Home is a shelter from storms – all sorts of storms. ~William J. Bennett
But what if home is the storm?
I seem to recall being in Kindergarten when we began going home with our mother on weekends. I don’t remember much of that time other than the fact that we went home on weekends and, some time later, began going home in the evenings during the week as well.
We lived in an upstairs apartment with two bedrooms, a large living room, and a large kitchen. Given how little we had, it was just the right size for the three of us.
Since we were both so little, Steve and I took turns each week sleeping with Mom, or in our “own” bed, since there was only one bed for the two of us.
I don’t ever remember a time when my grandparents weren’t in our lives. They were just always there. Many times they would make the short trip from Arkport to Hornell and pick us up and take us to their house, or just stay and visit with us. My grandmother used to give my mother permanents while my grandfather watched television. Often, if one of us was sick, my grandmother would take us us home with her and care for us, so our mother wouldn’t have to miss work.
I had some kind of skin condition, near my navel, that required boiling some type of salve or ointment in water, and applying it to my skin, boiling hot. If my grandmother was there, she held me as my mother applied the hot treatment, while I shrieked and screamed in agonized protest.
Mom worked at Westinghouse in Bath. Making a pittance for wages, and raising two kids without any child support to help out, I imagine it was pretty tough to make ends meet. I remember walking everywhere we needed to go. We walked because there was no car. We walked to the furniture store where my mother made payments every week on her furniture. We walked to the grocery store and each of us carried a bag home. We walked to church. We walked to the Children’s Home in the early mornings, for before-school care, so that our mother could catch the shuttle car that made the 45 minute trip from Hornell to Bath every morning at 5:30 AM.
One night, my mother came home from work with a man who was carrying a very large box. He opened the box, and set up it’s contents — our very first television set, made by Westinghouse. Apparently our mother had gotten a good discount on it.
That television became a focal point in our lives. Mom would iron and watch television and, when Perry Mason came on, we were to sit on the couch with our hands folded and not move or make a sound. Have Gun Will Travel quickly became a favorite, along with Beanie and Cecil, The Wonderful World of Disney, and The Bugs Bunny Show.
The year I turned either 5 or 6, I desperately, desperately wanted a Thumbelina doll for Christmas. Thumbelina was a life-sized, life-like doll, with a wind-up dial on her back that made her move like a real baby. She had “soft” skin and an even softer body (made of cloth). And she was beautiful! Christmas morning, Steve and I woke up early, got Mom up, and hurried into the living room. I sure don’t remember what was under that Christmas tree of more than 50 years ago, but I do remember what wasn’t under that tree. Thumbelina.
However, not long after we’d opened our presents, our grandparents arrived. I vividly remember my grandfather fussing and grouching about something and, the more I listened, the more horrified I was to hear that he was talking bad about Santa! He went on and on about how Santa was clearly an idiot, and a lazy one at that because he clearly didn’t know that we didn’t live at my grandparents house, and was too lazy to take gifts to the proper homes. He handed me a festively wrapped package, and gave one to Steve. I don’t know, nor did I care what Steve got. I tore into mine and there lay the most beautiful baby doll anyone could ever possess. Thumbelina. And she was mine. I cradled my new baby in my arms, beaming with a grin so big, I didn’t think I’d ever stop smiling.
But then, my grandfather handed me something else. Reluctant to put my new baby down lest that magical spell be broken, I took his offering in one hand. It was a small suitcase. I set it on the floor and examined it, not understanding what it was. It was a square, pink suitcase with a pretty white plastic handle that shimmered like mother of pearl. On the case was a little lamb with white butterflies fluttering all around it. On the front edge, near the handle, were brass clasps. “Open it up,” my grandmother urged. I flipped open the clasps, opened the lid and looked inside. There were stacks and stacks of neatly folded homemade clothes for my new baby. Hand-knitted sweaters and dresses, hand-sewn dresses and shirts and pants. Hats and coats and mittens. Even new shoes! Santa Claus had come through in grand style! And, through the course of my life at home, Thumbelina would become my best friend. Other dolls would come and go, but Thumbelina stayed by my side, no truer a friend than anyone else could ever have.
I never knew for sure about the doll, but I knew my grandmother had painstakenly made all of those clothes. Every stitch represented her love for her granddaughter. God how I adored my Grandma!
I recall an evening with my mother and grandmother out in the kitchen, and my grandfather sitting in the chair watching television. We had a day bed for a couch, and Steve kept kicking and poking at me, and I kept whining for him to stop it. I mean really whining. The kind of whining that could send even the most patient of people off the deep end. Finally, sick of listening to it, my grandfather told Steve “Leave your sister alone or I’ll paddle your backside.” Puffed up like a peacock, Steve said “You don’t dare!” In one quick, fluid moment my grandfather was out of that chair, had flipped Steve over on to his belly, and popped his behind three times. I was horrified and saw my grandmother looking around the corner and exclaiming “Oh, Ray!” This became a family legend — the day Grandpa went wild and spanked Steve. Steve bore the stigma of being the only grandchild ever punished by either of our grandparents. Every new grandchild heard the story. And, of course, that did nothing to dispel the fear that we all had of our grandfather to start with.
The Catholic Church played a very large role in our lives. Anytime the family got together at my grandparents’ house, everything always started with a prayer, sometimes the entire rosary. And, every Sunday, rain or shine, snow, sleet or hail, we walked to church. Sometimes people gave us a ride, but mostly we walked.
