Scenes From a Childhood by Nan Wheeler

by Nan Wheeler

My mother used to tell the story of when I was a toddler and took a fall from the top of the stairs. We lived in a housing project in an apartment with concrete floors and two levels. Momma said it was a miracle how, midway down the stairs, I managed to grab hold of the rail and hang on, screaming, till she came to save me.

Two truths occur to me in retrospect; I was destined to be a survivor, and that was the last time my mother ever attempted to rescue me.

* * * * *

I am three years old. Momma and I have just gotten home from the store. There is broken glass on the kitchen floor by the back door. I don’t know how it got there but it’s made Momma scared. I can feel her fear. It’s unspoken but as loud as a slamming door. It is not fear of the unknown. It is fear of the familiar.

* * * * *

This fear will resurface again and again throughout my life. It will become as known to me as my reflection. It has a taste and smell that I can recognize instinctively, like zebras at the watering hole when a tiger comes near. All senses are heightened; the hair on the back of your neck stands on end and you can feel your heart begin to pound. Then you wait. Wait for the fear to be realized. For some scenario to be played out over which you have no directorial privilege.

This fear will have such a grip on my psyche that many years later, when I am grown and living away from this woman and her fear, I will sense it and make the phone calls that confirm it. “Yes,” will be her answer, “Daddy’s drinking again.”

* * * * *

I am eight years old. My bed sits in the corner against the wall that separates my bedroom from our living room. I am supposed to be asleep, but there is little to obliterate the sounds of Daddy knocking Momma to the floor and pummeling her with his fists. They are in the corner by the front door, only inches and sheetrock away from me.

I am crying and praying, “Please, God, make him stop!” And though I love God very much, go to church three times a week, and sing in the youth choir, He doesn’t seem to hear me.

Momma is crying too, yelling “Don, don’t!”, and making guttural sounds. I hear her yell my name and tell me to get out. I know this drill well. It terrifies me every time. I must leap out of my bed, run past the room where they are fighting and try to make it to the back door and outside before Daddy sees and grabs me.

This time I make it, but I stop on the back porch. It is so dark and cold. Where should I go? Is Momma in the front yard? Did she make it out? What if Daddy comes? I’m afraid to move for fear of being heard by my daddy and afraid to stay in case Momma is looking for me outside.

I am aware of her dependence on me. My sense of responsibility is tremendous. It is up to me to figure out what the next move is. She’s counting on me. I can’t let her down.

Suddenly she comes around back calling my name in stage whispers, gingerly opening the screen door, joining me on the porch.

I am so cold and scared I am shaking. Momma sees an old pair of socks lying on the floor and gives them to me, telling me to put them on my hands.

We sneak off the porch, through the backyard gate and tiptoe down the driveway headed toward the porch at the side of the house. It’s a much better vantage point. From there we can see the living room and kitchen plus the hallway leading to my parents’ bedroom. This is vital. It’s the only way we will know when Daddy goes to bed or passes out in the living room. Then we can tiptoe back inside.

Tonight seems interminable. Daddy’s taking longer than usual. My legs jump up and down like those of a puppet and my teeth are chattering. I don’t know if it’s from fear or the cold.

Momma watches like a hawk from kitchen to living room as Daddy retrieves more and more beer.

* * * * *

Years later I will understand how it is that he can exist with seemingly no sleep. Why sometimes he paces back and forth like a caged animal or sits in his chair staring straight ahead for hours, how he can talk non-stop with rambling thoughts that make no sense. The term manic-depressive will be explained to me.

* * * * *

I am so tired. I wish desperately I could be in a warm bed in a quiet place, but I say nothing. It will be years before I have the nerve to ask my mother why we do this. Why Daddy gets to stay nice and warm inside while we hide, nearly naked, in the cold and dark.

* * * * *

It’s the 1950’s. There are no shelters for battered women. The term hasn’t even been coined yet. No one knows we live like this. Momma has no friends. We rarely see our relatives. Isolation is the key to continuing the denial.

* * * * *

Finally, Daddy staggers to the bedroom. After a seemingly endless amount of time, Momma decides it is safe to re-enter the house. Lifelong cat burglars could not be quieter than we. The stark terror aroused by a too loud footfall is almost incalculable. When I finally reach my room, the mere act of getting into bed seems gargantuan in proportion. Daddy is in a drunken stupor less than 20 feet away. The creak of bedsprings could start our nightmare all over again. The pressure on me not to awaken this sleeping giant is almost unbearable. I hold my Momma’s life in my hands.

* * * * *

My parents and I were not the only participants in this little game of life. I had a brother who was four years older. His name was Danny, but Casper would have been more appropriate, for to me he seemed a ghost.

When I was seven we moved from our tenement apartment to our first house and my first big girl bed. I had slept in my baby bed up to this point. We couldn’t afford anything new.

