Kootenay Literary Competition

More Than Just My Mother’s Daughter

By Cindy McCallum Miller

Adult Personal Non-Fiction – Second Place

 

 

It’s New Year’s Eve and I begin my annual ritual.  I conceal my daddy’s shotgun between the mattress and box spring of my bed, and gather my tiny brother and young sister to curl up with me on the lumpy hiding place.  I tell them stories about Snoopy and talking chipmunks and flying elephants until they fall asleep.  I squeeze out of the middle of my huddled siblings, tuck the blanket up to their chins, sit on the bean bag chair in the corner, and wait.  Wait in the dark until he comes home.  Wait for the New Year to begin.

I know tonight will be a replay of the last 2 drunken end-of -year celebrations.   I wait for the inevitable return of my denigrated mother and my self- loathing father, when the bars close and their friends can’t sustain the party.  They will come home and fight.  It’s always a one-sided fight, with my father hurling insults and accusations at my mother, and her frightened denials.

“I saw you dancing with Gerry,” he’ll snarl, as they walk into the house.

“It was just a dance for god’s sake,” she will whimper.  “Not like you drooling after that 17-year old bimbo.”

“Shut up, slut,” he’ll bark back at her.

It has always been the same.  I want it to end.

He yelps his insults like a cornered coyote, looking for his escape.  He knows my mother did nothing wrong, but his lascivious behaviour always makes him feel guilty.  It is easier to project his guilt and anger on her instead.  He likes to see the fear in her eyes.  In our eyes.

The fight will wake up my little sister.  She’s the one in the family who continues to hope he will change and be the daddy she wants to have.  My brother is too young to know anything different.  He is already developing an ulcer and has just started school this year.  I know there is little hope to change my father’s violent behaviour unless he stops drinking, and that doesn’t seem to be an option.

“Life wouldn’t be worth living unless I could have my whiskey,” he flatly told us when Mom and I confronted him with a choice of his family or his booze. Whiskey was his consolation prize in life and he would not reject his best companion.

He made his choice.  Soon I will have to make mine.

At 3 am I hear them pull up to the front of the house. Dad climbs out of the driver’s seat and weaves unsteadily as he walks towards the door. Mom fumbles in her purse to find the keys so she can get in quickly and check on us. I see all this from my bedroom window and take a deep breath.  I’m ready.

He still has his coat on when he walks into the kitchen and pours a rye and coke. Mom comes upstairs and sees my sister and brother curled up in my bed. I feign sleep in the chair but we both know I am awake. She won’t ask for my help, but knows I won’t abandon her if he gets ugly. She leaves the door to my room slightly ajar as she walks into hers.

Downstairs I hear a commotion in the hallway. The loud thump of boxes falling from the shelf in the hallway is unmistakeable. He is on the hunt. I step into the hall, straining to hear what he is muttering.

“Where the hell did I put it?” he grumbles, flinging coats on the floor as he reaches into the back of the hall closet.  “I know it’s here somewhere ” he growls as he searches.  My heart pounds loudly as I listen to the tumult underneath me, and I step back into the shadows of my room.

I hear him stumble up the stairs and every muscle in my body involuntarily tenses. He has one hand firmly clasping his nightcap and the other is in his pocket, jingling something metallic. I know it is neither coins nor keys making the sound.

“Where the hell is my rifle?” he shouts at Mom. He opens the closet door, grabs a handful of her hanging dresses and tosses them to the ground. He shoves Mom’s storage boxes, her handbags and boots to the side, moving anything that might conceal his precious gun.

“Are you crazy?” Mom shouts.  “You’re wrecking my clothes.  Stop messing up the closet” she begs.

“Who the hell took my rifle? You better not have touched it, bitch,” he roars.

“I don’t know where it is,” Mom’s quivering voice responds.  “I don’t know where you keep it.”

“I don’t need a rifle to take care of you if I want to,” he threatens loudly as he closes the bedroom door.

My brother and sister are awake now.  Terror floods their faces and they pull the covers up to their eyes. We can hear the sound of Mom crying in her room. I put my index finger up to my lips to gesture silence as I sit on the side of the bed.

“It’s ok little ones,” I whisper reassuringly.  “Just stay very quiet and stay in bed until I come back.” I blow them a kiss and walk out of the room, softly closing the door behind me. I walk the few steps from my room to their bedroom door and put my ear against it. I hear Mom sobbing on the other side as Dad continues to berate her.

“Is everything ok Mom?” I call through their bedroom door.  Her sobbing subsides and I’m fearful of the silence.

“Go to sleep,” Dad grumbles.

