This is a copy of a post written on May 1, 2009
On the whole, one could never have said that our family valued being lazy. I don’t remember exactly what time we woke up in the summer when we had no reason to leave the homestead, no place particular to go. But neither do I remember that we ever ‘slept in.’
But getting up in time to see a sunrise during on any Alaskan July day was nearly impossible. It seemed like a sunset would happen with a sunrise following so close behind it that nobody ever actually saw one happen. But because of this particular experience that happened the summer before I turned 17, when my mother devised one of her more bizarre punishments of me, I was able to see one of the most gorgeous sunrises of my life.
I don’t remember what instigated this event. I have no idea what I had ‘done wrong’. Maybe I had forgotten to remove all the clothespins from the clothes line. Maybe I had forgotten to wipe the stove top clean after I had done the dishes. Maybe I had ‘wiggled my bottom’ when I walked across the room. Maybe I had slipped and used the word “she’ where my mother could hear me.
It never mattered. Most of the time I had no idea why my mother was mad at me. But on this particular night she decided that I wasn’t ‘fit’ to sleep under the same roof as the rest of the family so I was therefore banished to spend the night in the family’s station wagon. But not just anywhere in the car. I was told to sit in the driver’s seat with my head bent down under the steering wheel.
I was skinny at 16, but my full height of five foot eight and a half inches, so bending down that far down in that position was not comfortable by any means. I suspect that my mother kept my father up all night yelling at him because I know she didn’t sleep. About every half hour she returned to the car to check on me to make sure I was still in my assigned position. Which, of course, to avoid any further wrath from her, I still was.
One must realize that we lived miles from the nearest neighbor (and had no electricity until we purchased a generator that we ran sometimes and no running water). We were ‘out there’ and ‘up there’ on the side of a mountain at the end of the road. Nobody ever saw us. Nobody cared that we were there — certainly nobody cared what happened to me.
But on this night I summoned all the rebellion I was capable of and in between the times my mother came out to check on me and the time she returned to the house, I sat up! How daring was that! I didn’t get out of the car, but I was able to watch the sun move over the mountain tops when the sun came up far behind the homestead’s mountain. I had never seen anything so beautiful. All shades of pink, peach, rose and red lit up the high floating clouds and then brushed gradually over the mountain as the sun rose.
Sunrises had never been a part of my summer life until this punishment. I always could time it so that I guessed accurately about what time my mother would pop out of the house and stomp over to the car, could time when her fist would pound on the car’s window and her twisted rage filled face would scream at me. And then she would be gone again and I would sit up to be a part, again, of a wondrous process that held me in awe.
This was not a punishment that my siblings were meant to see, so before they awakened my mother came out, released me from my night’s prison and told me to go in and cook the family breakfast. That’s where I was when the others arose and they never knew where I had been while they had been soundly sleeping.
What a contrast I experienced between the times of my mother’s appearance and her screaming tirades and the sweet stillness of the mountain as it slept through that short night. How could I have survived, relatively intact, the thousands of my mother’s ingenious punishments if I didn’t have that mountain place to feed and sustain me?
I know now that a severely abused child who has no choice but to survive has to have altered and different ways to receive information and to process experiences. When I think back on this experience on some level it makes me literally sick to my stomach — especially knowing my father was in the house and fully aware of what was taking place and did not intervene.
But the punishment also carries within two jewels. One is that I dared to defy my mother by sitting up. The other is that I had implanted in my being a memory that is by itself precious to me — that of being a witness to and a part of an Alaskan summer sunrise as it came over the mountains surrounding me. I could not stop her punishment of me, but I did make use of what options were available to me. I chose to fix beauty and goodness around this abusive incident and I hold the two together inside of me so that one cannot be separated from the other.
And yet this experience is still one that is dissociated from my ongoing life process because there is no way that I could make it ‘fit’ back then when it happened and no way I can make it ‘fit’ now. The only pieces that seem to matter to me are the good parts which I willed myself to keep closer than the experience of the abuse itself. Yes, the experience was traumatic. No, I have never forgotten it, though I do not remember many thousands of other abusive experiences. But I decided even back then that I was going to add my own beauty to the abuse — and that part is MINE.
I need to make it clear here that I do not write about sexual abuse. To my knowledge, that form abuse was not a part of my childhood. I am also NOT saying that anything about the abuse itself was positive. What I am saying is that I find value in being able to own those qualities in me that allowed me to endure all the abusive events and still come out to be a lovely person. I do not have the mental illness that my mother had, and I can never be grateful enough for that fact. ‘Normal’ people never have to think in these terms, but I have to.
One could think that a body (mine) could never have endured even the physical aspects of being beaten from the time I was tiny. Certainly it is critical to understand how a child endures the verbal, psychological and emotional abuse, as well. We did survive because there is something inside of us that allowed that to happen. What THAT was is for me to discover, hold onto and use every day, today included.
At this point, I would not encourage anyone to go ‘back there’ and hunt around for awful childhood abuse memories. Most of us have more than our share to face and deal with on a daily basis as it is. But I will always ask that others think about how the goodness surrounded the abuse in some way or we would never have survived it at all in the first place. There is something good in each survivor, something precious and I say, holy, that we brought with us through the abuse because it is a part of who we are and nobody could or can take that away from us.
After all, I am the one that remembers what it feels like to be included in the rising sun’s caress of an Alaskan mountainside on the morning of a long summer’s day– not my mother nor my father nor my siblings. I am the one that still feels that sun’s kiss, and I always will.