Letting Go (My Life So Far)
“I’m proud of you,” she says, cocking her blonde head to the side, “Someday soon, I’d like to hear your whole story.” I think of what a funny word proud is. It’s a big, round word that fills up the whole mouth. Makes it seem important. Mama use to be proud of me for my good grades. Now, she just expects them. I’m sure my sister use to be proud to call me her big sister, back when I still protected her. Back when I would lie in bed, counting the stars between the blinds, watching her sleep. Back then, I was proud of myself, too. Proud that I could hold it all in without bursting. Proud that I could hold onto silence like it was something precious. But, for someone to be proud of me, just for speaking the truth . . . well, that’s a strange feeling. I look at the doctor, as her hair falls to her shoulders, straight and shiny. She could not possibly know what it feels like. But maybe, maybe she’s right. It would feel good to tell my story.
Mama never said we were poor, but I could see it in her eyes. I could see it in the way she carried herself, like a walking sigh. Her eyes reflected my own, blue-green, filled with hunger. We were hungry for food and hungry for something more than our off-white trailer that sat nestled dead-center in a plot of land her father owned. Our meals came from cans and boxes; there was nothing wrong with eating soup for every meal.
My mother worked the late shift at Plumrose Meatpacking Company, scrounging together the dollars she made just so we could get by. I was left with Nanny, my great-grandmother, whose tiny yellow cottage always smelled like laundry detergent and boiling vegetables.
“You hungry, child?” Nanny would ask, and I would always say yes. Mama would have called me a fool to turn down a free meal. Then, Nanny would lug the jug of Sunny D. from the humming fridge and pour me a glass, alongside a bologna and ketchup sandwich. Then, Papaw, my toothless grandfather, would give me a wink and we would head out to the garden. Papaw carried a walking stick to fend of snakes and poke through the overgrown leaves of the garden. The plants sat in neat rows that Papaw himself would sculpt with the tiller. He would crank up the heavy machine, sweat beading on his neck, and smile the smile he only reserved for me and his vegetables. They were his pride. I guess I was, too. We poked at almost-ripe tomatoes, hoping that they would turn red just because we wanted them to. I still like to believe that our wishing paid off.
When Mama would stop by after work, the scent of marble steak still dripping from her rough hands, she’d say, “Tiffy Jay, ready to leave?”
I’d shake my head and cling to my grandfather’s leg, my face still burning from our garden walks. My grandparent’s home was my safe haven. It was the only constant in my life, the place I knew I could always return to.
On windy days, freshly laundered shirts would drag the ground, then blow off the clothesline and tumble across the yard, landing in bushes and dirt patches. The old orange truck forever sat nestled in grass that clawed at the tires and threatened to consume the vehicle. The truck was resilient, however, and always managed to stand proudly above the green waves. These things were absolute. They were indestructible and endless. To my young eyes and imagination, the world created at my grandparent’s house was eternal. I thought my childhood was also.
I was fine with it being just Mama and me. We would sit on the couch, in front of our fuzzy-pictured television, squinting at the shapes that we knew had to be people. Then, when it was time for bed, Mama would carry me to the back bedroom, and I would sleep snuggled against her solid form, the sound of the crickets and frogs bouncing off the tin roof.
It never bothered me that I didn’t have a father. Mama never mentioned him and when I tried to picture his face, it came out blurry like our television people, and just as fictional. Mama was all I needed and I thought I was good enough for her, too.
Then Mama met a man. They were introduced through mutual friends and hit it off immediately. A man with ice-blue eyes and long hair. He was from California, a place Mama had never seen with her own eyes. A man who swept her up in the world of candlelight dinner and days at the park.
He would come over and cook us dinner, more food than I had ever seen in my lifetime. Steak, the kind Mama worked with all night but never tasted herself, vegetables that had real flavors, and sometimes even dessert. We were an almost-family. It was different, but I was still happy.
Once, we visited friends of Mama’s. The woman bent down close to me, her eyes inches from my own. “Who’s that man?” she asked me, through smiling teeth, pointing at the man who had entwined himself into our lives.
“He’s my Daddy” I whispered, staring at my shoes. Some days I think I would like nothing more than to go back to that day, years ago, and keep the little-girl-who-was-me from choosing that answer. From saying those three words that helped my mother make the decision to marry that man. The man who would change the way I saw the world. The man who pulled me from a childhood surrounded by family and left me so much older than I should have been.
When Mama got pregnant with my sister, Heather, the couple decided it was time for marriage. The ceremony took place the summer after my fourth birthday, on the steps of our local courthouse. People say my Mama never looked prettier, in her floral dress that she still pulls from the bottom of the closet on special occasions.
