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DO THE ROOTS OF DOMESTIC ABUSE BEGIN IN CHILDHOOD?
She was the new kid in class grades K-6, once attending as many as three schools in a year. Terrible at sports, barely adequate in her studies and a complete failure at making friends, she found love and acceptance with the family pets. It seemed the family always lived in the country sometimes as close as a mile outside but often a grueling forty-five minute bus ride away.
Her saving grace was an imagination that surpassed her years. It allowed her joy that, for a time, replaced the aching hurt that came from not being invited to birthday parties, having no one to sit with at lunch or always being the last one “picked” to play on a team. In her mind she could be anything or anyone she chose. The dogs and cats attended her parties, played on her team and always, above all, were delighted with her presence. She learned to nurture by using an eye dropper to feed the pups of a mother dog that couldn’t nurse her large litter and patience and timing from watching the cats crouched in anticipation of springing on an unsuspecting bird.
In school she was at first awkward and shy but by third grade, sullen and indifferent. With each move, another new school, another sea of faces judging her as the teacher humiliated her with the standard, ‘Class this is our new student …”speech and another piece of her died. She had quit trying to belong and finally would not reach out to the few kids along the way that tried to offer friendship. She had learned that saying goodbye cost much more than she was willing to pay. The teachers found no particular talent in this student. Her Math skills by grade five were more like those of a third grader and by the time her records caught up with her it was time to move again. She would not feel the full effects of this constant uprooting until much later. You do not long for that which you refuse to desire.
At an imperceptible pace she internalized the lack of interest displayed toward her. If she were, indeed unlovable, stupid or inadequate she believed that made her responsible for others reactions to her and gave her the power to control the outcome. By eleven, chameleons could have improved upon their natural gift as her understudy. Whatever or whomever the situation called for it was in her repertoire. She was as multifaceted as a fine diamond and as authentic as a cubic zirconia. Years intended for developing a sense of self and a purpose, time traditionally spent planning one’s future were consumed with the maddening race to stay a millisecond ahead of the required personality. It would take her some twenty-five years to realize the futility.
Who do you want me to be?
Summer in this new town hadn’t been too bad. Lynn had the entire day to herself after finishing the housework. Since the efficiency she and her Mom lived in was right uptown she was close to everything. There was only one other woman that lived at the hotel and Mom said she was not to talk to her because she was not a decent woman. All of the others, male residents, occupied the single rooms and didn’t have a stove/refrigerator unit like Mom’s room. Mom said they had the nicest room in the whole place and besides, it was only two blocks from her job. They were very fortunate to have found this place.
The Burchard, in its day, had been a modest hotel for the Santa Fe railroad workers. The lobby’s only offering was an expanse of ten foot tall windows that stretched the entire width of the building. They faced the river and if one stretched their imagination past the train yards and the adjoining scrap yard, it could be considered rather nice view. Lynn had brought hers, along with the brown real leather suitcase with the belt fastened around it to secure the contents.
Her days of Summer freedom found her in the stores downtown inspecting each aisle’s content as if contemplating the purchase of a rare painting. Each item had an owner and if that guy from The Millionaire ever showed up to give her that check, her shopping was already done. At eleven years and nine months she could have been a buyer for Saks. She could feel the quality within the texture of a garment, spot bisque from thirty paces and distinguish Channel from a cheap knock-off. She didn’t seem to notice the raised eyebrows or close scrutiny of the clerks as she made her daily rounds. Grownups weren’t her judge she was fearless in this setting. She viewed, weighed and deemed items worthy or dismissed them as useless imitations.
When she wasn’t tending to her self-appointed position of quality control expert, she could generally be found walking the railroad tracks or perched on a log or rock at river’s edge, pondering thoughts no child should have to concern themselves with. This was the case today. School would start in eight days. She’d prayed, two weeks straight, to be stricken with a highly contagious disease or at least something serious enough to leave her bedridden and requiring a tutor. The torment of the last town and school had almost finished healing but summer was betraying her and leaving her to start again. Mom had tried to turn this into one of the woman’s every famous adventures. She had taken Lynn shopping the week before and put three new outfits on layaway. She reminded the girl that she would be able to buy her lunch at school this year instead of carrying a lunch box because she was starting Jr. High. Her mother, having attended two schools in her entire life, both of which were in the same town, held no valid opinions in the eyes of this girl who would soon be starting tenth school in six years.
