THE LONG ROAD FROM A HARD CHILDHOOD TO A SOFT LANDING
I have a story to tell. Lots of other people have the same story — imaginary people like Cinderella and Batman, and lots of real people too — the kind of story that starts off sad and ends happy. The purpose of the story isn’t to make anyone feel sad, or pity, or anything else but absolute faith in their own resilience and strength, and maybe things like karma, destiny, or even magic.
I was a Love Child. The Diana Ross and The Supremes kind. A bonafide bastard in 1964, because many people still thought children could be such things. My mom, Carol, was an 8th grade-educated cocktail waitress in Florida when she met my dad, Jay. She said he was tall and handsome and a good dancer. He was also a college graduate and a realtor and she was crazy about him. When she became pregnant, he wasn’t too crazy about the idea of getting married, or being my father, so my mom moved her uterus and me back to Connecticut where she met and married Frank, the man I grew up believing was my father.
They went on to have my three younger siblings – sweet, active, adorable kids. Now, I knew I was always a little different from my family because, although I was a tomboy who played outside all day, I also loved to read and would get lost in books for hours. As my dad Frank put it — a bomb could have gone off and I wouldn’t have noticed. Eventually I came to suspect I was different from most people in many ways, that I felt things more deeply, saw the world through different eyes.
Things were always rocky in my house, the way I imagine things are in most houses with mothers who have borderline personality disorder.
My first memory is of my mom on the kitchen phone telling somebody she wanted to kill herself. My next memory is my parents arguing at the dinner table and my dad becoming so furious at my mom’s latest antics he took his plate of mashed potatoes and lobbed it against the wall.
The state police came occasionally — sometimes to tell my parents to keep it down because domestic violence was a personal matter back then — and once, to take my mom to the Norwich State Hospital after a suicide attempt. But the thing I remember most from those times were the policemen’s belt buckles. They were polished, brass, shiny, and at my eye-level whenever they came to our front door.
I didn’t realize we weren’t normal until I got a glimpse into the homes and families of my friends. While she was very loving in many ways, it wasn’t unusual for mom to lock us out of the house for hours at a time so she could get a “break.” We’d drink from the garden hose and occasionally neighbors would take pity on us and feed us. She probably wasn’t cut out for having one kid, never mind four.
I adored my dad and would wait on the front porch many evenings until he drove up in his Lehigh Oil company truck, running out to climb up onto his lap and get the kind of clear blue mints they still sell at the Stop and Go in Connecticut.
My parents eventually divorced in 1974 when I was ten. I remember feeling mostly relief because the sadness and fighting stopped when my dad left, but I missed him terribly and never got to see him much. My mom quickly settled into a new life of dating and having the fun I think she thought she’d missed out on while married. Lots of things had held her down in her mind, and I guess her kids were part of the weight she was reluctant to drag around.
I really don’t remember the day — I think I’ve blocked a lot of it out of my mind — but at some point she made a call to the state of Connecticut, spoke to a social worker, and said she wanted to relinquish her parental rights to my three siblings. She was handing them over to the state of Connecticut.
So one spring afternoon, The Worst Day of My Life, I walked home from school to discover that I didn’t have brothers or sisters anymore.
A nice man named Richard Zegda had come to pick them up in a government car (I have very few, broken memories of my childhood, as do many kids who suffered traumatic events, but I’ve never forgotten his name). My mom told them they were going for ice cream but what that meant was a foster home in another city in Connecticut.
She kept me because I was “well behaved and quiet and didn’t complain or ask for much” and I have no doubt that is where I learned to be all those things to this day, because I was a bright kid and figured out quickly that little girls who don’t behave or complain or speak up get sent away to foster homes.
I would occasionally get up the courage to ask her to bring my brothers and sister home, and we would visit them once in a while. When it was time to leave they would cry and plead, “Please let us come home, Mommy. We’ll be good.” She would make some sort of excuse, make me her awful accomplice, and tell me to get in the car. And then she would drive away.
