Safe House

When I was elementary-school-aged during the Sixties in Arlington, Virginia, my parents couldn’t decide whether they loved or hated me. They felt the same way about my younger brother Danny. Our mother was warm, generous, supportive, and kind. However, frequently, with little or no provocation, she asked our father to beat the daylights out us, and he enthusiastically obliged.

The first time he hit me with a store-bought paddle, he snapped it in half. After that, he thrashed us with a thick homemade oak paddle. During the worst spanking I received, my father stripped me naked at my mother’s suggestion and hit me with the paddle two dozen times with nearly all his strength.

To this day, Danny and I don’t understand why our mother called upon our father to perform this brutal task. Our father’s motives are easier to understand, and through years of therapy and compulsive memoir, I’ve become glib in outlining them. He dislikes children, he was physically abused by his cruel and mentally ill mother, and he seems to have inherited all of her mental/emotional afflictions, although he’s been highly functional and successful in most aspects of life. Socially, he’s always been awkward, and some people have confided in me that he gives them the creeps. I once heard him talking on the phone with a woman from church whose husband was in the hospital. My father said, “Well, is he going to get better, or is this the end of the line?”

The only assured softness in our world, a mother-figure we fully trusted, was our Aunt Connie, who was our mother’s aunt and our great-aunt. She and our mother were the same age because of our grandmother and great-grandmother having babies at the same time. She lived an hour away in Richmond with our Uncle Ed and three cousins, James, Jared, and Molly. Connie eventually gave birth to a fourth cousin, Michael. Aunt Connie was pretty with mischievous brown eyes and a slightly snaggle-toothed grin—she was always ready to crack a joke or let loose her wonderfully crazy laugh. She also grabbed us and gave us bear hugs if we came close, and we knew without a doubt that she loved us. For many years, she didn’t know that our parents physically abused us.

There was something joyously quirky about our Aunt Connie. She always took a giant plastic glass of ice tea with her when she ran errands—this was decades before cup holders. And she knew how to make us laugh. One time when I was a teen and ate a nearly infinite amount of her killer good tacos, she said, “Allen, you eat like a bird—a vulture!”

And Connie loved to tell humorous true stories. “There’s a local judge we know,” she said. “And he has a gap in his teeth that embarrasses him, so he wears this metal dental plate to hide the gap when he’s in court, but the thing’s uncomfortable, so he keeps it in his pocket when he’s not hearing cases. One day, he returned home and realized the dental plate was missing. He’d used a toll road that day, and he concluded he’d mistakenly thrown his dental plate into the coin funnel at the toll booth. So he wrote a letter to the Virginia Department of Highways explaining what had happened. The Department wrote back telling him that it was physically impossible for a dental plate to be processed by a coin-collecting toll booth. But six months later, the Department mailed him the dental plate—but it wasn’t his!” Connie whooped with delight.

***

At one point, Connie opened and ran two successful cooking accessory stores, and one of them was managed by our older cousin James. The sales from James’ store were significantly higher than those from the original store, which Aunt Connie ran with a close friend.

“James has found his true calling in sales,” said Aunt Connie of her son who wasn’t academically inclined and had bailed on college. “He charms those lady customers right out of their panties!”

Our Uncle Ed had a sense of humor as well. Once, when James was in high school and on his way out for a date, Uncle Ed gave him a firm look and said, “James, you take good care of your date now, you hear me?” James said he would. Then Uncle Ed turned to the rest of us kids and said, “James has a tendency of getting to know his girlfriends by using the Braille method.”

We also liked our cousins. Jared was about a year older than I was, but he, Danny, and I got along as if we were compatible brothers, and we usually let our cousin Molly hang out with us. Jared teased his kid sister a lot, but Danny and I were nice to her—she was the younger sister we’d never have. We looked up to James when he was in high school because he was older. We loved smelling his colognes and listening to his cool stereo and (now) classic rock collection when he wasn’t around. When he was at home, he was disdainful of us, but not in a cruel way. We all knew he was a troublemaker because he goofed off in school, snuck beers and cigarettes, and once got caught by the police for breaking into a swim club after hours and hosting a swim and keg party for his friends.

As a testament to our closeness, Jared, Molly, and I all attended Virginia Tech together. When Danny reached college age, he chose heating and air conditioning school, a job, and a quick exit from our childhood home.

Another reason Aunt Connie and Uncle Ed’s house felt comfortable and safe to us is that we never witnessed violence there. My Uncle Ed was a big bear of a man who was strict but fair with a kind heart. To my knowledge, he’d only subjected his children to a single spanking, once when one of Jared’s friends shot a hunting arrow through the door of a parked car and my Uncle Ed mistook Jared as the culprit. Uncle Ed apologized profusely, and that was the last of the spankings.

Ironically, we were visiting Aunt Connie, Uncle Ed, and our cousins the last time my father physically abused me. It all started when I walked past the living room where the adults were talking. My mother told a story about me, but she exaggerated certain details to make me look particularly stupid and foolish.

“Very funny, Mom,” I said.

My father shot out of his seat. He grabbed me, dragged me down a short flight of stairs, and shoved me into the bathroom. He’d hidden the paddle there. He bent me over and gave me one of the worst spankings of my life while I cried out.

Everyone in the house heard the commotion. My cousins huddled outside the bathroom door, giggling nervously—they told me later they couldn’t believe my father was spanking me, let alone for such a minor offense. Danny hid.

That last spanking occurred the summer I was twelve, right before I turned thirteen and entered seventh grade. I’ve always wondered if I “aged out” of victimhood or whether Aunt Connie or Uncle Ed successfully implored my mother or father to stop beating me. Maybe this didn’t happen, since my parents continued to thrash Danny until he entered seventh grade. In any event, Connie and Ed were even more affectionate toward us after they knew about our beatings.

