I was eight.
I knew her mother was abrupt, rude even. I witnessed many conversations between her and her mother during our carpooling rides to and from baseball. Her mother frightened me and it was obvious to me she did not like me. I did not understand why she did not like me. I was quiet, polite, and I always thanked her for picking me up and dropping me off. I wasn’t Black or a Puerto Rican (they were not liked in our neighborhood). I was usually clean and well groomed. My father was a drinker but no one outside the home knew or admitted that (or so I thought). My shoes were also newer and clean. I figured it wasn’t really me she disliked for even at my tender age of eight I was aware enough that I was not the single source of her dislike. She appeared to hate everyone. I considered myself lucky I only had to see her once in a while when she dropped me off from baseball practice in her old Chevy Vega. My friend, her daughter, however, was not so lucky. She had to live with her all the time and live alone as there was no Dad at home with her, no other siblings.
I first became aware of the physical abuse at a baseball awards dinner. We were in the third grade. She and her mother sat at the same table with me and my mother likely due to us being on the same team. I also suspected her mother had no other friends. My mother was friendly to her mother yet as expected; her mother was not so friendly back. She appeared fidgety, bored and very annoyed she had to sit at the awards dinner for her only child’s team.
I kept trying to smile at my friend to perk her up. She also seemed jumpy. She did not talk much during dinner. I found this unusual. On the ball field and during our after school practices, she never shut up. She was often loud and boisterous. DUH was her favorite thing to say, usually after I had done something stupid. Her silence at the table made me nervous.
The catering hall staff approached our table and placed a large basket of rolls down in the center. The basket of bread now blocked my view of my friend. My mother reached across the table and removed two small dinner rolls from the basket. One she put on my small dinner dish and the other she kept for herself. My dish and roll was a bit far for me to reach so I had to sit up and pull closer to the table. As I did so, I saw my friend reaching across the table to take her own piece of bread. As her eight year old fingers stretched toward and into the wicker basket, her mother’s hand came quickly from the other direction. Her mother grabbed my friends’ small hand, now holding the dinner roll, squeezed it tight and banged it harshly onto my friends’ plate. The action caused the butter knife to fly into the air and land on my friends’ plate with a loud CLINK.
“I will do it” her mother hollered. My friend pulled her hand back quickly as she dropped the roll. She winced from the pain of her mothers’ tight squeeze and banging of her hand on the dish.
Somewhere inside me a warning bell began to sound. I knew this scene. I suspected I knew what would happen next. I turned to look at my mother, to see if she has witnessed the bread/hand banging event, but Mom was looking the other way talking to a friend sitting at the next table. I looked cautiously at my friend whom I could now see due to her mother jostling the bread basket when she grabbed friends’ hand. Friends’ eyes were cast downward looking into her lap.
Food is served. Announcements made. Awards presented. And it happens.
Friend reaches her left hand up and grabs a knife. Using her right hand she grabs her dinner roll, left lonely since the earlier incident. Using two hands, friend begins to saw her roll in half from top to bottom, lumberjack style, not from the side like others might. Due to thick crunchy crust it takes more effort than one would expect and makes more noise as well. Swish crish. Swish crish. Back and forth goes her knife-saw. Friend looks across table and smiles at me. I smile back.
I see mother too late to warn friend. Mothers head spins abruptly toward friend and her eyes glare. Up comes her hand. Up, over and down it goes onto my friends arm. Knife and fork become airborne. Knife lands on table while fork rests on floor with a light kerplunk.
“YOU DO NOT SAW YOUR BREAD IN HALF WITH A KNIFE LIKE THAT!” friends’ mother screams loudly. All eyes at the table look up and over at the mother daughter pair. Friend recoils quickly but not soon enough to avoid the multiple forceful whacks her mother lands on her arm and chest. Friend falls out of chair and mother proceeds to scream at her for embarrassing her with her poor manners. She then yells at her to get off the floor and reminds her she is not a dog even if she acts like one.
I look up to my mother. She is looking at her plate. I scan the table to the other adults and their children. They are also eating. Is NO ONE SEEING THIS! Isn’t anyone going to say something? She just wanted to cut her roll to put butter on it. Why aren’t the adults intervening? Why didn’t her mother help her with it like mine did? Through the adult silence I learn, sort of, that I am also to stay quiet. It is not our business. My friend resumes looking down at her lap and does not eat her meal.
Baseball season ends. The carpooling stops and I don’t see friend again for nearly six years. During that time she and her single mother move to two more rental apartments and experience many more physical beatings before finally purchasing their first home situated two houses away from my childhood home. When I inform my mother the name of the family that bought the property two lots away my mother proceeds to recant the awful story of “that woman beating her child over a dinner roll”. I am stunned my mother finally admitted to seeing what I saw when I was 8. I am 14 when she admits it.
I am now 46.
Friends’ mother, now in her late 60s, has been ill for the past three years. A shut-in with only one living family member, my friend, to care for her, she relies on friends’ twice daily visits delivering her food, gathering her mail, checking her oxygen, changing her adult diapers, washing her body and hair.
I am always silently wondering how my friend can do it. How do you care for a mother that beat you for your entire young life? How do you help her brush her teeth and not think about the time she threw you against the refrigerator and broke your two front teeth and then hollered at you for causing her to take you to the dentist to have them fixed? How do you wipe the morning crust from your punishing mothers’ sleepy eyes and not see your own young eyes, blackened and bruised from your mothers’ punches staring back at you?
