WARNING: big trauma trigger, having to do with a homicidal parent. If you are looking for a happy heartwarming Christmas story, this isn’t it. There aren’t any pretty pictures, either. Also, I haven’t done more than a quick, cursory proofread. So the writing in this post is probably really bad. Which should go along just fine with a sucky traumatic story that everyone would probably be better off NOT reading.
UNLESS, LIKE ME, you had a really horrible trauma happen near Christmas sometime in your past and now the holiday season is hard for you. If that’s you, welcome. And here’s a great big grandmotherly ((HUG)) if you want one.
* * *
I am writing this on December 12, 2015. Half a century since my worst trauma happened some time around December 12, 1965.
I don’t remember the exact date these things happened. I’m not even 100% positive this happened in December. The only thing I know for sure about the time frame is that it was a cold winter and I was twelve years old.
But for some reason, the date “12/12” stands out in my mind. December 12, when I was twelve. Hmm…. I just looked it up online and found that December 12 fell on a Sunday in 1965.
That may have been the Sunday when my mother came out of her bedroom, something she rarely did in those days, and told me to get myself and my four preschool sisters and brothers dressed and out into the car, because we were going for a car ride.
We were all so excited! It had been at least a month since we had gone anywhere out of the house, with the exception of me having to go to school. It was a challenge to get my four squealing, dancing, hysterically happy little sisters and brothers all to the bathroom, washed, dressed, and out to the car, but I managed to do it in record time.
However, the promised car ride never happened. We waited for what seemed like three or four hours in the frosty cold car for our mother to come out of the house. The whole time we waited, my five-year-old twin sisters, four-year-old disabled brother, and the not-quite two-year-old boy (still in diapers), squabbled nonstop over who got to sit by a window, who had their dress or a body part encroaching on someone’s portion of the back seat, whose elbow was in whose ribs, and who was poking whom in the eye.
While I, as “Big Sissy,” tried to mediate the toddler feuds, as the sun dipped lower and lower in the sky, I fought the temptation to reach over and blow the car’s horn. What was taking Mother so long? Didn’t she realize how cold it was? I thought about running into the house and asking her for the keys so I could start the car and turn on the heater. But in those volatile days, if I did not do things exactly the way my mother told me to, I often got a hard slap in the face, or worse. So I sat in the car with my fussy siblings and waited it out.
Finally our mother appeared in the doorway of the house. Her hair was still tangled and she was wearing only a bra and a half-slip. Her face was red and puffy from crying. “I’m sorry, kids, I’ve changed my mind about going for a ride. You may as well come back inside the house now.”
The relief at getting out of the cold cramped car was so great, none of us said a word about not getting a car ride.
* * *
On Monday, the day after the car ride that did not happen, I got up when my alarm went off, walked through the silent house to the kitchen, ate a piece of bread and drank a glass of chalky powdered milk for breakfast. Then I brushed my teeth, got dressed in the clothes I had outgrown, and walked two blocks to my bus stop.
I was the only one in my family of five children old enough that the law required me to go to school. Although my twin sisters were five, kindergarten was not mandatory at that time.
Like most mornings, I was teased by the bullies at the bus stop, teased because I was a seventh grader still wearing my dresses from when I was in the sixth grade. My old dresses were made for a much shorter girl with no breasts, and I had shot up and filled out over the summer. That terrible summer of 1965, when my parents’ marriage had ended with my dad being arrested for coming so close to killing my mother, I had thought she was dead. Soon after his arrest, my diabetic father was taken to a hospital and then admitted to the mental ward, where he stayed for several months.
Meanwhile, with our only bread-winner gone and no money coming in, we soon ran out of food. I didn’t know there was such a thing as welfare in those days, so I believed we were all going to starve to death, like the poor skeletal children on Save the Children ads.
While we were starving, our only car was taken, and then the house my parents had custom built when I was six went into foreclosure. At that point my mother finally swallowed her pride and called her parents for help, a resource I hadn’t even considered. After flying from Washington State to Missouri, my maternal grandmother got us signed up on welfare and food commodities, then moved us into a little house in the city where she and my granddad would eventually retire.
So there I was in the fall and winter of 1965, the new seventh grader welfare kid living in a neighborhood where everybody else had enough money, wearing worn-out, much-too-tight and much-too-short clothes, walking around with a haunted thousand yard stare on my face.
It also did not help that we had moved to this new school district, several weeks after the academic year had started.
That’s right. I was a prime target for bullies.
I remember how cold I was in the winter mornings, waiting at the bus stop, trying not to further embarrass myself by shivering, as I pretended not to see or hear the taunting neighborhood boys. The bus was warm inside, though, and so was the school. But hot, cold, or just right, everywhere I went during that harsh time in my life, whether in my new neighborhood, on the school bus, or in my new school, I found basically two kinds of kids. The better kids ignored me. And the meaner kids taunted, teased and bullied me without mercy.
