Biographical Non-Fiction posted February 6, 2020

This work has reached the exceptional level
A self-fulfilling prophecy ...


by Relda Halbert

It was the summer of 1956. Mother and Aunt Dessie were sitting at the dinette in our tiny kitchen. They'd been very close all their lives, the two youngest of a battalion of siblings. They and their spouses got together to party most weekends, usually at my aunt's house. My aunt and uncle didn't care for city folks ... considered them too nosey. My father and my aunt did most of the partying. Mother and my uncle usually nursed a drink and kept a lid on things.

Cousin Letha, whom I idolized, and I, were hunched on the top step leading from the utility room (nothing more than a hallway from the kitchen) to a dirt back yard.

I cast Letha a miserable glance, dreading the hurt and humiliation coming. She had heard half of the telephone conversation when my mother had called her mother early this morning. Mother had filled Dessie in on the highlights on the phone, but she needed her sister, in person, and Dessie dropped everything and came.

So, Letha had a vague idea where the conversation was going and that it was really important. She was listening, just like me, but seemed preoccupied ... fiddling, disdainfully, with my doll, which she'd picked up, earlier, as we'd come outside.

Letha never had a doll. Probably, she would have burned it at the stake, if her parents had given her one. Not that there was much chance of that. She was my uncle's willing substitution for a son, a tom-boy through and through and proud as Pete of it. She'd grown up on boy's toys and had been given a BB-gun last Christmas. She was a cracker-jack shot. She was looking forward to going with her father, when he went deer-hunting in the fall.

Letha felt me watching her, elbowed me in the arm, and gave me a supportive wink.

Just being with her helped. I was nearing seven, and she was six months younger. She was petite, bright-eyed, mischievous, energetic, always grinning, and full of spit and vinegar. She had a storehouse of dumbed down swear-words, and could repeat all her daddy's raunchy jokes, appropriately adjusted. My father told the same kind of jokes, but I would never have repeated them, adjusted or not.

Letha thought I was sweet, but simple as a post. I thought she hung the moon.

It was stifling outside. The back door stood open behind us and we could hear our mothers' conversation clearly. I had forgotten to breathe and drug in a gulp of hot air. It knotted in my throat. I felt sick.

"How's Lawrence taking it?" Dessie asked.

"He can hardly look at her!" mother wailed. "He's mad as hell at me. I was supposed to make her stay where she belongs. This is the first time she's ever defied me. What the hell got into her? I told her to never leave our yard!"

"She never pays any attention, Sis," Dessie reminded smugly. "Her mind's always off somewhere else."

My aunt didn't like me. She had decided early on, that I was a peculiar child - a disappointing changeling, who couldn't possibly belong to her sister. She made no bones about it.

Never particularly graceful, I became a pitiable klutz whenever my aunt's harsh green eyes locked on me. She'd watch me, her expression amazed and accusing. She'd charge me in advance not to mess-up, and enjoyed when, of course, I did. I could never be in her presence without slopping my drink on the table, dropping my dinner in my lap, or breaking some prized trinket. Aunt Dessie would make sure my mother and father, and anyone else in ear-shot, knew what I'd done. I'd heard, "She's done it again!" at least once every time we got together. It might have helped my self-esteem if I'd taken into account that my aunt was often drunk and 'slopping, dropping, and breaking' things, herself. But, in my world, adults were allowed to act however they wanted, with little consequence.

Mother broke the long silence. "Lawrence says it's her own fault." She paused to blow her nose. "But I know he thinks it's my fault, too!"

Dessie made some crooning, but dissenting, noises.

I took that to mean my aunt thought it was all my fault. I agreed with her. It was all my fault. I had messed up big-time.

Even though I was in pain from the beginning, I had covered it up for four hours ... and intended to cover it up forever. That evening, just after supper, I saw blood in the toilet and panicked. It scared me so much, I screamed. Mother came running, went hysterical, and demanded to know what happened.

I had lied, and said, "Nothing." At first, I saw relief in her eyes, but there was also a flicker of disbelief. I was new to lying and was not convincing. Even so, I had an odd feeling mother badly wanted it to be true.

My parents didn't believe in coddling children, but that night the pain became so bad I couldn't sleep, and I developed a fever. They took me to a local, emergency clinic just before midnight.

A doctor examined me and concluded I had a vaginal infection and trauma. He tried to get 'the truth' out of me, but I stuck to my story. He didn't believe me for a minute.

"The doctor insisted we call the police," mother continued, resentfully. "He said he wouldn't treat her unless we did. When we called, the police made us make an appointment to come to the station. We saw them yesterday. That's when it all came out."

At first, I had been afraid of talking to the policemen. I knew I wouldn't be able to lie to them. It was a sin to lie to policemen.

Remembering the conversation with those policemen, now, was actually comforting.

There had been two of them, and they talked to me alone. They didn't wear uniforms, but smiled and showed me their badges when I asked to see them. Each told me they had little girls of their own and showed me their pictures. They talked a while, just about normal things and asked me simple questions. They seemed to like me. Then, they said I needed to tell them what had happened to me ... what really had happened. They assured me I would not get into trouble, if I told them the truth.

I liked them both ... I trusted them. Suddenly, I wasn't afraid anymore, and, with great relief, the truth came pouring out.

They listened, asked a few questions, and kept their part of the bargain -- I did not get in trouble with them. At the end, they explained I must talk to a judge later. They said just to tell him what I'd told them. That he'd probably ask me some more questions and that I should answer the best I could.

