A family recipe, a childhood memory, a Depression-era handout
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My father left when I was in the sixth grade. In the wake of his departure my mother closed up the house as though we, too, had moved away. She draped furniture with bedsheets and covered windows with blankets. Darkness and dust lay on every surface.
After we’d been living this way for about a year, a girl at school announced to me that my father had a new live-in girlfriend. That evening during dinner, under the bare bulb that hung over our kitchen table, I told my mom what the girl had said. I felt certain she’d deny it was true.
Her face darkened. Who said this? she asked. What do people know? Why did you speak to this girl? Her anger seemed directed toward me.
I didn’t do anything! I said.
My mother grabbed her purse and ran outside. I heard her little green truck start up and rumble out of the driveway.
I’d assumed the girl at school was lying. If my father had invited a woman to live with him, he would have introduced me to her first, to make sure I liked her.
I would not have liked her.
My mother often went tearing off in her truck. She would never say where she went. Maybe she drove around Orlando, crying. Fearful, high-strung, difficult behavior was the norm for her. If I accidentally left the door unlocked or tried to open a window for some fresh air — if I even answered the phone, which was forbidden — she could go for days without speaking to me. Mostly I tried to please her.
Some evenings she would appear in the kitchen wearing sneakers and an aqua kerchief on her head. Want to walk? she’d ask.
While I sat on the bench in the foyer to put on my sneakers — her old graying Keds with the holes at the toes — she would stand there doing arm circles and humming some tune from the 1930s. When she was like this, I felt buoyant: at last we were back on the verge of normal; things were finally going to get better.
We would step outside, and she would lock the door, twisting the knob to make sure it was secure. Then she’d check it again. She kept checking.
Mom, it’s completely locked. Come on.
We would walk down our driveway in the silky dusk of a Florida evening. Before we reached the mailbox on its silver pole, she would stop and turn to me: I’ll be right back!
She’d run back to check the door again.
At the age of twelve I was aware that I’d once loved my mother without question, and that now I did not love her that way anymore.
Some evenings, after she had gone back and checked the door twice, she asked me to check it again. Annoyed but eager to get on with the walk, I ran up the driveway to our dark, low-slung house. I hoped my mother would notice my beautiful running gait and be impressed by it.
At our door I reached toward the knob so that, from a distance, it would look as if I were checking, but really I didn’t even graze the handle with my fingertips. I did this to maintain my dignity, though I felt as if, by refusing to check, I were betraying my mother.
I was also worried that if I started checking, I would not be able to stop. I would never be a normal person. If I started checking, I’d turn into her. I lived in a simmering soup of fears: fear of turning into my mother, fear of betraying her, fear of making her worse, fear of leaving the door unlocked, fear that this was all my fault. Sometimes I thought this couldn’t be the life I was really living. Who would live this life?
Many times my mother went back and checked after me.
These were our better evenings, before the terrible day when I left the door unlocked.
Once, when I was sick with a high fever as a young child, I had a hallucination of a witch stirring her cauldron in the corner of my room. I cried for my mom and told her what I had seen, thinking she’d bring me medicine or cool washcloths. Instead my mother got up from my bed and walked out of the room. I heard her leave the house and drive away. I didn’t see her again until the following evening.
Now I wonder: Did she think that what I’d seen was somehow real? Even as a child, I knew it was just a vision brought on by fever. I’d been scared and had sought comfort, but I hadn’t lost contact with reality. Was my mother afraid of the witch, or was she afraid of me, of what was coming through me?
When you are a kid, you can’t imagine something is wrong with your mother. Something is wrong with you.
My mother regularly told me, Heather, if you are ever in danger and I’m not there, make your way to a house with flowers. The flowers show they care and are kind and will help.
It didn’t occur to me until years later that we had not a single bloom in our yard.
Our property backed up against what had once been an orange grove with straight lines of trees but was now a new subdivision with straight lines of houses, all with shiny gray siding and sparkling white roofs.
