Biographical Non-Fiction posted October 29, 2014

This work has reached the exceptional level
a memoir

The River of My Life

by Spiritual Echo

Most of the people who did me wrong are dead, but they left a legacy, an imprint on the foundation of my life. Their words and actions cut deep, and like a river that has been dammed, I had to carve through rocks and craters to find a new path.

Well meaning friends and doctors have given me contradictory advice. "Face it head-on and deal with it, and then accept that it wasn't your fault." I did that, but there was no closure to the fallout. While being able to talk about childhood abuse has desensitized me to the descriptions, it doesn't erase how an unholy early start has affected me throughout my lifetime.

Others suggested I just block the memories, offering ritualistic exorcism as a tool to bury the crimes. "Write it down on a piece of paper--write it all down--then burn it."

I've done all that--damn near set the neighbourhood on fire with the bonfire--but it didn't change anything. I can not erase the influences that formed my personality.

Victims of childhood abuse have an innate survival instinct. I shared my prison with two sisters, also abused; each of us donning different types of armour to protect ourselves. My oldest sister escaped first. She was just seventeen when she joined the army. There she found consistency, rules she understood and could follow, and a sisterhood of women who were armed with both rifles and confidence. She never came back home, but she sent me packages, gifts that reminded me that I was a separate person from the family of horrors and there was hope out there--somewhere.

When each September rolled around, a package arrived with pens, paper--everything a girl might need to start school. If not for her attention, I would have gone to school with nothing in my satchel and embarrassment at my lack of supplies. My love affair with blank paper began with those packages. Even at a young age, I understood that what I wrote on the lined paper was all mine--my thoughts, my dreams, school exercises or drawings. My life was a blank slate, just waiting for the flow of ink that would define and reward me for my efforts.

The middle sister also escaped early. She was just fourteen when she ran from the house, blood streaking down her naked back. My father used a belt to whip her, trying to impose his will and break her spirit. With nothing but a coat and eight dollars, her graduation from the penal colony was brutal and final. She took to the streets, leaving me alone in the house with two dysfunctional adults. I was seven years old.

It was only then, with no buffer to share physical, emotional and sexual abuse, that I accepted I was all alone. I knew love--from my sisters--but from that moment on, I knew that I had no one whom I could count on--except me.

Now I have a grandson who is nine, and three granddaughters between six and eight-years-of-age. I catch myself staring at them and wondering how I survived. Their issues seem so simple by comparison; not getting a toy is catastrophic. Getting through a day without being noticed was my primary goal as a child.

A survivor's skill-set doesn't come in a gift-wrapped package, but is discovered by trial and error. It was a time in our era that children wandered and disappeared for hours with only one firm rule; we had to be home when the streetlights came on. What I did during those phantom hours was of absolutely no interest to my parents, provided I returned on schedule.

Adding to my untethered freedom was the expectation that I would go to Latvian school each Saturday morning. My immigrant parents had not assimilated well into North American culture. We had very few relatives in this, their new country, therefore the schooling of their youngest in the culture and literacy of their homeland was deemed mandatory. It did not seem odd to me at all that I was sent, not brought to the downtown church where classes were held. I took the streetcar alone and arrived on time, enduring the lessons and language at what I began to refer to as 'slob school,' for no specific reason except that it was the worst designation I could muster up as an eight-year-old.

Learning how to navigate the city transit system expanded my neighbourhood. After slob school, I would ride the streetcars and subways exploring the city. I walked through fancy hotel lobbies, visited the train station and found art galleries that didn't charge admission.

My city was pocketed with ghetto style populations; China Town, Little Italy and India were all part of my adventures. I walked the streets for hours watching vendors hustle pedestrians and recoiled at the dead fowl, heads intact, on display in butcher shops. By ten, I was so well travelled in the city core I would have made an excellent tour guide.

When things got rough at home, provided the storm was waged during daylight hours, I would escape to the beaches. Our home was two miles from the boardwalk on the shore of Lake Ontario. I found peace watching the waves and happy people who played ball with their kids or walked their dogs. Normal and invisible, no one bothered with a quiet kid sitting on a park bench.

The library became a refuge during colder weather. Receiving my own library card was a landmark moment in my life. It was my first formal piece of identification that bore my name alone.  Autonomy  I was a separate person--wow! I spent hours exploring the racks, sitting on the floor, discovering the answers to every question I could imagine. I checked out the maximum, allowable books each week, and I read them all.

At home, I learned to stay out of the way, but when the focus shifted towards me, I discovered that humour was a valuable tool to deflect a simmering temper. Instead of shrinking in fear, I often slipped into a theatrical performance and would overplay my hand--praying for laughter. It worked often enough that I tucked the skill into my arsenal as a valuable tool.

