Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Broken Words

Photo by Sasha Wolf
by Lindsey Loppnow          

Emily and I huddled together in the back of my father and stepmother’s blue-green Dodge Caravan, clinging tightly to each other and the stained cloth seats.  Emily is my older sister; she and I, and our three half-sisters lived with my father and step-mother, and having five girls made keeping almost anything clean a miracle in its own right, especially since two of us were under the age of five. I was twelve years old. Strangely, today my father’s best friend, the pastor of our church, was with us, sitting in the middle captain chair next to a car seat filled with crushed gold fish.  He sat uneasily, shaking his leg as if he were impatient about something.  As we’d only been in the car for about eight minutes, I did not understand what he possibly could be impatient about.    

He startled us by beginning to pray loudly and chant in a foreign tongue.  Emily and I clasped hands and stared in confusion, looking to our father to explain.  Somewhere in the babble of words, I realized that he was preaching about the ways of the Lord and how obedience should direct our paths as children.  On one point he began to wave the Bible at us, shouting, “God does not smile upon children who bring their parents to anger!”  Tears began to well in our eyes and trickle down our cheeks.  Were we really that bad?  Was God going to hate us forever and send us to hell?  We had been raised in a very strict Christian home and taught that pleasing God meant obedience to Him, obedience to your parents, and following the Ten Commandments.  Sending speaking glances at each other, we attempted to communicate without words.  We dared not speak aloud.  The punishment for such an action was something we definitely didn’t want to discover.

My stepmother, who had remained silent throughout this tirade, sat with my father and rubbed his arm as if to comfort him, then glanced back at us.  I’d never cared for the cold snake-like look in her eyes or the way she had of turning every situation into an arena to exercise her dramatic acting.  She predictably chose this moment to add her opinion.

“Do you see?  Do you see what you are doing to him!?”          

Glancing over at my father, I began trying to think of a time I had ever seen him show weakness, much less cry.  Nothing came to mind.  He was a durable man both in stature and character.  His shoulders were broad and creased with muscle.   His hands were tough and covered with calluses from years of hard labor.  They were bulky in size and in length.  His fingers were large and round like sausages and attached to the saucer-like plane of his palm.  Those hands were the fiercest thing about him.  They were what caused most of our pain.

The van skidded into the Home Depot parking lot outside of Chicago.  As we came to a stop, I could hear the frigid wind rip across the windshield, as if it were angered that we dared to interrupt its path.  Looking out the window the otherwise normal orange of the hardware store’s roof only seemed to shout a silent warning that something strange was happening.        

Still huddled together in the rear, Emily and I waited silently, not knowing what was going to happen next.  This behavior was definitely strange.  Normally my father and stepmother would take their anger and disappointment out on us physically, leaving bruises and soreness that covered our bodies for days.  This kind of psychological attack was something new.  Finally, I founding the courage to whisper to my sister, “What do you think they are going to do to us?”  Not wanting to draw their attention, Emily simply shrugged and looked at the floor.            

As soon as the car came to a full stop, the three adults joined in a final prayer and a series of chants, preparing themselves and clearing their minds.  As if they believed God might appear before them, they quoted the Bible with dramatic emphasis and unwonted seriousness.  As abruptly as the prayers had begun, they were suddenly ended by a series of “Amens”.  My dad immediately opened the driver’s side door as a handsome black Mustang pulled up two spaces away.  The windows were so dark that I could not make out who was concealed inside.  My stepmother quickly followed behind, a terrier on the scent of a rodent.  She wasn’t about to miss the upcoming scene.  They walked holding hands to the rear of the van, and my dad propped himself up on the rear bumper with one foot.          

Turning completely around to get a better view of what all this controversy was about, I noticed that our two favorite bags, most often used when going for visits to our mother’s house in South Carolina, were stuffed in the back of the van next to the stroller.  I nudged my sister’s arm so the preacher couldn’t see, hoping to avoid sending him off into another rampage of prayers.  Looking into each other eyes, it was clear that we both wanted to peek into the bags, but our fear of retribution greatly outweighed any curiosity we might feel.          

However, our fascination with the bags was instantly gone when we saw our mother’s slender figure appear in front of my father and stepmother.  Shocked by this twist in events, we started to wiggle in our seats with excitement.  Noticing our sudden change in attitude, our father’s face twisted from sadness to anger.  He and my mother began arguing, and it was difficult to make out what they were saying, but at one point my mother’s voice was loud and clear.

 “I told you Dennis!  You could only keep them from me for so long!  You could only abuse them for so long before justice would take them from you!  You have mistreated them for six long years!  I hope there is something left of them to resurrect!”

My father hit the back of the van with his fist and began snatching for the handle of the rear door.  When he swung the door open he was greeted by our half frightened and half smiling faces.  He glanced at us and quickly looked away.  Snatching the bags tangled in the wheels of the blue and red stroller, he threw them to the pavement,

“Take them!  Take them, Christina!  I don’t want them anymore! I don’t want to see or talk to them ever again! I don’t want them!”            

Although the abuse was constant and never really explained or deserved, he was still our father. I began to shake.  So did my sister.  My stepmother rolled her eyes sarcastically at our response and gestured for us to get out of the van.  Our fear prevented us from making any sudden movements.  Glancing at our mother, she nodded at us, kindness on her face, and we both began to get out at once.   Stumbling on a toy and a sippy cup full of milk, we emerged from between the captain chairs and out of the side door.  My mother embraced our soggy faces with kisses and hugged us close, supporting our limp bodies like a hen uses her wings to shelter her chicks.

Walking past us without a glance or a goodbye, my father coldly slid the side door closed and walked to his side of the van.  My stepmother followed his example, and they both closed themselves in the van.  They never looked back, never said a word, never shed another tear.  The last memory I have of my father is his angry face shouting that he didn’t want us anymore.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.”  Lie! “If you can’t say something nice then do not say anything at all.”  Lie!  Growing up we’re all taught to watch what we say because words are powerful and can affect everyone around you.  Don’t tell me that words can’t hurt you.


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