We became a family. It was not hard to fall into the pace of having a man in the house. We moved from the small trailer to the pink house that Mama had grown up in. Meals lasted longer because there was more to eat. Our laughter grew because there were new jokes in the house. And soon, I became a sister. There was a calmness in the house that I had never experienced before. The four of us took trips to the park, Mama pushing Heather in the stroller while my new Daddy would take my hand and lead me through the jungle gym or hold me upside down on the monkey bars until I squealed with laughter. I knew that for once, we were safe, somehow.
I am not sure when things changed. There was a shift. A swift fall from our secure stillness to something ugly and scary. I was young enough to trust people but old enough to know when things were not exactly as they were supposed to be. My sister took up most of my mother’s time. I’d tug on Mama’s sleeve, a Barbie doll in my hand and she’d shoo me away with a “Not now, Tiff, I’m feeding your sister.” I was not a jealous child. Somehow, I understood that my sister needed Mama more than I did and I was willing to wait. Daddy should have been willing to wait, too. Instead, he turned to me.
At the time, I’m not sure if I knew what was really going on. Those memories lurk like dark pads of ink in the back of my mind, sticking to and staining my childhood. Years that should have been happy turned into ragged blank spots in my mind, the pain blotting them like silver.
The years soon became tight and compacted into just a few memories. A handful of nights that I should have been sleeping. I should have curled up with my favorite bear, hiding under the covers from the dark.
Instead, I was pulled from my bed, from the room with purple carpet, into the silence of being given what should have been Mama’s, not mine. Those nights of someone telling me I was beautiful and then just as quickly, taking that beauty away from me forever. And then, at the ends of those nights, always the same promise, in that sharp whisper that hurt more than screaming, “There’s a gun in that drawer, there. Tell anyone, and I’ll use it.”
Shame. Sometimes, too much for my five, six, seven, year old body to handle. I cried all of the time. Over small things like spilled water and splinters. Cried because I could not cry about what really hurt. Mama did not know what was wrong with me. Or if she did, she kept silence like I did as she took me to the doctor for infections they blamed on bubble baths and soda.
“She’s just going through a phase,” Daddy would say, his eyes flitting back and forth between me and Mama. But no, not Daddy anymore. He became nameless to me because the monster under the bed does not have a name.
Things changed when he turned to my sister. I had already entered school and found some solace in letters and numbers. In books that teachers read: The Boxcar Children, Nancy Drew, and even The Hardy Boys. I liked those books because they were constant. There was always a problem and that problem would be solved by the last page. I could take comfort in the hope that maybe, someday, someone would see that I had a problem, too, but I couldn’t fix it by myself.
The first time he hurt my sister, she told. I feigned sleep as my mother drove through the streets of Booneville, Mississippi, asking my sister the details of her accusation. And my sister answered each question without faltering. I could feel the cadmium glow of the street lights on my face; I felt naked, exposed, revealed. When Mama turned to me and asked, “Do you know anything about this?” I shook my head and answered, “No. Now let me go back to sleep.” But of course I couldn’t sleep. I had failed. I failed my sister and myself. I let my own shame smother what needed to be said.
We returned home the next day. And he was allowed to give his side of the story. Of course he would never do anything like that. Heather was such a good liar, even then, wasn’t she? And my mother chose to believe him. Because, after all, she couldn’t raise two girls alone, no matter what sort of man she was choosing to stay with. That close call didn’t stop him. If anything, it made him more careful.
Things did not get better, even after it stopped. When my sister and I grew too old, he turned to other poisons. He was an alcoholic, and a mean one at that. More alcohol meant a darker mood. Some days, I would sit in my last class at school, hoping that somehow, the clock would stop and I would not have to go home. Going home meant hearing words too old for my ears. It meant the possibility of another sleepless night. Or, sometimes, I was sure it meant I would not see another day.
When he was sober, he was teasing and playful, but I could never see him as the man he had once been. After a few beers, he was jeering and annoying. Then, once he was drunk, things got serious. Harsh words crashed over my head as soon as I walked in the door. It was not enough that I was a straight A student. I was quiet. I did not bother anyone. But I was not perfect, not whole, and I could never be again. And somehow, he made me believe it was my fault.
I could see how much he loved my sister. We could all see it. He bought her sweets and bears while he was away on long trips, and she would take them, store them away like jewels. Like somehow, they made up for it all. He did not love me, but that was okay. I did not want to be his favorite. I did not want to be his anything.
It is hard not to blame Mama a little bit. But, sometimes, she had it as bad as we did.
My sister and I would cower in our bedroom and listen to our mother scream, knowing that someday, he would hurt her bad enough to make her leave or kill her. Sometimes, he would come home and just scream and hit until he was satisfied that she had been punished enough.
