When one perdures the process or course likened to “traveling,” this is called a journey. Through my life I have taken many journeys. Through these odysseys, I have acquired a bounty of character traits. These are the distinguishing qualities or inherent attributes that define us as human beings.
In my life, I have garnered some astounding character traits, but the acquisition of the defective traits is what leaves me downhearted. When I was a child, I learned not to trust anyone, particularly adults. My mother, who is an undiagnosed narcissist, was also an habitual liar. It is my belief that she, having grown up nearly destitute, longed for a more lavish lifestyle. At an early age, she began lying about the particulars of her life to make her life seemed grander than it was. She carried this on into adulthood, wearing the falsehood of all she hoped she could be, but apparently could not. I can relate to her artful stratagem. This is the very act that I performed throughout my childhood and into my adult life. The difference was she was the cultivator of both creations: hers and mine.
As a child, I went to school knowing that we were forbidden to talk about the anomaly that occurred behind closed doors. In retrospect, there were signs that my mother was neglecting us: our rumpled dirty uniforms, unwashed hair, sleeping in class, being hungry all the time. Those are the signs that people who are trained, such as teachers, that scream of obvious neglect. When I was very young, my mother bought me a pair of red boots. My aunt, who was little more than a teenager at the time, told me that they were “go-go” boots, which made me instantly fall in love with them. I thought I was a Super-Star when I wore them, and that everyone noticed me and how incredible my red boots were. I wore them to school on Friday, the day that we did not have to wear our Catholic school uniform. As it often happens in the South, the morning air is chilled, but the afternoon sun bakes down upon us and warms everything up. Later in the afternoon, when we were outside at recess, I asked for permission to go inside to the girl’s room. When questioned why, I didn’t answer, but took the inquisition as a “no.” I sat there on the steps next to my teacher.
She asked me why I wasn’t playing, and I told her that my boots were making my feet and legs hot. She unzipped my boots to find my bare legs and feet that had been trapped inside the plastic enclosure as I ran and played in the afternoon sun, unable to breathe. My feet and legs were very blistery red and throbbing with pain. She asked me why I did not wear any socks or tights. For a split second, I wanted to tell her that my mother hadn’t done the wash since, last night, she was busy being beaten by my step-father because she didn’t have any rolls or cornbread for him to eat with his dinner. I wanted to tell her that he took the slices of white bread that she offered as a substitution and smashed them into her face, forcing them into her mouth, and she thrashed and jerked to gain her freedom. I wanted her to know that as he did this, he yelled, “You eat this shit, you f#@king whore.”
What I didn’t tell her was that after he beat her, she had to clean up the mess he made by slamming her into the kitchen table as he was force-feeding her. What I didn’t tell her is that after that, my mother had to cook cornbread for him, which is why I didn’t have clean tights to wear. She also wasn’t aware of the fact that my brothers and I were banished to our bedroom where we went without any dinner, which is what usually happens when his anger is unleashed. My lips were pursed to utter the word that might have possibly saved me from a lifetime of abuse and neglect, but I just couldn’t utter that one little word: “Help.”
She asked me about a bruise I had on my thigh. I gave her the standard blame-it-on-my-brother story. As she looked at me, with my disheveled clothes and tangled mop of hair, her eyes spoke to me in a way that told me she knew. She knew. Yet she did nothing. Well, that’s not true. She took off my boots and sat next to me, with her arm around me, pulling me close enough that I could hear her heart beating. And for that moment in time, I felt safe. A feeling that eluded me most of my waking hours.
“Things come apart so easily when they have been held together with lies.”
As much as I loved those boots before, I loathed all the days after the playground saga. As a child, I did not have a choice when I dressed myself for school that morning. There were no socks in my drawer and my school shoes could only be worn with my uniform. As a child, I was afraid to be honest, afraid to trust, afraid to speak out, and afraid to call attention. Each and every day, I was utterly afraid. As I grew older, deceit came easier, but repose did not relieve the dolefulness that I experienced as I was learning to betray my true self.
The gift I gave myself was trust. I learned to trust others more, maybe not fully yet, but the trust is growing. More importantly, I learned how to be trusted. I’ve become a genuine friend to people whom I have come to care about by practicing honesty at all times, even when the truth is painful. I do this for my great desire to be loved by the people whom I love. Edith Hamilton once said, “Love cannot live where there is no trust,” and I cannot live without love.