A House Is Not a Home

Before I became a teenager, I had no specific recollection of my parents’ relationship to each other.  There was a generalized feeling of unhappiness and avoidance, more so because my father was always gone thanks to his job as a farm inspector.  This made him almost non-existent during my early childhood, but as I grew up, the tension between my parents seem to grow with me. Although he only came home on weekends, my mother refused to eat sitting down with us and he took longer and longer trips to the corner bar.  Many times these trips extended well into the night when the bar closed.

Now I was old enough to listen to my parents’ fights and my mother’s constant complaints of how horrible and loveless her life was and how she wished she’d never marred.

I was spending more and more time with my friends and less at home, but that one afternoon I came home earlier and rang the door bell. No answer. I rang again. Still no one came to the door, yet there were noises coming from inside the apartment.

I lifted the flap of the letter slot and peeked inside. My eyes pearced the darkness of the long corridor leading to the actual room we lived in and there, in the light I saw my father hitting her, and she was trying to push him away, and it seemed the more she tried, the closer he held her, his hands around her neck.

I couldn’t find my key and banged in the door as hard as I could, with my fists and my feet and screamed until the neighbors showed their curious heads, but the door stayed locked!

Someone called Militia and finally we got into  the apartment. My mother’s eye was bruised and so was her neck. She was sobbing in a corner while my father, still in a drunken daze, was cursing her frigidity.  The two Militia men called for help, looked at each other and one of them winked. The other smiled, as if he knew something I didn’t.

“He was strangling her! He wanted to kill my mother!” I explained, but in my culture children were to be seen not heard, so no one paid any attention.

“Do you want to press charges?” the Militia men asked my mother.

She shook her had “no”, and they left. My father left too, to take a walk and “blow off steam”, the “bitch”, he mumbled, shamed him just by not performing her “wifely duties”.

The curious neighbors went home and after writing a report the Militia left too. We were alone, my mother and I, and I brought her some ice, as her eye was swollen. I handed her the pack, but she threw it in a corner:

“Don’t need ice from you! What the Hell were you thinking to call the Militia? and now the neighbors know, everyone knows!”

“Mom, he was strangling you! He was killing you and I, I saved your life, don’t you see?”

“Saved my life? What do you know about life? Things are not always what they seem to be! … and beside, you know the saying “wash your dirty clothes in the family, at home”. No matter what happens at home you never, never tell the strangers! Now everyone will judge us! Everyone knows and it’s your fault! Your fault!”

The next few months were quiet, while my father spent hours drinking at the corner bar, my mother spent more and more time working at the hospital, always being on duty on weekend nights when he was home. I was spending more and more time at the next door apartment with my girlfriend. I could talk with her about my worries, about the beatings, the drinking and the insults. She already knew our family dirty secrets. She knew we were not what we seemed to be!

It was before New Year’s Eve 1965.  My parents seemed to have made up, they even bought a New Year’s Tree. Not a Christmas Tree, as Christmas was not celebrated in our home and I decorated it the best I knew how with tinsel and sparkling round globes. No Angels!

New Year’s night was always celebrated by eating and drinking a lot and having guests over.  We never had guests over, but that year my mother decided we will come together as a family, erase the problems of the past and start fresh.  She was an excellent cook and I remember for that special occassion she made her  Mocca Torte which took hours to make, and she made it,  and I helped, just to have a true new beginning on New Year’s Eve!

By 7:00 PM we finished cooking and our  family New Year’s  party was not to start until 9:00 PM,  so that  we’d still be up at midnight, to welcome the New Year. It was bad luck to be asleep at mid-night on New Years! Our work was done and my mother told me to rest, be fresh for the party.

My father was still not home at 7:00 PM. Several hours before, he left the apartment to go on a short walk.  We knew what that meant, but pretended we didn’t, even when hours later he showed up drunk and  went into the kitchen where he generally had imaginary fights with people who hated him and he them. When that happened, I was instructed to “leave him alone” as there was nothing I could do. I was okay with this “pretend” as long as he didn’t hit either of us.

I believed with all my heart,  this New Year’s Eve party was different.  It was a new beginning! We were going to be normal at last! We spoke about it, he knew all the preparation which went into making this a real family get together, a fun night for me to remember and forget the beatings! He knew, he wouldn’t let us down! He couldn’t have changed his mind… about our family!

I took off my skirt and left my top on and slipped under the covers. I’ll just take a short nap before my father got home and we start the party, I thought.

I fell asleep and dreamed I was swimming in a beautiful waveless Sea. It was calm and warm, it felt just right on my body, caressing it…

“Run, run! Get up and run out!”

The sea disappeared and my mother’s screams and my father bent over me, trying to hit, became my reality.

The dream ended and the nightmare began!

I got up quickly, as my mother was pulling him away from me and I ran ouside through the long hallway.  As I was running through the corridor, I remembered  the Mocca  Torte we slaved over the whole afternoon and quickly opened the refrigerator and took the cake with me.

What happened in the mind of a teenager, to make her stop and think of a cake when her life was in danger? As I look back, this event clearly demonstrated that part of our brain, the neocortex, responsible for understanding the consequences of our actions, is not fully developed in adolescents. However, at the time,  I didn’t know or care about the neocortex but for the cake to not get wasted. I simply wanted to eat that cake and nobody was going to take it away from me!

There I was, in my underwear, outside our apartment, Mocca Torte in hand!  Where to go? What to do? I couldn’t run in the street in my underwear, so I ran up the stairs on the third floor, where a neighbor’s door opened and I went in.  She had a party and I presented the Torte, a token of appreciation. She gave me an over sized skirt we pinned in the back, and sat me at the festive table, where I sat all night for fear my skirt would fall off.

Somehow my mother made it out of the apartment and up the stairs to this neighbor’s. She didn’t seem to care anymore people knew our dirty secrets and the next day she went to the “Institutul Medico Legal” (The Medical-Legal Institute) to be examined and officially got a paper assessing her bruises and wounds.  This was to be used in her divorce proceedings and she filed for a divorce.

After that New Year’s Eve we didn’t go back home, but at my mother’s girlfriend’s and we stayed with her for a few months. Then, one day my father showed up at the door with a huge bunch of red roses and they talked, and talked and talked some more. I could hear her cry and him beg her, like a child. I don’t know what each said and cannot imagine, but the next thing I knew, we packed our things and moved back home, with him. She explained to me that he promised to change, it will never happen again. He was a changed man. He loved us!

I really, really wanted to believe her, to be able to sleep without waking up from my calm sea of dreams at my mother’s screams and his beatings… I wanted it to be true, the change, but it wasn’t and our apartment was never a home again, just a place where I slept in fear.

Oh, but I did have a home, I was not homeless! My new home which was secure  and wonderful because no one could take it away from me, or disturb it; My home was in my heart!

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