As my mother and I started our walk, I caught glimpses of those shiny split-level houses behind the smaller homes on our street. That neighborhood had streetlights. Ours did not. I often heard kids playing kickball in the new subdivision. We might as well have lived on a moon orbiting a planet filled with life.
While my mother kept her head down, I peered into our neighbors’ houses. The milky light of televisions flickered, and soft lamps glowed in front bedrooms. I might see the minister, Mr. Dean, in his easy chair with a book or the judge’s wife walking across her living room in a pink dress. Her kids were probably watching television or talking on the phone or listening to records. I wasn’t allowed to do any of those things. I was also not allowed to go inside another person’s house or even to have a friend. My mother had a lot of reasons for these rules: Television programs were trashy. Popular music was filled with innuendo. Talking on the telephone was a waste of time. I wasn’t going to turn into one of those layabout teenagers, not on her watch.
I suspected these policies had nothing to do with Catholicism, as she claimed — she hadn’t been to Mass in years. Still, I saw them as an indication that she cared for me. Though she was unfair, I was thrilled to have a mother who loved me more than those lenient mothers loved their children.
I didn’t yet see the themes, the patterns in my mother’s delusions. For her, objects that were plugged in and things with frames were conduits by which voices and entities could enter our home. Windows, television screens, telephones, radios — they crackled with voices and presences I couldn’t see or hear, but she could.
Artworks were banned from our walls. When I was in fourth grade, my father had purchased a large contemporary oil painting: a black background with white streaks and spatters of red across it. The painting spoke to me. I saw emotion and story in its lines and shapes, meaning and beauty in the blackness behind them. But my mother hated the painting. Too contemporary. My father had terrible taste. She wouldn’t let him hang it. The painting remained propped on the floor, its face to the wall.
One day my mother went to the art-supply store and bought a tube of ocher oil paint and an artist’s paintbrush. I came home from school to find her “improving” the painting. She was wearing an old white coat and sitting on the living-room floor in the dark. Working from the center out, one dab at a time, she was covering the painting with opaque mustard brown. When she was done, the canvas was completely ocher. My father stormed out of the house and stayed gone for days.
My mother also feared food tampering: perfectly normal-seeming people put poison in food all the time. She had a lot of policies regarding the fridge: Don’t open the refrigerator right now. Close the door, honey, quick. Who opened the door? This isn’t safe to eat. This doesn’t look right. Did you open this package? It’s been opened. See this slit? That wasn’t here when I purchased this. Heather, I can see you aren’t being truthful. Just tell me: Did you open this jar?
If I talked to anyone, my mother feared I was “revealing information,” which could put both of us in peril.
If too many things in the house were off — if my chores weren’t done; if the cap was not on the milk exactly as she had left it, if a window was opened a crack; if I “accidentally” answered the phone (I always hoped it would be my father) — she might take off in her truck and not come back that night.
When this happened, it was as if the family pet had run away: a terrible turn of events, but not totally unexpected. I felt bereft but not abandoned. Of course I missed her and worried about how she would fare in traffic and where she would sleep. But even when I was with my mother, I was alone. I knew her only as this fragile, odd, beloved, maddening, dear creature that ran away because running away was in its nature.
Walks with my mother were the one time we brushed up against the outside world together, normal life so close I could actually smell it. The Corneliuses, who had lovely daughters with hair like ponies’ manes, were grilling by their pool. The Browns lived in the mansion on the lake, where a maid carried a tray across the dining room. Heaven.
If the moon was up, I would watch my mother’s shadow: the pointed kerchief on her head, her slender shoulders, her long arms. She was my creature. I wanted to be the one to tame her. I would never give up.
Walking by her side, I plied her with questions about her childhood.
Honey, please. Stop pressing me.
But the more she resisted, the more I begged her to tell me anything about her early life. Sometimes a door opened inside her, and she’d let me see a tiny slice of her former self.
She was born in Wisconsin and had a brother and a sister. They’d grown up on a golf course, where her father was the maintenance man. Her mother spoke German and left butter unrefrigerated. (We would never do that: too unsanitary.)
