Imagine a lanky, Italian guy straight out of the 80’s. We’re talking neon short shorts, blown-dry hair, creeper mustache, and a signature scent of onions. Tony (not his real name) was my mom’s third husband. We avoid saying his name in our family, sort of how everyone avoided saying Lord Voldemort’s name in the Harry Potter series. I think my mother saw him as tall, dark, and handsome though to me, he was repulsive.
On the day of their wedding, he wore a white, Miami-vice-style suit with too many buttons unbuttoned. The man was vain, temperamental, and violent. He was also young- 12 years her junior- with a commanding presence. He made people laugh, but I never thought he was funny. Maybe he had the sort of blue collar, adult sense of humor that everyone at the local dive bar appreciated, but I just thought he was cruel. A Disney villain to my 5-year-old, princess self.
The ceremony took place in my grandfather’s courtroom. He was a judge and though I’m sure he wasn’t thrilled to be doing so, he married my mom and Tony in front of a small audience of family members that day. My sisters and I looked like porcelain dolls wearing our beautiful dresses, with perfectly done hair, holding little bouquets of flowers. My mom wanted it to be clear that by marrying her, Tony was agreeing to a package deal. It all felt like a charade when the time came in the ceremony for him to put a ring on each one of our fingers. It sounds like a totally weird child bride situation, but it actually would have been a sweet gesture had it not been for this particular groom.
I remember wanting to object, to reveal him for the monster that he was. For years into adulthood, I actually chastised myself for not throwing a fit right then and there. If anyone had license to do so, it was the kindergartener. I thought I should have said, “How can you let this happen?! He beats her! He’s crazy! We all deserve better!” But I didn’t have those words at 5 years old, and as bratty as I could be, I never really wanted to upset the adults. My mother would have seen this as a betrayal, or so I thought. She looked happy. How could I ruin that? Besides, I think everyone knew what a piece of trash Tony was, but felt powerless when it came to trying to change my mom’s mind.
Instead of speaking up, I froze, as I would go on to do many times throughout their turbulent, 6-year relationship. Often I hoped that some grown-up would telepathically receive the S.O.S. I was sending with my eyes and rescue us.
The ring Tony gave me was yellow gold, with two small flowers on it that were made out of rubies and diamonds. Rubies were my birthstone, one that I shared with him. My birthdays were always muddled while he was in the picture, since he would insist a big deal be made out of his special day, which was the day before mine. I distinctly remember him pouting for having to share the day with me once, which– hello?– was no joyride for me, either! Very mature. I hated that ring as I told my grandmother when I was in my 20’s, long after his wrath had ended. She said, “That was my ring. I gave it to him to give to you.” Suddenly the ring was incredibly special to me. She was the guardian angel who had been with me as I hid under beds and in closets until the screaming ended. She was also literally the one who often swooped in to save me when I dared to speak up.
My mother had to explain Tony’s behavior to us somehow, so she told us he had bipolar disorder and that when he was taking his lithium he was healthy. As for the times that he was hitting her, breaking bones, screaming at her, destroying our house, in and out of jail for various burglaries and “paper hanging” (check fraud)? Those were the times when he wasn’t taking his medication. I would later learn those were the times he was self-medicating with cocaine, crack, and God knows what else. Crack is whack, y’all.
The ring was eventually stolen from me during an unrelated burglary in my adulthood. Fate, man. Fate.
So what did my mom see in Tony? Why would she keep him around and put us through all of that? If you’ve never been in an abusive relationship, this is a hard one to understand. Even though I’m technically a victim in the story, I actually do get it and I’ve long since forgiven my mother for any role that she played in it. (Clearly, I haven’t forgotten. This isn’t the kind of stuff you can forget, unless you repress it. As Emily McDowell says, “Hearing someone else’s story is how we make sense of our own. Telling our story is what alchemizes our pain into someone else’s medicine.”) My mom was an adult with three minors in her custody, but she was a victim, too. It’s the grayest of gray areas.
My mother was about the age I am now during the Tony era. She had two “failed” marriages under her belt. She was a single mom who struggled with depression and alcoholism, and honestly thought that her problems would go away if only Prince Charming would come rescue her. It wasn’t that far-fetched of a notion. After all, she’d seen it happen to her girlfriends and she watched as her ex-husbands both got their happily-ever-afters.
When I was 4, my mom became engaged to this super lovable guy named Eddie. I never saw her happier the rest of her life. Straight out of Jamaica, Queens, Eddie had a thick accent and gave off a warm energy. This might have started my long love affair with New York City…I never felt unsafe around him, nor did I feel like a burden. He included me. He was everything opposite of Tony. My older sisters recall the same feelings. I vividly remember Eddie coming in the front door one day, cradling a big watermelon in his arms saying, “I brought you a baby!” It was a small gesture, but I found it amusing. (Tony only cared to amuse us if it came at someone else’s expense, like the time he hung my life-sized, stuffed bunny from a noose in a tree in our front yard. I was 5 years old and the general sentiment about that incident was always, “Why can’t you take a joke?” Try as I might, I can’t imagine thinking that would be a funny prank to pull on my own kindergartner.) Eddie often had his collie/shepherd mix dog, Poncho, with him. That dog was a police academy flunky who understood commands in Spanish. He would become one of my best friends after Eddie’s death. Yes, of course, this story has a tragic ending.
