Remnants

By

My father died when I was four years old, and though I carry with me a memory of finding him lying blue on the basement floor, my brother Guy, three years older than me, carries with him the same memory of himself finding our father. “I remember going down those old wooden stairs,” he tells me. “I remember it as if I did it. I don’t know if somebody else put it in my head to make me think I remember it. Maybe we all came home at once and went down there.” My oldest sister Susie remembers coming home from school to find a fire truck, ambulance, and police car turning down our street. Panic set in as she saw them stop in front of our house. Susie remembers seeing him lying there on the cement floor, a puddle by his legs, his skin grey as the paramedics performed CPR. Tim, who turned fourteen the day before our father died, recalls only that he had dragged Dad through the store a couple days earlier because he wanted a race car set: “I made Dad take me up to Two Guys. I was being a little brat bastard and he’s limping through the store. Come to find out it was a clot. A coronary occlusion that went to his heart. A few days later, a family friend comes up the stairs holding a huge package. ‘Look what I found for you, Tim.’ Talk about feeling low.”

When we were young and our father was still alive, he was in the hospital a lot. He had a number of heart attacks before the fatal one at age fifty. I remember picking him up from the hospital and hiding behind the passenger seat on the floor of the car and him searching for me. “Where’s Amy?” he’d ask, with exaggerated bewilderment. I’d jump up then, surprising him, and he’d laugh, and we’d go to The Pancake House down the street from the hospital.

Guy tells me, “I very vaguely remember him taking us to the park and flying a kite on Sunday after catechism. We didn’t even know him. I know he smoked a lot. I remember him smoking Pall Malls. It’s weird that Timmy and Susie remember so much.”

Guy also remembers the time he and Margie were home alone and Dad went to the store to get cigarettes but never came home: “Both of us kneeling on the couch, looking out the window saying, ‘I wonder where he is.’ I think he ended up going to the hospital. Maybe Ma was in the hospital with you or something. But I’ll never forget that day. No, that’s right. Ma called the hospital. He had checked himself in.”

The way I heard this story told was that he told Guy and Margie he was going out for cigarettes but he knew he had to go to the hospital. He knew he was about to have another heart attack, but he didn’t want Ma to know because she would get upset with him and yell and scream. So he just left. When Ma came home from wherever she had been, she called Dad’s friends looking for him. Like she was looking for a child. Finally, Dad’s closet friend, Ed Jubinville, told her he knew where Dad was, but she had to promise not to yell at him when she talked to him. She promised. But she yelled at him anyway.

Dad died in December 1976. Five months later, in May 1977, my mother’s firstborn, my half-sister Pam, died of kidney failure brought on by pancreatitis at the age of twenty-two. I don’t have very many memories of Pam. I have more memories of Pam’s two daughters, Lee Ann and Kelly, who were very close in age to me. Pam had become pregnant at the age of fifteen with Lee Ann, and fifteen months after Lee Ann was born, she gave birth to Kelly. Pam was pregnant with Kelly at the same time Ma was pregnant with me. We three played together when we were young.

My father was, by all accounts, a kind man. He smoked too much, sure, but he was loving and generous, creative and optimistic, funny and fun-loving. Aside from what we inherited from him physically, the only things my siblings and I share from our father are the stories of how we lost him. The three oldest share more than that, surely. But Guy and me, we’re left with very little. The only things about which we can say, “No, it happened this way” or “No, I remember it like this” are the stories about how he died and how he snuck away to be sick in private.

*

Most of us don’t have very many memories before the age of three or four. The abuse surely began after my father died. Thus, nearly the entirety of my childhood memories includes the abuse I suffered at the hands of my sister, Margie, five years older than me. She would have been nine when our father died.