Once, my mother locked her younger sister in the henhouse.
On Christmas Eve, when my mother was fourteen years old, her father died of an aneurysm.
In her twenties she worked for a newspaper, where a man called Joe — her voice went soft and high when she said his name — put her inside a huge trash can on wheels and sent her spinning across the newsroom floor. She’d never laughed so hard.
No, she did not love Joe. He was Polish, and that would not have been possible.
She loved anything lemon flavored and the color blue.
My mother never spoke of having a friend. She never dated. There was just my father.
I didn’t want the walk to end, because when it did, we would go back to our house, the darkest house on our street, the one that looked as though nobody lived in it: Leaves piled against the foundation. The windows draped with blankets.
As we approached our door, it was as if we were about to enter a thick, unnavigable forest where something bad had happened.
Inside, my mother would make her way through the dark rooms and turn on the bare bulb over the kitchen table. Her eyes would flash. Did you hear that? Do you hear that whispering? We’d stand frozen, listening for the sound of our own house turning against us.
I didn’t hear the voices or people in our house, but I heard her hear.
Once, I tore apart the blouse I was wearing, ripped the fabric in two. It was the dramatic act of a preteen girl, and it felt fake but also a bit unhinged, like a bid for a connection with my mother: I’ll be like you. You win.
In the morning I found the mended blouse hanging on the back of my chair.
Another time I stood across from her in the kitchen and screamed as loud as I could, and she said softly, Oh, my heavens. My precious daughter. I’ve ruined you.
Her sadness was so authentic, it felt like love.
The fall I turned thirteen, my mother worked as a receptionist through a temp agency, so she wasn’t home when I got out of school. One afternoon I was lying in her bed reading the novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, about a poor girl with an alcoholic father and a hardworking mother who protects her from harm. Under the covers I wore jeans and an old thermal T-shirt of my father’s. I also had a skinny striped scarf around my neck, because it was cold in the house, and my mother didn’t want to turn on the furnace until we absolutely had to.
I was in her bed because an animal — possibly a raccoon, or a squirrel, or an opossum — had somehow gotten into my bedroom, and we’d closed the door, trapping it in there. I could hear it racing around, starved, mad, screeching. I wouldn’t open the door. I was afraid it would come bursting out with its red mad starved eyes and attack me. My mother didn’t want to call animal control or an exterminator because she didn’t want anyone to see how we lived: she might be taken away, or I might be taken away. Too risky.
When I had gotten home from school, I’d closed the front door behind me, but I wasn’t sure I’d locked it. I did not want to be a checky-checky person. I saw myself as free, wild, fun: the sort of girl whose father would come back for her. Nothing like my mother. There were times when I deliberately left the door unlocked in order to be as unlike my mother as possible.
If you had asked me that afternoon if I’d locked the door, I would have said yes.
I was reading my book by lamplight, absorbed but not relaxed. I was never relaxed in that house. I was always listening. My mother had seen men casing our property, looking in our windows. She’d encountered such people inside the house.
Then I heard voices in the hallway.
I sat up, suddenly ashamed for anyone to find me in my mother’s bed. I called out for my mother. If she’d come home early, she was going to complain about the list of chores I hadn’t done. I got out of bed and took off the ridiculous striped scarf.
I heard a little boy’s frightened voice: Don’t, Mama. Let’s go. Please.
Panicked, I called again for my mother. She would never have come in the house with another person.
Get out here, you little bitch, a strange woman shouted.
I can’t recall precisely what happened next. It’s as if my mind could not keep up with the events that were unfolding. I remember being in our dark hallway, and a woman pressing me into the wall, holding my chin in a hand that felt like a metal claw. I smelled her perfume. I saw a chubby, brown-haired boy in a snug T-shirt with a Miami Dolphins logo on it. He was saying over and over, Don’t, Mama, don’t.
The woman reached a hand around to my ponytail and pulled my head back as I struggled to keep my chin tucked in, protecting my face. She was ranting about my mother and my father, how my mother did things to my father I had no idea about, and she wanted it to stop: Let the goddamn man be happy for once.
