The pickax rained down its rage on the clay below. The frustrated fury behind its power sent lumps of earth flying in all directions, and still the oleander wouldn’t budge. It had been a thorn in my side since we had moved in seven years before. Now, with the pent up anger of a thousand empty arguments, I was going to remove its blight once and for all. Sweat poured from my brow and ran in rivulets between my shoulders; the heat of the California summer beat onto my head, further fueling my pain and anger. Four bushes had already met their demise beneath my ministrations on other days; this was the last and toughest by far. I had even tied the bush with a cable and connected it to the bumper of my Bronco, trying to release the earth’s hold on it by sheer force. The cable broke but the bush held firm. On this day, with its hurt and raw emotion, the oleander cried its siren’s call, answering a need deep inside me, to release some of that anger before it spilled over onto precious innocents. As I swiped the sweat away, I saw Josh, George and Mariana huddled together on the patio, fearfully watching this mad woman they had never seen before. It angered and shamed me at the same time.
It was more than one person should have to take, the endless questioning and accusations from Josh in juxtaposition against the constant badmouthing of him by my mother, Annabelle who though 3,000 miles away, made her words slam into my face and sear my soul. To get up every day to the constant melodrama, on top of the demands of my children and job was more than could be born some times. Maybe I wouldn’t need those antidepressants if I didn’t have to face these stressors day in and day out. I had tried going without and thought I was loosing my mind as I shook my way through the days until I finally went back on them again.
Not that I questioned for a minute the love I had for my children and they for me. They were just young, of an age when a mother’s care was a constant and immediate fact of life. They were so fearfully impressionable, and here I was, terrorizing them as they witnessed the release of months and years of pain. They would never have the same view of me. Forever, they would hold back just a little, not sure what their actions or words would trigger. And they had nothing to do with the immediacy of the moment.
It had started as any Saturday, the children dragging me out of bed at the crack of dawn, full of energy and curiosity. I had them dressed, fed, and outside playing before I could get Josh to rise. I understood how hard he worked during long week days, and often, weekends, too. But that only meant I had to shoulder the full weight of home responsibilities, even to the point of working within the home so I .could be with the children more. So when the weekends rolled in, I needed relief, and he wasn’t ready to give it.
Later, my mother called – an event I tried to curtail when Josh was at home. It only led to more dissention, more beratement, and more accusations. On this day circumstances were opportunistic for drama. .Annabelle called while Josh stood directly in front of me, “Why are you talking to her? I told you not to talk to her! She is only trouble”. He was demanding I hang up the phone, over and over again. Within my ear, Annabelle was yelling about Josh, “Don’t let him tell you what to do! Don’t hang up! I’ll call the police and report him for abuse if you hang up! He is a bully, he is nothing! Don’t be weak, stand up for yourself, for the kids!” The craziness of the situation stirred and swirled within me, rising like a vortex, consuming rational thought. I could take no more. Placing the phone on the counter, walking away from Josh, I went outside, crossed the patio, picked up the pickax, and started swinging. The plant’s entrenchment in the soil gave me a kind of relief I would not have gained doing anything else.
Josh took the children inside, fearing they would be scared watching their mother, and hung up the phone. As I worked my way through the layers of clay and rock, the fury began to ebb, becoming by degrees more manageable and less resistant to cessation. Once rational thought began again I began to imagine a face at the focus of each thrust, attacking them in the only way I found accessible. It had never been my way to use anger outwardly to address my needs. A million years of restraint were released as I bested by Josh and my mother; I was damned if I would be by some crappy plant. When the hardpan of the ground had given way to a hole three and a half feet deep by three feet wide, and my asthmatic chest burned as it heaved deep breathes, I began to once again feel ready to walk back through the doors and become at once mother, wife, and daughter.
Josh had threatened me for a few years that if I did not be who he wanted me to be, if I ever tried to leave him, he would take the children to Romania and disappear forever. It was a threat I had no doubt he would keep. He would hold me restrained until I said words he wanted to hear. He would carry me to the bedroom and barrage me with his feelings sometimes for hours.
My in-laws came for extended visits . . . it was always too long. As an only child of immigrant parents, Josh believed his parents should be able to visit as often as they desired and as long as they wished. To say this created tension is a gross understatement. From the moment I knew they were coming, I would grow increasingly stressed, like an overly tightened violin wire. Within a few short hours of their arrival, my home reverted from New World to Old World. Maia would arrive and immediately take over the kitchen, arranging it to her satisfaction, exerting control throughout the house. Alexandru was more amenable to reason – he was the one I could try to talk with, though it often didn’t do much good. Visits lasted between two and ten weeks and I had no say in whether they came or how long they could. As Josh so succinctly said, if I didn’t like it I could leave, but the kids were staying and the parents were coming – period.