Somehow, I floated through the days, feeling only half awake most of the time. I was constantly exhausted, and yet I rarely slept at night. I had never had any trouble sleeping before. But ever since the night when my dad almost murdered my mother, I couldn’t sleep more than a few minutes at a time, usually not until after the sun came up.
Feeling so tired all the time made everything seem like a dream. In a way, feeling like I was dreaming was a lot more tolerable than facing the painful reality of everything that had happened in my family since the end of July, on the last night of the county fair.
So I floated, dreamlike, through yet another mind-numbing school day, then floated back onto the bus, floated off the bus approximately forty minutes later, and floated home in the ugly outgrown shoes that rubbed bleeding blisters on my toes, gliding past the taunting bullies without batting an eye.
The day had warmed up so I took off my coat, ignoring the jeers of the adolescent boys who dogged my steps on my two block walk. The sun was bright and felt good on my exposed arms, even if the mean boys were now yelling “Take it ALL off, Ugly Girl! See if you can make us throw up!”
I finally got to the end of my cul-de-sac and left the mean boys behind. I almost skipped up the steps to the small porch, I was so relieved to get away from the neighborhood kids.
* * *
When I open the front door, which leads straight into the living room, I am surprised to see that my mother is up. She has mostly stayed in bed, or napped on the sofa, ever since the night Dad tried to kill her. But now she is sitting at the beige Formica table in the dining nook, dressed, with a cigarette in one hand and a can of beer in the other.
I tell my mom hello and immediately head toward the boys’ bedroom, where my sisters and brothers are trapped, crying to be let out, begging to go to the bathroom, to get a drink of water, to have something to eat.
My mother has been locking the four of them in that one little room all day, nearly every day while I am at school. She says she has to do it because she can’t stand to have them running all over the house, getting into things, and getting on her nerves. So almost every day when I come home, the moment I open the door and step inside the house, I am hit by a wall of sound – nonstop screaming crying pleading. And, almost every day, before I do anything else, I go straight to the bedroom jail cell and open the door.
A couple of months earlier, shortly after we had moved into the new house, my mother figured out a way to “lock” the back bedroom by unscrewing the doorknob and taking it completely out of the door. It had taken me awhile to figure out how to open it, when I couldn’t find the missing doorknob. Then I learned how to “unlock”the door using the shaft of a dull table knife.
But on this day, as soon as I turned toward the hallway that led to the bedrooms, my mother said, “Leave them for now, Lynda, and come sit down at the table. I need to talk to you.”
Obediently, I turn around and walk back to the dining nook, sitting down across from my mom. I notice that she has two cans of beer on the table. Only one has been opened.
“Here, Lynda, do you want a beer?” my mother asks. “I find it does wonders for relaxing me.”
I shake my head. “No, thank you.” I’ve tasted beer and can’t understand why anyone would drink something so horrible.
“OK, how about a cigarette?” Before I can answer, she shakes one out of the pack and offers it to me.
“No, thanks,” I say, as politely as I can. I’ve tried cigarettes, too, and the taste was even worse than beer. But I’m feeling very nervous about telling my mother “no.” She does not like that word.
“Suit yourself. That leaves more for me.” She chugs the rest of the open beer, then takes a long drag on her cigarette. As she blows a thick stream of smoke through her nose and out of her mouth directly into my face, it takes all my willpower not to flinch or try to wave the noxious cloud away.
“There’s something I have to tell you, Lynda. I feel like if I don’t tell somebody about this, I will go completely crazy. I’ve tried to figure out who I can tell, but there isn’t anyone I feel safe talking to about this, other than you. But you have to promise me that you will never tell a single soul what I’m about to say. If you tell anyone – especially if you tell an adult, or if you tell a friend, and they tell an adult – I will be arrested and go to prison for the rest of my life. With me in prison, the five of you kids would go to five separate foster homes and you will never see each other again. I know you wouldn’t want that! So you have to promise that you won’t say a word about this to anyone. Do you understand? Because I can guarantee you that no foster home would be willing to take all five of you kids in. So if you don’t want me to go to jail for life, and if you don’t want to lose your sisters and brothers and never see any of your family again, you have to keep your mouth shut about this. DO YOU UNDERSTAND?”
“Yes, Mom, I understand.”
“Do you promise? Promise me before God Almighty that you will never tell anyone what I’m about to tell you.”
“I promise, Mom. I promise never to tell anyone.”
She stares deep into my eyes, like she’s trying to see into my soul.
“OK.” Mother lights another cigarette off the one she has smoked down to the filter, stubs the butt in the ashtray, drains the last of the beer from the opened can, then opens the beer she had just offered to me. “OK, then. I’m going to trust you. I don’t have anyone else to tell this to, anyway.”