I remember it was a Sunday night, and Timmy was supposed to be babysitting me, but I don’t know where he was. Guy was upstairs, Susie was out, and Margie was beating me. She was chasing me around the kitchen table, punching me when she caught me, and I was screaming for someone to help. She wanted me to shut the fuck up. I screamed louder. She ran into the living room and grabbed Ma’s chair, the one she always sat in when she wasn’t sleeping on the couch. She lifted it over her head and made her way toward me. She was going to hit me with the chair. I ran out the back door screaming. She opened the door and dragged me back in, squeezing bruises into my arm. “You’re fucking dead,” she said. My heart was pounding. I had nowhere to go. I kept screaming for my mommy. She punched me in the nose. It started bleeding. She seemed satisfied to have drawn blood. I went to the couch to sit and cry, the snot mixing with the blood, all of it dripping onto my shirt and onto my bare knees. I tried to convince myself that if I just sat here long enough and let Ma see what she’d let happen to me, she would do something. She would make it stop.

Instead, when she saw me, she told me to stay away from Margie: “Mind your own business and she’ll leave you alone.”

 

Susie and Margie shared the room next to mine, and the house was configured so that to get to their room, they had to go through mine—just a few steps, but enough to make me feel like I could never really shut the door or shut them out. My door was always open. Actually, all three bedrooms upstairs were connected. Inside Susie and Margie’s room was a door that led to Guy and Timmy’s room, but it wouldn’t have made much sense for the girls to walk all the way through the boys’ room to get to theirs, not when it was so much easier to walk through mine.

Bedtime. Margie walked through to her room: “You little shit. You’re dead.”

Middle of the night. Margie walked back through to the one bathroom in the house. “Little fucker,” she said. “Fat shit.”

Back to her room: “Skank.”

Morning: “You’re dead, you little shit.”

And so it went. Always. I wonder now if her insults became so habitual as she walked those couple steps through my room that she said them even when I wasn’t there.

She was always hitting me for no reason, punching my arm or my stomach and I’d cry out for my mother and my mother would tell me to stay away from her, to go do something else. She threatened to kill me always, telling me that as soon as Ma left, I was dead. I feared for my life before I could walk to school alone.

She instilled in me a white-hot self-hatred that has taken years to dissolve.

 

I understand now that Margie did what she did to me out of fear and insecurity, out of a desperate need for discipline and care. I understand that she had the same mother I had, the same mother who was terribly depressed by two suffocating losses, either one of which would have been more than enough to turn what might have been a good mother into a bad mother. My sister’s abuse shaped me into a person deathly afraid of conflict, convinced of her own insignificance, fatness, ugliness, and stupidity, persuaded that she was completely on her own in this world because nobody would help her when she needed it most. Ma told me to stay away from her, so I tried. I was a kid. I believed that if I did what my mother told me to do, I might be okay. I turned to reading instead. I read and read and read. Reading helped me keep my distance.

I read to escape my family life. I read to escape Ma and Margie and Guy and Timmy and Susie. Sometimes Mindy, our cat, would sleep on my bed as I lay in it and read, but mostly I was alone and that’s the way I liked it. Leave me alone. When I was deep in a book I was in another place, a place where parents loved their children and sat with them at the breakfast table, a place where siblings gave each other cute nicknames like Fudgie or Tootsie or Beezus and nobody got beaten for it. In my books, parents told kids to be kind to their siblings and if they weren’t they’d be grounded. If I’m completely honest, I’ll admit that to this very day, I’m still taken aback by true stories of siblings who love one another or, more to the point, by true stories of siblings who don’t recall with deep resentment their childhoods together.

*

School was my safe place, the only place where I was noticed for anything good. At home I was a brat or I was spoiled or I was a picky eater or I was a little shit or I was dead as soon as Ma left the house. But at school I was smart. I was a good student, obedient, eager to please, and a quick study. I was the fastest kid in school when it came to math races, and I won all the spelling bees until Christopher Goff showed up in sixth grade. In fourth grade, Mr. Cunningham would give the spelling bee winner a dollar as a prize. I used it to buy candy. In sixth grade, Mr. Lysek gave huge Disney stickers he’d buy on his annual trip down to Florida. I stuck my Donald Duck sticker on my bedroom door. Margie promptly wrote a swear word on it on her way into her room.