My dad did try to take them in once but he worked full time and there wasn’t daycare like there is now. Courts were also very reluctant to give children to fathers at that time. Perhaps he was not cut out for parenting and so he too eventually gave them back to the state.
Then my dad said goodbye to me over dinner at a Chinese restaurant when I was eleven. It was too hard to see me because of my mom, he explained, and that was probably true because she did make it very difficult for him to have a relationship with me.
I do wish he had tried harder. Once I had a child of my own I thought of my mom and dad. I couldn’t fathom how my mother could abandon her children like Hansel and Gretel in the woods, without so much as a handful of white stones that glowed in the moonlight, to help them find their way home.
I went on through life too trusting, or kind, or stupid perhaps, and a lot of other things that can happen to girls and young women who don’t have fathers or brothers around to stick up for them. What happened? Bad things.
Like my mom’s boyfriend asking to see me in my bra when I was seventeen, being molested in my sleep by a family friend, sexual assault by a co-worker when I was eighteen, then being kidnapped and held at knifepoint for three days, sure I was going to be killed by an especially violent boyfriend when I was twenty-one.
I met more than my share of cruel and abusive boyfriends. In fact, I married one who was kind until we said “I do.” But I stayed over a decade until I woke up one day at age thirty-six with a backbone, determined I wouldn’t take it anymore.
Then I became an adept stonemason, and I was the thing I walled in because it felt safer that way. I spent many years alone with my daughter, comfortable with the only person I’d ever been able to count on — myself.
I finally began chipping away at that wall two years ago and despite my disappointment in the way some people chose to treat me, including being sexually assaulted yet again a year ago, I refused to ever build that wall again.
I’m not perfect. I fail and I falter and I screw up but I try very hard to be kind as much as possible. I don’t accept excuses for cruelty in others for a simple reason: if I can be hurt and mistreated for a good portion of my life and still be kind, anyone can.
I was largely happy being alone, deciding a long time back I did not need “The One” to love. Instead, I would love everyone I encountered to the best of my ability — be it in a grocery store line, or through my work, or a friend. My intention was to leave everyone a little better than I found them.
Eventually, I became open to dating, yet I found my encounters often empty and disappointing. I started thinking maybe something was terribly wrong with me. But I never gave up hoping there was someone who would see me, really take the time to know me, and maybe, just maybe, even love me.
When I first started dating Mike, I broke it off after the third date because he professed some feelings for me which came too fast, and frankly, scared the shit out of me.
Eventually, I agreed to talk to him about it. Mike told me he didn’t care if all we ever remained was friends, but the little bit I was willing to show him revealed a woman who was the kindest person he’d ever known — smart, loving, beautiful on the inside. He said that in the short time he had known me I’d changed him, making him want to be more loving, too.
I believed him. And so I made the best decision I have made in a long time: to remain friends. Then, all on my own, I was able to discover what a kind, smart, amazing man he was.
So the wounded little girl decided to give it another chance; which was good. Mike shows me every day that I should believe him and believe in him.
So I told that little girl she could believe him, too. I told her that she doesn’t have to behave in any one way, or be anything but herself to be loved. She doesn’t have to be sweet or quiet or make herself very small so she won’t be noticed. She doesn’t have to be the one who always gives and gives and doesn’t dare ever want anything for herself.
Today, the grown woman this reluctant little girl became is an amazing woman, one who doesn’t have to constantly spin plates on her own, afraid to let go of one little thing lest it all come crashing down. Neither does she have to hover on autopilot, constantly circling the runway.
I’m happy for me, and the people who love and care about me will be happy for me too, because I’ve found my place to go and be loved unconditionally, to be treated with respect and kindness.
I can set down this plane, because I finally found my soft place to land.
Dawn Elisabeth, originally from Norwich, Connecticut, is currently a hospice nurse whose religion is kindness. She now lives north of Dallas with her pets, garden, and sanity. To contact Dawn, email her at: email@example.com