Yesterday, June 2, friend found mother collapsed and covered in what appeared to be blood and vomit. She was unconscious and had been for some time. Friend screams in shock, orders her own husband and teenage daughter out of the house (protecting both them from the sight and her own mothers’ dignity) and dials 911. While she is dialing she is checking for a pulse but can see she is still breathing. As she is waiting for the medical team to arrive, she calls me and the call is unanswered as I am outside my home while my phone is inside. Friend does not leave voice mail. She opts to text me and asks me to call her cell phone. I see the message an hour later and upon calling learn what is going on and she is now at the hospital waiting for a prognosis.
I tell her I am driving down to her. She is an hour away and tells me I don’t have to. I insist I do. To myself I say that once her mother dies she has no one. Well, she will, but she will have people that are dependent on her to hold it together. There is no such requirement with me. She doesn’t have to be strong for me. I have to go to her. I text her two daughters and tell them I am on my way to their home and I will take them to the hospital to see Nana. She may not make it through the night.
As I drive, my pollen covered windshield becomes a movie screen projecting our more than 40 year friendship. Scenes of elementary school, the lumberjack bread sawing incident, the black eyes, the crazy high school dressing, the days of putting on makeup, calling a cab for the beach when no one was there to take us, growing up with her flash across the glass of my Nissan Maxima. I remember the day her boyfriend came to my home looking for her after his own mother had beat him with a bat. I recall my father shaking me and hollering at me for letting “that boy” in the house. Silly me. Letting a beat and bloody friend into my own home for respite.
More images of making jungle juice made from her absent mothers liquor cabinet, pouring it into an Orange Crush can and walking through my parents home thinking we were outrageously crafty, far more so than the adults that inhabited our teenage world. My mother picking us up from a Freedom Jam concert that ended early and her, friend, buzzed from the jungle juice and babbling on like a hyena. Me, paranoid my mother will catch onto our charade, glaring at friend and giving her the hand signal to zip it and stop talking. Buzzed friend sitting at my parents’ kitchen table, not permitted home until a certain time (her mother was entertaining a man friend she thought friend did not know she had), putting her head down and proceeding to vomit. Me, jumping to attention, guiding her to the bathroom before my parents two rooms away suspect something has gone awry. Me, stripping off friends vomit splattered shirt and replacing it with my own, nearly identical to the one she had on. Me, walking a drunk friend across two backyard plots and when she slumps to the ground citing an inability to walk straight, me kicking her in the ribs to get her up and into her mothers home on time out of fear what will happen to her if she comes home drunk AND late. Me, walking her up her back stairs, opening door, pushing her in and running away.
Me, feeling pressured to give up my virginity after friends boyfriend tells me she did (why didn’t she tell me!) and later when my own boyfriend pressures me and tells me “well friend did”. Angry at everyone, I do too, and for years I wrongly blame her. When I am pregnant three sexual acts later, and our friendship has fizzled, I don’t call her. I don’t tell her. I leave. She has him now, her fiance, my boyfriend has left me. How did she find out? Did I tell her before I left? Did he tell her?
Years go by, friendship cools and heats up again one holiday season when I return home for a visit and my ex-boyfriend (daughters father who has remained social with friend and her fiance) finds out and in a drunken stupor of his own he rolls his truck in front of my parents’ home in what many will later label a suicide attempt. He totals multiple cars along with his own but escapes with his life. I am not there when it happens yet when I do return she, friend, is the only one that tells me the truth of what happened. All others take a vow of secrecy to keep the event from me, to keep from him and me from him. I call him, talking for the first time in years, crying, going to see his destroyed truck, amazed he survived the crash. Still in love with him.
Somewhere in there, friends’ mother who conceived friend out of wedlock in 1966, rudely asks me how/why I gave my baby away to strangers. How could I, she asks me. I am stunned into silence. What do I say to a rude woman that walked my path before me but was lucky enough to have the baby daddy, my friends’ father, marry her, even if they did divorce within months? I never answered her. I did not have an answer. I still don’t. Not a good one anyway. Not one that makes any kind of sense.
Friend marries different man. I am her maid of honor. I marry. She is mine. She has first daughter, an A name, just like my first child and only daughter. She makes me god mother even though she knows I am not religious. I move. She moves. Friendship fades again and I later learn it was due to issues with my husband I never knew existed. Upon my divorce friend and I reconnect. So I am here today.
I message her as I approach the hospital. Ask her where she is. She responds and I make my way towards her. As the elevator opens on the 9th floor, I am greeted by her and her husband. She looks tired, very worn out. I can see she has been crying. Before she starts to tell me what is happening I ask if I can give her a hug. I know from all our years together she is not a physical person. Who can blame her considering what physical touch usually was in her life? She smiles and agrees and I reach out to her, pull her close and for a few minutes we both choke back tears. As we walk back to the family waiting room, she begins to recite a litany of medical problems ranging from heart attack, vomiting and choking on ones vomit, kidney failure, lack of oxygen, living wills, DNRs and more. She is official, collected, in control. I admire, to myself, her strength and commitment to do the right thing for her mother despite how poorly she herself had been mothered.
As we wait silently for more information from the doctors, I reflect on her mother and her questions again. If she were awake, if I could see her I might be able to finally answer that question, sort of.
How could I give my child away? I still don’t know I would tell her. I believed she deserved better than me.
I would also tell her she is damn lucky she didn’t give away hers. I might even tell her my friend did deserve better than her.