The woman socked me in the jaw, and I slumped against the wall.
You fucking bitch, she said. Do you know what your mother is?
The boy was pulling on his mother’s arm. There was blood in my mouth. The boy’s mother shook me by the shoulders, her thumbs digging into my chest, and continued to rant about how my mother and I were ruining their happy lives with my father, and she’d had enough of it.
She pulled me down the hallway by my hair and arms. I tried to press my sock feet against the walls, but she dragged me into the foyer. In my head I heard my mother admonishing me: Why didn’t you make a plan? We’ve talked about this so many times.
The woman propped me up and grabbed my head. What did she want? I tried to think of how to get away. The boy was still begging his mother to stop. Holding my hair in her fist, her face inches from mine, the woman shouted about how horrible I was, how horrible my mother was, and what we were doing to my poor father. I tried not to listen to her, but I had to stay conscious.
She spit in my eye. She said I needed to stop being a fucking little bitch. She had come to stop us from ruining their lives — that was how much she loved my father.
She hit me some more: in the face, the head, the chest, the arm. The lower half of my body was made of soft nothing. I couldn’t move my legs. She used my hair to bang my head against the wall, but not hard enough to draw blood.
I had left the door unlocked.
Next we were in the driveway. A long white car was parked there, the engine running. My ears were ringing. The woman was opening the car door, then the trunk. The boy pleaded, Mama, no. Please, let her go.
I crawled into the grass. The woman caught me by the ankles, but I hung on to the mailbox pole. I would not get in that car. I saw myself in pieces in a dumpster. It was better to die there in my driveway, where someone would find me. A place known to me.
The little boy was saying to me, Run, run.
I remember running across our lawn in my socks, expecting to be tackled any second. The lights from the subdivision behind our house shone brightly. I was afraid of being grabbed from behind but more afraid of what would happen when I knocked on someone’s door. I was living my mother’s worst nightmare: a door had been left unlocked, and now the world was about to see in. People would know how we lived. But maybe this would help us, I thought. Maybe I would never have to go back to my house again.
The Williamses weren’t home. I ran across their grass. The Prentisses were home, but Mr. Prentiss always seemed to be in a bad mood. Lights were on at the Deans’. Geraniums bloomed in pots along their front porch. Their car was in the driveway. Their curtains were open. I saw a painting of the ocean over their brown sofa.
I walked up to their door, smoothing my shirt. There was blood on it, but not much. I felt my head. Dry. I smelled their dinner cooking and felt tears in my eyes.
My forearms had long red scratches with tiny dots of blood in them.
I rang the doorbell.
Mr. Dean, the minister, answered and called for his wife without taking his eyes off me.
I stood on their threshold and tried to tell them what had happened. I didn’t want to enter their house; my mother didn’t like for me to go into other people’s houses. I couldn’t talk properly because I didn’t know what not to say. I was concerned the wrong information would slip out. I was afraid the Deans could see, just by looking at me, the darkness in which my mother and I lived.
As I stammered, the Deans grew more and more alarmed. He wore a cardigan, and she wore a tweed skirt and a pink oxford blouse. Her hair was graying and neat. They invited me inside, and I went.
Mrs. Dean cleaned me up in their bathroom and put Bactine on my face and on the scratches on my arms. Mr. Dean asked me a few questions in his gentle Southern voice and then made some calls from his study. His wife gave me a glass of milk and a plate of meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and peas. It looked like something from a magazine. I wanted to be with this perfect plate forever. I drank the milk, and she refilled my glass and sat with me at the table, looking concerned. I wondered if she wanted to pray — because I wanted to pray. She took my empty dishes. When I offered to help wash them, she smiled and said no; I needed to rest. Did I want to lie down?
In a strange house? No, thank you. I was fine.
I ate chocolate-chip cookies and drank more milk. Then Mr. Dean said he would drive me home. I wanted to tell him I was not going back there. Please don’t make me go home. He said my mother had returned and had asked that he bring me back.
