Ethel. Born Ethel Marie Jennings in 1933. Sometime in the 70’s she began using the name Marie. She claimed Marie as part of her healing journey. Ethel was the little girl who was sexually abused by three older brothers. Ethel was the meek, timid, and abused wife of a raging husband. Marie was the adult who had finally grown up and become independent. Ethel began therapy and Marie graduated from it. Marie divorced the angry husband, dyed her hair, got a job, went out dancing.
I respected her preference while she was alive but now that she’s gone she’s Ethel again. I don’t use her birth name out of spite or anger. I use it because it reminds me how the time and culture we grow up in stays with us, in some respects, always. I use it because it was Ethel who neglected and abused me. It is Ethel I remember spanking me with a hair brush. It was Ethel who locked me out of the house and let me bang on the door sobbing and shrieking to be let back in for hours at a time. It was Ethel who administered enemas as punishment— wait, that’s not right. That was Verna. Ethel told me it was Verna, my grandmother, who did that to my father when he was a boy. It was so long ago and I spent so many years burying the memories that I still get confused.
I never knew Ethel as a mother. That’s probably because she didn’t view me as her son. Not when I was born. I was the fourth boy in a five or six year span. By the time I was born she was done being a mother. She just couldn’t do it. How could anybody in her shoes? She was a stay at home housewife with multiple kids and an abusive husband. Did I mention her childhood?
Her brothers were considerably older than her and they were, shall we say, large personalities. Stereotypical drunken Irish men who hung out all night at bars, singing Irish songs with the boys, who came home drunk and took turns with their precious little sister.
Her father died when she was very young so he doesn’t come into the story. Her mother exists only in one memory that is a combined version of hers and mine. She’s ancient, decrepit, sitting in a wheel chair. Her skeletal, wrinkled, ashen hands were distorted by severe arthritis into comical evil godmother hands curling in on themselves. She is saying, “This is god’s punishment for my sins. This is what happens to sinners. Don’t sin!”
In spite of her background Ethel, and then Marie, stayed close to her brothers, and a sister. There were many family gatherings with all of them together, drinking and singing. Not Marie, though. She didn’t drink nor sing. She would have loved to sing but she didn’t dare draw that kind of attention to herself. Uncle Dick, Uncle Eddie, Uncle Bob, and Aunt Rita. I was terrified of them all. Fortunately, there were always enough kids around that I could keep a healthy distance. In my memories they aren’t people. They’re scary fairy tale relatives.
Of all the abuses I have kept secret the most invisible to myself was the neglect. I only really know about it on a conscious level because she told me. Obsessively. She couldn’t stop apologizing it for until the day her mind shut down with dementia. There was a period of time in the 70’s and 80’s where we talked about these things. Some of what I’m relaying above is only available to me through her.
Falmouth in the 70’s had a “drop-in center” for youth and wayward adults called Hotline. They had a 24 hour crisis intervention phone line and a living room type space that anyone could just come hang out in any time for any reason. They offered counseling services and training sessions for the volunteers who handled the calls. I’m fuzzy about the details but around the time of her divorce my mother was spending time there, at first as a client, and then, oddly, she became the Director of the program. I have no idea what her qualifications were, if any.
On the other hand, they let me, a pimple-ridden, angsty, 16 year old in constant search of new ways to get high, attend the training and answer calls for a few hours a week. Qualifications maybe weren’t given enough serious consideration.
Hotline was her and Frankie’s domain before I started dropping in, which is not something I ever gave much through to before now. My older brother and mother were living intertwined lives that don’t make sense to me. But I don’t remember questioning it at the time, however incongruous it was for our family.
I wasn’t dropping in to be with them. I started showing up because they had a resource that was valuable to me and my peers. The PDR. Physician’s Desk Reference. The Prescription Bible. 70’s remember? My friends and I were doing a lot of drugs and we were indiscriminate. Falmouth was a hub of illegal drug trafficking so there was no shortage of those, mainly weed, acid, and thc (pcp). But since we were kids there were always dry spells when our mothers purses were too poor to pilfer from. When we were without a budget our medicine cabinets became our dealer surrogates. The PDR became our tour guide.
When stealing from within our homes we could look up the pilfered drugs by name to find out what they were for and what side effects we could hope to experience. But we weren’t alone in the practice and we sometimes, through trade, found ourselves in possession of mystery pills. The beauty of the PDR was that it categorized drugs by form, color, shape, and markings allowing us to identify almost anything that we came across. I digress. I came for the PDR but I learned a lot from the adults there, from my training, and from my time on the phones.
This was also when I first noticed Frankie’s feelings towards me had changed from disaffection to subtle hostility. I obviously knew we weren’t close any more but I just assumed it was because our interests and social circles had changed as we grew older. The more time I spent at Hotline, the more he stepped away until eventually he stopped coming at all. It was just me and Marie. Which is how we started talking.
Marie was having a second adolescence. She was socializing with the other Hotline adults, most of whom were twenty years younger and kind of hippie. She started smoking pot, staying out late, coming home with her clothes inside out. It was weird but for the first time in our lives it made her feel accessible to me. I could finally relate to her. Because I was having my first adolescence and doing many of the same things.
So we talked about my childhood. How sorry she was. How she wished it had been different. She told me of her past, not to use it as an excuse but to explain. I heard her. She told me what she knew of my father’s past. How he, too, had been sexually victimized as a child. She told me how afraid of Verna she had always been. How twisted and cruel she was, not only to my father but to his sister, who died long ago (under mysterious circumstances if I recall right), and to his father, my Grampy, who I always liked.
Here’s another memory of mine that isn’t true. Actually, it’s true but it’s not mine. I think I appropriated it from Tom. Grampy was the only relative of my parents that I felt comfortable around. He was very old and incapable of conversation with me but I remember him as gentle and kind. I see him in his wheelchair with a knitted blanket over his legs. I remember his big, wide smile and his soft eyes. These are true, not appropriated. The memory I think I stole from Tom is this: Grampy didn’t die of old age. He was humiliated to death by Verna.
“I had to change Thomas’ diaper yesterday. like a little baby.”
I used to tell that as if I heard it myself but I’m pretty sure Tom said it. Memory, at least for me, is often like that. I don’t always know what’s a memory, what’s an imagined story, what’s a dream, or even what’s a desire. If a memory that I revisit over and over isn’t exactly true, if it has changed shape over the years and with each telling, how can it hold so much power over me? So much sway?
My healing has required me to go back. To revisit. To recall. My memory is at once my burden and my path to recovery. The memories that I’m sharing with you here are the ones that haunt me, the ones that have never left me, the ones that I only recently discovered.
I think what I’m doing with this telling is that I’m exposing these things in order to be free of them. To finally be able to let them go. To draw a line in the sands of my body and mind between what came before and what comes next. I want you to know me then, so that you can know me now. So that I can know me now.
All my life I have felt driven. Passionate. Excited. Inspired. And for all that time I have been afraid to go there. I was in a production of Godspell in my early twenties. If you haven’t seen it, it’s an ensemble musical with two main characters, Jesus and Judas, and a chorus of unnamed supporting characters. As a piece of theatre it transcends religion and the songs are brilliant. During one of the songs, Light of the World, each ensemble character has one moment when a spot light shines on them and they sing their one individual line of the song. This was mine:
“But if your light is under a bushel, you’ve lost something kind of crucial.”
As I write this, forty years later, I am weeping with gratitude that I am finally coming out from under my bushel.