurtful memories for my aunt. And when she hit me with all her strength and spittle flew from her mouth in her rage, she was that 10 year old girl again in her grandmother’s house. Helpless, orphaned, and battered. I know it isn’t an excuse for what she did to us, but it may be an explanation. And it may explain why she started with me first.

Okay, enough for tonight.

If I didn’t believe

Tonight I am wired. Today has been a dam day. People. People I love. My mom spent a month caring for her dying sister and now she is suffering. The hospital was short staffed and my mom and my other aunt literally did all the heavy lifting. Now my mom has unbearable pain in her back. She won’t be able to attend my son’s graduation. My mom is one of those people who tried to do everything she could to stay healthy. She never smoked, rarely drank and she was careful of what she ate. She is not dealing well with being an invalid, even temporarily.

My ex-husband, father of my three children, an alcoholic, is in the hospital. He went on a four day binge. He didn’t go to work this week. Last night he was having chest pains and went to the hospital in the middle of the night. He might not be out of the hospital in time to go to my son’s graduation. My daughter, the baby and me went to see him. He looked awful. We brought him some yogurt and bananas. I got his house key and later went to his house to let the dogs out. He told me he was embarrassed about the house because it was so dirty. It felt weird to be in his house without him there. I did not snoop. We divorced in 2002. Neither of us remarried. I care about him. It hurts to see him killing himself.

My children. My boys have little patience with their dad’s drinking problem. They need to know that his grandfather died of alcoholism. They need to realize they have inherited a predisposition to be alcoholics themselves. My daughter is disgusted with her dad, but she has more compassion. I believe her chronic illness has made her more compassionate toward people than her brothers are. I want to say, “I tried to raise them all to be compassionate.” The boys are compassionate in other ways, and I suppose it is too much to expect them to feel compassion for their father yet. They probably will when they get older. Right now, as young men, they need a father to look up to. They want a father to be proud of.

These people I love seem like wild horses. I see them all running and snorting and kicking up dust. They do what they do, say what they say and feel what they feel. I watch and pray. Every day I pray my children will be safe and well. I pray for them several times each day. I pray for my mother, the kids’ father, my sister and others. But for my children, I pray every single day without fail and I have since they were conceived. Because after what happened in Michigan, if I didn’t believe someone was there to pray to, someone who could keep my children safe, I would be crazy. I tried very hard to let them be wild and free, to not let what happened in Michigan stunt their lives. I love the untamed spirit in them. My mother I love as if she were a delicate flower. My ex-husband I care for as an old and dear friend. But my children, I love them with a fierce roaring. I can not bear to see them hurt. And tomorrow and the next day my young son, who is graduating from college, will be sad because his grandmother won’t be there, but he will be hurt by his father’s absence. I never forgive him for hurting the children.

Winter coats

How did we end up on Aunt Ray’s doorstep? Another torturous story line. We lived in Jacksonville, Florida when school started that year. My dad had a construction crew. He started smoking pot over the summer. He wasn’t diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic until I was in high school, but his first psychotic break was in September 1972. After he got out of the hospital we packed up what we could in the pick up and went out to Oregon. We had lived there several times. Another story. Mama got her old job back at Nendel’s Restaurant. We went back to the same grade school we had attended. We even lived in the same apartment complex. Our school clothes had been bought for Florida. Mama didn’t have money to buy us new clothes. We had started the school year in Oregon the year before and we still had our winter coats. But the sleeves were too short and my zipper was broken. We were there long enough to get one report card. Daddy couldn’t get work. He was a broken man. He called Aunt Ray. They argued about what had happened with Vicky. She had married again. She said we could come stay with them. Leo, her husband, would try to help my dad get work at the Dow Chemical plant.

Now I have to back up again. The year before we had started school in Oregon. My mom got caught shoplifting and she was afraid the court would take us away from her. So my dad called his brother, Victor in Jacksonville and asked if us kids could stay there. We stayed with Uncle Vic, Aunt Judy, their three kids and Vicky in a two bedroom house. While we were there–during the time my mom and dad went back to Oregon to go to court–Aunt Ray came there. I was sad that she and my dad were mad at each other. I didn’t know if she still liked me. I adored her. We had never seen her hit Vicky. She did it behind closed doors. Vicky never made a sound. I was confused about why my dad and Uncle Vic had taken Vicky away from Aunt Ray. Now here she was, as if nothing had happened. As if she hadn’t raised Vicky from the time she was 2 years old. I wanted to be in her arms. She was sitting on the couch–she called it a ‘divan’–and I approached her carefully. She turned those huge brown eyes on me and smiled. I started to cry. She asked me why. I told her I just wanted her and my daddy to love each other again. She hugged me and said they would, it would just take some time.

When we arrived in Beaverton, Michigan, it was Halloween. When I walked in to her cozy yellow kitchen she swooped me up in a hug just as she had always done since I could remember. I was too heavy to pick up and kiss under the chin but she whispered to me about what I had said to her in Florida. My dad and Aunt Ray loved each other again and she forgave him for taking Vicky away from her. I had just turned 10 that month. We still didn’t have proper clothes. She took us shopping for clothes while Mama went looking for a job. She never had a problem finding a job as a waitress. My dad went to work as a laborer at Dow Chemical on a construction project pouring concrete. I loved the school. It was the first time I ever had a male teacher. He loved history and we made dioramas of the Battle of Bunker Hill. Which was not actually fought on Bunker Hill. We were still wearing last year’s coats so my aunt made an early Christmas present of snowsuits. All the kids wore snowsuits to school like regular coats because they were great for playing outdoors. We had nice boots and mittens, too. I was very happy there.

The only thing that made me feel bad was my dad and Aunt Ray arguing. It made me nervous. I did not want them to get in a big fight and then we would have to leave. Where would we go this time? Mama wasn’t making enough money at the little diner where she worked and my dad was still ill. He couldn’t take working outside when winter really got there. We all slept in the same room upstairs. There was antique furniture, which I thought was pretty. The upstairs wasn’t insulated so the inside of the windows was covered with ice in the mornings. My dad got really sick. He couldn’t go back to work at Dow but he did manage to pour a concrete floor in the basement of the old farm house. I loved the smell of fresh concrete. My dad had built our house in Alabama right after Gary was born. He mixed the concrete himself in a box as long as a skiff and twice as wide. He used a hoe with a hole in it. He called the concrete ‘mud.’ He let me help him sometimes. I was his favorite, too.

One night he and Mama brought me down to the basement. They told me they were leaving, going back down to Florida where it was warmer and where the work was better. They asked me if I wanted to go with them or stay with Aunt Ray until the end of the school year. I did not hesitate. I wanted to stay with Aunt Ray. I was sick of moving and changing schools, and my dad’s breakdown had really frightened me. He could be a scary guy under ordinary circumstances. I had no way of dealing with the bizarre way he had acted and I was afraid it would happen again. No, I felt safe and secure where I was.