I was always afraid, always insecure, always sure that everybody hated me. Other kids asked my friends why I never smiled. I thought about death all the time. My own, Margie’s. I was desperate for attention at school, so I did everything I could to make sure my teachers noticed me. When in fourth grade Mr. Cunningham told me that the other fourth grade teacher, Mr. Foley, remembered my dad from his wedding, I was overcome with longing for that memory. Mr. Foley even had some video of my dad somewhere in his basement. “He was a good man,” Mr. Cunningham told me.

I met Hillary when she was the new girl in class in the fifth grade. She was tall and thin and had long brown hair. She lived on Narragansett Boulevard with her mom and her sister Hope, who was just a year older than Hillary, in a tiny apartment above their firefighter landlord. The way the apartment was configured, you could walk up the front stairs to the apartment and take a left to Hillary and Hope’s room without going through the rest of the apartment. If you took a right, you’d open the door into the kitchen, living room, bathroom, and Hillary’s mom’s room. But if you took that immediate left, you didn’t have to see anyone else and they didn’t have to see you.

Hillary’s house was about ten blocks away from my house on Ferry Street. We’d walk to and from one another’s houses all the time and we’d always meet each other halfway. If she was coming to my house, I’d meet her halfway at the corner of Norman and Chicopee Streets and we’d walk back together. When I’d leave her house to walk home at night, she’d walk me halfway and then we’d each walk the rest of the way home alone. We played Scrabble and Trivial Pursuit and made prank phone calls to the boys we liked and ate Stella D’oro breakfast treats and potato chips and straightened our naturally curly hair and experimented with makeup.

As an adult, I read that traumatized people calculate life’s chances differently. As a kid, I knew this in my bones. I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I also knew I had to hurry because I likely wouldn’t make it much past twenty-seven. I knew I’d die early not because I was sick or because I expected to be in some kind of horrible accident, but because I knew I just wasn’t meant to live a long life. My sister’s constant beating me down took its toll on my ability to imagine a future. I was fat, ugly, stupid, worthless, and a pain in the ass. I was told this at least ten times a day. I was told this while I was sleeping. I was never meant to live past twenty-seven because I’d probably kill myself before then.

Hillary understood. She, too, knew she wouldn’t live to be very old. Hillary’s mom drank and smoked, and Hillary had horrible panic attacks. She even developed an ulcer when she was in seventh grade. Her dad wasn’t dead like mine was. He lived in Springfield and had gotten remarried. When he and her mom split, he had the marriage annulled, effectively erasing Hope and Hillary’s existence. When we were fifteen, we learned that her dad’s wife was having a baby. Mary Katherine was her daddy’s new little girl, and his new wife wanted nothing to do with Hillary or Hope.

When Hillary was at my house, we’d sit in my room and talk about boys or about what we wanted to do when we grew up. I wanted to be a writer. Hillary wanted to work with horses. We styled our hair and we did our makeup before going out drinking at night. When Margie would go into her room when Hillary was over, she’d call us “fucking lesbians,” the worst insult she could conjure.

Sometimes when Hillary was over, Ma would tell us to go to Hillary’s house and bother her mother. What she didn’t know was that we could go to Hillary’s house and really not see her mother at all.

*

It would be easy to say that Ma didn’t try very hard to protect me because it’s mostly true. But I do have memories of Ma dropping me off next door at her friend Chris’s house on some of the nights she would go out. So she must have heard some of what I was telling her. She must have heard some of my desperate fear that, when she left the house, Margie was going to kill me.

Ma didn’t know how to fix the problem, so she removed me from the house, teaching me that the abuse was inevitable and the only solution was withdrawal.

Resignation. Capitulation. Surrender. So very early on.