Then my mother tells me, between sips of beer, with clouds of smoke curling around her head, about why the pilot light on the gas furnace has been going out, night after night after night, over the past couple of weeks… and why, each time I got out of my sleepless bed to turn up the thermostat because the house was getting so cold, I found the thermostat already turned up as high as it can go, all the way past ninety degrees.
Each time that has happened, I walked through the dark house to the utility room, opened the door, and looked inside the windowless room to see nothing but darkness – no flickering flame from the bottom of the furnace where the burning gas pilot light should be. And each time that happened – how many times was it? Four times? Six times? – I went to my mother’s bedroom, knocked, opened the door, gently woke her up, and told her the house was too cold and the furnace wasn’t working because the pilot light had gone out.
Every time that happened, Mother got up without saying a word and lit the pilot, which was something I was afraid to do on my own. On the way back to bed I would see her stop in the hallway and turn the thermostat down to its usual setting, while the cold house filled with blessed heat.
I had assumed that the pilot light kept going out because the furnace was faulty. But I wondered, every time, how it was that the thermostat was turned up as high as it would go. Were one of my little sisters or brothers getting out of bed and turning up the thermostat because they were cold? It was the only explanation that made any sense. But it really didn’t make sense, because I doubted if any of them could reach the thermostat, as short as they all were. I also doubted if any of my sisters or brothers even knew how to turn up the heat setting, or which way to turn it.
The biggest puzzle to me, though, was how any of my siblings could get out of bed and go into the hall and turn up the thermostat, without me seeing and hearing them do that. I had insomnia very bad during that time. I was awake, tossing and turning, listening to the soft snores of my twin sisters whose double bed was jammed up against my twin size bed. My bed faced the open bedroom door, which was directly across the hall from my brothers’ bedroom. Their door was also kept open at night and I could dimly see into their room, thanks to the ambient city light. But I never heard or seen anything to indicate that my four-year-old disabled brother was getting out of bed and turning the thermostat all the way up, and the baby couldn’t even get out of his crib yet without help.
Although I had wondered about these things, I didn’t worry too much about it. Somehow, I assumed, one of my little sisters or brothers HAD to be turning up the thermostat when the pilot light went out and the heat stopped coming on and the house got cold. It was the only thing that made any sense.
But now my mother was telling me that she had been doing it. She had waited, all those nights, until after the five of us kids were in bed. Then she had snuffed out the pilot light on the gas furnace and on her way to bed she had turned the thermostat all the way up.
“I wanted to fill the house with gas so we could all die peacefully in our sleep,” my mother was saying. “It’s really the best way to die. You wouldn’t even know it was happening. I figure that I have the right to kill myself, because it’s my own life. I also have the right to kill you kids, too, because I brought all five of you into the world. I really think I would be doing you all a favor by taking you out of this terrible world that I’ve brought you into, because life is so hard.”
She took another long swig of beer and another deep drag on her cigarette.
“The first night I did it, well, I thought that just putting out the pilot light and turning the thermostat as high as it would go was all it would take. But you woke up and you woke me up when the house got cold, and I didn’t smell any gas. So I realized that this is a newer type of furnace with some kind of a safety shut off valve that makes the gas turn off when the pilot light is out.”
“Then, the next night I tried it, I got a wrench and tried to break it where I thought the shut off valve was. Every time I tried it, I kept trying to find a way to override the shut off. I thought for sure, that last time, that I had it figured out. I thought for sure we weren’t going to wake up the next morning.”
“So now I’ve given up on the gas idea, and I’ve been trying to find another way to kill us. Yesterday, when I told you to get everybody dressed and out to the car, I was planning to drive us off a cliff somewhere. But I changed my mind because I couldn’t think of any place close by that has a high enough cliff where it would be easy to drive the car over. It needs to be some place where I can be sure that we will all be killed….”
What happens to a twelve-year-old child when her mother tells her that she has been trying to kill her and everyone in her family for the past couple of weeks — and she is still trying to figure out a way to kill them all?
This is what happened to me: my ears started ringing very loudly. So loud, it almost drowned out the sound of my mother’s soft voice. While her voice was fading, her face began to waver in my vision, almost floating, like the cigarette smoke that filled the air between us.
My mother stopped talking all of a sudden. I could see her looking at me again, staring into my eyes very intently, the way she did when she was trying to figure out what I was thinking or if I was telling the truth about something.
She had that look on her face that told me she was waiting for me to respond to what she had just said. A warning look that let me know that whatever came out of my mouth, it had better be good. My mother often seemed to have a script in mind when she talked to me. The problem was that I never knew what my lines were supposed to be. I only knew that whatever I said, it had better be the right thing, or my mother might fly into a rage.
