Tag Archives: adoption

The Creature Cometh

Some people come into your life in attack mode, like a storm trooper or a terrorist.  Perhaps it is unfair for me to hold that analogy when speaking of him, but my brother Wayne was one of those people.  Devious, amoral, likable and unlikable at the same time, he assaulted our lives in ways we were never prepared for.  From the time he first joined our family, he had a shit-eating grin that would drive me absolutely crazy every time I saw it.  He was adopted when he was seven and I was ten.

I remember sitting at the breakfast table eating cereal.  My sisters and I were huddled around the table, slumped over our oatmeal when my parents came into the room and asked us if we would like a brother.  Paying more attention to our bowls than to them, we droned, “yeah, yeah, sure”.  It was the sum total of a family discussion about such an important issue.  My sisters were far more accepting of this stranger than I.

The hidden agenda of my parent’s game plan (I’m not even sure they voiced it to themselves) was that he was supposed to be the son my father never had.  It was only voiced to me once, right in the beginning.  It was a sorry proposition from the start.  Not that Wayne wasn’t sweet – he certainly was – but that boy could lie like no tomorrow, looking you straight in the eye and smiling.  He would hold a broken vase in his hand and say it was whole and nothing had happened.  You can’t really blame him.  His life was torn apart at a very young age.  His parents were driving one night and the car crashed, killing both of them and her unborn child.  There were twelve siblings and they were shuttled from relative to relative until all of them ended up under their uncle’s roof.  Seven girls slept in one room and the five boys were in another.  Kids were exploding out the walls.  Even my ten-year-old mind cringed when I saw that crowded bungalow with mattresses everywhere and a bare, postage size yard with no toys to play with.

His uncle was a member of my father’s congregation (Dad was a minister).  He was a good man but overwhelmed with the responsibilities of all those children.  Members of the parish talked it over and decided to adopt some of the children.  One brother went to a politician in Washington’s family; a sister to a loving family nearby.  The oldest was almost of legal age so he stayed with the uncle as did the youngest boy.  The older boy ended up in prison, perhaps Wayne was more like him than not.  The rest found homes all over the tri-state area.  To the extent it was possible, the siblings were kept in touch with each other.  The siblings lost regular touch with the oldest once he hit seventeen.

But Wayne . . . he was totally unique.  He hit our family like a tsunami; we literally didn’t know what walloped us.  As the years went by and the incidents heaped one on top of the other, we would shake our heads in disbelief.  As adults, when someone asked us about our brother those unspoken glances would slide between us.  One of us would begin, “Do you remember when . . .” and as the incredulity grew on that person’s face, our Paul Bunyan-like tall tales would flow out.  The sad part was that all the stories were true.  Sometimes we would laugh so hard tears would roll down our cheeks.  But at the time, when we were going through it, those times were anything but funny.

Mom told me once about when Dad decided to proudly take his new son fishing.  Dad put his fishing hat on and bought a new rod for Wayne.  Mom packed a lunch . . . a thermos of cocoa, one of coffee, sandwiches, and fruit for dessert.  She stood at the boat launch and waved from shore as she watched the skiff row out . . . and then watched as it turned around and came back to shore.  Wayne had wet his pants.  Dad never took him fishing again.  I think he began to give up on Wayne from that day on.  They always had a tenuous, strained relationship.  Sometimes Dad’s frustration would leak out when Wayne pulled a stunt, but Mom gave him everything she could.

When he had been us for a few months, he was hit by a car in front of our house.  Because adoption formalities had not been completed yet, we had to go to court to determine if we were a fit family.  (Hmmm….  They may have had something there.)  It wasn’t that we weren’t fit so much as we were at completely opposite ends of the spectrum in social, behavioral and cultural preferences.  The linkage connecting Wayne to us was often frayed, tattered almost beyond recognition.  My father and I seemed most frustrated with him whereas my sisters enjoyed being with and playing with Wayne, he was their brother, plain and simple.  But those determinations were eventualities and not pertinent to the court processing on that day.  We were cleared, something I questioned at times in later years.  We were, by no means, at fault, but looking back I think Wayne would have been happier in a different family.

Wayne had bladder issues.  Seriously.  He was a bed wetter for years after he came to us and while it certainly wasn’t his fault, it made for a set of challenges none of the rest of us had dealt with.  It wore my parents down.  Every time we went anywhere in the car they would ask him if he needed to go to the bathroom.  Of course, he would say no.  But 10-15 minutes later, halfway between a couple of exits, he would have to go NOW.  So we would have to pull over and let him run into the bushes.  Every time.  Or else.  And this would continue again and again throughout any trip over a half hour.

I just could not get up in the morning.  Now, to be fair, my Dad and I were not morning people either but this was something completely different, alien.  My parents would call for breakfast and he’d sleep through it.  They would enter his room and remove his covers – nothing.  They would drag him out of bed – still nothing.  Many times they would have to resort to throwing water on him and even then if he didn’t want to wake up, he didn’t.  Once his feet were moving, they did so at a beat far slower than the rest of humankind.  If there were chores to be done, they were not done by him.

