Bubble Gum Revisited
Before we left home Mommy laid a piece of Double Bubble gum in each of our hands. I put mine in the lace-edged pocket of my red, blue and black plaid dress to eat it later. When we got to the park Mommy spread her blanket on the grass and sat in the shade with my baby sister, Sharon. John and Cindy ran to play on the swings up in the hot bright sun.
A girl named Mary from my kindergarten class was at the park and we made up a game to play together. It was fun playing with her. The park had a large dip with grass-covered hills on both sides and a tall tree at the bottom. We each stood across from one another on our opposite hills and shouted as loudly as we could, “Ready set go!” Whoever ran down the hill fastest, around the tree, and sat down with their back to the rough trunk’s bark first was the winner.
We were hot and tired from flapping our arms and pretending we were flying birds as we raced up and down the our hills. Finally it was inviting to just sit for a while, not moving, just breathing in the greenness under our tree. “Cheep cheep,” we said to one another every now and then, trying to sound like the birds above us that were flying in and out of the tree. We were still birds, too, only now we just weren’t flying.
Rustling leaves made a whispering sound that was soothing and made me feel peaceful. They were so thick that sunlight stayed away from the cool grass. I placed my hands beside me where I sat, fingers curled, digging into soft damp earth. Like bird feet, I thought, looking up at a bird whose tiny feet I could see wrapped around a twig.
I brushed my hands off and smoothed my dress over my knees, touching the pretty lace on my pocket and remembered my piece of bubble gum. I took it out, unwrapped it and put the tiny wadded wrapper back in my pocket. The pink gum was warm and a little sticky, smelling fruity and sweet when I closed my eyes and held it to my nose.
Mary doesn’t know I have any gum so she won’t mind if I just eat this, I reasoned with myself. But if SHE had gum and I didn’t have any, I would want her to share it. Making up my mind, I broke the gum in half down the line in the middle and reached around the wide tree toward her. “Mary, here is a piece of bubble gum for you.” Of course she took it and said thank you.
We sat there chewing and cheeping until Mommy called to us as she folded up her blanket. “Daddy is almost home from work. I have to go so I can fix supper now. We are having spaghetti.” I love spaghetti. I jumped up, said goodbye to Mary, and followed Mommy to the car.
written last summer
I was sitting Indian style on the kitchen floor rolling up socks still warm from the drier because I knew how to do that job while Mommy cooks supper. She told me I could help her make the little round meatballs if I hurried and finished the socks in time. I laid them all straight in a line on mommy’s very clean floor, putting big to small and colors together so they matched. Then I rolled them up perfectly and put them into separate piles so that everyone’s socks were together.
It was getting dark so I couldn’t see quite so well so I turned a little bit so my back wasn’t toward the kitchen window over the sink. Just as I did this I saw Mommy flip on the light switch by the door and then move over to the counter to the left of the turquoise sink where the line of different size copper canisters stood all in a line, big to small. Just like the socks, I thought to myself. I watched her place her hand on the little black knob as she lifted the lid of the one she kept cookies in. As her hand came back out empty I saw her face change as she turned and looked at me.
“Bill!” she yelled loudly at my Daddy who was watching TV. “Bill, come in here and take care of your daughter right now. I don’t believe this. I just don’t believe she could do such a thing!”
What happened next is what the trauma experts call a flashbulb memory. After over 50 years it has not changed one bit. Everything around me went into slow motion. I watched Mommy first take a step backward toward the kitchen doorway that went out into the hallway toward the dining room and living room, where I could see my Daddy coming from that other direction, as I heard him say, “What’s the matter, Mildred. What’s Linda done this time?” I don’t think she heard him.
Then everything around me started changing really fast. I didn’t know what to do. I had no idea what I had possibly done wrong. I couldn’t back up to get away from her. My back was right up against the drier. No escape was possible anyway.
“Linda, did you take my bubble gum?” Mommy screamed as she lunged toward me across the kitchen floor. I watched in shock and terror as she approached me, and then she had my arm in her hand yanking me to my feet. “Where did you put it? What did you do with it? Give it back to me right this very instant.”
I don’t know what she mean! I didn’t take any gum, and I tried to tell her so. “Please Mommy! Please Mommy! No Mommy! I didn’t do it! I didn’t take any gum.”
I couldn’t pull away from her. She was already slapping me really hard as she shouted at me. I stumbled and tripped on the slippery floor as she dragged me, my feet kicking away the little piles of socks. I watched them roll across the floor behind me as they went in one direction and I was pulled in the other. The bright pink and turquoise kitchen passed by me in a blur.
She pushed right past my Daddy like she didn’t even see him there as he stepped backwards and let us by as she hauled me down the hallway to my bedroom.
