In The Beginning, There Was Fear

I remember sitting in the front seat of my mom’s blue Lincoln. I am three. The car is in the garage of my grandparents’ house. I am alone, but not quite because, one, I have a book to read, and two, there is this pervasive feeling of dread that is always around when it is just my mother and me.

There was a study that came out of Stanford saying that listening to one’s mother’s voice released stress relieving chemicals in the child’s brain, among a host of other good social skill building processes. My mom’s voice just inspired terror in me. A feeling that there were no grown ups in charge and I would have to fend for myself.

I remember my mother opening the driver’s side door and throwing money she’d gotten from my grandfather before once again leaving me alone. I picked up the bill. It could have been $100 or it could have been $20. That wasn’t the point. The point was that my mother needed this money. So I did the smartest thing I could do, and stuck it in between the pages of my book, where it would be safe. And promptly forgot about it.

That night, after dinner, my mother went to the car in search of the money. But it wasn’t there. She asked me if I saw it, and truthfully, I said no. If you asked me what she wore, I couldn’t tell you. If you asked me what had been for dinner, I’d have drawn a blank. But I can remember the transformation of the woman I called “Mami” to this raging monster on a rampage.

She searched the trash, going bit by bit. She ripped apart the purse she used that day, and then every other purse she had in the car. She screamed in this high pitched howl again and again. She pulled at her hair and scratched her face and neck in horror. This would become her pattern. I learned never to throw away anything in the trash because she so frequently searched it.

She made me search the car with her. I was so scared to be near her. I wanted my dad. I wanted someone to tell me it was going to be alright. That this monster wasn’t going to hurt me.

And then I remembered the book. The book with the money. But I couldn’t tell her. If she had ripped her purses and clawed her face and screamed at the top of her lungs, what would she do to me when she realized it was all my fault?

I snuck away and found my book with the bill in it and slipped it into her wallet. Because at the age of three I had to be conniving, if only to save myself.

When I was four, my parents planned a trip to Disneyland, only my mother backed out at the last second. It was still dark and my father was getting ready to go. “Pick, Vene, do you want to stay or go?”

My mother was forcing me to make choices at four. And not just whether to go to Disneyland or stay in Nogales, but whether I loved my mother or my father more. If I was honest, the answer was simple. My father any day and twice on Sundays. In the mornings when I’d wake up early, my mom would yell at me to go back to bed, but my father let me snuggle with him.

If the choice had been staying with my mother or a den of vipers, I’d have serious reservations but have chosen the vipers.

By the time my sister was born, I was pretty sure I’d have to figure out my life on my own. The night my parents left to go to the hospital, I was annoyed by the interruption. At that time, I slept with the maid, who afforded me more attention and affection than my mother, and I can’t even remember her name.

By the next morning, four-year old me had gotten dressed, packed my lunch box and set out to walk to pre-school. Pre-school was taught in a house, in another neighborhood, across a highway. But I had it figured out. Because by four I always had to have a back up plan for when my mother lost her shit.

I was intercepted, however, by my aunt, who found me walking down the hill. She laughed when I’d told her my plans. I had a baby sister to meet!

“What’s the big deal? She won’t even remember me.”

It might have come off as cold, or even autistic, which I was, though no one knew. But by four, I’d seen enough, I’d heard enough, and I’d felt enough that I was already burnt out. This woman, my mother, who claims I was the perfect gift she earned for an unhappy marriage, sure knew how to make me feel unwanted.

Yeah, it was the cruelty, and the shame, and the beatings, and the lectures on never quite shining brightly enough. But the one thing she did was make me feel like I was invisible unless there was something to brag about. Validation isn’t given to those of whom perfection is already expected.

There’s more of course. But I wouldn’t want to overwhelm you.

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