Personal Essay/2600 words-15 minute read
By M. Jane Letty
Christmas Day, 1974: Holding my little brother’s hand in mine, we waited for our dad to give us permission to come downstairs. I’d learned to be quiet about it, but my brother was only five and he thundered down. Still, we arrived at the bottom at the same time together holding hands. It looked better and worse than it did last night.
Propped up and leaning in the corner of our living room was our Christmas tree, doing its best to stand up straight despite its bent green-red metal prongs trying to hide the bare spots from snapped off branches so as not to accuse how it got that way. Half-torn shiny wrapping paper covered the stomped-on presents, that we were not allowed to open last night, were set back under the tree; the reel-to-reel recorder my brother and I were singing Frosty the Snowman into was exactly where we left it, but now the loose tangles of black/brown tape piled on top and the microphone was sitting inside a circle of pine needles from the relocated tree. Sparkly bits of mercury glass from the shattered ornaments glittering like snow in the sunlight, now screaming in through the bay window unfiltered by the downed curtain, resting on the floor like a snow drift against the wall. The few quick-thinking metallic orbs that held on were on the outer side of the tree, while the majority jumped to their death or suffered their own fate under the crush. Only one strand of stretched across it like a scar, but later died-out, and the shiny gold star that was on the top was missing.
Christmas Eve: It was snowing outside. My brother and I were lying on our tummies in front of the TV, playing games, watching Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, and singing into the recorder our grandfather gave to us. We could feel the snow that would blow in each time the door opened. Because of it, I noticed not long after family and friends arrived, they were leaving. First to leave was a man my dad told to get out. I remember him because he asked me if I had a boyfriend. About an hour later, my mom’s dad and the woman with him left after the other loud conversation over my dad being out of work, again. My dad told them to get out, too. He slammed the door behind them and stormed his way back into the dining room. I felt the atmosphere drop. My brother and I went back to singing into the recorder. By then, I’d learned to distract my brother whenever they argued. That dreadful sound of him opening another can of beer pierced through the dividing wall, then he called our mother a whore. I didn’t know what that meant, but she didn’t like it. I could only make out she told him she was leaving him and his telling her she could, but she wasn’t taking his children.
Apparently, the man who asked me if I had a boyfriend, looked at our beautiful mother a little too long, which I later discovered she invited just to aggravate him. She, too, had a mean streak. Without exception, she was a strikingly beautiful woman—shapely, long brunette hair that surrounded her Elizabeth Taylor look-alike features, she moved with a rhythmic grace like one of her favorite songs, Maria Mauldar’s Midnight at the Oasis, and men noticed. It was the 70’s, after all. I adored her and wanted to be just like her when I grew up, except for the mean streak of course. They often had that argument of her looking too good and him being out of work, but this time it would be the worst of them all.
She walked away from him and into the living room to tell us to go to bed so Santa would come. He shoved her from behind, causing her to trip forward. I took note to never walk away from him when he was talking. He kept pushing and pushing and pushing her, until she almost fell on top of us. My brother took cover behind me. Until now, we’d only heard them fighting. I lived with my grandmother, my mother’s mother, until she died three years ago and I was…returned. I don’t know what my brother might’ve seen in that time. We witnessed this, together.
Everything was moving very quickly and our high-pitched pleading with him not to hurt her, distracted him from her pleading with him not to hurt her, was shouted down. The next sound was as awful as the sight of watching him swing her around by her arm, as he punched her in the face. She stumbled back, headed toward the stairs, but he blocked her and slammed her into the wall! She slid to the floor. He kicked her in her belly hard enough to make her vomit. Pulled her up by her beautiful, long brunette hair with one hand and belted her in the mouth with the other. Her head hit and bounced off the metal front door. We stopped screaming when he turned and lunged at us. His eyes, crazed, and his upper lip was raised and quivering—he was snarling. All I could think to do was shove my baby brother under the tree, follow behind him to hide—like we were animals. The cold from the outside suddenly filled the room, taking the chaos with the slamming of the door.