Then there was his room.  I know, I know, boys have different smells than girls, but this was farcical.  Showers had to be forced on him.  His room carried a lingering stench, even when all dirty clothes and sheets had been removed.  Broken toys were strewn every which way.  A couple of tattered posters hung crooked on the walls.  No care was taken for his or others’ possessions.  One time he took some of my favorite records and left them in the hot sun where they baked in rippled, warped ruin.  I missed Cat Stevens “Tea for the Tillerman” and when I tracked down where it was, I was furious at its damage.  That may not seem like a big deal but we were a Minister’s family and Ministers do not earn much money.  It was not going to be replaced.  Fungus covered dirty dishes were pushed under the bed.  Wayne never threw out the garbage.  When his door was closed, you could almost see the malodorous vapors curling out through the cracks.  His room had a personality of its own.  It was corrosive, blinding, mind-numbing – offensive had a whole new definition.

Wayne loved to take things apart.  The problem was he didn’t know how to put them back together, and my father wasn’t mechanical, so they were never put back together.  My mother began buying appliances at thrift stores and yard sales for him to work on to his heart’s content.  The problem came when he thought he was an expert and still moved on to the household machinery.  One time he took apart the washing machine – it made Mom really happy.

There were times when my parents had to have thought he was possessed by the devil.  He did so many destructive, crazy things – ones that didn’t make any sense at all.  In the summer, our family went to our summer cabin in upstate New York for the entire summer.  Dad would come during his two weeks off which meant Mom was alone with us and given no respite.  Wayne was like a Brillo pad rubbing on her nerves.  So when he did something completely idiotic, she would send him out to the garden to remove rocks.  See the thing about New York and New England is that when God created North America, he stood in the west, lifted up the continent, and let all the rocks roll down into the Northeast, so Wayne had his work cut out for him.  But the result was a great set of biceps and still no understanding of right and wrong.

My parents went to Europe for a second honeymoon when I was a sophomore in high school.  During their three-week absence, Wayne decided he didn’t want to have to get out of bed to throw out leftover food he was eating so he did the only thing that made sense.  He knocked a foot wide hole in the wall next to the bed so he could drop leftovers down and save himself the effort of movement.  My parents knew something was up when they returned and Wayne had rearranged his room.  His hole made sense in a Wayne kind of way.

We were a family of swimmers . . . a throwback to our Norwegian heritage.  Wayne, of German extraction, hated water . . . to bathe in, to swim in, and to horse around in.  The only way Wayne liked his water was to cook his pasta.    He would stand at the edge of the swimming hole, shivering uncontrollably, in fear more than in cold.  He never learned to swim beyond the doggie-paddle.  Dad was a firm believer that we know our way around the water.  He must have tried a thousand times to help Wayne dive.  Finally, his patience in short supply, he held Wayne over the water by his ankles and then let go.  It might have been a crude method of instruction but after a few times, Wayne finally became able to enter water head first.

My Dad simply could not understand Wayne.  He tried.  He wanted to love this boy but couldn’t quite make himself.  I understood.  I felt much the same.  He defied comprehension.  His ways obliterated thoughtful kindness.  Every time you would try to give him the benefit of the doubt you would learn, real fast, how wrong it was to do so.  My father’s frustration would seep into his handling of Wayne’s discipline, I think he hated himself for that – it showed his humanity in ways he wasn’t prepared for and couldn’t forgive himself for either.

I used to get so angry at Wayne . . . as the eldest, I carried the greatest measure of responsibility.  At a young age, I was babysitting my siblings.  Mom would leave to do errands and give us a list of chores.  I would send them outside to play or stick them in front of the T.V. and do all the chores; it was the only way to get them completed.  When they began messing up the house right away, before mom had even come home, I went nuts.  Wayne would look at me with this impassive, mocking, careless stare of his and my blood would boil.

I was stepping in for my parents while they went on vacation for a week.  Wayne sneaked out with the car, driving it over 100 miles an hour.  The car was the only family vehicle and necessary for my parent’s business.  I can only state that I went temporarily insane.  I was sweeping the floor when he came in and when I started yelling. I smacked him on the arm with the broom.  All those years of moving rocks paid off.  The broom snapped in half – he didn’t even sport a bruise.

Wayne joined the Army when he was seventeen.  My parents thought the discipline would be good for him.  Actually, they hoped the Army could succeed where they had not.  What they didn’t bargain on was for the Army to fail just as much as they had.  His grades in school were atrocious and he refused to put any work into studying.  The Army assured them Wayne would get his GED through them. A couple of months after Wayne enlisted, his Sergeant called my Mom for help in how to get him up in the morning.  They tried water, blowing bugles in his ear, dropping him, not giving him blankets, giving him extra chores but nothing worked.  The sergeant had never encountered someone like my brother.

