I remember a surprising amount of my toddler years.
I can recall the difficulties of balance after learning to walk. I remember my first bike, a rather scratched and tired red tricycle with white handlebars. It had those hard rubber wheels that never required inflating and caused your teeth to rattle when you rode it. And I can still recall the exact layout of the first house we lived in at the city boundary — a single-wide trailer headed up by a tiny living room at the front of the trailer furnished with classic brown shag carpet and off-white linen curtains with a row of lace along the bottom. I remember the curtains smelling of dust.
I can mindfully call forward the details of that first home vividly. I was barely 3 years old when we moved from that place.
I mention this because in my pre-teen years I would recall the same vivid sights and sounds of many of my first memories bordering a synesthesia-style experience.
A recurring sound that bubbled up through my memories when I was much too young and innocent to understand would randomly creep into my head whenever I was alone with my thoughts in the dark.
For years that sound remained a mystery to me and always presented itself in my head as a sopping-wet paper bag being thrown against a brick wall. The sound that always followed the smack of the wet paper bag was obvious to me, a woman sobbing. To me, the smack and the sob were two separate sounds. I didn’t tie one sound to the other, or that the sobs belonged to my mother.
I was around 7 years old when I tied the fleshy punch sounds and the pleas together.
“Ok, ok, ok! I am sorry. Stop! I am sorry. I won’t do it again. I am sorry!” Mother cried out but her words were cut off by that sound again.
The smack of the “paper bag” was now apparent to me; the sound of a fist connecting with flesh and sadly, on cue, my mother would sob.
Old enough to know this didn’t sound like a good situation I stepped through the open door of my bedroom and yelled into the endless unlit hallway that bled into the blackness of night.
I cried out toward my parent’s bedroom asking my mother if she was OK. The sound of winced words slipped through what sounded like a clenched jaw. The words crawled out of the blackness, bouncing off the walls and clawed into my ears.
“I’m ok.“ The words lied to me and told me everything was fine and that I needed to go back to bed. The lying words belonged to my Mother.
Perceptive enough to pick up on her lies, but equally aware of a sensation of fear, I allowed her lying words to press into my ears a little more and I obeyed her. I crawled into my bed that night learning of the sensation of dread.
I’d listen to this sound for years. Whack. Sob. A sound much worse to hear when you know it’s not a wet paper bag that’s getting smacked around. My stomach would eat itself many times over as I came into the realization I had done nothing as a son to help my mother, and that I was still too small at that age to help her defend herself.
What started out as spankings for my sister and myself from my father progressed into full closed-fist punches. All three of us took the hits from him; my mother, my sister and myself.
I recall going to school once with a puffy black eye and a swollen red cut above my eyebrow courtesy of my father’s rage. The marks on my face were the result of my school principal calling my father to inform him I was misbehaving in school. I remember asking the principal to not call my father. I explained that I understood the serious nature of my actions if he would go as far as calling my father and I assured the principal that the call wouldn’t be necessary.
When I got home from school that day it was clear the principal had called my father. I recall the punch to the face as I sat on my bed in my room and the unwelcome darkness that followed. He knocked me flat out unconscious. I was in 3rd grade.
Times were different then and while spanking a child was accepted, it was a blurry line determining if it was adequate punishment or abuse gone too far.
My principal saw me the next day teetering across the monkey bars on the playground. The fresh-cut above my eye seemed to act as a tractor beam that sucked him toward me. He marched toward me locking eyes with my gibbled face and stopped me mid-dangle on the metal crossbar to ask me where I got the injuries from.
“I ran into an open door” I replied.
We both knew I was lying. The principal gave me a look of guilt and I knew he knew the truth at that moment. Pursing his lips together he held my gaze for what seemed like an eternity before he exhaled through his nose into his graying mustache and said plainly “Is that right?” He walked away leaving me mid-dangle on the metal bars.
The principal and I never spoke again until I showed up to school with a broken arm one year later in the 4th grade. He asked about my arm but with a look of concern on his face. I knew what he was really asking, but I never answered him. The silence that hung in the air between us was likely louder than any words I would have said at that moment. He aimed another sigh back to me, the familiar sound of his nose hair breathing through his mustache broke the silence.
Perhaps the broken arm confirmed to him what was happening at home and his pep talk was sincere. At the end of his exhale he came out and said with a softness I hadn’t heard from him “It’ll all work itself out if you just be tough.”
I could tell he meant well and was genuinely sorry for me. Times were different then and while spanking a child was accepted, it was a blurry line determining if it was adequate punishment or abuse gone too far. I guess my principal couldn’t decide which side of that line I fell into so nothing was done.
A part of me wanted to cry out to him that the attending doctor who treated my arm told me directly when my mother stepped out from the triage area that the break in the outer bones of my arm was characteristic of a blocking maneuver and is often the sign of an abused child defending themselves. I wanted the truth to be heard, but I couldn’t speak the truth.
Nothing was said between us. By “us” I mean neither the doctor nor the principal was willing to discuss the potential meaning behind my broken bones outside of myself, and thus, nothing further came of it.
As I said, times were different then.
Originally published at theanonymousson.com on February 13, 2019.