Why didn’t she come get me? My ears rang so loud, I thought I needed medical attention. I didn’t want to make a scene. The Deans were so nice. It was best to protect nice people from my family’s darkness.
Mr. Dean drove me to my home, six houses away. It was funny to be driven such a short distance.
I expected to see a police car in my driveway, but only my mother’s truck was there. I didn’t get out of Mr. Dean’s car. He went to the door, and my mother came out and talked to him by the mailbox. How much time had passed since I’d gotten off the school bus, walked home, unlocked the door, and started reading my book?
My mother came to the car and looked in at me. Inside, her eyes said. I got out on the opposite side from where she stood.
Mr. Dean said if we needed anything, just ask. I thanked him. I’m not sure he heard me. He drove away, and my mother and I went into the house together. I was angry at her for pretending we were OK. I told her we had to call the police. We shouldn’t stay in our house that night, maybe not ever again. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the woman was coming back. Without her son. To kill us.
My mother leaned against the wall in the foyer, more at ease than I had ever seen her. The storm we’d been waiting for our whole lives had come, just as she’d predicted. She was not crazy after all. See? She seemed almost smug as she told me that I was on my own if I called the police; she wouldn’t be there. To be honest, Heather, I doubt they’ll believe you. You did leave the door unlocked. Didn’t you?
I couldn’t believe what she was saying.
She got me, too, my mother said.
I didn’t see any marks or bruises on her. She appeared normal — more normal than ever before.
Again I started to tell her what had happened, but she interrupted to say that we needed to keep quiet about this. I should never speak of it to anyone. Then she went into the kitchen.
I yelled that we had to stay in a hotel.
She said there was no money for something like that.
We have to move.
No answer. I heard her getting out pots and pans, the clink of silverware.
I sat on the floor in the foyer, close to where I’d been earlier with my hair in that woman’s fist. Alone for the first time since the attack, I felt as if my brain had turned to liquid. I was equally afraid to go outside and to stay in the house with my mother.
I smelled potatoes frying.
We had to call the police, I kept insisting.
At last my mother appeared in the doorway, looking disappointed. You had to go to the Deans, of all people? You couldn’t have gone anywhere else?
In that moment I saw that it wasn’t going to be possible to love her and survive.
I huddled in a corner and stayed there on the cold slate floor for a long time. Whenever my mother tried to come near me, I yelled at her to leave me alone.
I’d lost the fantasy that things were on the verge of getting better. This hurt more than the pain in my face, my bones.
The next morning I didn’t look in the mirror to see the damage. At school no one said anything. It hurt to walk. It hurt to sit. My lip bled at lunch, on both the inside and the outside of my mouth; I sipped milk from a carton with a straw and let my hair hang over my face.
In phys ed I didn’t dress out. I sat against the outside of the auditorium, toeing the sand in the hot sun, wanting to put a prickly sandspur on my tongue.
Coach Bottoms approached me and leaned over, hands on his knees. He’d never spoken to me before.
You got it rough at home, he said.
I’m sorry, kid. That’s too bad.
Inside me a light came on: Someone had seen me. If I could be seen, I had a chance.
Nurse, he said. Office.
I didn’t go to the office. I went to the library, where I sat by the window at a table in the sun, staring at a map of the world. It would be a long time before I could relax enough to read a book.
I wanted to call my father and beg him to let me live with him, but we hadn’t spoken in years, and I feared he might not want me in his life. I also didn’t know his number. It was months before I worked up the courage to dial information, waiting for a moment when I was sure my mother wouldn’t catch me using the phone. The operator located a number for F.P. Sellers in Winter Park. I called it whenever I could. No one ever picked up. Then one afternoon someone answered. It was him.
I asked if he lived alone.
I asked him to come and get me.
In the car I told him what had happened with the woman who’d come to our house. He said that wasn’t possible. He and Bette were not living together at the moment, but he expected her to come back. We would all get along when she did.
