Leaving Day

October 11, 1974.

Shattered glass. The color blue. 

Early childhood memories are like that. Flashes of a memory. They were talking in the kitchen. I don’t know what was said. I just remember there was broken glass and a blue liquid on the floor while they talked.

Outside was a semi-truck being loaded with things. Our things. We were moving.

Flashes of memories that are detached from the feelings. An out of body experience.

I wanted to ride in the semi-truck. I wasn’t old enough. I rode in the car with mom and grandma. I was jealous of my older brother and sister who were able to take turns riding in the semi-truck.

Jealousy is the only tangible feeling attached to the memories.

We stopped at a Howard Johnson’s.  We ate birthday cake to celebrate.

It was my fourth birthday. Etched in my mind by shattered glass and painted blue.

My mother left her husband that day. A husband who abused her.

The day she left was my birthday. A bittersweet gift.

So much of the strength I see in my mother comes from this day. It harmed me. I can’t deny that. I also cannot deny the courage she displayed that day.

It takes courage to move from imagining a life without abuse to making a life free from domestic violence a reality. It takes courage to uproot three young kids and move halfway across the country to build that new life.

When asked about my best birthday memory this is the one I want to share. Sometimes I do and other times I don’t. Sharing this requires an intimacy that isn’t always present. Sharing this requires the listener to understand that the alternative was a house of hidden horrors.

October 11, 1974, is the day that my family was liberated.

Domestic violence was just starting to be part of the national discourse in the 1970’s. The first women’s shelter opened in 1973. The first state to pass a law providing orders of protection to women was in 1974. 

There were no pamphlets in the bathroom offering support and guidance. There were no online forums providing advice for the safest ways to leave your abuser. Divorce was not common. Unpaid child support payments were difficult to collect. Women’s options were limited and those that left their abusive spouses forged their own path.

When I was growing up I knew of no other families that experienced domestic violence. It wasn’t talked about outside the family. My paternal grandmother knew what was happening and would intervene to help calm him. What was her house like when her children were young and her husband was still alive?

Did he grow up in a home with domestic violence? Did he have an undiagnosed mental health issue that caused the violent rages? Was his mental health issue exacerbated by or caused by the drugs?

They were married for 10 years. When did the abuse start? Before the unplanned pregnancy? Before the wedding? Before my brother was born? Before my sister? Before me?

Why did she stay?

I’ve never asked. I’ve never asked her any direct questions. And I never will. She has no need to justify her decisions to me.

Somewhere along high school and my early 20’s I worked my way through my feelings to find a place of acceptance. I stopped wondering whether I had done something to make her leave. The when’s and the why’s don’t change the reality. I’m a child of divorce. I’m a child of domestic violence. I’m a child of drug abuse. I’m a child of an absentee father. Those statements are all my reality.

I began to think about what would be true if she stayed. I would lose the mother I experienced if she had stayed. I would lose the childhood I experienced if she stayed. I would not have learned that it’s never too late to change your circumstances and find a better, healthier path. I would only know the staying.

People are complicated and people fail. They make bad choices and struggle with the consequences.

My mother was lucky. She was alive to make the decision to leave. She revealed to me a few years ago that the night he held a gun to her head was the night she decided to leave.

My mother was lucky. She had resources to leave her abusive marriage. My father’s brother drove that semi-truck. We moved in with my maternal grandmother’s aunt when we arrived. Not all women have that. They are trapped in situations without the family, emotional, financial and physical security support needed to leave.

My mother was lucky. She was not physically harmed when she left that marriage. The most dangerous time for a woman is when she leaves her abuser. Women are murdered by domestic partners at a rate of 3 per day. That’s today. She left in 1974.

Learning how dangerous it is for a woman to leave an abusive marriage changed how I tell the story. I used to say that any day was a good day to leave your abuser. It’s not. Sometimes it is safer to stay.

My mother found her way out of an abusive marriage. She found a job that supported her family. She bought a home with money from the divorce settlement. She dated. She fell in love. She married again.

That’s the best part of this story. She met a man who has never touched her with anything other than love. She met a man who accepted her children and raised them as his own. She met a man who has been her life partner for the last 39 years and talks about her with pride in his voice.

Old age has not been kind to their marriage. They are less patient with one another. Physical limitations and mortality have joined them. Every once in a while I get a glimpse of the foundation. A few weeks ago they traveled to see my mother’s sister in Florida. My mom forced him to go and I heard it again. That pride in his voice. The love.

October 4, 1974, made that possible.

October 4, 1974, made my life possible.

I’m forever grateful.

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