Wayne was assigned to the garage.  Here Wayne would disappear during his shift where they couldn’t find him.  He went in the back; curled up in the huge truck tires and slept the day away.  The Army psychiatrist did an evaluation and determined Wayne was a sociopath.  Once they realized they had an unfixable incorrigible in their midst, he was discharged.

The Army left its imprint though.  Life among all those men made him look at circumstances differently.  He came home realizing his sisters were not blood relatives.  As such, he had no problem drilling holes in the walls of the shower, bathroom, and their bedrooms to have a peek whenever he chose.  He considered them sisters when convenient, but not when it came to sexual titillations.  Even when we discovered what he had been doing, he didn’t understand he was doing anything wrong.

Once Wayne found an old television and thought he had struck gold.  His room was on the top floor.  It still carried the fragrances of old.  Clothes were strewn everywhere.  He had broken most of his furniture, so his room was otherwise quite empty save for a mattress and box-spring, a beat-up, cheap boom-box, and a small table.  The television needed better reception so, logically, he knocked a hole in the ceiling drywall and ran hanger wires up through the hole.  You think it worked?  My parents flipped when they saw it – all the wiring already up there could have been compromised.  There could easily have been a fire.

Mom had a keen business sense.  She made astute real estate decisions.  After years of seeing Wayne destroy one thing after another, she decided to purchase him a small home which would act as his inheritance.  (It also served as a way to get Wayne out of the house and on his own) The house was fully paid for and taxes for the site were low.  However, he did not pay the taxes ever.  When he lost the house, it was a simple back tax problem.  He also had a flair for decorating.  For instance, the kitchen and the dining room were separate rooms.  Wayne wasn’t happy with that.  He took a sledgehammer to the wall but after making a sizable hole, grew tired and stopped, leaving the gaping hole there from that time forward.  He would find some paint and begin a wall, then change his mind and leave it with brush strokes glaring in accusation.  Garbage was never thrown out.  Beer bottles and cigarette butts littered the table surfaces.  He had a special way of making a house a home.

We celebrated Mom and Dad’s 25th wedding anniversary at a hotel suite in New York City because it was convenient for family and friends to congregate there.  Wayne had just started renewing contact with his birth family and had been them that weekend; he brought three of them to the party.  It was a freaky experience turning around and seeing that same shit-eating grin on another face.  The threads of lineage were so clearly drawn it was shocking.  I sat and talked with his sister; I liked her.  I tried to fit Wayne into the life she was talking about, to see what he had lost.  I always thought we were doing him a favor adopting him, now I started to wonder.  I looked at my family – with alcoholism running rampant within it and the syndromes of being a minister’s kids thwarting our behavior.  He had common interests with them he never had with us.  He seemed so at ease with his natural brothers and sisters, so “in place”, it was clear he belonged with them.  What were his missed opportunities?

When Wayne was twenty-three, his world changed irrevocably.  One day he was fixing his truck at the side of the road, his head under the hood.  A drunk driver speeding down the road hit the back of the truck which in turn hit Wayne and sent him flying backward.  The truck was hit with such force that it continued moving forward, hitting Wayne again.  Wayne was in a coma for the next six weeks.  He suffered tremendous damage.  I was in California at the time and it was several months before I saw him again.  I was shocked by the change.  His right eye bulged from its socket.  He had difficulty walking; one arm still didn’t work right.  It was a miracle he lived at all, and the person who did this to him faced few repercussions.  The drunk driver didn’t have any auto insurance, leaving many of Wayne’s medical bills uncovered.  He faced few repercussions for causing the accident.  He was sentenced to seven to ten years but was released after six months “for good behavior”.

Two major things happened as a result of the injury – Wayne did not have any short-term memory and that part of his brain which created the sociopath was removed.  When he awoke, Wayne was a gentler, kinder, person who was always telling jokes (okay, okay, so it was the same joke over and over and over again.).  That sneaky, conniving side had been excised.  One time Mom sent him out to rake the yard.  A couple of hours later she remembered and went to see what had taken him so long.  Wayne was four yards down.  No one had told him to stop so he just kept on raking.

The drain on my parents’ emotional and mental resources was heavy.  My mother was adopted herself and her experience was far removed from the daily one she lived with Wayne.  After his accident, Wayne was home living with them and they were starting up a new business so finances were tight indeed.  The family lived in a little apartment.  Wayne’s disabilities were increasingly difficult to work with and he had gone through as much rehabilitation as possible.  He was as well as he was going to get.  My Father and Wayne could not escape each other.  My mother, it seems, had even greater problems with Wayne.  She used Wayne much the way one would a servant – filling his days with meaningless, menial chores.  Her frustration spilled into anger which flowed into outright rage.