“Mom, is everything OK?” I repeat the question, fortifying my tone and ignoring my father.

“I told you to mind your own business and go to bed,” he rages through the thin walls.  “Your mother is sleeping.”

“I’m going to call the police unless you open this door right now, and let me see Mom,” I respond, steadfast and trembling, trying to decide whether or not to burst into their room or run for help.

The door opens and my father steps out to confront me.  I am standing outside their door, on the landing at the top of the stairs.  I can see my mother hunched over the side of the bed, wiping her eyes.  He staggers towards me, red faced, glazed eyes, his fist clenched.

“Your mother is fine.  What the hell is your problem?”

“I don’t like when you get drunk and then start fighting with Mom,” I say unflinchingly.  Stale cigarette smoke and old whiskey fumes, emanate from his clothes and his breath.  My stomach churns and the stench makes an indelible mark on my hippocampus.

“Do you know where my gun is?”  He points a finger accusingly.

“I gave it away.  You aren’t going to threaten this family anymore with your drunken stupidity.  I’m sick of this crap.”  I raise my voice to cover my anxiety in the hope it will make me sound too tough to take on.

“You did what? I ought to beat you black and blue,” he menaces, fist still clenched and rising.

“That won’t get you your damn gun.” I turn my back on him, ready to head down the stairs to call the police.

“Don’t turn your back on me you little snot,” he exclaims in anger, swinging his fist at my back.  It lands at the base of my neck with the full force of his anger. Shocked by the blow, I lose my balance and tumble headlong down the stairs, coming to an arm wrenching stop as I grasp the railing.

My mother runs out of their room, screeching at her husband with all the rage of a Grizzly sow defending her cub. Her change of demeanor startles him, and even in his drunken stupor, he realizes he has gone too far. He slinks back into his bedroom, not even bothering to see if I am injured, and my mother rushes down the stairs to comfort me.

Although no bones are broken, the last remaining strand of loyalty to my father is irreparably severed.  Hatred and vengeance surge through my brain, wiping out all semblance of reason.  I instinctively know that we have to be free of him before he does serious damage; before he breaks someone’s neck with another toss down the stairs; before he finds the gun I hid, and uses it on us; before he strangles my mother in her sleep.

I feel detached from my body as I rise from the floor and walk down the hall. I am consumed with a single purpose. I walk into the kitchen and mechanically extract the carving knife from its sheath.  My mother’s face is bathed in horror as she sees me approach the stairway, my intentions unmistakeable. She steps in front of me, blocking my path. I look vacantly at her tear stained face, black mascara and blue eyeshadow smudged to her cheekbones, and feel a stirring of repressed emotions struggling to break through.

“You can’t do this honey,” she whispers.  “Don’t let him drive you down to his level.”

“I can’t live like this anymore, always terrified of what he will do to you, to the kids, to me.” I  look into her eyes. “The kids need you, so it is up to me to end this,” I say woodenly.

“You are only 16 years old.  You have your whole life ahead of you.  You will never forgive yourself if you act in violence, no matter what your justification may be.  I don’t want you to sacrifice yourself for me.  We will find another way.” Her urgently persuasive voice registers in my subconscious.

“Give me the knife, and go get your sister and brother,” she says with a calm she does not really possess. I look at her, as my conscience wrestles with my fury, and reluctantly, submit to her command.

The only sound coming from my parents’ room is an odd gurgling noise. It signals my father’s lapse into alcohol induced unconsciousness. I tip toe past his open door to my room. My siblings scramble out of bed and leap into my arms as I walk in the door, their strained faces showing relief at my arrival.

“Quickly now, we are going to go for a drive so let’s get dressed nice and warm,” I whisper to them.  I pull my brother’s clothes over his pajamas, while my sister dons a Christmas sweater and pants and tucks her nightgown inside.  We inch down the stairway, carefully avoiding the few squeaky steps, on the flight to freedom.

My mother hands us our coats and we bundle up, ready to slip into the dawn of the New Year.  The cold air hits me like a slap across my face as we walk to the car, but this is a slap I can accept.  I climb into the passenger seat, after helping secure my siblings in the back.  My mother’s hands shake as she inserts the key into the ignition, and the trembling extends through her body as the adrenaline wears off and she faces the unknown.

“It’s ok Mom.  Let’s get out of here.”

We drive around town and eventually turn down West Street towards the lake.  The kids are asleep in the back seat of the car.  Mom pulls the car into the viewing area that overlooks the beach, and puts it into park, letting the motor run so we can keep the heater on.  She lights up a menthol cigarette, takes a deep drag, and slowly exhales.  The grey smoke curls from her pursed lips to the windshield, where it forms a thin depressing film.

