Most of the pain of remembrance however, doesn’t circle anywhere near the art-gone-horribly-wrong of my tender years. It lands squarely on two incidents that were not my fault. I cannot remember so many of the details, the day of the week or how I got out of there, if I ran home or whether my mother was in the kitchen or doing laundry or what she might have said to me. I don’t remember dinner that night. But what is clear as sunlight are the details of what happened to me and the way I felt. It’s best to tell as I remember and let the reader understand why I waited so long to tell anyone.
I was ten, living in a nice middle-class neighborhood with my parents, my 8 yr old sister, and my baby brother who was a year old. I had a best friend who lived catty-corner across the street. We played together every day and walked to school together with two other friends. Her grandparents lived one house away, on the same property. Her grandmother had been my second grade teacher, beloved by me and our whole class. Sweet and loving. Her grandfather was, in contrast, a mean irrascible old man who yelled at us if we stepped onto his immaculate lawn or ventured into his garden where we like to play hide and seek in the corn stalks. What happened to me (and I guess probably to her too at some point or points) was horrible. I was ten. I barely knew my own body, much less the body of a man. It happened behind the bulkhead of his house, just out of eyeshot of my friend’s house or my beloved teacher’s ability to look out her kitchen window. He’d called to me and said he wanted to give me some corn to take to my mother for dinner. I was afraid of him, but that day his voice was softer than usual. I remember being able to see the garden just steps away, the corn stalks blowing in the breeze of that hot hot day.
I remember him asking me if I was wearing a bra yet. I was confused and said nothing. He said let me see and opened the buttons of my blouse. The buttons of his overalls were open too and there was something like a big snake coming out of the buttons. He pushed my head there onto the snake and held it down. I pulled away and then he bit me on the left breast, leaving a red mark. He told me to never tell anyone or he would hurt me worse. He said îf anyone asks, tell them you got stung by a bee. To this day I remember his shoes, the garden dirt on his shoes, and there is a faint metallic taste in my mouth when I remember. I remember thinking that if I told my father, he’d probably kill the man and then he’d go to jail. What would we do without Daddy? So I shut up. After that I walked the long way around when picking up my friend for the walk to school. I never went over there to play again. I always invited her to my house. She never asked why.
I also never wore that blouse again, though it had been a favorite: white with a palm tree embrodered on the left breast. To this day, I fear having my head touched or restrained, even by a hat. Blowing corn stalks can trigger the memories.
I’m pretty sure that my friend was one of his victims too, because she was obsessed with brushing her teeth and scrubbed her face nearly raw. She went away to boarding school at age 14, the year we were to have started high school together. I never asked her, never told anyone any part of it. In 1985 I wrote a poem about what happened. I didn’t show it to anyone, especially not to her. She died at a young age. Only then did I relase the poem. I still had not told anyone.
Here is the poem:
At Our 20th Class Reunion
— for Debby
If you mention him, your grandfather,
speak of his beautiful garden, of the tall corn
where we played
as children, I’ll have to tell
you about the rows
of thieving stalks with their pale silk flags —
warnings of the approaching storm,
the shaft of lightning
that split my childhood in two.
If you talk about his stubbled jaw,
say it smiled, say it was kindly,
I’ll think of crooked yellow teeth
like misshapen kernels of corn, grimacing
through open husks, a sudden
split in the green of August.
If you go so far as to say
he loved you, and you miss him,
I’ll glance away, remember the day
you strode from the rows
to brush your teeth over and over, to scrub
garden dirt from your face, your knees,
your pretty lace socks.
If you utter a single word
about his sad end, twisted with palsy,
rotting bit by bit from cancer,
I’m afraid I will laugh, twirl madly
with my skirts up around my waist,
letting the stench of his garden
fly off me into the wind.
I will never know if my friend told anyone, if that is why her parents sent her to boarding school. We never talked about any of it. In 2005, when my mother was dying and long after my father had died, I finally spoke about it. I told my mother, not the details but that I had been assaulted and by whom. Her response was what I had feared, a palid non-response to the horror I had lived and relived. I’m sorry if that happened to you. Now can we talk about something else please? I felt some relief at having said SOMETHING, but knew that there was going to be no more talk of it. It took me 48 years to tell her. She was dying and all the people who might have protected me were already dead.
When the House Judiciary Committee did their cursory “investigating” of Brett Kavanaugh, when the republican members of that committee focused on HIM rather than seeking to find justice, I felt her pain. I listened the whole day. I anguished over her story and all of our collective stories. I was transported back to 1957 and felt violated all over again. I know why Dr Ford could not pin down a date. I know why her clear memories are in that house, on those stairs, in that room, in the bathroom afterward. I know why she is still afraid and did not want to be in the room with her abuser. I know why it took a momentous event (his nomination to the Supreme Court) to make her brave enough to come forward after 36 years.
We want to stop being afraid. We ought to be able to live without worrying what someone will do to us, or how we will be vilified if we are hurt and choose to tell.
Here is the poem I wrote shortly after the hearings. It tells my story in another way:
I remember details of the day, burnished
somewhere in my brain, but not where
I can find what he was wearing or whether
it was a Wednesday or Friday.
I remember his shoes, the garden dirt
on them, the frayed right lace. I remember
the corn was high and blowing, the sea
was fragrant on the breeze.
I remember the green bulkhead
behind his house, the bee that stung
my left breast, opened to air.
If you ask me what exact time it was
I’d probably get that wrong,
but my mother called me in to lunch.
I remember that I choked down
my sandwich, trying hard not to cry.
I don’t remember
the lunch chatter or if my sister
was annoying, as she could be.
I said nothing serious to my mother.
Not until she was dying. No risk then;
she could take it with her. I’m sorry
if that happened to you. If. If. As if.
I know I never again wore that white blouse,
the one with the palm tree
over the left breast, that breast
which was barely a breast at all back then.
I’ve waited for years to love that part of me,
but we are strangers.
The bottom line is this: we are hurt. We are afraid. We fear being hurt another way if we do tell. I say it is time to end the silence. If you are a #metoo woman, tell someone. Tell your story in your way, but tell.