My younger sisters have a different perception of Wayne.  As they become older in age, their esteem for and love of Wayne directly increases.  My cousin, thirteen years younger than I recalls she loved Wayne.  “He may have been smelly but he was a good guy.  He always treated me well.  I would take him out with my friends after his accident.  Okay, maybe it was so he could buy the booze but I still liked him around.”  My youngest sister, just five years below me became angry when I asked her a couple of questions about Wayne’s accident.  “You never liked him.  I don’t know what’s wrong with you.”  They have led me to understand Wayne wasn’t as bad as I felt he was.  Nevertheless, they were always eager to join in on “Wayne stories”, leading me to believe latent feelings might not have been as positive as they wanted.

None of us escaped the years with Wayne unchanged in fundamental ways.  I think my parents and I, the more responsible ones in the growing up years of the family, felt by turns, rage, personal humiliation at our feelings and sometimes behaviors, frustration, confusion, and hopelessness.

Finally, my parents called Wayne’s natural siblings and asked them to help out.  He moved in with one sister, then another.  Finally, Wayne moved out to Iowa, to live with his brother’s family on their small farm.  He obtained a job washing dishes at a nursing home where his sister-in-law worked.  She was able to watch over his performance, ensuring his success.  Since then, he has been living happily with a certain amount of autonomy.  He comes to visit the family every year or two, staying loyal to the family who tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to give him a chance at a new life.  It is a workable solution.  My brother of the shit-eating grin needed both his families to grow up – one to give him a space to grow in and the other to welcome him back home.

The Ravages of a Man

Not for the first time, Susan wished she was a shadow disappearing into the walls. Edging further back into the dark corner, she hushed her sister Jane and held her ever closer. There was no place that guaranteed safety, she knew that only too well. She spent too much time crammed behind this furnace in the musty darkness of the basement in the Brooklyn tenement her parents’ currently called home. She smelled the odors of too many different meals, garlic, cardamom, curry, basil, a little sausage and the scent of cabbage wafting over it all, a conglomeration of cultures in pots, her stomach an ever constant reminder that it had been some time since she had last eaten.  Grease, mold, mouse urine and coal overlay the rest of the smells.

The floor was littered with the relics of past tenants’ castoffs. . . broken chairs, an outgrown highchair missing a leg, rusty bed springs, even an old dresser missing the faces of two of its three drawers.  Spider webs gathered in the corners, threatening to overtake the rest of the area. A few strands of the web had found their way into the hair of both girls. Soot smudged the walls, growing in intensity nearer the furnace; their little hands and clothes attested to it.

Gently Susan held Jane, crooning lullabies over and over, the only proven way to keep the child quiet. The toddler may have stilled her voice but her fingers danced around the crawl space, collecting spider webs and coal dust, dead bugs, and paper wrappers. Her little legs drummed a beat only she could hear. When Jane fell asleep, Susan passed her time counting cracks in the cement walls. The damp basement was drafty, aided by a couple of broken windows facing the back alley, jagged glass still dangling in the frames. Their threadbare pajamas were no match for the room’s cold, but still, it was better than being upstairs in their apartment, at the mercy of their father’s rage, watching their mother be smashed from wall to floor and back again.  Or becoming punching bags themselves.

Susan knew it was up to her to keep she and her sister safe in this life . . . her parents were not going to do it. The vivid effects of their combined alcoholism affected each member of the family.  She had been in that musty, coal dust filled, cold floored space for the last two or three hours but she could see, from the dirty, cracked window across the room there were still too many feet to be seen on the street of this September evening; Gerard would not pass out for a while yet.

This evening her father had been out at the local bar, nothing unusual, and the three females, mother, and two sisters had a quiet evening. Their mother, Astrid, had made them cabbage and boiled potatoes for dinner and watched as Susan labored over her school work at the kitchen table, especially math, while Astrid rocked Jane to sleep in the corner of the kitchen, cooing the Norwegian lullabies of her childhood in her younger daughter’s ear. The family’s only common room was stark, with a scarred, battered table and wobbly chairs along with a creaking rocker. The walls were free of ornamentation; the floorboards rough to the touch.

Once Susan had tackled her math and washed up in the grimy, filthy community bathroom, with its constant drip of water and broken toilet handle, Astrid sat by the children’s iron bedstead (left over from a previous tenant), the two of them talking about Susan’s school day.  “Mama”, she asked, “Isn’t there any way to stop Daddy from hurting you and yelling all the time?” Astrid shook her head, her features mirroring despair. What Susan didn’t know until much later was he mother was an illegal immigrant who had assumed the identity of Gerard’s first wife. It was the machete he held over her head. One word from him and she would be sent back to Norway, without the children she loved.

When both children fell asleep, Astrid made Gerard’s dinner with food she couldn’t spare for the rest of them and placed it on the table.  Sitting across from the plate, she drifted off to sleep, her head in her arms even though she knew better than to drift off before Gerard came home.

Gerard could be a funny, persuasive man, but when he was drinking, he was vicious and took it out on his family, his anger erupting in manifold ways. With spindly legs, a barrel-shaped chest, a sneer across his face and large, hard hands, he was built for brutality.

