When I was 16, my high school boyfriend backhanded me across the face, with a beer bottle in his hand. We were in his baby blue car, on our way to his house, and his father was the first to look up from watching golf on TV and notice my newly forming bruise, the swelling next to my eye. His father lost it. My boyfriend cowered and slunk down to the basement; his dad, apologetic about his son, drove me home.
It was never mentioned again.
But we dated for another year. Because, of course, I “loved” him, and I figured my sassy mouth provoked him. That’s what I was taught.
One of my biggest regrets is something I said to my mother right before she died.
She was in severe pain and respiratory distress, shaking and sweating, a good hour from her next painkiller. She said, “I wish you didn’t hate your grandmother. She had a hard life.”
To which I said, “Bullshit, Mom. Everybody has a hard life.”
‘Round and ’round we went until the nurse came and gave my mother her last morphine shot. I remember my mother’s last meal was meat-stuffed-peppers, in cold tomato sauce, nursing home style. And my bullshit words ended up being some of the last words I ever said to her while feeding her with a spoon.
My mother was right.
Her mother, my grandmother, led a horrific life. Her husband was older and controlling and mentally and physically abusive. Within a few months of their marriage, she tried to leave him, tried to go home to her parents. Her father said, “Go home. You made your bed, you lay in it.”
My grandmother had 9 children, which included a stepdaughter who was allowed to, and encouraged to, call her a “whore.”
My grandmother was not allowed to work, was not allowed to drive a car, was not even allowed to learn how to drive a car.
When my grandmother was newly married, she was out one day, laughing and having a good time, riding in a car with her girlfriends, when they missed a stop and ran up under a tractor trailer and, while they all survived, they were all seriously injured. I have the newspaper clipping.
My grandmother was in her early 20’s; her lower lip had been almost completely ripped off; her teeth were shoved violently up into her face; she was unconscious; they did not know if she would survive.
She survived. However, my grandfather would not allow her to have plastic surgery. As was his choice. He was, after all, “the husband.” He said, I heard, that this would keep her at home, keep her from “running around.” He allowed the kid-doctors in the emergency room to repair her lower lip, her face. She got false teeth. She was not yet 25.
She did not leave.
One time he came home drunk and threw her outside into the yard, in her night gown. Then he sat inside the door, all through the night while their children (supposedly) slept, with his shotgun and dared her to try and come inside.
She did not leave.
One time he threw her down the basement stairs, while pregnant, and her baby boy came too early. That boy, my Uncle Jerry, would grow to man-size, but would never speak, never walk, and never leave a crib. He remained in diapers for all of his 50 years on this earth.
She did not leave.
When my mother and her sisters divorced their husbands —- and there were a lot of divorces — my grandmother had a hard time supporting them, feeling for them. I see, now, how jealous she must have been. It was the 70’s and 80’s, the height of feminism. How her daughters, unlike her, were allowed and even encouraged, to leave.
When I left my first young husband after barely one year, my grandmother was so angry. She called me on the phone, in my new single-bedroom apartment, and said, “What’s wrong with you?! You’re leaving him, and he has a good job, but he doesn’t beat you, or anything!”
I still think about that beer-bottle bruise, my boyfriend’s father, and how I didn’t take it seriously. At all. I figured I’d asked for it. I think about my last, thoughtless, words to my mother:. “Bullshit, Mom. Everybody has a hard life.”
I was wrong.