From the time his parents entered the house, Josh would turn on me, withdrawing into a harsh, cruel silence, leaving me to deal with his parents by myself and I would often find myself as emissary between he and them, bridging the generational and cultural gaps for them. .It was a twisted role I played – at once both intermediary and unwanted eyesore.
Josh would literally not speak to me for upwards of two months after his parents arrived unless it had to do with the children or outside life. Maia and Alexandru would fill his head with my failings as mother and wife, speaking in Romanian but leaving it clear I was their subject. The three of them were steadfast in their belief that I should disavow my parents and family, not speaking and visiting them anymore.
My family lived in Connecticut, 3,000 miles away, and to visit them was always a production. Every 1 ½ years or so I would convince Josh to let the children and I, and he if he wanted, visit my parents and sisters – it would take about six months to convince him to let us go. To do so meant I could spend 3 or 4 days with them but then had to spend 2 weeks at his parents. As they would tell me, my parents had other children to fill their lives, they didn’t need me. My mother had come to hate them and they her.
One dark night, clouds covering the sky, but the lights of the valley’s town spread before our eyes. It was a never failing salve for my soul, the view from our home. It made much bearable. Maia’s mother, an untreated schizophrenic, was berating me yet again, causing Josh to stiffen his resolve against me further. Maia went out on the patio. Crouched at her feet, aping the posture of the supplicant, I sought to reason with this woman who held such power over my life yet was so badly damaged herself. Her words rained down on me, sharp swords of infinite agony cast without thought of damage done. “There is a cancer inside you and it is my duty to cut it out. A wife is a servant to her husband; do what he says and wants. Forget about you. I know much better than you how to raise your children. It is my right to raise them and you are damaging them”.
I was again told what a good mother and wife was supposed to be – this said by the woman who turned her son over to relatives to raise for years when he was young and figuratively abandoned him during the two years she had a psychotic break from reality while he was a child in Denmark and Italy. I remember that night so well – how I felt something imperative to who I was being stripped away, was slipping into nothingness. . . how there was no recourse for me in this marriage but to renounce who I was and mold myself into whatever form Josh desired.
The problem was that as I was giving up parts of me, sacrificing myself for the “greater good”. My anger at myself, at Josh and his parents, and at my mother simmered in some dark place inside. It would rise up and spill out at the most inopportune times, often at the wrong people, at times at George and Marianna over ridiculous things. And most of all, my rage tore at me, reducing my identity. I thought of suicide that night, as I did on many a dark time. It was a hidden escape valve – I knew if my life became more than I could bear, I had an option to end it. Sometimes it seemed the only solution that made sense. It made for a great retirement plan.
Huddled in the closet, tears flowed down my cheeks while I rocked back and forth amid the comforting, earthy smells of well worn shoes. I couldn’t leave the house without incurring more wrath and I couldn’t let the children see me in this state . . . this was the only place I could think of that they might not look. Unfortunately, I forgot this closet in my bedroom was a place my son often slipped into at night so he could slip unawares into our room and sleep near to us. All too soon, the door softly slid open on its track and George slipped in. Quietly he sat next to me and reached over to take my hand. Together we sat, side by side, drawing comfort from each other, the mother whose heart was breaking and the seven year old son who didn’t know how to help but desperately wanted to.
My mind flashed to another, happier time when Josh and I and fallen into bed together. We made love passionately, fully, deeply, experiencing the profound love that was undeniably there between us. Spent, we collapsed on the bed and were quietly talking when we heard a little cough coming from that same closet. There was our son, who had had a front row seat to all that had gone on.
There were three bedrooms in the house and five needed. Josh’s Romanian cousins had come to visit for several weeks. I had met them before and really enjoyed them. It was easy to be me around them. However, they were brought by Josh’s parents, not so good a thing. Romanian language flowed at all times although everyone save Mircia was fluent and he had been learning English so he could talk with me. Maia enthusiastically and deliberately steered the conversation to all things Romanian. I accepted it most of the time, but it did wear on me. Perhaps once or twice a day I asked for English to be spoken for a time.
One day we were going camping and stopped at a restaurant for lunch – my tolerance threshold had been reached and I asked for English in a soft voice. Josh who was seated three or four seats away, told me to shut up, clearly heard by all. Even the kids stopped talking in shocked silence. Josh’s cousins looked uncomfortably at their plates while his parents glared at me, quietly communicating their disapproval. I left the table and went outside. I had done something wrong. I should not have asked for English and I should not have left the table. I was causing a scene.
The rest of the camping trip followed much the same. Josh treated me like the outsider I was and seemingly took a perverse pleasure in putting me in my place. The children’s behavior was all over the map, voicing their confusion at the adults’ behavior. It took over two months for Josh to really communicate with me once his parents and cousins had left. It was an achingly lonely time.
For months before our trip to Romania, Maia told me I wouldn’t be accepted by the people there. I was too different. By the trip’s start, I was so unsure of myself. But a funny thing happened . . . on the plane, a couple of women came past my seat and touched my shoulder. Josh’s relatives were openly accepting, and were critical of the way Maia treated me. I felt I was coming into my own, I could accept who I was if these strangers could accept me. And my time of true kinship with all women began.