The pressure of that quiet was a false sense of relief and I lost myself in it for as long as it would have me. Curled around my brother, trying to listen, terrified to crawl out from under the tree. I couldn’t hear anything. Everything sounded like we were in a snowdrift and I thought we were safe. I didn’t hear him come back in. Suddenly, the tree lifted, tossed to the side, snapping off its branches, making a terrible crashing sound as it cleared the coffee table of the glass of milk and plate of cookies for Santa and carrots for his reindeer. We tried to move away from him, but he was stomping over things to grab us, he was screaming he loved us and holding us so tight I couldn’t breathe. I was afraid he was going to take us and leave our mother lying, unconscious, on the floor. But he didn’t. He let us go, spit on her, and left…again. I hurried to lock the door behind him. We curled ourselves around our mother, crying and shaking her and calling out “Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!” over and over until she came to. We helped her up the stairs. She told us to get into bed and to stay there, no matter what we heard. I fell asleep, holding my brother, listening to her crying in the shower, and waiting for him to return. It’s a different sound when an abused woman cries—like a seal being clubbed.
The ruins of last night: odors of stale booze and beer, cigar smoke and perfume, and pine was in competition with brewing coffee, smoke of my father’s cigarette was lost to the smell of vomit still in the carpet and drywall coming from the hole in the wall behind us. Sensations newly familiar to me, resumed from their pause. The ringing in my ears and binocular vision, the sour-candy tingle flooding the back of my mouth with saliva upon seeing evidence of yet another rough night on my mother’s face. One of her eyes looked like a plumb, her lower lip split open, and she winced as she leaned over to set his coffee cup on the table beside his tufted reclining throne. My father didn’t look at her, but I wanted him to see what he did to her. Instead, he locked in on my brother and me, baring his teeth with his Cheshire cat-like smile. I swallowed the spit that had pooled inside my mouth and a shuttering breath made me choke on it a little. It felt like my feet welded to the floor and my trembling made my teeth chatter. I was more angry than frightened; more frightened than cold.
These sensations, newly familiar to me, resuming from their pause was…hate.
“Merry Christmas!” I heard my father belt out, loud and sharp, splitting the gravity of the silence and startling my mother. I felt the warm trickle of urine become a stream run down my leg. I was terrified he would notice, hiding under my nightgown, the puddle pooling around my feet. Recalling the last time I spent a week in the basement as punishment after my own beating, of course. I never told anyone it was really my brother who wet the bed when he crawled in with me during one of their fights. I also never told my brother what happened to our puppies, given as an early Christmas present. I named mine, Happy, because she seemed so happy and my brother named his, Pups, because he was five years old. Our father renamed them, Starsky & Hutch. He tied them to a ladder because one of them piddled on the floor. After rubbing their noses in it, he demanded to know which one of them did it as if they could tell him. All that night, they cried and whimpered, tangled up in the chains he’d tethered them with, scratching at the window above where I was crying for them, until they froze to death. Knowing this and looking at what he’d done to our mother the night before, I genuinely believed he’d do to me what he did to them.
Stepping back from him, my mother waved her arms to encourage us to open our presents. My brother’s hand left mine and I followed once I could break my stare at what he did to her beautiful face. We had to kiss him good morning—I didn’t want to. My father told me to open the one tucked under the tree. He also told me to stop staring at him. I wasn’t. I was glaring at him. I didn’t want to open gifts, I didn’t want to do any of this, but did as I was told. I remember no other gift from that year except that one: a state-of-the-art stereo and propped against it, two albums: Dusty Springfield, Cameo, and Helen Reddy’s, Greatest Hits. I wore them both out that year, listening to escape the sound of them fighting; the sound of her crying and numbing my hatred of him. The smoked plastic cover for the record player had a crack down the center, a constant reminder of how it got there, and I hated Christmas from that day forward.