At first, after the move, Danny shared a room with me, but an attic room was soon turned into a bedroom for him. Access to this room was by a stairway off the kitchen right next to the back door.

The location of this room did physically for my brother what he had already accomplished mentally, an almost total disassociation from the rest of the family.

No matter the crisis, no matter the amount of screaming or objects tossed and broken, Danny avoided most of the torture going on downstairs by hiding in his room. Most, but not all.

* * * * *

I am 10 years old. I have a little dog named Trixie. I call her my circus dog ’cause she reminds me of those little dogs you see on the Ed Sullivan Show doing circus tricks. She’s a fox terrier. I found her one day while walking home from school and talked Momma and Daddy into letting me keep her.

It’s a Saturday afternoon. Daddy’s been drinking most of the day. He and Momma are arguing. I’m in the bathroom going pee.

Suddenly, I hear Momma screaming, then footsteps running toward me. The bathroom door bursts open from Momma’s blow. “Get out!” “Get out!” she screams as she turns and runs back through the dining room, into the living room, and out the front door.

I’m hurrying as fast as I can. Don’t wipe! Jump up! Pull up pants! Then I hear it…. The Wail. What was that? Don’t stop to flush. Run! Run! Out the bathroom, through the dining room, into the living room and out the front door.

I’m looking, looking. Where are they? Momma? Danny? I want to scream with fear, “Don’t leave me!”

Then I see them. They are three, maybe four, houses down the street, ducking behind a neighbor’s hedge. Even from here I can see the fear on Momma’s face and the mortification on my brother’s.

I run to where they crouch. Now Danny is bold, almost standing upright in defiance. Though I am only 10, I understand his shame and anger.

We watch the front door of our house for any sign of Daddy. The door opens and he comes out onto the porch. He’s cradling something in his arms. It’s Trixie, wrapped in a towel. Danny, Momma and I walk hesitatingly back to the house. Daddy is crying, other than that he seems normal. He wants me to go to the neighbor’s house and ask them to take us and Trixie to the vet. ‘Tell them she was hit by a car,’ he says through sobs.

* * * * *

Danny and I got Trixie to the vet, but she died soon after. Later, Momma told me Trixie was beaten in the head with a hammer intended for Momma.

I will never forget the look of Trixie’s blood-filled eyes and my father holding her in his arms.

We never spoke of that dog again, but I know she was real. I kept the pictures of her.

* * * * *

Some memories are so traumatic they can be recalled only in fragments.

* * * * *

I am eight or nine. My parents and my brother went somewhere together. My parents have returned. I watched as they got off the bus across the street. We have no car. As they come into the house I can tell something is wrong. My mother is anxious. My father drunk. Where is Danny?

Daddy has a rifle. How did he bring that home on the bus? Is it a gift for Danny? Whispers. Loud voices. Something happened on the bus. Danny has a broken arm. Did Daddy do it?

It’s getting dark out. Daddy is drinking more and more. I’m sitting on the sofa in the living room. It’s a small room. A coffee table is in front of me, close enough to touch. On the table are some photographs and a framed copper etching of a horse that Daddy made during one of his stays in the mental hospital.

Momma’s in the kitchen. Daddy sits to my left in his armchair, the rifle in his hands. He wants to show me what a good shot he is by shooting something off the table in front of me. He tells me not to move. The rifle is swaying in his arms. I am really scared.

Momma runs into the room and tries to take the rifle away but Daddy hits her in the head with the butt of the gun. She stumbles but is not knocked out. Daddy has her by the hair of the head with one hand, his other still clutching the loaded rifle.

I hear myself screaming. I can’t stop. Daddy lets go of Momma and lunges at me, yelling for me to shut up. Momma runs out the front door as Daddy grabs me by my bangs and slings me across the room and into a wall. I’m stunned but still conscious enough to hear Momma. She’s on the front porch, screaming through the closed door, “Nan, get out, get out!” If only I knew how.

* * * * *

It’s the mid 1950’s, and I’m in grade school, 4th or 5th. I walk home everyday by myself for much of the way. Most of the other kids live nearer the school. It’s a long walk but I don’t mind.

It’s a beautiful autumn day and there’s a distinct chill in the air. There’s that smell too, the one that people and animals give off when the first cool days of fall arrive.

As I reach home and open the front door I sense that someone is in the house.

“Hi!” Daddy calls out. This is unusual, but I am not afraid. I can tell from just that one word that he is sober.

I go into the kitchen where Daddy is busy cooking. He’s made cornbread in our old cast-iron skillet. The bread is still warm and I watch the steam rise off it, enjoying the aroma. Daddy now puts a lemon meringue pie in the oven.

I have absolutely no idea what this is all about. This must be what it feels like to be normal. To come home to a loving parent baking cookies and pies. I’ve seen it on TV, even witnessed it once or twice at the homes of kids from school, but this is a first for me.

God this is great, I think, and I wonder what I must do to make it happen again.

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