Tonight was one such evening. He roared through the door, throwing it back so it caught in the hole previously made in the wall from past slammings. He charged in, grabbed Astrid, by the hair, jerking her to her feet, hurling accusations and obscenities into her face. “What do you mean falling asleep? I work all day long and I come home to find you lying about asleep? You expect me to eat this shit? Heat it if this is all there is. Get to work, bitch, justify your miserable life.” Astrid never replied. His accusations could be true or not; Susan suspected Gerard didn’t believe them himself half the time; he just needed to vent his rage.

Gerard immediately started into a tirade about (well, did it really matter what it was about?) . . . The subject was always something about Astrid and how he couldn’t trust her, his work or lack thereof, what someone had said at the bar.  If it wasn’t Astrid’s turn under the ax, it was Susan who came under his scrutiny.

Susan knew in her heart it wouldn’t do any good to rail against the beast, but she was not one to simply bow down and take his hurtful ministrations. She was innately a fighter, just like her father, and she would seek ways to best him at his own game. She hated seeing his brutality upon her mother, the injustice rankled her young mind and she had yet to learn to balance anger with discretion. “Daddy Stop!!”  She would flail her fists against his back, trying to stop his attack on her mother until a backhand would send Susan sprawling, bouncing her off the walls like a rag doll.

Still, Susan could never say a word of truth that could sink through the mists of his drunken fog. Most of the time, the best she could hope for was to grab Jane and escape to the dark, silent furnace corner until he wound himself down and collapsed on the bed. She had to keep Jane quiet – no small feat for a toddler – until she could slip back upstairs and put her to bed. If Susan was caught down there, her neighbors might feel compelled to bring her back to the apartment – at least that was what Susan most feared.

Many nights Gerard focused his rage on Susan rather than her mother . . . he would wait until she was absorbed in some task and come from behind to clip her unawares. He would start pinching and shaking her around until Astrid diverted his attention onto herself while Susan would run out the apartment door, her father shouting for her to come back and storming after her.  “Get back here you little monster!”

Quicker, and sober, these were the times she would race to her friend’s home, four blocks away, in her underwear, pajamas weren’t affordable on Gerard’s leftover income after the bars kept their take, and sought refuge. Mrs. Fayette always welcomed her to safety, putting her into her best friend Anne’s old clothes and tucking her into bed. Susan did what she could to cover any bruises rising to the surface and Gerard had the sense to leave no marks within easy sight. When her schoolteacher began remarking that Susan was wearing the same clothes every day, embarrassing her and raising questions, the Fayette’s church found a woman who donated clothes to be kept in safety at the Fayette’s.

Susan was no easy child but she found sources of strength outside the home, in her minister and her best friend’s mother. She was pig-headed, driven, obstinate, and once she had decided on a course of action, there was no dissuading her. Inside the apartment, she would be helpful and compliant. But she had a strength of purpose that drove her toward good actions. When outside the apartment, Susan lived a life full of mischief and daring. She had an irrepressible sense of humor her home life dampened but never completely extinguished.

Through the Fayette’s, Susan found a second home – a place away from all the madness she normally had to deal with. Their comfortable living room was filled with furniture made for curling up in. Lace curtains covered the windows. A phonograph stood in one corner, a large radio with shortwave, FM, and AM channels was in another. Anne had her own bedroom with a matching furniture set. Everything was clean and well maintained.  The two girls would curl up in the bed together and whisper for hours.

Susan went to the Fayette’s church, joining youth groups and going to special functions. She and Anne loved to buy extra sour pickles and sit in front of the choir. As the choir would start to sing, Susan and Anne would bite into the pickles, making sour faces and spitting out juice to throw choir singers off their notes. After church, Susan and Anne would strap on beat up old roller skates, grab the back of the trolley, and catch a free ride, saving the money for a movie. Or they would grab garbage cans after the collectors had gone by and roll them down the steep hills, cheering and whooping as the cans clattered and clanged, banging into cars and curbs alike.

One Christmas Eve, Susan was at church service when her father staggered into the building and up the aisle shouting, “Where is she? No child of mine is coming to this church! Let me have her! I want her now!” As the men nearby grabbed him to take him outside, Susan, shameful but afraid he would be hurt, tears running down her face, called out, “Stop! That’s my father. Don’t hurt him.  I’ll go with him.” The old ladies stared in shocked disapproval, whispering behind their programs to each other; as mothers gathered their children closer to their sides. In front of a completely still congregation, she walked down the aisle, took her father’s shaking hand, and left as he muttered low curses, her borrowed patent leather shoes clacking down the length of the church aisle.

They moved often to escape the landlord’s knock, asking for the rent. As such, everything but clothes would be left behind. One would think, in the Bowery of New York, word would get around those few miserable blocks. But landlords were slum lords and there were many apartments crammed into those tenements. Their swift get-a-ways meant nothing was ever purchased that wasn’t a distinct necessity. Susan never had a doll, or any other toy, no books, just her imagination and her times with the Fayette’s. As an adult, she bought herself a Shirley Temple doll and all the videos of Shirley’s career to try to make restitution for the memories.