"Who left this towel on the floor?" My mother would scream.

Knowing full well that the towel was just an excuse to vent her fury--at whatever--I'd immediately slip into a role.

"I'm so sorry, Highness," I would declare, taking on the posture of a hunchback, scurrying, picking up laundry, in fear of Her Majesty's displeasure. "T'was the scullery maid, for certain, and I shall have her whipped anon."

The fact that I could do this in her native tongue spared me a brush with the ever-present switch she used to 'discipline' me with--most of the time. With a fifty percent success rate, it was always worth a shot.

Above all else, this ability to deflect, distract and manipulate (for lack of a better word) people and situations, has served me well. What I did instinctively as a child, I grew to appreciate and respect as an adult.  It was a legitimate tactic to shift attention from the objections thrown at me by buyers during my sales career. As a closet actress, it spilled into all areas of my life.

I became so good at this comedic detour that people came to expect me to conjure up this trick. But while it was a natural ability, it always felt like I had to be 'on.' Later in life, there were times that I could find no humour in the challenges that were force-fed to me and I didn't have the energy to perform.

"What' happened to you? You're not yourself. Why aren't you funny anymore?"

"Maybe you should see someone--professional, that is."

I took the advice and did see a therapist, especially after I lost, what I thought, were two life-long friends. By that point, I'd almost buried myself in misery. I had solid physical reasons for the pit I found myself in--three deaths--including my husband's, and all the estate responsibility to deal with, was the fundamental beginning of my emotional decline. There was more.

I've suffered my entire life with an extreme case of psoriasis, to the point that up to ninety percent of my skin was inflamed at different times. There were weeks when the only way I could walk was to slather a pound of Vaseline on my body and wrap myself in Saran wrap to keep the skin from turning into leather and cracking, causing immense pain.

I sold high-end jewellery, but my hands were covered with scales and I left a trail of loose skin on boardroom tables across North America. It wasn't my fault, but it was still humiliating. The price of gold was escalating, retailers' demands for deeper discounts was an everyday challenge and the general malaise of an impending depression; all contributed to a decline in my sales and income.

To top it off, my mother, with no other relatives willing to tend to her during her declining years, was deposited back into my life. Mama seemed to forget that I was an adult and the last chance she had for a peaceful stroll into eternity. She was my ultimmate challenge in the middle of a very rough patch where nothing was going right. My devotion and services were expected.

My sisters had put thousands of miles between Mother and their homes. A mere five hundred miles separated me from Mother's house. It was far enough away that my visits were rare, but close enough, that I could transport my son for his annual summer vacation with his grandparents.

Though I was aware of her passive-aggressive nature, bullying and attacking, then imploding with tears, self-indulgence and self-pity when someone would defend themselves or counter-attack, my very brief visits, and bag of survival tools, kept the odd weekend visits peaceful.

"Why can't you take your mother in, let her live with you?" The community care worker asked, condescension dripping from her public-servant's lips. "You live alone in a house more than big enough for both of you. Don't you love your mother?"

Love? Let me think about that. Without answering her question, I made it clear that we could, under no circumstances, live together. This was a problem.  Like many communities, but especially in a city with a population of three million, there was a very long waiting list for  nursing home beds.  My refusal to bring my mother to my home after she'd had surgery, complicated the medical community worker's job.  Mother was deemed to be unfit to return to independent living.  Her fourth husband had died, and there was no family willing to house her. There were only two choices; leave her in the hospital where the cost was enormous--all funded by the government--or find her a bed in a nursing home.

The case worker responsible for my mother, threatened me that my mother could be placed anywhere--perhaps thousands of miles away--wherever a bed became available. Idle threats, all intended for me to fold, and agree to take my mother home with me. I placed some strategic calls to the agency in my area, contacted my government representatives and members of the department of health, provincially and federally. I spun a glorious tale, eighty percent of which was true, and peppered my Academy Award performance with tears and a crackling voice meant to transmit desperation. My mother was flown to her new and final destination by air ambulance--a nursing home one block from my home.

Her initial gratitude for my ability to make these arrangements possible soon disappeared. Her vision and expectations of me were frozen in time. Being her daughter encompassed being her servant, her whipping boy and the receptacle of her life's disappointments. She belittled me constantly. Though I made heroic efforts to anticipate her needs, bringing her new clothes, oranges, chocolates and endless supplies of yarn for her continual crocheting--nothing was ever good enough. When asked what she wanted, she never knew, but she was always certain I got it wrong--every week--every time.