About this time, our parents drafted a will and informed us that if anything ever happened to them, our mom’s sister—our Aunt Cynthia—and her husband would become our new parents. We liked Cynthia okay, but she was serious and strict. Our Uncle Roland appeared to be a nice guy, but he was shy and rarely spoke. As for our cousins, Sam, the oldest, was about Danny’s age, but he was quite neurotic—he’d have screaming fits if he were asked to ride in a car that had even a speck of rust on it. Susan, the next oldest, was bright and energetic, and we liked her, but she despised her younger sister, Nan, who is/was mentally ill, and Susan couldn’t resist torturing her.

“So that’s okay with you boys?” Mom said. “You’d go to live with Cynthia and Roland in Chicago? Remember, this probably won’t ever happen, but we need a plan just in case.”

We all sat around the table after dinner. Danny and I looked at each other for a split second and then said in unison, “No, we want to go to Connie and Ed’s!”

Our mother was surprised, but, to her credit, she contacted Aunt Connie and then modified the will to accommodate our request.

Danny and I have discussed this moment many times. This is a terrible thing to say, but from that moment forward, we each half-hoped our parents would meet with a fatal accident so we could live at Connie and Ed’s, our fantasy parents, our safe house.

We continued to travel to Richmond once or twice a year to see Connie, Ed, and our cousins, and these trips always reinforced our strong desire to live there.

 

During one of my high school summer vacations, our mother confided in Danny and me that she had fibroid cysts on her ovaries. She was anemic and weak. She needed a hysterectomy that would lay her up for weeks. Danny would remain at home to help her out, but I was to travel to Richmond by train to live at Connie and Ed’s for a month. I was sorry our mother was ill, but I reveled at the opportunity to stay at Connie and Ed’s, even if just for a short while.

So I took the train to Richmond and a taxi to Connie and Ed’s. Connie hugged me fiercely and hooted her crazy laugh right after she answered my knock. And I had one of the best summers of my life. Every morning began with pre-breakfast bear hugs from Connie. Jared and I shot tin cans in the woods with his BB gun, we picked wild blackberries and ate them with milk and sugar the way Connie showed us, we played basketball at the back of the carport, and Jared, Molly, and I watched every comedy, science fiction, or horror show we could find on TV. I remember the whole family sitting together and howling at The Producers. Connie and Ed were exactly the same loving people they were when we visited. They didn’t have a dark side. The two prevailing emotions in their household were love and laughter.

However, one disturbing thing happened while I was there. One afternoon when I was hungry, I wandered into the kitchen to see what was in the fridge. I wore sneakers and walked quietly. I stopped short when I discovered Aunt Connie standing at the sink with her back to me, crying deep, racking sobs into a paper towel she held over her face. As a matter of fact, I wasn’t sure at first that this was Aunt Connie. Our aunt normally sported a tall and jaunty posture accompanied by an open, friendly expression bearing the beginnings of a smile; the woman before me was hunched and miserable. But Connie she was. I couldn’t imagine anything that could cause her so much pain. I’d never witnessed this level of sorrow, and I sensed it was deeply private, so I quietly slipped out of the kitchen.

If Connie knew I’d witnessed her distress, she never mentioned it. And she was her usual cheerful self for the rest of my visit.

***

That summer provided me with my last good visit with Aunt Connie. During my college years, she began an unsuccessful battle with breast cancer that ended shortly after I started graduate school. Of course, I was devastated. I felt as if I’d lost my true mother. I dedicated my thesis to Connie, and I still miss her.

That was many years ago. My Uncle Ed has since died, and my cousins have scattered across several states on the East Coast while I live in California. The last time I communicated with one of them was a long time ago when I sent Molly a get-well card after she underwent a double mastectomy in her victory over breast cancer. I wished her a speedy recovery and told her I loved her like a sister.

 

I’m sixty now. I’ve been happily married for over twenty years, with a wonderful family and set of close friends. I enjoy a warm relationship with my mother, who has been loving, kind, generous, and free of malice since I turned thirteen, and I feel empathy for my father, who suffers from advanced dementia. Danny remains one of my very best friends. My wife Elizabeth and I enjoy good health, fulfilling work, and look forward to comfortable retirement in the not-too-distant future. In short, we’re blessed and content. Still, my subconscious mind hungers for that unconditional mother’s love I received from Connie. Why now? I don’t know; it’s a mystery. But I want to feel it once more before I die.

Lately, every few nights, I dream I’ve gone back to Connie’s house, but I can’t find her, Uncle Ed, or my cousins. Sometimes I arrive at their home, and they’ve just left on vacation. Sometimes they’re due back any minute, but I’ve mistakenly made a terrible mess of their house and feel I must flee before they become angry with me and withdraw their love. Sometimes we occupy the house at the same time, and I hear my aunt, uncle, and cousins talking and moving around, but I can’t find the room they’re in.

Not long ago, I dreamed I returned to their home, but the Secret Service had evacuated them because then-President Obama had borrowed their house for an important meeting of state. But a few nights later I dreamed, and the family was home. I walked into a utility room just off the kitchen where my cousin Molly was ironing. She looked up in delighted surprise. “Allen, you’re back!” she said. Just over her shoulder, I glimpsed Connie bustling about the kitchen, but before I reached her, I woke up.

 

My family genes suggest I’ll live to ninety-five. That gives me thirty-five years to dream-walk to Aunt Connie’s house until we finally reunite. And I’m fleet of foot, and my heart brims with hope.

Allen Long is the author of Less Than Human: A Memoir (Black Rose Writing, 2016). His memoir, “Praying for Restraint,” is forthcoming in Broad Street. Allen is an assistant editor at Narrative Magazine, and he lives with his wife near San Francisco.

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