As ten-year-old Susan lay sleeping one night, with Astrid passed out at the kitchen table, herself having consumed too much to drink, her father came quietly into the bedroom. Susan woke as the bed creaked and Gerard pressed himself against her, naked and stinking from cabbage and cheap gin. She froze, shaken to the core, unable to think of a way out of this, deeply knowing it was wrong. She couldn’t question him, not knowing what the repercussions might be.

She squeezed her eyes shut, willing the time to pass until he would leave or her mother would appear (which never happened). He never said a word, just lay there, spooned against her back, silently stealing grains of his daughter’s innocence and soul. From then on he would periodically make his nightly visits when Astrid was passed out, never staying more than an hour or so, never doing more than he had the first night, but it was enough to shatter a young girl’s image of what a man should be and forever irrevocably break her trust in men.

Gerard’s crimes were legion, certainly when it came to Astrid and Susan. He never bothered with Jane, didn’t hit or hurt her. When his abuse finally focused on Jane, Susan realized she needed to act. It was one thing to tolerate and excuse abuse to herself; it was a far different thing to see it done to another, especially a baby. Once, one-year-old Jane, sitting in her high chair, was fussing at the scarred, cigarette burned dinner table, where Gerard was hunched, nursing a banger of a hangover. He grabbed the oatmeal bubbling on the stove and threw it at Jane, where it slid down her leg. She had third degree burns the length of her thigh, horrific scars she bore the rest of her life.  Susan knew he couldn’t hurt Jane again without her taking action.

However, when the world went according to Gerard’s way, the family gave a collective sigh of relief. Astrid unfolded before Susan’s eyes. Her spine straightened, her shoulders drew back, the furrowed lines of her face smoothed, and her gentle laughter could be heard throughout the apartment. Gerard would sing songs as he and Astrid danced about the kitchen. As he threw her into the air, Gerard would elicit Jane’s giggles. And Susan, the ever-present witness and protector, would, for just a while, become a young girl – one who loved her parents and lived for those brief moments in time.

All too soon, Gerard would head out the door for the neighborhood tavern and shadows would pull down over the females’ souls as they accepted the night would likely end in just as much violence as virtually any other.

Susan couldn’t help loving her father and wanting to please him. When he smiled, his demeanor completely changed. No more the bully, a lightness of being would descend on him for a short while. The truth was Gerard was the person in the family who smiled the most – he was the one with the least to lose. When he was smiling, the rest of them could breathe easier. But they always knew the dark side of him was just out of reach, waiting for a flame to ignite his temper into a fiery blaze.

To that end, Susan would search the sidewalks for cigarette butts that still had tobacco and bring them back to him to re-roll into fresh cigarettes. She would think of little ways to earn a few coins, bringing the money home.

Astrid did everything she could to ensure Gerard’s needs were met and he was pleased. Susan had his way with words, his persuasive manner, and his sales ability. She often said he could have sold the Brooklyn Bridge if he only stayed sober long enough. He would bring his friends home for a night of cards and beer, and while they were there, laughter filled the apartment. He made friends easily and lost them just as fast. He would break the furniture in a drunken rage and replace it the next day from trash bins and gutters once he sobered up.

Jobs came and went with the cycles of drinking . . . when things became too desperate, Gerard would sober up just enough to earn some money to get by. But gainful employment was not a concept he understood very well. He was filled with self-important dreams that had no basis in reality. A salesman by trade and nature, he had a natural aptitude for convincing people they absolutely needed some product or another but not the ability to work hard to provide for his family.

The problem was he couldn’t stay sober long enough to make any real money. He conned employers into believing he would be the best, apartment owners that the rent would be paid next week, and the bar the tab would be cleaned up with the next check. (Actually, that was the one he held to most – he didn’t want to stop access to booze.) He saw himself as wronged quickly and often, finding faults and resentments to fuel his rage and cost him countless jobs.

And then there was Astrid . . . an immigrant from Norway, she had never acclimated to American society well. Plain, slender, and blonde, she spoke with a heavy accent and often relied on Susan to bridge the gap between what she needed to say and what the shopkeepers understood. Even though she had come through Ellis Island like so many immigrants, she was an illegal alien and lived under threat of deportment.

In the early 1940’s women still had few rights and too few knew how to pursue what little they had, certainly not a barely literate one from another culture. As they never stayed in an apartment long, quiet, and quietly alcoholic Astrid didn’t have the time or ability to reach out and make friends.

The few family members she had in America hated Gerard and Astrid felt she couldn’t lean on them or look to them for any support without making a bad situation worse. It was a time when women did not leave their husbands or report them for abuse. There was no money for a divorce. Men held all power. Astrid fell into the trap so many women had before, thinking she had somehow caused Gerard’s behavior, somehow she deserved it.