I got to the point that I found it almost impossible to have a conversation and tried to fill in the silence by doing chores, cleaning out her night table or sorting through her clothes. When that didn't take up enough time, I'd read the newspaper out loud and encourage her to make comments. She had no interest in my job, my friends or how I spent the time when not in her company.

For five years I endured her judgements, her continual derisive, prejudicial comments--racial slurs--always in Latvian so that the object of her disdain, usually one of her caregivers, had no idea that they were maligned.  And my mother?  She told the staff we were very close, and she likely believed what she was saying.

I confessed to my oldest sister that I hated the evil thoughts that occupied my head when I visited. No one else could understand. Others blamed it on old age, but that wasn't true--she hadn't changed at all. The only thing missing from the mother I knew as a child was a switch. In fact, once she asked me to bring one to the nursing home so that she could swat at the residents that caused her irritation.

My sister offered me comfort. "It's not what you think, that matters; it's what you do."

I held onto that thought like a life line. I did my duty--I'd done my time. My mother's death did not set me free. She haunted me from the grave.

The really big problem stemmed from my knowledge that my mother too was a survivor. While she never suffered the domestic abuse she dished out and enabled in my childhood home, her life story was filled with witnessing the atrocities of the communists and her sacrifice to run away from all that she knew. I had little compassion--what the hell, she wound up with freedom--but intellectually, I did understand, even if I couldn't sympathize.

I used my early abuse as a springboard to greater consciousness. I'd crawled out of that pit, or so I thought. My mother used her experiences to justify her opinions and actions. As hard as it might seem to someone who grew up in a safe environment, my mother didn't want her children to be happy. She wanted us to suffer as much as she did.

She turned away, let the sexual abuse go unchallenged, and even when confronted with the truth by her children--first as innocent victims, later by middle-aged women--her answer was predictable. "Shut your filthy mouths. Don't talk to me about such things." All three of us remembered the physical repercussions of our original confession. We each received a memorable 'spanking.'

"PTSD, (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome) is manifesting itself in you as Adjustment Disorder," the therapist said to me when I went for help after my mother's death. "Your depression and anxiety attacks were triggered by the death of your husband, coupled with your mother re-entering your life. You don't handle change well. Her insistence that you take on the role of dutiful, silent daughter pushed you over the edge and chipped away at your defences. In direct contrast to whom you had become, it awoke the memories of what you endured and survived."

After a few sessions with the therapist, it became clear to both of us that I didn't need to talk about the abuse. I'd dealt with it, but not soon enough to avoid some of the tactics I'd adopted to overcome my rough beginnings. The early sexual interference created intimacy and trust issues. Being vulnerable equated with surrender and I did not cede power easily. It was no surprise that I became self-employed. I needed to be in charge of me, hold the reins of my own destiny. Tragically, I have controlled the direction, but I still don't know whether I was on the right road. Some options were simply not choices I could make. Simply, I did the best I could with what I had.

"Why is it that I've forgotten my father, never think about him, but my mother still rattles around in my brain? Why is it that my anger, my blame is pointed at her?" I asked the therapist.

I'd like to report the man gave me a definitive answer, but he did not. Sure, we chatted about the impact of me giving birth, having a child of my own and my fierce protectiveness--my vow that I whispered to the gods after his birth. "Never--ever--will I let this happen to my child."

Or perhaps, it's because a mother's betrayal seems far more offensive and effective in creating life-long scars. For my part, in order to bury the unanswered questions, I've opted to eliminate the 'why' question from my vocabulary. It really doesn't matter. If some celestial thunderbolt exploded at my feet offering me an apology, it wouldn't change the fact that the damage was done.

The river of my life continued to stream, cutting a new path when obstacles tried to block my journey. Sometimes boulders turned the waters into churning rapids and treacherous waterfalls, but there were many ponds, lagoons where water lilies flourished and I rested, completely at peace..

Without ever considering a destination when I began, a sudden twist exposed a new horizon. Now I watch as each drop of water spills into the sea, offering me an ocean of new possibilities.


Non-Fiction Writing Contest contest entry


When my son was born, my mother was ecstatic--I'd done something right, in her mind. All the love she denied her daughters was poured into that child. As she often told my sisters and myself, we represented her failure to produce a son for my father. Biology be damned. No one could convince her that the male determined the sex of a child.

My father was dead, and my mother remarried to a man who treated the boy as his own. My son was never in any danger of abuse. He spent idyllic summers on a lake in Northern Ontario.

One year ago, I was accepted into a medical study group for Psoriasis testing of a new biologic drug. The monthly injections I receive to arrest an over-active immune system have completely cleared me of all lesions for the first time in fifty years. This summer I went swimming with my grandchildren for the first time.
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