It’s astounding how some things will remind you of other things. Just a flash, an instantaneous moment in time, can make you recall something that you had buried deep in your mental vault, so deep that you hoped it would never resurface.
And that’s what happened to me the other day.
It’s last Thursday, and I’m enjoying spending Christmas with friends. I’m watching families open packages left and right. And then, one person received a gift and did the usual things one does with Christmas gifts – a gentle shaking of the package before opening it, a couple of guesses as to what the present might be – and then I heard these words. “Oh boy, a present, what is it?” Then the colored paper is ripped from the package, and the gift inside – whatever sparkly, stretchy, sweet surprise is contained – is exposed. Everybody oohs and ahhs, thank-yous are exchanged.
And it wasn’t until I got home that night… that the words “A present? Oh boy, what is it?” replayed in my mind, over and over like a scratch on a phonograph record. And it dawned on me at that very moment.
I remembered those words from my childhood.
It’s Christmas of 1973. And I was reminded of why Christmas is such a tough holiday for me. Because among all the twinkling lights and tinsel and presents and carols and family and friends, I can only remember loneliness and pain.
And it’s all because I said the wrong thing at the wrong time.
If you’ve read my blog for any period of time, you know that I am a survivor of child abuse. I spent many nights in my bedroom, scared that my stepfather would come home and, after having worked through a few rounds of Schlitz or Schaefer or Utica Club, he would get angry about something – anything – and then burst into my bedroom, yank me out of bed, slap me around, and then throw me against a wall or throw me back in bed. Maybe he was a decent man to everybody else… and maybe there were a hundred different extenuating circumstances in life…
But then it came to that one Christmas day.
There was something that I really, really wanted for Christmas. There was a console stereo phonograph / radio cabinet in our double-deep, double-wide mobile home trailer park accommodations. I had a few Disney 45’s and I would bring them over to the phonograph and try to play them. My parents would put up with it, especially if I played them more than a few times, which I was known to do. They ended up getting rid of the stereo, in that it developed a crossed wire that caused electricity to flow THROUGH the controls rather than to stay inside the stereo itself. If you left the unit on for more than 20 minutes, you would get a shock if you touched anything metal on the console.
So out it went.
I really wanted my own phonograph. Something that I could play in my bedroom.
And here comes Christmas. There are plenty of packages under the tree, and I’m as excited as a kid at Christmas. You knew that analogy was coming, didn’t you?
I opened up some packages, and the excitement just kept getting to me. “Oh boy, a present from Santa,” I exclaimed in my little voice. “I wonder what it is.”
As I started opening the package, I glimpsed over at my stepfather. He gave me a very disconcerting look. But then the look went away, and the package’s contents were revealed. Some underwear and socks.
I looked at another package, a bigger one. “Oh boy, oh boy, another Christmas present,” I giggled. “I wonder what it is.”
“Open the present already and find out,” I heard him mumble. The warning signs were there – that slight slur in his speech, his less mobile movements – but I was so busy unwrapping Christmas presents, I didn’t pay attention. Oh great. Puzzles. Um… yeah.
Then came the biggest package under the tree. It was almost the size of a small attache case. It was wrapped with the most colorful Christmas paper, and it was the only present that had ribbons and bows wrapped around it.
“Oh boy, is that one for me?” I excitedly shouted.
“Open it up,” my mother said.
“Oh boy oh boy oh boy!!” I tried to pick up the present. It was heavier and bulkier than the other presents. “Oh boy! What a big present! I wonder what it is inside!”
And at that very instant, I saw my stepfather get up from the couch. And I saw him march over to me. “Why don’t you open the god damn present and find out what the hell it is already?”
POW! WHACK! KICK!
Then he went back to the couch. I recognized those punches and kicks. They were definitely made with Schaefer gloves and cleats made of Schlitz. My mother started crying, yelling at my stepfather about why he would do this on Christmas Day, after all the time they spent last night assembling the plastic Christmas tree and hanging ornaments and tinsel and wrapping the packages and all the money they spent so that I would have a happy Christmas.
I got as far as tearing off some of the wrapping paper. I saw the words General Electric Wildcat. It was my own personal phonograph, a four-speed dropchanger stereo record player that closed up into a carrying case.
It was the gift I wanted that year, more than anything. And my body and mind were saying thank you and thank you and thank you to the stepfather who just slapped the joy out of me, and to my mother who let it happen.
I had that phonograph for many years, and eventually lost it in a residential move. As an adult, I restored an old GE Wildcat with a paint job and colorful flame paint and lights. Maybe I did that in an effort to cover up the Wildcat’s ugly beige exterior; maybe I did it to cover up the memories of what a Wildcat looked like when I remembered it from my childhood.
They say that a man is remembered as different men by different people. Heck, I go on Facebook every morning and there’s ten different descriptions of President Obama’s job record. My stepfather was beloved by his family, by my brothers and sisters, by my cousins and extendeds. When he passed away earlier this year, he was honored as both a Vietnam war hero, and as a caring family man.
I can’t remember him that way. I’ve tried. But once you’ve been hurt like that, when it gets deep into your soul and your memories and your essence… you try to pull it away and it’s clamped on like a bear trap… it makes things tougher than one could imagine. The effects on me are permanent. He’s one of the reasons that I won’t touch alcohol short of a small sip of ecumenical wine at church.
Last Thursday, I saw love and compassion at Christmastime. I saw joy and celebration and love and laughter.
That… plus the fact that my stepfather can no longer hurt me, either with his words or with his fists or with his very being… means that maybe I’m on the road to personal healing.
Maybe I can find a way to put the pain behind and forgive the man for what he did.
Maybe I can forgive… but forgiveness does not mean forgetting.
Maybe if I can find a way to move on from this crippling memory… maybe it will help me become a better person for it.