By Eleanor Cowan
“Shut your big mouth and buzz off!” my mother exploded at me as she slammed a boiling hot cloth against my brother’s face – her cure for his chronic swollen acne.
“Do you know how much money your pimple treatment costs this family?” screamed mother. Pressing on another steaming square, she ignored Gordie’s pitiful cries. Slightly taller than my mother, my brother’s strong-muscled arms trembled at each side as tears streamed down his face.
A capable teenager, he could have landed her on the kitchen floor in an instant. Or, he could have run.
But Gordie knew the drill. The Fourth Commandment. “Honor your Father and Your Mother.” He knew what would happen if he disrespected God’s injunction, the one my parents leaned on to sanction their abuse. If he spoke up for himself, if he attempted to honor his own life, there’d be worse consequence. For transgressions reported to Dad, by mother, Gordie was beaten in the barn, naked, until he was 10 years old. This education effectively trained my brother to never fight back.
“Mummy! Stop!” I dared to protest as her electric grey eyes blazed at me.
“Do you need another reminder to shut your big, fat mouth?” Mother reached for her Mexican horsewhip, the one with the long tails of heavy knots at the ends. I snapped shut like an oyster clam.
I was six. I knew when to retreat, to keep quiet and to silence myself – or Mother would do it for me. If I tattled to our chronically absent father about Gordie’s suffering by the stove, (treatments which never took place when Dad was home) Dad would placate. He’d smooth over. He’d invite me to consider that our poor mother was pregnant with her seventh child, that she was doing her best to help Gordie with his persistent skin problem, that she was run off her feet as it was, and that I should be more helpful.
A strict, humorless religious family, we’d kneel to pray the rosary, just before Dad left for one more of his six-week sales trips. I told Mother about my sexual abuse only once. She called me a bloody liar and a tart. That was the end of that – not of the abuse, but of any hope of support for me.
Its funny how a single instant can be forever etched in memory. Watching my brother tremble under the undisputed authority of our enraged mother – I decided. I’d never be like her. I’d never scream. I’d never shout. I’d never criticize or complain. I’d be like the honored saints Sister Caroline told us about at school. Each silently swallowed injustice became a gift God would richly reward one day, after my death. Over time, I became hyper-vigilant. I said please and thank you way too much. I became Dad’s smiling little friend and worked hard to earn my mother’s generous tolerance.
In this way, I was groomed to accommodate bullies whose permission to be angry or cruel remained unchallenged. Without the vocabulary to articulate it, I came to understand that love was not freely given. I had to dance. I learned to two-step with entitled bullies, those whose authority, education, power or sway remained unquestioned by me. A bee in a jar of vinegar, I thought it sweet because I knew nothing else.