There was little chance the neighbors would report the abuse. People in Brooklyn tenements tended to keep to themselves where strangers were concerned, and Susan’s family was never in one place long enough to become known. There were too many people living in cramped quarters, trying to pretend they didn’t hear the noises coming from the apartments near them, needing to think they themselves were not so easily heard. Strangers seemed to feel that Astrid had brought this anguish on herself; no one could be that merciless to another without a good reason. Occasionally, a kindly woman or man sitting on the front stoop might give Susan a treat, but that was where charity ended.

In the still of the night, Astrid would wake from dreams of freedom to the smell of sweat and gin rolling off Gerard in waves, the threadbare blanket barely warding off the chill, the mattress creaking beneath them as his snores filled the air. In her dreams, she had never met Gerard, never left Norway, never endured the event that led to her banishment from the land she loved. Waking, she would force her thoughts back into her reality, not daring to seek redemption, safety, a new start in life.

When she left Norway, it was in disgrace, pregnant with the child of a man who raped her. She gave birth to a boy while crossing the Atlantic in a cargo ship. When she arrived in America, she had no one that wanted to carry the additional burden, nothing, and no recourse except to leave the child at an orphanage. She never saw him or spoke of him again. To her, it was a deed nothing would ever make right. To Susan it was one whispered drunken confession of a woman crying for the child she had never known, always to be wondered about but not pursued. Gerard knew though – he held it as a threat to her continually. Should she not please him . . .

Astrid’s life in Norway was of pure air on the fjord, her family fishermen for generations. Here, trapped by circumstances beyond her control, she turned to alcohol to numb the pain. Prematurely hunched over like an old woman, as if always warding off blows, she was a lost soul, in a land she wasn’t comfortable in, living in an area where many cultures blended, making their differences stand out, with a man who relished raising his fists in her direction far too frequently. She rarely left the apartment; her time spent caring for Susan and Jane and fulfilling all the household responsibilities aggravated by not enough money. If errands needed to be run to the market or elsewhere, Susan was likely to run them, and she almost always went with her mother if she didn’t run them herself.

Astrid’s life was spiritually, morally, and physically cruel. The new life she was supposed to have found in America had proven to be a bitter disappointment. She longed for those simpler days in Arendal, tending to the garden, going to the market to sell the fish her father and brothers had caught at sea, going to church on Sundays, seeing the same people she had seen every day of her life. Her hands had never lost the calluses she had gained pulling in and mending nets because she had so much work to do now. She ached for the crisp cold, piney scent of Norway’s coastal ocean air, instead of the soot and squalor she saw in Brooklyn.

Susan called Astrid an angel on Earth, always discounting the fact that Astrid liked her drink, too. She couldn’t reconcile the fact that Astrid had abandoned her children in her own way by relying on alcohol to get by. In that hazy never, never land of alcoholic fumes, the cries of children had little meaning. What Gerard did to Susan had no meaning.  if she even knew of them.  However, Astrid was a quiet, passive woman who did what she could to make their days a bit brighter without incurring Gerard’s wrath.

The Bowery, and their life in it, was a disorienting world where a day could start off looking one way, and by the end of the night, they would be adjusting to new furniture, new smells, new sounds, new people, new lies to tell. Only the run-down, beaten up appearance of the apartments stayed the same – that didn’t change, no matter how many times they moved. Susan always counted the cracks in the ceiling to see if the number matched the same as their last apartment. The burden of the frequent moves affected Susan’s schoolwork; she was always playing catch-up and her grades tended to suffer, particularly in those subjects that didn’t come naturally.

But Susan had a strong sense of justice and righteousness. The actions of her father, no matter how much she loved him, created a deep chasm of rage in her. Her own wellspring of violence would seep out throughout her life, tainting and corrupting what she held sacred. She was a survivor. The childhood verse “When she was good she was very, very good and when she was bad she was horrid” seemed expressly made for her. Had she not been such a fighter, she herself might not have survived. Jane certainly wouldn’t have without Susan’s protection.

Susan could never justify the reality of who her parents were with who she wanted to believe they were. She would sometimes paint a picture of them that had little to do with reality, but fed a need deep within her for normalcy, to be a little girl protected and cared for by attentive, loving parents.

The day inevitably came when the dam broke and the violence became too much for even June to bear. Late one November night, after the bars had closed, Gerard came home, so drunk he could barely stand up, but with murderous intent in his eyes. Astrid had let his dinner grow cold once it was six hours after the rest of them had eaten. He went at her with fists flying. It didn’t take much to have her down on the floor where he proceeded to kick and hit her senseless. Susan jumped out of bed and tried to stop him but he just threw her off. Jane woke up and started to cry but Susan couldn’t take her out of the apartment because Gerard was blocking the front door. His daughters’ cries didn’t stop him. He grabbed Astrid’s ear and bit it off, feeling the tendons pop between his teeth, wrenching it until the skin ripped from her head, yelling that she better listen to him from now on. Astrid was whimpering as blood rushed down the side of her face, spreading out on the floor beneath her, but even those cries ended as she lost consciousness.