*

I cannot remember ever hearing my mother tell a good story. She was not a storyteller and she didn’t seem to particularly enjoy other people’s stories. She didn’t read me stories before bed each night when I was young, though she didn’t discourage my love for reading once I learned from my first-grade teacher. She and I would drive up to the Lewis and Clark Drugstore once a month so she could buy her magazines—Cosmo, Ladies’ Home Journal, Redbook—and she would usually let me get a paperback book or a magazine of my own. Later I’d see her sitting in her chair at the kitchen table flipping through the magazines, but she rarely paused for very long on any one page. I’m not sure she read the magazines so much as she looked at them. She watched plenty of television, especially soap operas, so she presumably followed the stories of the characters with their dramatic relationships and deaths and resurrections following mysterious illnesses and accidents, but she didn’t talk about them, at least as far as I could tell. Maybe she did and I just never heard her. But I can say this with some degree of certainty: my relationship with Ma was not built on stories. She didn’t tell me stories about her life, I didn’t tell her stories about mine, and neither of us asked the other to do so. It was only when she slipped into old age that I began asking her about her childhood, her hopes and dreams, but even then she answered largely in the form of short, unelaborated sentences. “Oh, come on. I don’t remember!” My asking her for stories, even once I was an adult and she was elderly, her health compromised, was taken as an affront.

Ma rarely offered up information unsolicited. It wasn’t, for instance, until I was twenty-eight years old that I learned the rather violent circumstances of my birth. My right shoulder, which had bothered me for years, was still bothering me, and one day I must have been complaining about it repeatedly, enough for her to notice. And that’s when she told me that when I was born, the doctors had had to break my shoulder to get me out because I was so big. Ten pounds, fourteen ounces. Knowing this about my shoulder cast a new light on Ma’s reaction when, in second grade, I came home with a note from the nurse telling Ma that I might have scoliosis. They’d done exams at school and noticed with some degree of alarm that I had a crooked back. “You’re not crooked, for Chrissakes,” she said when I echoed the school nurse’s alarm. The rest of that silent story went: You’re not crooked; you’re broken.

I did seem sort of uneven.

I read stories all the time and my friends and I probably made up stories and shared stories from our days when we got together after school. Hillary and I built up a storehouse of shared stories, ones we still look back on to this day. But in that yellow house on Ferry Street there were no stories.

Our beliefs come from stories. Stories persuade us what to value, what not to value, how to see and how to ignore. Stories teach us what is possible and they organize our worlds into manageable chunks. They both offer us different worlds and provide the ones we live in with meaning.

For people who grew up in homes filled with stories, this understanding is commonplace. It need not be argued. It has become invisible.

Because I grew up in a home without stories, I have never been able to take this understanding for granted. There were no competing versions of the time one of us kids did something funny or the time Ma did something embarrassing and we all laughed so hard we wet our pants. There were no stories about any of us that were told again and again to the point that they became fossilized. There were no stories about extended family members. Once my father died, most communication with his family ended. We heard about them only when somebody was sick or when somebody died. There were no stories about Ma’s family. The only thing we heard about Aunt Judy was that she never called and she never came to visit, for Chrissakes. There were no stories. There were six people under the same roof, surviving but not living. Because living requires stories.

If the most basic component of a story is that it provides structure in the form of cause-effect relationships, here is what I learned about cause and effect: If you stay away from your sister, she will stop beating you. But you can’t stay away from her because you live in the same house and she walks through your room twenty times a day. What your mother tells you simply will not work.

When I was in my twenties and trying to work through the effects of the abuse, I’d talk with my other siblings about it only to learn that they were hard-pressed to remember that it was really all that bad. They were there, in the same house, and they didn’t believe that it was that bad. Susie told me that I needed to let it go. Guy told me that he remembers some of it but didn’t think of it as abuse.

