You can read Part I here.
The judge stepped down from the bench and came over to where we stood with our attorney, clustered around a wooden table. The moment was celebratory. He had just approved Sue’s adoption of my sister and me.
“Congratulations,” the judge said as he reached out to shake my hand. “Now she can spank you legally.”
I swear, those were his exact words.
To another family, it would have meant nothing, a joke. But the words burned through me, true and scorching.
Little details about that day stand out. It was in the summer, June 29, and we missed Vacation Bible School to go to court. I carried a crescent-shaped blue and white purse. I was 10. Grown up enough for a purse, I suppose. And grown up enough to know that all the lots had been cast. This, the final one. It could not be undone, and now no one would try. That was maybe the worst of it. The lawyers had met the legal requirement to attempt to contact my mother. Last known address, that sort of thing. My mother never knew about the hearing. She wouldn’t find out until nine years later about the adoption.
I know I smiled that day. Everyone smiled and said how great it was that we were finally a real family. By then, I was well-practiced at getting along, a skill that may be the one thing in my nature that saved me. But inside, everything felt clenched and heavy and wrong. I knew the adoption had little, if anything, to do with love, though I suppose Sue must have told herself it did. Control was the currency in our family, and it annoyed me that we stood there, pretending that we had all chosen this. That this was the dream, and it had come true, and how lucky we were that she wanted to be our mother.
By the time she adopted us, Sue had been our stepmother for six years. Those years unfolded as fast and as slow as any, with seasons and holidays measuring the time. But I took measure in a different way. I don’t remember particular Christmases, and few specific birthdays. I guess those things are hard for anyone to remember, just part of the information that falls away as we get older. But I can tell you what happened in the course of a year when I was 7 or 9 or 12, and the array of punishments that marred and marked those years, and all the others.
Writing this, now, I am uncomfortable saying all that happened, but not because it’s hard to tell it, which it isn’t now. Time has helped that. My struggle is with myself to justify my reasons for telling the story at all. In that discomfort and unease, I know that now is not then. That now I have a voice, a pen, and people who will listen. I’m a reporter, in a sense. But to what end? Where’s the story now? Who does it benefit?
That girl from then hardly exists now. She’s a small thing inside me, cushioned all around by years and uncountable kindnesses. By love. By strength and courage. And even by anger and knots of desire for retribution that come and go like a tide that, thankfully, stays at sea for long stretches of time.
The truth is, then is the only time that telling my story would have made a difference. But it was a different time. Back then, almost nothing happened on the few times that a shadow of suspicion crept out of our house and made its way to the proper agencies. One of which employed my father as a counselor for troubled adolescents and their families.
Irony isn’t a big enough word.
No words are. How do you say, in small words on a page, things so vast and painful?
Should that girl tell about the time she ate her plateful of beets out on the front steps, without silverware, because she used bad manners at the dinner table? “You can eat like the dog if you’re going to act like a dog,” Sue said. Should she tell about the night when she had an accident in the bathtub, and Sue held her head underwater in it? Should she tell about the time when she was five that Sue told her she was going to go live with a different family, and to go pack her suitcase? And that, then, Sue drove her down a long country road and forced her out of the car, leaving that girl standing on the side of the road with a suitcase, wailing and alone and frightened as Sue drove away and out of sight? Is it important to tell about all of the times when food was withheld? (Once, for three days, because I wasn’t weeding the garden fast enough.) Or how my sister and I would count for each other, when Sue would beat us, the number of times the other was struck. It was an important thing to know, and when it’s happening to you, it’s hard to keep track. And there were the raw, whole onions we were made to eat if we told a lie.
(I just realized that in that paragraph I switched from third person to first–I guess that’s a good sign. Of something.)
The fact of it is, it’s all too much to put in one place. Like writing a book with just one chapter. No beginning, middle, or end, because it’s all just middle, with no end in sight, and who can remember the time before it was like this?
Fortunately, as I said, now isn’t then. And there was an end, at least to all of that. My father finally divorced Sue when I was in college. I am no longer afraid of her. If she has any sense, she should be afraid of us, and of what we could say.
There’s one more thing I want to leave with you, something hopeful.
One of the punishments Sue relied on was to strike our hands with a ruler. I’m sure we’ve all heard of someone who has experienced this. It seems to be the stuff of dark Catholic school stories, brought to bear upon little hands by stern nuns.
In our house, there were degrees of this punishment. She used a heavy plastic ruler, which she kept in a pencil cup next to her chair in the living room. (She also kept one on the visor in the car, to extend her reach in case we misbehaved there.)
If we had done something particularly bad, she would strike with the narrow edge of the ruler. There were times when my hands were so bruised that my fingers curled under like a claw and would stay that way for hours. (Bear with me, I promise I’m going somewhere good.)
My hands are not pretty. Under any circumstances, they would look nothing more than capable. I don’t have long narrow fingers or nailbeds. These hands have done any number of chores, and I haven’t always taken as good care of them as I should. I do now, and have for the past few years. But they are what they are, and I’m not going to get another pair.
Sometime in late elementary school, I began to pay careful attention to my handwriting. I practiced the Palmer Method, and then took off on my own, pleased with what I could do with a pen and my imagination. I filled pages and pages with uppercase letters, especially W’s, which are still my favorite letter to write. I added swirls and flourishes to the letters, and made them my own. It took a lot of years, but eventually I developed penmanship that I was proud of, and even won a modest award for it a few years ago.
But it wasn’t until I was working on a scene in my book that I recognized the seed of my desire for nice penmanship, and for the hours and hours I spent working on it. It was right there all along, and I would have had to do nothing more than scratch aside a little bit of soil to find it.
In the scene, Eva, the main character, is showing her new calligraphy studio to the housekeeper who has been with the family for years. Here are the few lines that tell it:
Maggie turned and took Eva’s hands in both of her own and held them tight. “You showed her. Do you hear me?” She locked eyes with Eva, an earnest look, damp with tears. “Look at me. You showed her.”
It was the first time Eva recognized the irony in the work she had chosen, how something beautiful flowed from the same hands her mother had beaten. She did not know how she could have missed it.
And that’s really everything, isn’t it? If we are among the many whose parents have failed us, isn’t it up to us to become what we are, who we are meant to be, not because of them, but in spite of them?
I am glad for the moments when I see that, the hard, beautiful truth of it.
When I do, I hold it in my hand like a prized marble, and I go on.