We knew better than to question his actions, instead, we focused on keeping him happy, buoying his spirits further by listening to his mindless chatter. Whenever something big had happened, like what happened in the morning, he would spend weeks being nice, never talking about his behavior, but always being extra loving. Sometimes, I would wake up and both my parents would be sleeping on the floor; my mother having left my side to join him sometime during the night.
My father didn’t drink, and he didn’t smoke. But then again, he didn’t like to brush his teeth or bathe that often. He was certainly a confusing person to live with. After noting his behavior, knowing his sudden mood swings could result in pain and tears, I learned to wear the thickest clothing, layering up to three shirts in the evening, over big bulky jeans, hoping to avoid the worst of the lashings that inevitably would happen. I never knew when the blows would land, or where, but in the afternoon, at the first sound of his booming shout/laugh as he galloped his horse through the streets of our village, my stomach would clench.
The slow pain of anticipation would spread from the pit of my stomach to my heart, which would join in a panicked race, my skin would crawl, covered in gooseflesh, my ears would start ringing or buzzing, and my toes would tingle. The pain in my stomach would grow, causing my breath to become shallow. By the time he arrived, I may as well have lain on the grass in front of the house, stripped bare, waiting for him to flay me alive.
Still, life went one. I guess by force of habit, I learned to live with the abuse, and learned to not show how much I was affected. When he was in a good mood, I would shower him with kisses. I would read stories to him, some funny, some not so funny. He loved when I read him stories; he couldn’t read, you see. He became so frustrated when I tried to teach him, and after my first attempt at being teacher to father, I learned not to bring up the subject. Instead, I focused on showing him, with my hands, my face, my body language, and through my voice, the world that lay within those magical pages. He would sit in his favorite chair, made of deerskin stretched over wood, and I would sit on my little stool, holding the book to face him.
When he was in a bad mood, I learned not to cry out too loudly, for that would anger him more. I learned not to jump in and try to defend my mother. They both turned against me. In the case of my mother, I felt such a sense of betrayal when I tried to stop him from what I thought was killing her. She turned harshly on me, preferring to suffer at his hands than to have me try and come between them.
At some point, I became nearly immune to their behavior, having found a rhythm that worked. I learned to be a bit more selfish, if it meant keeping the peace. I learned that everything soon ended, and that the next day, the sun would rise, and the days would continue to come. We simply made the best of the life we obviously had to live.
At some point, things had to change, as I was learning very quickly. One night I overheard them talking in low whispers, and every once in a while, they would mention a name, Pedro. I tried not to alert them to the fact that I was awake, so by focusing on my breathing, I actually did fall back into sleep. When I woke up the next morning, mother was cheerfully humming as she cooked runny eggs and poured me a big mug of hot, sweet coffee. There was a stack of pancakes on the table as well, with honey in a nice big bowl. It was Saturday, so I figured that we had plans for Sunday that did not include pancakes. Big meals like this didn’t come round very often. And I loved Mother’s pancakes, so without questioning, I sat and ate like a greedy pig. As I ate, I tried hard to remember what I had overheard in the night, yet nothing came to mind. The memory of a five year old can be depressingly short. One too many knocks on the head can do that I guess.
I was so busy eating and enjoying my meal that I failed to notice the dogs playing in the yard, or the horse that munched grass outside the fence. I didn’t notice that my father’s boots were in the exact place where I had placed them the evening before. In fact, had his booming “Good Morning” not resounded through our little wood house with the tin roof, I would have forgotten that I even had a father. But he did shout his greeting, and I very nearly jumped out of my skin. He strode into the house, dwarfing the space. He always seemed like such a big, strapping man; dark and stormy faced, hardly ever smiling. But this morning, he smiled. He laughed heartily and picked me up to bounce me in the air.
Eventually both adults deigned to explain their plans. They were leaving me with my grandparents, and aunts and uncle, as they were heading to a place called San Pedro. There was lots of work to do there, and money to make. The pancakes I had been eating suddenly felt like rocks in my stomach. What would happen to my mother without me around? How would Papa treat her in a different place? Would I never see her again?
Mother must have noticed that I was upset, for she gave me a stern look. “I have told you many times, you are a big girl.” (I was FIVE!) “I don’t want to hear any crying, and I don’t want you to miss us.” I nodded. Papa’s smile disappeared very quickly, and suddenly, I really didn’t want to miss either of them. I was glad that he would be gone, which meant no more beatings. I was tired of being told to be strong, yet Mother never seemed to be strong enough to stop Papa when he was being mean. If she was strong, she wouldn’t cry every time he was mean, she would be mean back. Resolved that I was quite happy to be rid of them, I smiled and continued eating my pancakes.
After that, Mother spent the rest of the day packing her clothing into her one good suitcase. My clothes, shoes, books and other small things were packed into a few crocus sacks and taken to my grandparents. Grandma was a very round, small person who hardly ever gave hugs, but loved to feed me. She was always trying to give me hot buttered corn tortillas with crushed pepper. With her wild, curly gray hair that stuck out funnily every which way, and her wrinkled face, she looked like a very old little girl. Grandpa just looked like a grandfather. He was very strict, serious, and quiet. My aunts were jolly and fun, but grown up. I was to be the baby of the house. I liked that idea very much. I also liked that I would be sharing my aunts’ bed, like a big pile of puppies.
Sunday we spent just being a family, eating, reading (me) and preparing for school (me). The next day, at a most awful early hour, while the sun was still struggling to cast its rays over the mountains, and dew lay over the valley like a thick cotton blanket, Mother and Papa covered me in a blanket and took me over to the cluster of thatched buildings where Grandma and Grandpa waited. Mother hugged her parents tightly while Papa just stood to the side watching, a funny look on his face. I sat on the bench in the dining area, shivering with cold, and something else. Papa came over and kissed me soundly, and in a gentle voice, asked me to be good. Mother echoed his request, telling me to study hard, and to be the smartest one in class. To do my homework, and listen to Grandma and Grandpa and Aunties and Uncle (and I guess everyone else in the village). I didn’t see the exchange of money, but I knew that money was left to take care of me.
Before I knew it, they had left. I sat on the bench and watched them walk away. They grew smaller and smaller, while the sun crept and sat atop the mountain. Their shadows stretched out to me, as their bodies went further and further away to the roadside, over the little curbside and into a waiting vehicle, that then drove off - without me. I did not cry – instead, I thought back to what Mother had told me so many times. “You were born alone. You will leave this place alone.” I watched them leave, and then I turned and faced my new family.
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