I couldn’t square acting as if nothing happened with what did happen the night before. I also didn’t want to break any harmony, however perverted it was by its lingering presence in our sad little living room, with our sad little tree, and the sad, forced gestures of love and gratitude to “make nice” for my dad and genuine pity for my mother, hugging her—carefully—so as not to break her…again.
After breakfast, our mother dressed us and told us to go play outside in the snow. I didn’t want to leave her with him, but she told me she needed me to take my brother outside to play. Santa gave him a Montgomery Ward sled, the wooden kind with red blades. I pulled him around on it for what seemed like hours, until we were too cold. Returning home, our Christmas tree was lying on its side at the curb like trash, strands of tinsel blowing in the wind like little flags of surrender. Our car was not in the driveway and we didn’t see him the rest of the day, which was just fine by me.
“You’ll know you’ve healed when you can tell your story without crying.” ~Anonymous
I did not cry while writing my own story.
Rather, I cried while writing it for the stories yet to be told.
For many, Christmastime is a joyful, pleasant season filled with hope and light—as it should be. For others, not so much. I’d all but forgotten about the violence of Christmas, until this year. My parents divorced a couple years after this event. Real men don’t use or abuse and terrorize women and children—no exceptions. And, not to blame the victim, but the if the first time is by chance the next is by consequence.
I decided to share such a dark and disturbing story as opposed to a feel-good story about Christmas because I don’t tell “feel-good” stories. Not because they don’t exist. They do! I’m richly blessed to have plenty of my own to tell. I tell the dark stories, like this one, for those who have everything to be grateful for to appreciate them even more and to give hope to those who need to know there’s a way out of the dark and they’re not forgotten just because they’re in the shadows. Also, in the hope that a disaffected reader might be moved or feel empathy.
This year, while many are avoiding anything else that make this manufactured dark time, darker, ignoring the issue of domestic violence doesn’t make it go away just because it’s Christmas. It’s the most dangerous time to be a captive to one’s abuser without the help of political lockdowns. The masks will do at least one thing and very well—they’ll hide busted lips, broken noses, frowns of despair and deny the warm dignity of a smile, an exclusively human-to-human trait. My frustration is with the media and the political class—on both sides. To push their agenda, by refusing to address it, they’re putting millions of women and (especially) children at an even greater risk than covered in an earlier essay, Invisible Snitches. This is not only an American problem, but the politics exploiting it is. That, alone, should be unacceptable to us all. Worse, these same people have diminished trust in the very—and often only—help they could rely upon: law enforcement and have pit neighbor against neighbor. Since it’s working to the advantage of some, they’ll do what they’ve always done—exploit the problem, do nothing about it, and sleep well at night.
Without victims, they have no power. It’s that simple.
If only half the time spent fact-checking just to save face for the elite was spent checking the competence of those imposing policies or welfare-checking the innocent. But, I digress. Arrogance and ignorance will be their legacy and dictate how dark this Christmas shadow will be for generations to come. It might even one day be said of those who were complicit, the children of this “ideological crisis” were political prisoners. By the time they realize who did nothing to stop for the “sake of the children”, those who sentenced them won’t be around to be held accountable. It took me decades to put distance between that Christmas and the life I now enjoy; the love of a good man, my own children to teach the true meaning of Christmas—joy, peace, and the birth of Jesus. It also took years of therapy to come to terms with what happened didn’t have to be re-lived every year and to step out from the shadow of Christmas was entirely up to me to step into the light.
*My intention for sharing this wasn’t as a domestic violence PSA, so I offer no statistics. However, it would be irresponsible not to include the number for National Domestic Violence hotline: 1.800.799.SAFE (7233) and a link that offers steps and precautions if you or someone you know is ready to leave an abusive situation: domestic violence organization.
Thank you for reading.
Copyright© 2020 by M. Jane Letty