Shelley was Margie’s best friend. When she came over to play with Margie, she, too, would have to walk through my room to get to Margie’s. Most often when Shelley came over, I’d be sitting on my bed, minding my own business and reading a book. Shelley regularly heard Margie call me a fat shit and a skank as they walked through my room. One afternoon when they’re leaving her room, Margie comes over to my bed, starts beating me with her fists, kicking me with her shoes on. I’m screaming for her to stop. “Leave me alone!” I never try to hit back because I’m too small and too afraid. Shelley’s right next to her, telling her to stop. “Margie! Come on! Let’s just go!” Margie doesn’t stop. Shelley says nothing. Margie doesn’t hear either of us.

Recent psychological research into bullying reveals that most bullies do their work in front of an audience. In the case of my sister, her audience was my other siblings, and the point was always my humiliation. Maybe Guy and Susie and Timmy—unlike Shelley—weren’t literally standing around watching me being beaten, but they were there and they heard me screaming. They knew what was going on. They heard her telling me that as soon as Ma left the house I’d be dead.

The purpose of the audience, the research suggests, is to witness the victim’s reaction to the bullying so that the audience can be persuaded that the victim’s objection to an act of aggression is itself the problem. My protestations to being hit for no reason reified my identity in the family as a brat, a pain in the ass. By protesting, I became an aggressor. Cause and effect were temporarily reversed and eventually the originating cause—my sister’s abuse—fell away. I could tell my mother what my sister was doing to me, but instead of hearing a story about my sister as cause and my pain as the effect, she may very well have understood my telling itself as an act of aggression to be dealt with. To which she would respond with, “Stay away from her.”

In this way, Margie’s aggression became the status quo, the taken-for-granted, so of course any objections I made would themselves be understood as provocations, as the cause for the abuse in the first place. All Margie would have to do would be to say, “She came near me.”

What this causal erasure implies about our empathy and compassion for abuse victims is staggering.

*

Ma had two strokes and developed dementia in her late seventies. As a result of the dementia, a secret she had been keeping for more than sixty years began to come out in the form of a story, a worry about the missing baby. After months of hearing her persistent agitated stories about the baby being stolen, the baby being missing, somebody taking the baby, I asked my Aunt Judy if there was any truth to this story and it turns out there was. She had had a baby as a teenager, was sent away by her parents to have the baby in secret, and was forced to give the baby up for adoption. Now we could understand the one story she would ever (never) tell us.

After Ma died, my husband Steve and I traveled to Massachusetts for the funeral. We went to lunch one day with Timmy and Susie and Susie’s grown daughter Crystal. The conversation turned to TV. Steve happened to remark on how long it takes us to watch a show that we’ve recorded because I pause it so many times. Susie interrupted excitedly and said in a mocking tone, “So Amy can say, ‘Look at me! Look at me! Look at me!’ Right?”

Steve, dumbfounded by Susie’s outburst, said, “No. Because she has to use the bathroom or get another drink or get a snack.”

Look at me. Look at me. Look at me. The remnants of a moral drama in which the aggressor has successfully persuaded the audience that the victim was, indeed, a brat who deserved to be knocked around.

*

Stories knit people together. Some family stories change slightly with each telling while others become fossilized and are trotted out year after year to good-natured eye-rolls.

In the years after Ma died, I have wondered, both to my husband and closest friends and to myself, what would become of all of us siblings. We’d maintained contact primarily to monitor Ma’s health.

Recently I contacted Timmy, Guy, and Susie separately and asked them if they could think of any family stories that were told again and again, any family lore, any stories other than stories about illness and death.

Each of them, in their own way, responded with a request for more time to think about it. But that was the point. Nothing came immediately to mind. There are no stories to connect us. No touchstones from which we developed shared values and beliefs.

Only blood. Now that Ma was gone, would blood be enough?

***

Rumpus original art by Clare Nauman.


Amy E. Robillard is a writer and professor of writing and rhetoric at Illinois State University. She and her husband Steve are the guardians of two very special mutts, one named Wrigley and one named Essay. Her essays can also be found on Full Grown People. More from this author →