“Linda, don’t lie to me. I saw you give a piece of gum to Mary when you were sitting underneath that tree in the park today. You reached around and gave it to her, and I watched you put a piece in your own mouth. How could you do it? You stole your mother’s gum! What kind of a child are you? You are going to be sorry for what you’ve done.”
When we got to my bedroom she shoved me hard through the door so I fell down, and then slammed the door as she reached for my father’s belt with the buckle on it she still kept hanging behind the door for “when she needed it.” It was a different house, a different bedroom door, but always the belt hung there. I knew it was there every night when the bedroom door closed when it was time to go to sleep. As she yelled she beat me to the rhythm of her words.
“You are lying to me! You always lie to me, you evil child! When I saw you give Mary a piece of gum today in the park, I thought “What a nice girl Linda is being today! Look, she is sharing. She gave that little girl a piece of her gum. But look at this! My gum isn’t here. Now I know the truth. I should have known you’d be that selfish. You stole my gum! You gave her MY gum. Where is all the rest of it? You stole it so nobody else could have any! Give it back to me right NOW! Go get it! I know you hid it someplace. I want it back right now.”
I could not get my mother’s gum and give it to her. I could not tell her I wasn’t lying. I couldn’t tell her I didn’t do it. There was nothing I could do. I could not escape. I wanted to tell her how I sat under the tree and decided to share my own piece of gum with my friend, but she wouldn’t let me. There wasn’t time. Mommy wouldn’t listen.
She exhausted herself beating me until I couldn’t stand up and threw me sobbing against the edge of my bed. As she left the room and slammed the door she yelled behind her, “You are not leaving your room until you tell me the truth. I know you are lying.”
She made me stay in bed for a long time, for days and days and days. Days of being left alone there when my sisters got up and got dressed. “Get out of that bed and make your sister’s beds!” she would scream at me. Of course it terrified them and they ran out of the room as soon as they could. Cindy was only three and Sharon wasn’t even 2.
Day after day I had to lay alone in my bed. Day sounds as everyone else went about doing day things. One day I heard Daddy washing the car in the driveway, with the car radio on. “Cindy, Oh, Cindy, Cindy Don’t Let me Down” was playing. Mother called for everyone to come and hear “Cindy’s song playing.” Everyone but me.
The wading pool was outside on the grass outside the wall of my bedroom, filled with water, my brother and sisters shouting and playing, happy and laughing and splashing. The woven blinds outside the house were rolled up because it wasn’t too hot outside. Filtered, flittering patterns of shimmering white lights and shadows danced on the bedroom ceiling from the reflection the sunlight made from the surface of the pool’s water. It came through between the pink ruffled eyelet valence on the top rod and the pink eyelet lace lower curtains covering the bottom half of the bedroom window to the left of my bed. I watched that shining water pattern for hours> I thought it was very beautiful and it kept me company.
I was supposed to be in kindergarten, but mommy told my teacher that I was sick and couldn’t come to school right now. Her punishment carried its own pattern of time passing. Sometimes mommy pounds her way down the hallway, “Let’s see what Linda is doing,” meaning, of course, only she would see. “Horrid. What a horrid child you are,” she shouted at me the day she came into the bedroom in the middle of the day and found me playing with my nickels that I had kept in a little pile on the wooden stand beside my bed. I had earned them when I had done “such a fine job dusting the living room, just like a big girl!” I was making little roads and valleys, hills and meadows with the folds of my bedspread, and was using the nickels to be people and cars and animals in the fields one time when she came in and caught me. Of course she took them all away from me, with a beating. Now the nightstand beside my bed was empty except for the little lamp that was on it that I wasn’t allowed to touch.
She would come in screaming at me, over and over again, “Get me that package of gum, you horrible child! You are lying to me. Where have you hidden it?” She had already searched the entire bedroom, but of course she hadn’t found it.
Of course I couldn’t get the gum for her, and had no way to prove to her I wasn’t lying, that I hadn’t taken it, could not prove to her I was telling her the truth. If she came storming into the bedroom to “check on me” and I wasn’t crying, she would yank me up to sitting by my hair and slap and beat me, or drag me out of bed. “You don’t even feel bad for what you have done! You don’t feel one bit guilty! Look at you here, not feeling bad at all while you have made me so miserable! You’re not even sorry for what you have done! I’ll give you something to be sorry about! I’ll give you something to cry about! How dare you steal from me! How dare you lie to me! Pull your pants down!” she would scream as she slapped, punched and hit me in her out-of-control enraged frenzy.
And if she came into the room and I was crying, it would happen all over again, only then she would scream, “What do you think you have to cry about? Nothing, that’s what. Nothing to cry about! You’re just in here feeling sorry for yourself! I’ll give you something to cry about, you horrible child! I’ll teach you not to steal from me! I’ll teach you not to lie to your own mother!” And the beating would start again.