Eddie was in a bar fight with his best friend, as the story goes. I don’t know what it was about. I don’t know what he was up to. The fight took place in the parking lot. One blow sent him backward and he hit his head on a speed bump, knocking him unconscious. Well, this is the story my mom told me anyway. I remember spending time in the hospital waiting area while my mom was in Eddie’s hospital room. There were lots of tears and ultimately, my mother said she fought with his family who decided to take him off life support. She soon found solace with Eddie’s best friend, the man responsible for his death, who was supposedly sick about what had happened. It was, as we were reminded often, an accident. Tony replaced Eddie. We didn’t have time to process anything. To my mother, it must’ve seemed liked destiny. The two people who loved Eddie the most could take care of one another, but it was evident to us kids that Tony was no substitute for Eddie. If they really were best friends, maybe there were things we didn’t know about Eddie. Maybe he was no saint either and our family would have imploded regardless of which wicked stepfather played the part. I don’t really believe that though. Eddie was at least trying. Tony never tried to put his best foot forward. He wore his volatility on his sleeve from the get-go.
A framed photo of my mom and Eddie sat on her dresser throughout my childhood. I remember her looking at it and crying at various times. Regardless of whether she was drunk or sober, vocal about missing him or silent, she didn’t need to say that Tony was a constant reminder, that Tony was salt in the wound, and that Tony took our future from us and replaced it with so much pain. While I was regularly disappointed by our mother, it was Tony who I saw as the one to blame. It wasn’t until I was older that I had to deal with repressed anger toward my mother. She had free will, but it was really difficult to see her as an authority figure and not just one of us kids. As is common in these situations, I saw her as someone I had to look out for somehow.
It’s not like my mom had money that Tony could have been after, but she did own a home, a car, and likely had a good credit score when he met her. She was also very vulnerable. It feels like if this same scenario were to happen in modern day, my mom would be the victim of a catfishing scheme. There must have been an ulterior motive, though maybe that’s giving Tony more credit than he deserves in the intelligence department. He didn’t have to get involved with a struggling sheriff’s deputy, 12 years older than he, who had three kids and baggage. What could he have possibly wanted from her? A literal get-out-of-jail-free card? She believed all of his promises and wanted us to do the same by pretending we were a happy family, by writing his last name on our school papers, by thinking nothing of staying at a safe house, by cleaning up glass, food, vomit and blood, and pretending it never happened the next day.
As you can imagine, my mother was not her best self when she was with Tony. She sunk down to his level. She met him where he was. (This is what we all do and this is why it’s important to be with people who encourage and inspire us. Oh, the wisdom in the saying, “Lay down with dogs and you’ll get up with fleas.”) Observing my mom and Tony became a deeply entrenched puzzle of which came first: the chicken or the egg? Their erratic behaviors were contagious. We all learned to live in a heightened state of survival mode. My stomach was always in knots. My heart raced before I walked in the front door. Though no physical harm ever came to me, I was afraid all the time, as if an earthquake was coming but I never knew when or to what magnitude. I was afraid to stay, instinctively wanting to run, but I was afraid to leave my mom alone. Going to a friend’s house, or school, or to my father’s house for visitation was a vacation from the madness, though I’d feel guilty for being away and I’d be terrified of whatever I had missed.
There is, of course, so much more to this story due to the domino effect that comes with this sort of family system. There’s my father’s role when he found out the extent of what was happening and the fruitless, years-long, custody battle that ensued. There’s what happens to teenage girls who are left to their own devices when their mother is missing or sick and the fridge is empty and the bills are due. There are the cycles of dysfunction that repeat until the next generation gets enough counseling to flip the script. A tale as old as time.
My mom is gone now. It’s only because I’m not interested in bad karma that I don’t wish the same could be said for Tony. I haven’t seen him in decades, but a fear and rage boils up in me when I imagine ever having to come face-to-face with him again. And then there is the business of forgiveness. There is me knowing that a wounded child grew into an angry, egotistical, sociopathic, misogynist who wounded other children. Tony no doubt manifested his own self-fulfilling prophecy of shame and defectiveness.
While none of the characters in this [cautionary fairy] tale deserved this experience, I wouldn’t be who I am without it having happened just as it did. Maybe I would be better or worse or just the same, but would have gone through some other ordeals to make it so. It was such a brief period of my life in retrospect, and yet it informed every part of who I am today. It matters. It matters just as much as the positive contributions to my life. And the “negative” parts of your story do, too.
The thing about traumatic flashbacks is that they’re relevant parts of our memory banks. Should they be any more or any less meaningful than the best moments of our lives? What if we just let them exist instead of denying them, repressing them, or using them as a scapegoat for every poor choice we make? I don’t believe erasing trauma is the answer. My degree from the School of Hard Knocks is as valuable to me as my degree from Florida Gulf Coast University, though having them both is what brings balance. I’m all about that yin and yang, dark and light. My story illustrates paradox and isn’t that one of the best teachers, really? We’ll never know definitively why we’ve all gone through what we have, but categorizing any situation as being only black or white keeps the story limited. It deprives us of nuance, possibility, and growth. It keeps every character trapped in the roles we’ve created for them. And that is simply a work of fiction.