One of my first memories as a child was being in a high-chair, watching my mother and father screaming at each other. I remember a dish being broken, and I’m sure I was crying. I couldn’t have been more than 3 years old. That haunting scene remains my only memory of my parents as a couple.
From then on, my few memories as a youngster are mostly filled with traumatic events. As my mother worked full time to support three children, there were many hours spent alone. The times my mother was around, there was always a different man with her. I guess I can’t blame her for trying to find another husband to help her raise us, but the trade-off was that I didn’t get the cozy-mother time that a young kid needs to feel secure. I suppose none of us kids did.
Eventually, when I was six years old, we moved out of Southern California to the tiny Central Coast community of Los Osos. At first, this was a huge improvement for me. Los Osos was the perfect place for a loner kid like me to entertain themselves. No busy streets. No smog. Just lots of wide open space. Fields with bushes and trees. Perfect for making forts, catching lizards, playing with toy cars, and riding BMX bikes. I could spend a whole day by myself in those fields just being outside.
Then came Warren.
Warren was a man my mom worked with, who one day started living with us. At first, I didn’t mind him so much. After all, I was used to men coming and going, so I figured he’d be gone after awhile. He had a Jeep, and he took us out on the sand dunes. My mom seemed happier, so what was there to be afraid of?
By the middle of third grade, we moved from Los Osos to a small mobile home on the Nipomo mesa. I’m not sure why we moved, but as a kid, you just have to go with it. Life in the mobile home sucked. It was always cold, and it smelled. Fortunately, the house was surrounded by 10 acres of eucalyptus trees, so I spent much of my free time making trails with my bike. I remember making a cool BMX track that I could ride on everyday. My sister and I made forts and playground bars out of branches. Getting to and from school, however, was not easy. Everyday, I had to catch the bus for the long ride down the hill to my elementary school, then ride the bus home directly after school. No play-dates, just straight home to the dark mobile home. I don’t remember much about Warren in those days. He was just there.
Then, by fifth grade, we moved two blocks from my school! How nice it was to have the freedom to walk to and from school, to hang out with friends after school and on weekends. But it was during this time that our lives experienced pure evil.
It was at this house that I remember growing increasingly afraid of Warren. He would get drunk late at night and sing (if you can call it that) loudly to music he was listening to on his headphones. I remember how hard it was to sleep hearing him. I remember being forced to eat the brown skin of our potatoes because he told us it was good for us.
Then there were the chore lists.
Every weekend we were greeted with a long, detailed list of chores scribbled out on yellow legal paper and taped to our doors or the bathroom mirrors. And when I say long, I mean long. So long it literally took all day. My favorite (not) was moving all of his records off the floor to vacuum underneath, then do the same thing the following weekend, as if lots of dirt could have somehow accumulated there. But you did them, and you did them accurately, or you paid the price.
Sadly, I will never forget the first time I did a chore wrong. Warren, in a drunken stupor, barged into my room, cupped his hands around my neck, and literally pinned me to the wall. He then stuck his ugly face into mine and proceeded to curse me out, telling me what a piece of shit I was and that he would hurt me if I ever disobeyed him again.
Needless to say, I was scared as hell. I know he did this to my brother and sister as well, in his crazed mind. In one instance, I remember watching him bash my older brother’s head into the kitchen counter.
The worst thing, however, was that my bedroom was next to the master bedroom. Many times, despite trying to cover my ears, I could hear my mother’s cries of pain as he beat and cursed at her. That was hard.
On one particular day, when no one was home, I ventured into Warren’s closet and found his rifle. I knew he had one because he had taken us shooting once. I think of this memory often and wonder why I didn’t have the courage to use that gun and put a stop to all of this violence. But the reality was that I was a scared 10 year old, and I thought that if I did point the gun at my stepfather and not pull the trigger, not only would he kill me, but my mother and siblings as well.
The other question I have always asked myself is why my mother let this happen to us. I have never asked her because I feel like I already know the answer. She was just as scared as we were. Fortunately, by the end of sixth grade, my mom left Warren and moved in with Bob, my stepfather for the next twenty years (more about him in future posts).
As I write this post, I am struck by how crazy my childhood days were, and saddened that I didn’t receive the love and nurturing I so needed. Somehow, I made it through all of that and became a functioning adult. But the scars are still there. I feel them every time I get anxious in a crowded room, feeling like I need to escape. I feel them when I just want to be alone in nature to get away from people that cause pain. And, I feel those scars when I look into the faces of my two daughters, who have grown up in a loving, secure household, free from abuse.
As ugly as it was, I have come to understand that repressing my past accomplishes nothing. By acknowledging it, I can learn to appreciate the mental strength I had to overcome this experience. And I can understand and appreciate the source of many of my fears and anxieties, knowing there was a darn good reason for me to be scared of certain situations.
No child should have to grow up in fear.