I grew up in a single-parent household. We didn’t have a lot of money, but mom always made sure we had what we needed. She worked two and sometimes three jobs to keep a roof over our heads and food in our bellies. Mom wasn’t well-educated, so her jobs were often low-paying; she worked as a waitress, a cashier, a pizza cook; basically, she did whatever she could to take care of us physically. Emotionally it was a different matter. Her upbringing had been rather rough, and it carried over into her parenting techniques. Whereas kids in two-parent households in our time were threatened with their father being told of their misdeeds when he got home from work, the one we were afraid of was our mother. She had quite a temper and when she got angry, we hid until she calmed down. She could be quite physical when she was mad. Nothing was off-limits when she was looking for a means to punish us; hairbrushes, shoes, wooden spoons, newspapers, towels, or anything else handy became an extension of her arms and, in her mind, a way to compensate for her small size when dealing with children who outgrew her physically by the age of eight. Oh, and don’t forget the belt. I can graphically remember being on the receiving end of several of those when I was growing up. They hurt, even when wielded by a woman who was only 4 feet, 10 inches tall with a small bone structure. What she lacked in size she made up for with determination and tenacity. None of us wanted to be on her bad side. This little lady had the capability of making our lives miserable if it suited her purpose.
One thing my mother lacked was the ability to really nurture us emotionally. Her own parents had wanted a boy when she was born, and she grew up knowing that. This feeling became part of her character, and I don’t think she ever outgrew a sense of inadequacy and not being good enough. Research today tells us that how we are treated as children can affect us throughout our lifetimes; I know from first-hand experience this is true. It also has an impact on how we raise their own children, whether or not we show them affection, and what kind of people they grow up to be. Mom’s parenting style was a reflection of her stunted emotional growth as well as a need to be intimately in control of her growing family. My siblings and I bear the scars of her past, something we have all tried to overcome in our own lives with varying levels of success.
I look a lot like my mom and maybe that’s why she saw my life as an opportunity for the successes that she never had in her youth. At the age of seven she was already watching her younger siblings, preparing meals and doing dishes while her parents worked in the cotton fields. She dropped out of school and got married when she was 15 years old; one year later, she had her first baby. By the time she was 26 she and my father were parents to six children, two boys and five girls. They lost their first child, a girl named Linda, at the age of two when she drowned in a creek behind the house. While the death was ruled an accident, Mom blamed my dad for it. According to her he was supposed to be watching Linda at the time, and neglected to observe her closely enough. I’m not sure if their relationship ever recovered from that loss. Considering it wasn’t the healthiest marriage to start with, the death of a child certainly didn’t strengthen their bond. Their personalities were like night and day from the beginning; Dad was really laid back and preferred to go with the flow while Mom was a control freak. If they had met today instead of in the late 40s, they certainly wouldn’t have lasted for 18 years. Back then, though, you stayed with your spouse, no matter how bad things got. Men worked to support the family and women were wives and mothers, and that’s just how it was. Divorce wasn’t part of the equation for the majority of families in the 50s.
I don’t know when the abuse started, but Mom said she saw Dad backhand me once when I got in his way. I was a pretty quiet kid even when I was really young; somehow I knew that being quiet was my best defense. I was learning to be a ghost in order to stay out of the way of my parents’ wrath. I have since learned that in dysfunctional families, there can be a scapegoat among the children instead of the violence being equally distributed between all of them. While all of us were victimized, my brother Ken and I received more of the verbal and psychological abuse than our siblings did. Somehow, we had flipped a switch in my mom’s head, and this led to her choosing us as the subjects of her tirades. The effects of her verbal abuse stayed with us into adulthood.