We were to sit still in church, facing forward, never looking behind, no fidgeting. Any transgressions were met with a numerical signal from Mom — indicating how many whacks from the belt were waiting for us at home. Each transgression was worth one whack. And each Sunday, as the faithful lined up in the aisles for Communion, Mom stayed in her seat. What we were too young to know or understand was that she was no longer eligible for communion, due to her divorce. Even still, she remained faithful.
I mentioned transgressions in church, and how the price we paid was the belt.
The belt was administered swiftly, freely, and always without much consideration regarding the guilt of who was being spanked. It became my mother’s way of raising us, her solution to everything. We didn’t obey and behave because it was the right thing to do — we behaved because we feared that belt.
And we feared our mother. More than the belt, we feared our mother. The case of the broken necklace, the year I was 5, comes to mind as the first real “battle” with that belt.
I think it was a St. Christopher’s medal, or something like that. My memory of the item is extremely vague, but the incident is burned into my mind. The necklace had been missing, apparently for a while. How long, I’m unsure of, but I remember my mother asking a couple of times if we had seen it. Since we both used the bedroom from time to time, when the necklace was found, broken, on the windowsill in our room, it was impossible for Mom to truly determine how it got there.
So, she sat us down on the couch and told us that she was going to give us 5 minutes to think about it and, after that 5 minutes, if someone didn’t confess, we would both get 10 whacks with the belt. This was big-time, since our church behavior rarely netted us more than one or two whacks. I knew I didn’t do it, and I shot my brother a look that I hoped told him that he’d better not make me get 10 whacks with the belt. But, 5 minutes elapsed, and without any response to my mother’s demand to know who broke the necklace, we both endured our 10 lashes.
The belt was always swung in such a fashion that the general target was the rear end. Hands always got involved, as human instinct causes us to “hold” what hurts, or to put our hands between our bodies and whatever is hurting us in order to fend off the attack. Often, the backs of our legs, our backs and occasionally our heads felt the sting of the belt. After feeling the leather on our backsides, or some other part of the body, hopping around was a natural reflex. And screaming. And crying.
After those 10 whacks, we were sat down and given another 5 minutes. As Mom left the room, I mouthed to Steve “You did it!” and he just looked at me without any emotion, almost as if he was looking right through me into some other place.
Five minutes later, we felt the sting of 10 more lashes, and were sat down again to wait another short 5 minutes. I closed my eyes and fervently wished and wished and wished that Steve would own up to the misdeed. But, when those 5 minutes were up and Mom demanded that someone ‘fess up, Steve still remained silent. Ten more lashes with the belt rained down, and we sat again. But this time, Mom continued to rant and rage at us and suddenly looked at me. There was something about the way she looked at me, something I can’t describe, that struck fear in my heart.
She screamed at me that Steve wouldn’t let me take a beating for something that he did, and that she knew that I had done this terrible thing. I protested, denied any wrongdoing, but she wasn’t hearing it. Suddenly she opened the front door, and the blackness of the hallway outside tried to enter the room. “If you don’t confess now, I’ll send you out there!” my mother screamed, pointing toward the darkness. “I didn’t do it!” I cried, but she jerked me by the arm out into that pit of darkness, and slammed the door shut behind me.
In that inky blackness, there were all sorts of creepy-crawlies that my mind conjured up, and I might have even felt something brush against my skin. I screamed to be let back in as the darkness enveloped me. I screamed and screamed and screamed until my throat was raw and I finally realized that the only way to be rescued from the darkness was to admit to something I hadn’t done. “I did it! I did it!” I cried-screamed.
The door opened and I was jerked back inside by the arm, and beaten soundly for, as my mother said, letting my brother be punished for something I did.
This incident set the stage for the future, and taught my brother and I a valuable lesson.
I was awakened one night by the belt.
It was my week to sleep with Mom and, while flailing around in bed before sleep overtook me, I somehow ended up with my stuffed animal underneath me, below the waist, and it felt good. I wiggled and squirmed around a bit enjoying the sensation and must have fallen asleep with that stuffed animal nested comfortably under my hips. And my good, Catholic mother must have been horrified when she came to bed and saw me sleeping with that stuffed animal shoved in a place it had no business being.
She grabbed the belt and began swinging it, dragging me instantly from my comfortable slumber. Still shaking sleep off my brain, at first I didn’t know what was happening, other than the fact that something was hurting me. But I quickly realized I was being beaten with the belt, and I didn’t even know why! I had been asleep and couldn’t have done anything wrong. My mother was shouting as she beat me, and I heard words like “nasty,” “sinful,” and “disgusting,” but I had no idea what she was talking about. The blows kept falling and all I could do was make myself as small as possible, and bear my punishment for whatever wrong I had done. To protest or even ask why I was being beaten, I knew, would only make it worse.
I was sent out to the living room, to sleep on the couch, with no pillow, no blanket, and definitely no stuffed animal. I lay there in the dark, the sting of the belt still fresh on my skin, and cried softly until I fell asleep again.
The next morning, my mother angrily told me that I was to never, ever, put anything down in that “impure” place again, that I wasn’t even to touch myself there. I remembered the stuffed animal and how good that felt but heard my mother telling me that doing that was a sin, a terrible sin, and I would burn in Hell if I did it again.
That night, when I said my prayers before bed, my mother stood over me and demanded that I ask God to forgive me for what I had done. Silently, I asked God to make that belt disappear forever.
God must have already been asleep that night, or had something else to do.