Being independent and on my own came easy. I had only grown ups to deal with on a daily basis. I slept in bed with my mother, and Papa slept on the floor next to us. We had conversations about everything at the end of the night, right before drifting off to sleep. I never spoke much, but I was privy to the talks, and I just listened and absorbed. I was being raised to be quiet, to speak only when spoken to. My discipline when I stepped out of line was swift, painful, and a constant reminder that I was the child, not the grown up.
My mother would often tell me how Papa started whipping me when I was around 9 months old. He started with his hands. I would sometimes wake up crying, and despite her desire to run and pick me up, he would hold her back. “Let her cry. She won’t cry blood.” I guess when the wailing had gotten unbearable, he would finally go to my makeshift bed, pick me up and spank me on the bottom. Eventually, he slept with a cloth nappy next to him. Yes. No disposable diapers for me; I was raised on the very environmentally friendly, cloth nappies. Now when I did wake up and wail, he had a makeshift belt ready to whip me with. “It didn’t happen all the time,” said Mother. “Sometimes I swear you cried for fun. There were days when I had to go look and see if you were awake. Those days you’d be happy playing with your toes and fingers.”
By then, I knew something was also going on between them. Often I would come home from school and find Mother crying into the fabric she was sewing. At first, I tried hugging and cheering her up, but she snapped at me so often to leave her alone that I learned not make a sound while she collected herself. Sometimes she would look at me with such sadness, and it was then that she would have “talks” with me. “Baby, you know how you were born by yourself?”
“Don’t ever forget that you came to this world alone. And you will leave it alone.” She would slowly unravel some errant thread, loosening fabric and starting to stitch all over again. “I want you to know, you’re my baby. But one day, you will have to be alone. Be good. Be strong. Okay?”
What could I do but nod, and say yes? I wonder if she ever heard me, for she would get back to pumping the pedal on her old fashioned sewing machine. I didn’t question what she was telling me. I didn’t repeat what she said either. Instead, I listened, tucked away these bits of information, and tried not to think about them too much.
Sometimes at night, Mother would take me to church with her. We always attended the Evangelist church that was closest to our house. We would walk with our flashlights. Sometimes we didn’t even turn on the light because the moon, pale and shining in the sky, lit our way. The hours of the pastor’s screaming, the toneless singing, and sometimes, the very amusing convulsions (raptures) that some churchgoers displayed seemed to last forever. I never learned the songs. I spent most of the time looking forward to Mother taking me to the store and buying me a snack to eat on the way home. Snacks were a rarity. Papa wanted me to have good, straight teeth. Sometimes he spent almost an hour with his fingers in my mouth, pressing my teeth every which way, forcing them straight. (No orthodontist bill for him!) Anyway, after church, it was time to grab my shilling and head to the shop. Mother would stay at the church talking to people while I ran to buy my chips and ideal.
When I got back, sometimes there were a few people still standing around, and sometimes, Mother would be alone. Sometimes, there was a man walking off very quickly when I turned the bend. Mother would grab my hand very quickly and we would set off for home. I had to gulp down my treats very quickly, for I was practically trotting home.
One night as we rounded the second bend over the last hill, Papa was waiting for us. He just stood silently under the moonlight, his shadow long, reaching out for us. Mother faltered just one step, but continued walking fast, calling out to him. He watched me as I guiltily dropped my snack on the ground, and still, he said nothing.
He picked me up and swung me over his shoulder. “How was church mi baroncita?” (My boy-girl)
“Did you learn any songs?”
“Um…not really; they’re hard.” I dreaded this question. He often asked me it after our church outings. I never could carry a tune, and he always asked me to sing for him.
“Well I guess tonight you will learn.”
We got home in record time. After the kerosene lamps were lit, the song book was taken out of Mother’s purse, and Papa sat down and flipped the pages. He could not read a word in the book, but he flipped and flipped, finally choosing a random song. A slow hymn. “Sing this one.”
“But Papa, I can’t. I don’t know how it goes.”
“SING!!!!” His order was a loud bark. I jumped in fright, tears at the ready.
“I don’t…ow!” Smack came his fist on the side of my head. A shoe flew at me, grazing my shoulder.
“Sing! No daughter of mine will go to church and NOT KNOW HOW TO SING A GODDAMN CHURCH SONG! SING!”
I hastily read the lines on the booklet, wondering if perhaps those God-damned angels would help me with the tune. No such luck. I stuttered out the worst rendition of a church hymn; even the devil would have ripped his ears out at the horrible sound that I made. After I was done, tears streaming down my face, head bowed in shame, all I could hear was his clap. “There, that wasn’t so hard was it?”
The next morning I woke up to the clatter of dishes in the kitchen. I head sounds that were most definitely of Mother crying. The dogs sounded excited, yipping and snuffling. I peeped outside into the kitchen and caught sight of Papa throwing his plate of food to the ground, where the dogs devoured every single scrap.
“You see, only the DOGS WILL EAT YOUR COOKING!” He grabbed the fryjacks (! My favorite!) from the bowl on the table and tossed it into the fire hearth. They started spattering and smoking instantly. Mother tried to get out of the way of the hot fat, and that only seemed to irritate Papa more. He held her close to the fire, her hands were so close to the hot pots and glowing red coals. “Maybe I should burn your hands; maybe that’s how you will learn to cook.”
It took superhuman effort for my mother to not flinch at those words. Her silence seemed to stall him. He loosened his grip and she ran out from the kitchen and away from the fiery danger. Papa let her go, choosing to whistle for his dogs then stalking off to his saddled horse. With one swift jab to the mare’s flank, he was off, galloping to work.
The kitchen was full of smoke, the smell was acrid. Mother simply sat on a chair next to her sewing machine. She wasn’t even crying any more. She just sat, looking at her hands, then her feet, anywhere but where I stood. I gave in to my impulse and went to her lap, forcing her knees open, and snuggling in as close as I could. I hugged her for what seemed like hours, while outside the smoke billowed into the morning air. Just for once, neither she nor I were alone.
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