Note: someone with stories to tell reached out to me to reveal that she shares a common history with me, one forged in violence and the lesser part of human nature. Unlike me, she must tiptoe over the tightrope of accountability for those in her life. Not everyone embraces my willingness to tell lurid family stores, ones which lay bare the shared roots and episodes of family lore. Stories, though, must be told. They escape our control even when not given voice. Sunlight enriches us and our stories, even when previously obscured in the darkest corners. Who ‘she’ is isn’t the story. She’s dedicated much of her life to ensuring that so many others have options, hope, and a future. She learned firsthand that such things are sometimes a fantasy for children.
The following is one of her stories:
There are times in life I feel like a fake. Not because I believe I am actually a fake, but because the life and culture I grew up in is not the one I live in now.
Our stepfather, Chip, was sometimes an okay guy, and sometimes a raging lunatic, depending on the quantity of alcohol or other substances he had consumed on any given day. Weekends were generally the worst, as there were more available drinking hours in the day and he felt like he could really let loose. Chip was frequently violent and often demanded unquestioned respect and loyalty.
If anyone had used the words “domestic violence” around us we would never have assumed they were talking about us. No one I knew ever said anything like that or talked at all about what might be going on in our house. These days, as a trainer for Domestic Violence, you might hear me say “The number one rule in any domestic abuse situation is never tell anyone about what happens here.” That was certainly true in our household. We were warned on a regular basis that what happened in our home was no one else’s business. The implied rudeness that anyone would want to know seeped into our minds as such it truly never occurred that we would tell anyone.
Despite the crazy things that would happen, we also had fun. We had friends in our neighborhood with whom we rode the bus to school. They would sometimes come to play in our yard. We were never allowed to leave our own yard to play. Only to walk to the bus stop. In fact, if a ball went over the fence and one of us had to run and get it, we would panic trying to get back before we were spotted by a grown up. The main result of this policy was that our closest friends were the ones who lived right next door.
The Spears were relatively new to the neighborhood. They’d only moved in probably six months before the main event happened. Their family consisted of the two parents and three young boys. Paul, the oldest boy was 13. I remember this specifically because he was right in between me and my oldest sister, she was 14 and I was 12 that spring. He and his middle brother had come over one Friday afternoon. My mother was in a particularly good mood that day, and Chip was cooking on his grill. I don’t remember what he was cooking, as we never actually ended up eating dinner that day. We were outside in the front yard, and Mom was laughing at something the neighbor kid, Paul, was saying to her. Chip, in quite the mood, was jealous. Mom was standing on the steps heading in the door, mid-laugh, when Chip grabbed the back of her shirt and threw her down on the ground. He immediately began yelling about her cheating. He sat there, hands tight around her neck, raging. The moment was probably quick in real time, but, cliché as it sounds, felt like slow motion. I looked at my sister and despite the longstanding rule about never telling anyone, this situation called for action. We were in unprecedented territory, we were OUTSIDE. I grabbed my younger brother and she grabbed our baby sister and we took off. We ran to the closest place we could get to quickly, Paul’s house. We were all crying and shaking. Chip was still yelling, the entire scenario could have been happening in their living room, as little insulation as there was in those trailers. We sat down on the floor of their living room. It strikes me funny now that we did that. When we were in trouble at home, Chip always made us sit on the floor, sometimes in birth order. We just automatically did it there too.
Paul’s mother looked at us, with a resigned look on her face. She said, “What do you want me to do?” We just stared at her. We were all painfully shy, mostly afraid of talking to adults in general. After a moment of silence, she asked: “Do you want me to call the police?” Simultaneously I said “Yes” while my sister said “No”. We looked at each other and she said to me, “If the police come, we will never see Mom again.” This was what Chip always told us. It was drilled into us regularly. I suspected it might not go that way. I’d been out of the home more than she had and had seen different things. However, I still thought there was a chance she was right so I didn’t disagree with her. Paul’s Mother looked at us a moment longer, and said, “Well, since she’s older (pointing at my sister) I’m going to go with her answer.”
We sat there in her living room listening to the ongoing fight at home. I don’t know how long we sat there. Eventually, it quieted down some. Then the summons began. “KIDS! IT’S TIME TO COME HOME!” He bellowed it several times. I will never forget looking at Paul’s mom as we gathered up the siblings and left their living room. Chip stood on our steps, one arm resting on the door frame, cowboy hat cocked down over his eyes as we came in. He lined us up right on the floor in the order we walked in. Jessica first, then Thomas, Sue, and me last. Mom sat on the couch, crying, with blood everywhere on her face and bruises already showing. He began to talk then. He talked about how much we didn’t appreciate all that he did for us and how ungrateful we were for the life he gave us. He got himself all wound up again. He tore the phone out of the wall, and threw the tall ashtray and broke it, leaving the chalk residue that must have been weighing it down all over the carpet. He popped pills and washed them down with this Old Milwaukee’s Best. His eyes were red and he was sweating profusely. He had finally had enough. He went down the hall and came back with his sawed-off shotgun. He got a box of shells off of the high shelf in the living room and began to load it.
“I’m done,” he said. “And we are all done. Let’s all go out together.” At this point, mom started begging him not to do it. He loaded the weapon and pointed it right at me. He said, “How about you? You wanna go first?” The moment went on forever. His sweaty finger shaking and hovering over the trigger. I prayed that day like I’d never prayed before. I knew better than to answer him out loud. There was too much chance the answer would not be what he wanted. It wasn’t our first rodeo, as it happens. I don’t think I knew I was holding my breath until he put his arm down. After a moment, he launched back into speech mode. Eventually, he wore weary of his audience and sent us kids to bed. My mom spent the next several hours talking him out of killing himself. I vaguely remember wishing he would just do it.
The next day, we packed our clothes into large black trash bags and went to stay with my Mema, my mom’s mother. She lived in the two-bedroom center unit of a triplex in North Springdale.
It wasn’t the end of our relationship and experience with Chip or even our last time in City View, but we never lived there again. It was the beginning of the end.