Gerard slowly looked at his hands and the blood on them. He methodically dropped the ear on the table, its sticky blood smacking against the surface, and went down the hall to the community bathroom to wash. Susan quickly took Jane and the ear. She had reached the end of her endurance. She knew she could never fully protect either Jane or herself after 1what she just saw. Susan wrapped Jane up in the blanket and headed out into a chilly night.

The nearest police station was five blocks away. Streetlights created pools of light in the dark, scraps of papers danced across the streets. There were few cars to be seen – in the Bowery, most people couldn’t afford cars. A can skipped across the street, pushed by the wind, rats skittered into allies, bricks lay tumbled in a heap beneath the crumbling façade of a tenement front, garbage spilled from tipped garbage cans.

When she reached the station, she went inside to the front desk. The institutional grey walls were lined with benches and posters referring to bail bondsmen. Desks were crammed behind the long counter. Tired officers rattled typewriters while their nights’ booty, the scummy, corrupt cast-offs of the Bowery, hunkered in chairs, handcuffs clinking to chair arms. The room was a haze of cigarette smoke.

An overly large officer, with his belly riding over his pants, and his eyes bulging from his sockets, looked askance at her. A cigarette dangled from his mouth. It was unusual, to say the least, for an eleven-year-old girl, holding a screaming baby, to be out on a night like this, without a coat but composed. Her manner was that of an adult, expectant of results. She opened her hand, put the ear down on the counter, and told the policeman where her parents were, what had happened, and what condition her mother was in.

She then said she was taking her sister to relatives to be out of harm’s way, saying it like that, self-possessed calm to outward appearances. The officer’s eyes moved back and forth between her face and the ear, his mouth hung open in shock. Susan turned around, walked across the cracked linoleum and through the door before he regained his wits enough to try to stop her but she disappeared into the darkness of the night.

The winds of change swept Susan along the streets of Brooklyn, with leaves and garbage rustling in her wake as she left the police station and made her way from one side of the Bowery to the other, leaving the area. Those blocks in Brooklyn were long, but she kept to her mission. Shortly after two in the morning, carrying a toddler for close to two hours straight, the eleven-year-old reached the doorstep of her aunt, a stoic, forbidding woman who had never shown her a warm emotion but was the closest relative Susan could reach.

Her aunt was willing to keep her, in exchange for chores at her boarding house, but Jane would have to go to an orphanage. There was no place, and no one, who was willing and able to keep her. Jane would never have a memory of her mother. The orphanage was often a nightmare itself. Doctors tested electric shock treatments on children who had no voice for themselves, including fetal-alcohol affected Jane. It wasn’t until Susan married, years later, that she could remove Jane from the orphanage and raise her herself.

For years, Susan’s days began early, helping with breakfast for the guests and changing sheets and towels before school. After school her hours would be spent cleaning, waxing furniture, banisters, and stairs to a gleaming, burnished gold, washing floors and linens, only to leave the doing of her homework late until late into the night and Susan considered herself lucky.  She wore her cousin’s hand-me-downs which were often better than what she had in her previous home but her relationship with her cousin was difficult at best.

When she was sixteen, a friend’s family informally adopted Susan. She wouldn’t make it formal because then she would lose her rights pertaining to Jane. Even though her new mother was cold, never welcoming her into her heart, her new father did. He was a wonderful, gentle man and Susan was grateful. It was an entirely different world from the Bowery. Here, she had the license to be her age – to laugh and flirt and have fun.

When Susan left the police station, she assumed her mother would be safe, but in the 1940’s authorities rarely, if ever, interfered with household matters. Even with something of this severity, it was assumed Astrid had provoked Gerard. The police went to stop this “current problem” but left the rest to chance.

In the end, on yet another drunken night, Gerard would kill her, and was never tried in court for the crime, making his violence appear to be accidental. He knew enough of the right words to worm his way out of arrest.

He never stopped drinking, never faced the consequences of his actions, and managed to drink away the remorse and guilt that consumed him. He only contacted Susan when he wanted money; the visits didn’t last more than a handful of minutes. He would play the doting father on rare visits to the orphanage, and leave Jane to be both motherless and fatherless once again. He destroyed a family, the cost irreparable to each member.

In the end, he was no more than a pitiful wretch – someone who stole from his family members and drank to ensure the guilt wouldn’t rise to the surface. Occasionally he would end up in jail for petty larceny or drunken fights. He was bitter, true, but only so because of the injustices he believed life had dealt him. There was no real remorse, no true desperation. He failed to believe in his own culpability, his evil intent, the innate truth of his inner being. Other than any psychic pain he had, he finished his days alone and free from the encumbrances of family and law. His death was unattended; in a beggar’s grave. No one honored him or cared enough to go. Potter’s field was good enough and all he deserved.