Daylight out the window. Darkness out the window. Daylight out the window. Darkness out the window. Sisters coming in and getting their pajamas on. “Don’t you DARE talk to Linda or the same thing will happen to you that happened to her!” Sisters getting up in the morning and getting dressed and leaving the room, me making their beds and then climbing back into my own. “Don’t you DARE talk to your sister or the same thing will happen to you that happened to her!” My pillow was always wet from tears. Not allowed to speak to anyone. No one allowed to speak to me, even if someone brought me something to eat sometimes and then came back in for the dishes.
Listening for her to come down the hallway. Never knowing if I was going to be in trouble for crying, or for not crying. Finally I just had to lay on my back with my arms down straight beside me and tight against my body, because I would never know. Often being yanked from my bed in the darkness of nighttime by my hair from a sound sleep and being beaten, “How can you be sleeping? How can you not be feeling guilty for what you have done?” Listening for her to come down the hallway when I was so hungry, see her opening the bedroom door and walk across the room with a bowl of soggy milk soaked saltine crackers in her hands. “Here,” she would say. “This is all you deserve until you tell me the truth! And you don’t even deserve THIS much to eat, you horrible child! This is what my mother gave me when I disobeyed her, and it is all you will have, too”
Day after day. Night after night. And then one day the door opened and my brother, John poked his head inside. “Mother says for you to get up now.” Only later did he tell me that mother found the gum in a corner of her dresser drawer.
Even though she found the gum she never apologized to me. She said that I had stolen it and snuck it back into her room, putting it in her dresser drawer when she wasn’t looking. She added this incident into her litany, that proved I was a liar and a thief, so that I was beaten for it many more times nearly until I left home at 18. For my part, I’ve never eaten a piece of Double Bubble gum again.
In case you are wondering, I never felt angry at my mother. I never felt angry at the other children that they were having fun and not in trouble. I never even once felt angry at my father for not helping me, for not standing up for me, for not protecting me.
I was completely defenseless against my mother as I had been since the moment I was born and this treatment of me started. Yet before the age of two I must have tried to fight back in some ways because she told me for the next 16 years that I had slammed my fists one time against the wall all the way down the hallway when she had sent me to my room when my grandmother was there. My mother said that embarrassed her. Whatever she did to stop me is beyond my conscious memory, though I can imagine.
My only mission was to survive, and only my body knew even this much – to “go on being.” During this bubble gum incident I was scared even to go to the bathroom. I had to time my sneaking down the hall when I knew by listening that she was somewhere else in the house. I was always afraid, especially because flushing the toilet made so much noise I knew she would know I was out of my bed.
I don’t even know if I felt lonely. I was terribly, terribly alone, but that is a different thing than feeling lonely. There are no words for this alone kind of feeling if you have never felt it as a child. It’s a feeling that grew into my brain from the time my brain was forming, from the time I was a tiny infant and left alone in my crib when nobody was in the house for my mother to impress. My infant brain so grew in trauma, because of trauma and by trauma that I ended up with a different kind of brain. I did not feel feelings in the same way as a child would who began to be abused at a later age, especially over the age of two and certainly over the age of five.
While my body responded to the brutality of physical assaults with bruises and physical pain, I am not sure that I could suffer the inner feeling of anguish. We learn what our feelings are from birth, as we go along and have experiences, and my life was so unpredictable, uncontrollable, so threatened and bleak, that I could only feel “negative,” whatever that was. The rest of my feelings did not differentiate, not even the feeling of being conscious or of having a self. My mind was hardly there at all. How could it have been? And how could I have been developing a self?
You cannot treat a child the way my mother treated me from birth and end up at the end with a normal, ordinary child or adult. How could that be? It is not possible.
And the feeling of alone rarely leaves me, no matter how many people I am around. I am only better when I am with my family or a very close friend, and that doesn’t happen very often. My mother gave me what is called an attachment disorder, the most serious kind: a “disorganized-disoriented insecure attachment.”
But I will tell you more about this later.
These are contradictory memories. Their stories both jump in you face and want to be told at the same time that they take off running so fact you’re not sure they were ever there in the first place. They are at the same time memories of such a brilliant light if you look at them head on they sear your eyes. But they are also so dark, so incredibly dark that no darkness on earth could match them, though perhaps the darkness far underground when the lights go out could five us some idea of how they feel to their holder.
Either way, that lightness or that darkness makes you lose your bearings and lose your way.
These are the kind of memories that make you want to cry out for mercy for the whole human race. They are not meant to be forgotten. They are not meant to go away or to be changed into something else like most normal memories are. They are meant to remain as edifices to what can go so terribly wrong for the human race so we can make things better. They are warnings of caution we need to make our insides turn over – in more ways than one. They tell us to pay attention. They tell us not to forget.