My almost three-year-old daughter, Hope, refuses to eat dinner four nights running. My husband, she and I sit, soul music filling the air, fresh flowers in a deep blue vase in the center of our wooden table. My husband tries to make her to stay at the table by holding her in place. Watching him restrain her, I feel my appetite wither, curl into the base of my spine where I store the memories of home and food and violence. He doesn’t hurt her; he holds a small bite of food in front of her closed mouth. Independence takes many forms, I think, and chew my own food too quickly, afraid that the man across from me will illogically morph into my father and explode into one of his inexplicable rages. Fear isn’t rational, and Dreux is a gentle man. He releases her and she walks over to her toy box. I fall back to the meals of my youth.
Age three: We sit around the kitchen table, the Coleman lantern’s hiss marking the number of days the electricity has been shut off. Winter has been long and the work slender. My mother makes tortillas on top of the wood stove out of the remaining ingredients left in the house, and our stomachs grumble in unison at the smell of butter and flour. Rain pours on the roof and the faces around me sink into their shadows. Mom carries the pile of white disks to the table, a kitchen towel covering the stack to keep them hot. The food slides its warm way down my throat. Dad eats last, after Mom, leaving to go cut kindling on the front porch while still chewing.
Age four: Mom shakes us awake. “Get dressed now.” She hands me a jacket and a pair of cowboy boots while Jerrie gets three-year-old Dan ready. We huddle into our coats and Mom herds us to the front door through the dark house.
“What’s wrong?” Jerrie says. We move out the door to the porch.
“Virgie called from the bar. Your Dad is coming after me.” Mom sounds small, like her spirit has wilted to our size and she just happens to be the tallest one. Dad has the only vehicle and we run from the house in the dark, Mom carrying Dan and holding my hand, the trees bigger than in the daylight, shadows leaning toward us. We run the half-mile down our dirt road, and a star or two shines through the branches overhead. When we reach the asphalt, Mom pauses, all of us panting together. We hear the sound of a truck and we lean into each other with relief as it passes by. Mom says, “Let’s go.”
We run toward the old post office, a quarter mile away. My cowboy boots echo on the pavement and we pass the spot where my sisters catch the bus every weekday morning, but probably not tomorrow. In front of us, the shadow of the overpass looms and I am afraid of that deep dark we must pass through to get to the neighbor’s house. The shadow swallows Jerrie first, and the rest of us plunge in after her.
“He’s coming.” The screech of Mom’s of words sears my ears. We run faster, and the old post office comes into sight, just as the sound of Dad’s truck approaches. Mom pulls us inside the small building, squats, presses us together and we watch out the windows as Dad’s truck wobbles past.
“He’s missed the turn.” Mom pulls us closer. We wait—I’m sure none of us make a noise. The image of us will remain with me forever: Dan leaning his head against Mom’s shoulder, her shallow breaths, her silent prayer to Jehovah. After a few minutes, we see the headlights beaming Dad’s drunken way as he blows past the stop sign. The truck’s gears grind up our dirt road, and he’s gone.
Jerrie takes my hand and we follow Mom down the steep driveway to Everett and Mary Ingram’s house with its tended, tranquil flowerbeds. We stand at their door. Mom’s head hangs and a long minute passes before she raises her fist to knock. The sound fills the night, but it takes a third time before a light switches on. Everett opens the door a crack and widens it when he sees us.
“What is it, Diane?” He places a hand on her arm.
“I’m sorry to wake you . . .” Through her tears, she manages, “It’s Jerry. The bar called, he said he was coming to get me.”
My sister, Jerrie, crosses her arms and I wiggle my feet inside my cowboy boots. My toes hurt from the running.
“I need to call my sister, Diana,” Mom says. “Please.”
Everett’s wife, Mary, joins us in the living room. She guides us children to the living room to sit. My feet don’t touch the floor.
“You call your sister, and I’ll make the kids some hot chocolate,” Everett says. Mom disappears and Mary comes to each one of us with an encompassing hug.
When it’s ready, Mary hands us our mugs of hot chocolate. The warmth calms, brings ease to my small hands. I let my eyelids drop and I sip.
We stay with Aunt Diana, Mom’s twin, for three days, and one night we sit down to dinner, the eleven of us. Diana says a prayer, all of us closing our eyes and bending our necks toward our paper plates. She thanks Jehovah for his blessings and asks for my father to find his peace. She finishes with the usual, “In Jesus Christ’s name, we ask these things. Amen.”
A few minutes into the meal, her second oldest child, Matt, says, “I don’t like this.”
“You’ll eat it,” she points a finger at him. Mom pulls Dan onto her lap.
“I will not.” He crosses his arms and pushes back from the table.
“You’ll eat what I cook, you son-of-bitch.” Her pale face flames maroon and she stands. She hooks an elbow under his chin and drags him from the table and pins him to the floor. Her fists pound his face while the rest of us watch. Matt fights back, trying to get his hands out from under her knees. At one point, she tries to force a spoonful of peas into his mouth. He wins that battle and the peas rain to the floor. Diana throws the spoon at the table, nearly hitting me. She beats Matt awhile more, then finally stands.
Age six: I sit at the kitchen table with my mother and siblings. Dad isn’t home yet, but Mom turns to look for his headlights every two minutes. Because he’s not home, Mom says, “Let’s pray tonight.” We bend our heads and Mom asks for Jehovah’s blessing in her tentative voice. “And please have Jerry come home early tonight and not make a stop at the bar. Please help him see the truth of your ways.”
We say “amen” together, and wait.