"Jesus Christ, Dessie!" mother wailed. "She's going to have to talk to the judge, tomorrow! Lawrence is mortified. He's had to take time off from work because of the police and there's no telling what'll be involved with the judge. What if there's some kind of trial?!! Everybody's going to find out. Lawrence won't be able to stand it!"

That drew a colorful string of curse words from Dessie.

A judge, I thought. More questions. More dread.

"If it weren't for the blood," mother sulked, "we wouldn't have involved the police in the first place."

With her usual, heartless, cut-to-the-chase, meanness, Dessie surmised, "If it weren't for the blood, Sis, you and Lawrence wouldn't know about it, period. You know she'd never have told you otherwise."

Mother wailed, "She's ruined, Dessie!" then broke down sobbing.

"What's done is done, Sis," Dessie announced, in a tone saying mother should close the subject for her own good. For Good ... Period.

My mother said something unintelligible and took some time blowing her nose.

I choked back tears, and fought the urge to throw up. I wasn't sure who - or what - mother was crying over, but hearing Aunt Dessie's opinions made me feel even more sick.

After some time had passed, Dessie said, "Just don't talk about it. With anyone. Ever. If it doesn't get brought up and hashed over, she'll forget about it. What's the harm in that?"

"But ... children," mother said and let the words trail away.

"Maybe she won't even get married," Dessie interjected. "And if she does, maybe they won't want any."

"... but it wouldn't be fair to a guy not to tell him ..."

"If you feel too guilty, you can bring it up if she gets engaged. Then, she can decide for herself, whether to take a chance and tell hubby-to-be." Dessie chuckled, "As for Lawrence, it isn't like he's counting on her to continue the family line. That'll be up to Larry and there's no doubt he'll get the job done!" (Larry was my brother and my aunt liked him fine.)

Larry, who was four years older than I, was allowed to go pretty much wherever he wanted. In my mind, he was part of the reason I was in trouble. I'd not told anyone that he and his best friend, Terry Johnson, had taunted me when I'd asked to play with them ... that they'd dashed off daring me to follow ... that they'd run through the front door of Terry's house, continued straight on, and left by the back door ... that Mr. Johnson had cornered me in the living room.

I was only half-listening, as my aunt said, "You and Lawrence are still coming this weekend, right? After all, life goes on!"

At my side, Letha let out a guttural, animal-like growl. She caught Marianne's hand between her teeth, ripped off her fingers, and spit them out in the dirt.

For what felt like an age, I couldn't move. Then, an anguished sob tore out of my throat. I snatched my doll away from Letha, and clutched her to my chest. I gave my cousin the first, and only, look of hatred I'd ever give her, then scooted down the steps on my backside and picked up chubby, severed, rubber fingers from the dirt.

Tears slid down my face in sheets, as I wondered, hopelessly, if mother would be able to glue them back on.

But my aunt was right. Life did go on.

As it happened, mother was able to attach Marianne's fingers with mucilage. It dried in a sickening yellow seam, that called attention to the mutilated hand. I didn't care. I loved my doll even more for it. She embodied my pain. She was ruined, too.

Many years, later, just before Letha died of lung cancer, I asked her why she damaged my doll. She said she'd wanted to get my mind off what had happened. She said nobody was going to talk to me about it or comfort me. She said Marianne's scarred hand would give me something to focus on ... someone to love and to comfort ... that maybe I would feel loved and comforted, too.

No matter what she'd done to my doll, I'd never stopped loving my cousin. I'd forgiven her by the time we were together that weekend, but I was very glad I finally understood. I didn't have the heart to tell her that she hadn't quite succeeded.

It is true that my doll became my focus, sometimes obsessively so. It was true, that, vicariously, that focus helped me through a lot of bewilderment and pain. I never received, nor wanted, another doll from my parents. Yet all the care and tenderness I bestowed on Marianne during daylight hours, never prevented night-terrors from plaguing me. Those terrifying nightmares continued regularly into my thirties. Even since then, when I'm very stressed, depressed, or exhausted, I have them.

As for mother's 'declaration of silence', after seeing the judge, she had pulled me to the side. She leaned down, took my chin in her hand, looked me straight in the eyes, then said, "All that needs to be said, has been. We'll never talk about this again."

I'm sure mother would have stood by her command until the day after she died, except fate intervened.

When I was twenty-one, on the date of my wedding rehearsal, my groom-to-be and I were thumbing through an unused Family Bible, looking for my family tree. Our search dislodged a yellowed newspaper clipping. It detailed a case against a Mr. Johnson, in the city in which I lived as a child. It reported that, four years prior, he'd pled guilty to abusing his own daughters. He'd been sentenced to five years, but, as he was dying of heart disease, he was to be released early. He would be returning to his home to live out the final weeks of his life.

That clipping jogged memories from mental cubbyholes where I'd shoved them.

My mother was very upset that the subject had reared its ugly head, but, like it or not, it was discussed ... or, at least, most of it was discussed.

My fiance' took the news in stride, and we were married on schedule. It turned out he never wanted children, anyway. It also turned out we divorced five years later.

Since then, other related mysteries have arisen. Some have since been solved. Some still beg answers.

But, that's another story.

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This is a page in my memoirs.

My memories stem from a troubled childhood. The conclusions I've drawn have been influenced as much from experience as by fact. I feel that I've truly described, as best I can, this event from my past.

It is troubling to think family members may read this and might be hurt. I am convinced others might have seen these events differently and have concluded some other 'truth'. I certainly don't wish to trouble anyone else who might have had an interest in these issues.

After all, I'm convinced none of us have ever had all the facts. And, even if we had them all, facts never tell the whole story.

Pays one point and 2 member cents.

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