Shouts bounced sharply off of our tiled ceilings and somehow found their way through my bedroom door. Conversations that my sister and I were never supposed to hear—my name always brought up as a divider, something that split the family into two uneven halves. The arguments could not be blocked out by the cartoon-sound of our portable television set that stood on the far dresser. Even at full-blast, some sounds could not be muffled. The shatter-crash-crack of an end table being overturned, dishes breaking, and the piercing sound of my mother using her words to protect me from the punishment I did not deserve. And finally, the cranking of a car, spinning of tires on loose gravel, and the silence that said everything.
“Sissy,” my sister would question, tapping me on the shoulder even as I feigned sleep, “is he coming back?”
I would always answer yes. Because I knew that would always be the answer she would want to hear, despite everything.
Even back then, I knew it was a sin to wish harm upon someone else. Our preacher’s words rattled around my brain on those nights as I hid under the covers, listening to my own shallow breathing, counting the minutes that the house had remained quiet, hoping deep down that something would happen to keep it that way. But then, the front door would slam open, my mother would listen to his I’m sorry’s and his I didn’t mean to’s, and I would come out from under the cover to once again guard my sister’s sleep.
The house would settle into an uneasy stillness, and the roof of my mouth filled with the taste of unrest. Because despite the silence that enveloped our flaking pink cottage, and the moonlight that squinted through the blinds and our grime-tinted windowpane, I could hear the pain, shame, anger, sadness in our heartbeats, my sister’s and my own.
The thin white scars have not always been there. And they were not the result of some terrible accident or tragedy. I put them there, years ago. With straight-razors and broken plastic cards. With safety pins, push pins, writing pens, fingernails, paperclips, and my favorite, keys. The shiny-new key to our shiny-new house meant to erase all the years of bitterness and secrets that still hide in the walls of the pink-and-white-and-flaking cottage that we lived in for so long.
Mama was convinced that all we needed was a change of scenery. A little less trees and hills and a little more city. She had lived in the pink house since childhood, even slept on the same bed that my sister and I came to share as we got older. I’m sure the house use to be quaint with its heart-carved shutters and tiled ceilings. There must have been some charm to it.
I still cannot see it, though. When I think about that house, I see the crumbling ruins of a ruined family that stays together no matter what. No matter what secrets and shames we buried in the walls, between the carpet fibers, and deep down inside ourselves.
I don’t know what kind of secrets Mama kept to herself. Maybe all those years she kept the secret that she didn’t really love him. I’d like to think that, anyway. But, if she didn’t really love him, she put us through all of that for nothing. At least if she loved him, she had some sort of excuse.
The secrets that my sister and I carried and still carry burn beneath the skin and crawl, writhing in our hearts and minds. I don’t know how much it bothers her. She laughs (maybe too loudly) and smiles (maybe a little too big), but I do hope that she has forgotten, at least a little. It would be more than I can say for myself.
I will never forget. I am reminded every time I think about that house, that hallway, that bedroom. The bedroom that use to be Mama’s and his. Where everything happened that I cannot forget. Then, it was my bedroom and I slept in that room every night, staring at the walls like I did when it happened.
I remember every time I’m in the shower, washing, rewashing, then for a third time because I can never get clean enough. I will never be clean again. The water is hot, I’m sure, but it bounces off of my skin in beads until it’s so cold I have to take a second to catch my breath.
I moved out, away from it all when I was sixteen. Going away to school was not something that I only wanted, it was something that I needed. It was somewhere I could be new, clean. Where the bramble criss-cross scars on my arms faded to white. Where I found someone who listened, cared, loved, understood the best he could, and made me become not-so-quiet about it all.
We stretched out on the grass, his bigger, warmer hand encasing my own. Then, he trailed his finger, down, across my arms, my scars.
“I wish I had been here earlier,” he whispered and I could hear has sadness and regret for things that he could not prevent.
My voice caught in my throat. I answered, “I know, me too.”
Then, there was silence.
We burned down the house in spring. The Dry Creek Volunteer Department saw it as a way to practice.
We watched the ashes fly upward, into the sky, taking away the house bit by bit, wrenching those memories from the ground, propelling them out, up, forward, to land somewhere far from there.
People broke away in twos and threes, the glory of the flames dimming in the dusk. And we, I and the person I love most in this world, stood silent as the only solid proof of my pain swirled and twisted into the dark.
I will never forget those nights when I was taken from myself and dunked into the chill and fury of someone needing to control me. No, I will not forget. But it will not rule me either.
I let the ash fall through my fingers and blanket the charred cinderblock at my feet. The concrete that once help hold up my bedroom.
The frame of the house fell like a dying soldier, making its last reach for the cool March sky. I stood with a handful of ash. For a moment, I let my eyes travel across the granite scene, remembering remembering, aching, breathing, living.
Then. . . I let go.