She had discussed this matter with Old Joe while he was trying to watch the Ed Sullivan show on the hotel’s tv last evening. The lobby was full but when she walked in a man who looked as if his face had gone through a meat grinder relinquished his seat.
“Old Joe”, the girl had tried to call him Mr. Ashton once and had been swiftly renounced and told to save her manners for someone who appreciated them - his name was Joe …Old Joe. “Can I ask you a question?
“Just got out of the Pen, armed robbery, stay clear of him.” The old man assumed she was curious about the new resident. ‘Words been given from the rest to leave you be. Here – get us a Coca-Cola", he handed her two dimes.
She was always guaranteed a chair in the lobby and a bottle of pop. Being the only kid, she found herself adopted by a well meaning, if not well bred, menagerie of ex-cons, construction and retired factory workers. She loved listening to their stories and besides having a fresh ear, being gullible made her a welcome audience to newly embellished tales of worn out memories.
“Old Joe,” she was having a hard time competing with the dog on tv who could bark The Yellow Rose of Texas.
Eyes still on the set, the old man acknowledged her, “Yeah kid, what is it?”
“Well, I was wondering. Were you ever scared – I mean so scared that you couldn’t hardly breathe and your stomach hurts and you can’t get your voice to work?”
Old Joe reluctantly turned his head from his most favorite show … well next to Bonanza. “Yeah, I been that scared. What’s scaring you?” His eyes narrowed and scanned the room for a possible intruder of this child’s fragile sanctuary.
“I’ve gotta start school – Jr. High – and I just don’t think I can stand it. I think I’ll die!”
Relieved that the girl wasn’t in any danger he scratched his head and pondered her problem a respectable amount of time. “How old are you girl?”
“Twelve in two months.” She knew Old Joe would have an idea.
“Twelve huh? Well them authorities ain’t gonna let you quit, not even on your Ma’s say so. This Jr. High place, it’s a bad one?” Old Joe made it through fifth grade but he didn’t know too much about this place the girl dreaded. He knew it must be pretty fierce to worry her so because he’d seen this little hellion go to it with the so called manager of this hotel and even the men didn’t cross him. She’d come to check their mail one day and the manager informed her that yes they did have mail and he would turn it over when her Mother turned over that week’s rent and not before. For good measure he’d added that if he saw her God-damned cat out in the parking lot again, he’d shoot it. Old Joe remembered the string of obscenities that had come out of that perfect little mouth. When it was over, she had the mail, an apology and the respect of all who had witnessed the scene.
“It’s not just that it’s a junior high instead of a grade school, Joe, it’s another new school. Me and Mom move a lot. We just came from Burlington and before that Galesburg and before that, about twenty other places. Every time we move I have to start another school and being the new kid is Hell. I hate it! I just don’t want to go! I’m sick of the kids making fun of me and chasing me home and beating me up” … tears made their way silently down the troubled little face.
Joe had been in many a bar fight, took a knife away from a drunk and never got a scratch. He served in WWIl, carried his buddy, arm missing and half his face blown off, back to the foxhole. He’d fell in love with a woman who’d ripped his heart clean outa his chest and still, it didn’t compare with the torture of watching this little one pour out her heart and him not knowing what to do for her. She was a pretty little thing. She dressed ok he guessed, though he didn’t pay much attention to how kid dressed these days, but she was always clean and neat and didn’t have patches on her clothes or holes in her shoes. She was plenty smart too. She had held her own in conversations with every resident in this place, even the encyclopedia salesman that had stayed for three weeks boring everybody with being so full of his self. Joe couldn’t think of a reason why this kid should have a bad time at school. He thought hard, but all he could come up with was the offer to walk her to and from school.
She wiped her face with the back of her sleeve and smiled her thanks to him. “It’s ten blocks, one way, Old Joe, and I” … she didn’t want to mention that he was barely able to make it up to his room some days ,”I know you have important things to do during the day. I’ll be all right. Don’t know what came over me – just being a candy ass, huh?" She knew there was nothing he could do for her. There was nothing anyone could do.