“What are we going to do?” she asks, staring straight ahead.

“We could go to Toronto.  He won’t find us there,”  I suggest hopefully.

She inhales another drag and shoves the remainder into the ashtray.   “I don’t have any money to get us there, and besides, I don’t know if I can support us. We’ll wait until morning when he’s sober and have it out with him,” she sighs.

“You know he’s not going to change,” I protest.  “We’ve been through this before.  He’s good for a while but then falls back into the same routine.”

“He’s a good man inside you know.  We just have to try harder to make it work.  My mother always said that if you make your bed, you have to lie in it.  That means I have to fix this.”

“If he was such a good man, he wouldn’t have thrown me down the stairs tonight, no matter how drunk he was,” I say with stony resolve.  She may be willing to forgive him and believe she is obliged to enable his manic behaviour, but I no longer can.

“His dad was an alcoholic, a mean one.  Your grandma left all her kids behind when she split from her husband while your dad was a young boy.   He got bounced around between Aunts and cousins most of his life, so he had no stability while he was growing up.  He left New Brunswick to go look for his mom in Toronto when he was around 18.   By then, he had already started drinking.”

“But he doesn’t have to take it out on you.”

“He never learned anything but hate, but in his own way, he really does love us.  I have had to deal with men’s anger my whole life, and I think the best way to do that is to let them get it out of their system and hope for the best,” she says.  “It could be worse you know.”

“I can’t see how” I say incredulously.

“I hope you never do.”

The first appearance of the sun on the horizon was our cue to either go home or find somewhere to have breakfast.

“I don’t know what will be open on New Year’s day.” I wasn’t ready to return to that house, back into that nightmare.

“That little coffee shop on The Square is usually open, even on holidays,” Mom responds as the kids start to stir in the back seat of the Pontiac.

Mom puts the car in gear and heads east from the lakeside lot, towards the downtown area known as The Square.  It is really a hexagon, with key streets emanating from it like spokes of a wagon wheel.  The old town hall stood imperiously in the centre, surrounded by oak and maple trees.  I loved sitting on the park bench in the summer, under the shade of those ancients, watching my fellow townies and wondering if their lives were as complicated as mine.  The trees loom grey and naked this morning as we approach the restaurant, uncannily mirroring my mood.

The diner door sports a festive Happy New Year’s sign, indicating it is closed today.

“I don’t think we have any other option but to go home,” she says to the three of us.  “It’ll  ok.”

I look at her despondently.  I am afraid to return home but I have no answers for her, no suggestions on what to do next.  I am afraid to think of what the future will hold.  Will we survive another year and if we do, will we end up sucked into this vortex of perpetual anger and helplessness?  My New Year’s resolution this morning, is somehow, someway, I will break this cycle, with or without my mother’s help.  With that to hold onto, we return to our car, and drive down the street, toward the rising sun.

On this New Year’s Day, my mother unwittingly takes her first fledgling step away from the cycle of abuse by leaving even for these few hours. They’re the first of many she will have to take before she can extricate herself from it.  As a young woman, the sexual assault she experienced in her own home left her broken, leaving her with a self-diagnosis of perpetual inadequacy.  Her worthlessness found her wherever she hid and ultimately, she surrendered, deciding to make the best of whatever life threw at her. My mother followed in the footsteps of her mother, who held her own secrets and insecurities.

I am my mother’s daughter, but I reject the matrilineal legacy lying in wait for me.  I will choose my own path and redefine the basis of my origin.  Origins are not always defined by where you come from.   Origins are ultimately the foundation on which you become.

A few years later, my mother finally separated from my father.  I was 19 and wanted to shake off the destructive behaviour I was starting to acquire.   I took the train west, hoping the mountains would separate me from my past and let me start fresh.   However, I couldn’t focus on my own journey, knowing Mom’s ex-husband continued to harass her, stalking her and threatening to kidnap my sister and brother.

“Mom, how would you like to move to Banff?” I asked during a weekly phone call.

“Are you crazy?  I can’t afford that,” she said incredulously.

“I found you a job.  You and the kids can live with us, until you get on your feet. I’ll lend you the money to ship your stuff out, if you can pay for the train fare. I want you to get as far away from him as you can, so you’ll be safe.”

“It’s a lot to think about, but it could work,” she said optimistically.

The non-violent act of moving them to Alberta, far from his clutches, and under my protective eye, cut him deeper than any knife could, allowing us to finally break free, and become.