In grade school I suspected most little girls in my class didn’t hide under their beds at night afraid a drunken parent would yank them awake for no reason.
Actually there were reasons. My mother would rock my sleep-deprived body and warble declarations of love for my father. Stories spewed through her scotch-soaked breath about their college days, and how she missed him, even when he’d be gone for months leaving us with no money. I never knew what to say to her. This love stilled words of comfort.
My father had reasons too. He’d turn on all the lights, crash into the bedroom like a defensive end screaming, “where’s your mother?” Sometimes she huddled under the bed with me. Sometimes she hid in the closet.
I trusted my parents knew what they were doing. My mother taught me to lie to creditors on the phone and steal groceries for the family, sins to the Catholic school nuns. Lying and stealing were secret family virtues, no worse than my imitating her back-slanted handwriting, which the nuns proclaimed a sin of rebellion. Getting these secret family virtues right forestalled soul-crushing parental recriminations.
My sisters and I never talked about the night terrors, the midnight moves, previous friends, schools or neighborhoods. Each time we were evicted I knew we’d never see our classmates again. There was no virtue in displaying the feelings evoked from such abrupt separations. Talking about the past violated some adult moral code beyond my understanding.
Scrunched up in the back seat with my sisters on the road to a new town, I overheard my father tell my mother more than once, “this will be the last move, this school the best, this house the snazziest.” I believed him. My mother did too.
Until she didn’t.
While my father was off on another prolonged toot, Agnes jerked us from our Midwestern roots and moved us to the East Coast. My sister Gael and I moved in with Aunt Joanne, Uncle Bill and their seven children in southern Maryland.
My eighth grade class at St. Mary’s of the Assumption had memorized one poem each month that school year, and in order to graduate, I had one month to memorize all nine poems. Not only did I rebel against this arbitrary standard, I became hysterical over it. But who could I talk to? Agnes had taken my other two sisters to New Jersey to live with another relative. For the first time in my life I absolutely knew she had gotten it wrong. I needed her with me, to defend me against the injustice of those nuns. I had sacrificed a lot for her, and it was time she helped me. My pleadings on the phone did nothing to bring her back to intercede.
Every night after dinner Uncle Bill taught me the meaning of the poems so I’d easily remember their words, O Captain! My Captain!, Annabel Lee, The Tyger, The Chambered Nautilus. This love sang out words of comfort.
I never trusted my mother again.