My voice didn’t feel or sound like mine, when I said the only thing I could think of to say. I said,
“But, Mom, you didn’t do it! You did not kill us! We are still alive, so that means you haven’t really done anything wrong! Remember what it says in the Bible about Jesus being tempted in all ways to sin, except He did not sin? That means it isn’t a sin just to be tempted to do something bad. It is only a sin if you really do it!”
I was wrong, of course. My mother hadn’t just been tempted to kill herself and the five of us kids. She had actually, actively TRIED to kill us all, on several occasions.
In hindsight, I believe that what I was doing then was the typical “denial” thing that people tend to do when they experience something that is too painful to bear. When we get the terrible news that someone we love very much has suddenly died, what is the first word most of us say? NO! We want it to Not Be True.
I was trying to make the unthinkable thing that my mother had just told me, Not Be True. But judging by her reaction, what I told her was not what she wanted to hear. It wasn’t in her secret script.
My mother looked at me in that moment with intense, absolute, PURE HATRED in her eyes.
And my mother has treated me like she hates me ever since, even while she tells anyone who will listen how much she loves me and worries about me and PRAYS for me.
But actions speak much louder than words, and my mother’s actions toward me over the past fifty years – her scapegoating, her gas-lighting, and most of all, her projecting, character-assassinating LIES – have proven to me, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that my mother has never stopped hating me.
Last year, my therapist (who recently moved away), told me why, in his opinion, my mother hated my response to her homicidal confession. This is what my therapist said:
“Your answer to your mother was really very good, especially considering that you were only twelve and you were severely traumatized. But you are right, what you said to your mother was not what she wanted to hear.”
“What could she have possibly wanted me to say?” I asked him in frustration.
He replied: “I believe your mother expected you to agree with her. I believe she wanted you to agree that she had the right to kill you and your sisters and brothers. And I believe she wanted you to go along with her plan. She wanted to make a suicide pact with you.”
Oh… my God. Is my mother really that crazy?
* * *
After that day, fifty years ago, when my mother made me her private confessor, I immediately went into a hyper-vigilant mode. Now I was awake on purpose every night, listening for the heat to come on and sniffing the air for the smell of gas.
Every time we went anywhere in the car after that, I sat in the front passenger seat beside my mother, constantly scanning the area for bridges or cliffs or anything she might try to ram the car into, rehearsing over and over again in my mind how I would grab the wheel and steer us to safety if she started to run the car off the road or into oncoming traffic.
The worst time in those days was when I had to be in school, away from my sisters and brothers. Then, I had terrible fearful thoughts and images playing over and over through my head, fearful imaginings about what my mother might be doing at home, with my preschool siblings “getting on her nerves.” My fearful thoughts always grew worse as it got closer to time to go home. I could not concentrate on school, which is why my formerly high grades plummeted. I couldn’t even focus on what the mean bullies were saying anymore.
On the bus ride home my fears would become almost unbearable. Then, walking those two long city blocks from the bus stop, I felt like I was walking to the gallows.
When I reached the house, I could feel my heart pounding in my chest as I held my breath and put my ear against the door to listen. I couldn’t just open the door and walk inside my home the way I used to do, because I was terrified of what I might find inside. So I would stand outside the house, listening for a sound, any sound, that told me my family was still alive. Just hearing the television wasn’t enough, because my mother might have left that on while she killed them all.
When you have four children under the age of six cooped up together all day with a crazy mother inside a cracker box of a house, there usually isn’t a lot of time that goes by without someone crying, screaming, or yelling. OH the blessed RELIEF that always flooded my soul, every time I heard a sound that told me my family was still alive!
Is it any wonder that after about a year of living like this, never getting enough sleep, and never able to relax my guard, I finally had a nervous breakdown at the age of fourteen?
Now here I am, five decades later, still living with the stigma of “mental illness.”
PS: I am sorry to tell this story now, right before Christmas. But this is the time of year when it happened. This is the time of year when, deep down inside, I am not a grown woman anymore. I am a terrified and confused twelve-year-old girl.
* * *
So, yeah, comments are closed. I don’t need any “trolls” or “friends of the family,” none of whom were anywhere around when this nightmare happened, and many of whom weren’t even born then, coming here and telling me that none of this could have possibly happened because my poor old elderly mother is so “nice.”
I actually feel a lot lighter inside after writing this. I have never written it all out before. I hope I haven’t ruined anyone’s day by posting this. Life isn’t fair and lots of people in the world have had much worse happen than this. And anyway, thank the Lord, my life is really good today, and has been since I finally wised up and went No Contact with my mother.
All things considered, life has much more good in it than bad, especially now that I am a Christian. I am grateful to be alive today.
So, yeah. Merry Christmas.