He said I sounded like my mother.
I slumped against the car door, wondering how this had come to be my life.
I moved in with my father, who watched porn on the VCR at breakfast. Men and women came and went at all hours. He constantly drank gin out of a tumbler. But we went to Rossi’s for pizza and to Moon Palace for moo goo gai pan. He told me stories about his boyhood, my mother — anything I wanted to know. Every night he urged me to call my friends and invite them over. The tall, sweaty bag boy at Winn-Dixie asked if he could call me, and my father gave him our number. So many things happened on any given day with my father — he grabbed a waitress’s bottom; he drove drunk; he wore a bra and pantyhose under his Caribbean shirt and polyester trousers — that there wasn’t time to think about the past.
Bette showed up one Saturday afternoon the following summer. I’d just walked in from baby-sitting down the street, and there she stood in the kitchen with her chubby, sullen son. Little bitch, Bette whispered as I walked past. I went to my father’s bedroom, woke him, and told him I couldn’t stay there — not with her.
I waited for him to say, I will ask her to leave. You are more important. But instead he got up to talk with Bette. They spoke for a long time on the patio, their voices surging with anger.
I refused to talk to the son, though he gave me a hopeful smile.
When they came back inside, I went to pack my things and leave. I didn’t hear Bette follow me into the hall. She pressed me into the wall and punched me hard in the center of my back. This time I was not so stunned. I whirled around, wrested my arm from her grip, and rushed to the kitchen. She hit me, Dad!
I don’t need this static, he said. He delivered a diatribe about how we women needed to work out our disagreements ourselves and stop creating problems for him. He didn’t have time for such drama.
I asked him to call the police, but he said that wasn’t going to happen. None of this made sense to him. I was completely on my own.
I called 911 and told the operator I’d been attacked. My father pressed down the button, ending the call. I grabbed my purse from the counter and left by the back door, walking toward my mother’s house, some six miles away. I saw no cops, heard no sirens. I thought about the Deans and wondered if I could live with them.
My back hurt, but I didn’t feel damaged. I felt the opposite: righteous and clear.
When I arrived at my mother’s dark house with the bright new subdivision behind it, I rang the doorbell and also used the secret knock she required. She let me in, then locked and checked the door.
I told her I loved her, and she said I was welcome to stay — if I followed her rules. Of course, I said. I would always follow her rules. We didn’t hug. We wouldn’t speak of my time at my father’s house. We made dinner together and ate calmly, talking about her plans for new window treatments, the terrible traffic in Orlando. Afterward she retreated to her bedroom. I washed the dishes and put them away. I turned off the light. I slipped behind the bedspreads and clothespinned sheets covering the sliding glass door, and I opened it. Humid air rolled in. Feeling afraid, I stretched my arm out into the night.
Then I slid the door closed and locked it. But I didn’t check to make sure.
Some names and minor details have been changed to protect people’s privacy.
Reading Heather Sellers’s essay “Unlocked” [April 2016], I was saddened by the depth of her childhood horrors. And as an educator, I was disappointed by the dismissive response of her school to what she was clearly experiencing. Or maybe it wasn’t so clear. We teachers see hundreds of students a day and frequently know little or nothing of their home lives. A child may successfully hide pain and suffering for years, as Sellers did. It’s my job to help children thrive, but that’s much harder if I don’t know what is going on at home. Sellers’s essay is a reminder for me to pay closer attention and connect with not just the child but the family, too.
I’ll admit, when I opened the April 2016 issue and saw that my Readers Write submission wasn’t published, I was disappointed. I’m a busy clinical psychologist and mother, and until recently I hadn’t written creatively for more than thirty years. Some days I wonder if my reawakened passion for writing is simply a childish dream I should put away — again.
But then I read Heather Sellers’s essay “Unlocked,” and I wept at this line about her mother: “In that moment I saw that I wasn’t going to be able to love her and survive.”
I don’t really care whether I’m an author or a reader, as long as I can be a part of this community of courageous individuals who speak the truth.