We finally eat, but all of our bodies ache for the sound of his truck. I am embarrassed to be hungry when there isn’t much food to go around—it seems a flaw or a sin to have hunger. In the mornings, when we get dressed for school and sit at the table, Dad usually says to me, “How’s my skinny girl?” At night, I try to eat quickly before he returns, before he sees me eating.
Age seven: Dad tells me to not spill my milk again tonight. I’d spoiled dinner six nights running with my shaking hand, trying so carefully not to do what everyone was afraid I would. “You should know how to bring a simple goddamn cup to your mouth,” he says from the table’s head. I nod, staring at the cursed milk in the clear plastic cup near my plastic plate.
“Why don’t you leave her alone?” My sister Jerrie speaks from my left side. In an instant, Dad’s hand shoots past me and grabs her.
“What did you say?” He has her by the upper arm, reaching over me and pulling her toward him. I duck to escape his wrath. He forces her toward the back door, and she fights him all the way. Jerrie digs in and Dad has trouble getting the door closed, but finally he does, and he screams at her to show him some respect, voice shrill with anger, a tone we know too well. He drags her toward the back fence, the place for whippings. At the table, we hear his open palm smack again and again.
Cindy, Dan, Mom, and I don’t look at each other, but my tears land on the cooled lumps of mashed potatoes. “Stop crying and eat your dinner.” Mom speaks with clenched teeth. The tears create a knot inside my throat, making it hard to swallow the tasteless food. Dad screams outside; I cry and chew and hate it all.
Age thirty-four: My mother and I visit my aunt Diana in her trailer, two hours from where I live. Diana isn’t well, her three-hundred pounds, her type II Diabetes, her Parkinson’s merging into a daily life of pain and trial. Upon our arrival, she can’t stand because the Parkinson’s is hitting her hard today. My mom and I take turns bending to hug her, and she tries to get my daughter to smile. Hope hides her face in my shoulder and keeps it there until I sit on the other couch, a good distance away. Watchtower and Awake magazines line the headrest and I push them aside so they don’t hit my neck.
“Candy?” Diana offers from the glass jar by her side. I shake my head and shift because something pokes from between the cushions. My hand extracts a plastic sandwich bag full of hard candies. I look at Mom and she rolls her eyes.
“I hide candy from myself.” Diana unwraps a tiny Snickers bar. “I like finding these little surprises.” She pops the candy into her mouth, cheeks puffy and red, like Matt’s the day she beat him. I remember other times, when she used to make her kids hold hot sauce in their mouths as punishment, holding their chins so they couldn’t swallow, tears forming in their eyes.
Mom and she chat awhile, and Diana opens another candy. “Do you remember when we were eight?”
“When we lived in Aptos?” Mom said. “Before we went into foster care the first time?”
Diana nods and sucks at the candy. “Do you remember how we were playing outside and then Mom called us in to the table? She had a pan full of something sitting there and told us to sit down.”
Diana looks at me now. Mom’s gaze has drifted off. These stories from their childhood never go well, and I take a breath to prepare myself.
“Yeah, she had that pan, and she pointed to it and told us never to have sex.”
Mom nods and Diana says, “She had self-aborted a fetus, and that’s what was sitting in there, but she didn’t explain it, she just made us look. It took me years to put all the pieces together.”
I hold Hope tighter.
“She never explained anything,” Mom says. Diana shifts in her chair but continues to stare at me. I don’t know why she’s told me this then, or if she and Mom have ever talked about this before. Maybe she was providing some kind of explanation for the violence she inflicted on her children.
Age thirty-five: I attend a three-hour yoga/meditation retreat. Our leader walks around the group with a bowl full of organic raisins; we are to take one and hold it until further directions. I want to gobble it down—the canyon in my stomach widening with the waiting. The leader asks us to use our five senses: to smell the raisin, inhale its sharp sweetness; to study the crevasses and curves; to feel those same features with the tips of our fingers; to close our eyes and feel the heft. She asks us to place it in our mouths and to roll the raisin around on our tongues; she encourages us to let the wizened grape into every part of our mouths. I relax as I push this nugget of nutrition with my tongue. The pit in my stomach feels less fierce, less full of bile. When we finally bite into our raisins, our leader asks us to chew slowly and to listen to the sounds of our jaws working. By the time I swallow, the tautness filling my abdomen disappears.
The leader continues, “Studies have shown that unless we properly engage the endocrine system before we eat, we don’t digest our food in a way that gives us full nutrition.” Her calm voice soothingly delivers this insight. “If we don’t take the time to inhale the smells of the cooking meal and ‘prepare’ our bodies for the fifteen minutes leading up to our first bite, we will instead engage the ‘flight or fight’ response.” The necessary digestive juices won’t flow and our bodies can’t fully absorb the food.
Age thirty-five: Tomorrow is my daughter’s third birthday. The in-laws are coming and I need to make a birthday meal, one where we sit around a table and eat together. The thought of cooking, eating and keeping the flight-or-fight response at bay whirls inside; my stomach cramps and kicks. What I want to do is take Hope to the beach, sit in the warm sand and teach her how to eat raisins. I want to be able to transcend the fragments of food and family and fear, transform them into new ingredients, ones that will feed the body, the spirit. I pack a bag of towels and sunscreen and raisins. One step at a time.
Charlotte Gullick is a novelist, essayist, editor, educator and Chair of the Creative Writing Department at Austin Community College. Her first novel, By Way of Water, was published by Blue Hen Books/Penguin Putnam and was chosen by Jayne Anne Phillips as the Grand Prize Winner of the Santa Fe Writer’s Project in 2002 and will be available November 2013 from the Santa Fe Writer’s Project.