I take aim at my mother, Shirley, in 1959
As I entered into my teens I weighed less than 80 pounds “soaking wet” as my father liked to say. I could count on him teasing me about being skinny. I couldn’t count on him to protect me from my mother, Shirley. I had to wait to get big enough to stand up to her on my own.
Shirley was 5 foot two inches and 105 pounds. I lived in terror in her shadow. Like a hurricane she was unpredictable and dangerous. Years later, even as she was restrained in straps, tied to a bed, I still felt unsafe around her. I had only found out she was mentally ill after my little brother was born. All hopes of safety around Shirley were lost knowing she couldn’t control herself.
That makes what happened on a particular morning in 1969 all the more remarkable. I am 14 years old. My baby brother, Eddie, is three years old and Shirley is still a stranger to him since she has spent most of his short three years in a psychiatric hospital. We are eating breakfast – a meal I hated as a kid – and Eddie seems to share my distaste for it.
As Eddie fusses and complains, feeding him becomes increasingly frustrating for Shirley. She is getting more and more agitated, and then suddenly, she slaps him across his tiny face so hard it leaves a bright red handprint on his cheek, and knocks the air out of him. His expression is a frozen scream. No sound comes out of his mouth.
Without thinking I step into the line of fire between my brother and my mother, as she gets ready to hit him again. Where did I find the courage to stand up to this woman who only wreaks havoc in my heart? Standing up to kids who are bullies is something I always feel I must do, even when they are bigger than me. I have to stand up to this bully too.
I physically create the gauntlet to protect my brother, who is still gasping for air. Shirley turns all her violent anger at me.
“I’m going to kill you!” she screams inches from my face.
I am used to Shirley telling me she is going to kill me. She has tried before to follow up on this threat.
Her violent temper looms large in my mind and now it looms larger over me. Little. Skinny. Me. I usually flinch even when she benignly gestures towards me. But this time I shout back, “Not only are you NOT going to kill me. YOU are never going to touch me or Eddie ever again!”
I shocked Shirley. She backed away from me and I moved aggressively, and threateningly, towards her. I was serious. She was now frightened of me. As I look back on this miraculous event, I realize it was the tipping point; a major event made of equal parts fear and courage.
Shirley left the kitchen. I turned my attention back to Eddie. He stopped crying. He still wouldn’t eat breakfast. For all those years, I wondered about what I had to do to end the torment, to stop the torture? All I had to do was stand up for someone else to give myself the courage to say, “Enough!”