There is a picture by my computer of the day I remembered who I was, actually there were two of these days at the end of my marriage.
The first was New Year’s Day at Mount Shasta. We had gone up for a weekend getaway. The days had been spent in the snow – sleighing, having snow ball fights, making snow angels. When the kids and Josh finally fell asleep, and I was blessedly alone, I picked up a pen and started writing a poem.
I know this sounds like a banal moment, something not worth noticing in the broad spectrum of life’s incidents, but had you been inside my heart and knew the multitude of my insecurities you wouldn’t scoff. It was years before I would be able to believe a bit in my abilities and I had given my power of judgment to Josh long before. I had been a prolific poetry writer when Josh and I had first started dating and while the juvenile emotions baldly expressed within led me to feel vaguely nauseous when I reread them years later, they were mine and they were deeply felt and true. Josh once said he didn’t like my poems, he didn’t like the way I wrote, and I shut down, closing off my creative soul for the next thirteen years. I had published some business articles but nothing that touched my heart. It wasn’t until that New Year’s night, when everyone else was asleep, that I could finally admit my marriage was ending, and that said, could once again slowly open that long shut door.
The second day . . . the one concerning the picture on my computer . . . was taken during the last couple of weeks Josh, I and the children were together as a family. We were on a vacation to Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Utah. It was a wonderful time overall, our anger and frustration with each other was kept to a minimum. Josh and I even talked about moving to Montana and considered how we could support our family in this wild, amazing country. We could see ourselves there. I wonder how it might have been. A divorce would still have happened eventually but how might our lives have looked?
We made love off a mountain path in Glacier National Park, giggling as other people walked so close past, and swore to each other we were committed to the marriage but even as I said so, I knew I would be leaving. Love had nothing to do with it, it had always been there for me, it always would be – it was all about survival. I had been empty for so long. Josh had crushed my spirit constantly, on a daily basis, grinding me down with his wrongful perceptions, demands, and accusations for almost all of our time together. His insecurities manifested in continual reprimands. So I kept silent the words I needed to say, which were safe to say, and kept silent the truth. Long before, I had told Josh that if I left, there would be no turning back. I would have no room left for do overs.
As we drove down from the Montana Rockies into Wyoming, the majesty of mesas and ravines took my breath away. Rust red, ocher and golden straits wove through the cliff faces, revealing a rich tapestry of color. The occasional dude ranch or homestead was blessedly the only indicator of a human influence. We drove along a river and stopped to jump in and cool off from the summer’s heat. About twenty miles or so outside Cody, Wyoming, I saw a depression in the cliff face beside us, about forty feet up . . . a trace of water smeared the cliff as it headed for ground. It looked like there might be a cave there and I love caves.
I asked Josh to stop and began to climb up the cliff face. It was a vertical assent, with only finger-holds to support me. George and Marianna cheered their support the further I went. When I reached the depression I saw it didn’t evolve into the cave I sought, but was a mere outlet for the barest hint of moisture. But as I stood there, looking out at the spectacular beauty of the countryside, and seeing what I had just done, I fully realized I still had me. I had not died under the constraints of marriage, the demands of motherhood, and the difficulties relating to Josh’s and my families . . . I STILL HAD ME I could survive on my own!!
Two weeks after that day, I left Josh. The kids had gone to their grandparents, for the first time, for a couple of weeks. It was as if permission was granted for the dam of emotions to burst over us. The day came when I literally ran away, with him following in hot pursuit, going to a nearby strip mall to I call a friend for help. I could see him driving through the plaza, looking for me, and I ducked out of sight whenever he came remotely near. For the next few weeks I stayed at the homes of various friends’, not letting Josh know where I was. He would camp outside homes of my friends’, waiting to catch sight of me. I only went back only when the judge said to until custody and living arrangements were made, and was as nervous as a cat the whole time.
There is no question I loved that man. Twenty two years later I haven’t remarried and still find him in my dreams frequently. It’s just that if I was going to survive, I had to leave. I had bruises all over me even though he never hit me. They were the pain inside manifesting on the outside. I was never good enough for Josh. I wasn’t a good, obeying, supplicating Romanian girl.
The divorce took three years,a mediator, two psychological evaluations because Josh didn’t like the results. Five lawyers for him because they weren’t doing what he wanted, they were abiding by the law. He told the judge he was opposed to the divorce and the judge replied the choice wasn’t his. If I wanted out, I could.
In the end, the kids and I moved to Connecticut where I had a better chance of working and a better place to live. It may have been, at times, jumping from the pot into the fire, but I was free to find out who I was. It took a long time to begin feeling free but one day I woke up and wasn’t scared. It was one of the greatest gifts God has given me. There have been many hard times since then, but the marriage was no longer one of them.