Chapter 1: No Place Like Home
From the outside my house looks like every other one on Bloom Street. A ranch home, two-car garage, groomed shrubs lining the front of it, and a rose bush by the entrance. But we have something that the others didn't. In our front yard stands a giant, old oak tree. No matter how many times my father trimmed it back, the tree seemed to grow bigger and bigger each spring. It shaded everything and prevented the sunlight from ever shining through the front windows. Driving past 1320 Bloom Street, you might not even know there is a house there because it is always hiding behind that big oak.
When I was in high school, I stayed away from the house as much as possible. If I wasn't in class, I was rehearsing for a play. I lived in the school's theater. The stage was my one true home. I felt safe there. My mother, friends, and teachers told me that I had a gift, a real talent. But I knew the only reason that I excelled in acting was because I had spent my whole life doing it. Practice makes perfect. I performed every day, putting on a show free of charge, for my family, friends, and teachers. If there was ever a lull in conversation or an uncomfortable silence, you could always count on me to chime in with a joke or kooky observation, anything to avoid the tension in the air. I could read a room, get a laugh, and work a crowd with my eyes closed. Acting was my survival and my greatest defense.
From my earliest memories I remember my mother crying. My father had yelled at her for buying clothes for us that he thought we didn't need or she was upset that he was too hung over on Christmas morning to open gifts with us. There was an endless supply of reasons for her to cry and that's what she was always doing, at least to my young ears. I would crouch down in the hallway outside her bedroom door and listen to her sniffling. She didn't want my sisters and I to see her like that. She was protecting us, but it only made me more scared and distrustful to live in that house.
There was a routine that she and my father had perfected: he would bring something up, asking for an argument, throwing a lit match on the gasoline, and then came my mother's yelling. My father would just sit in his chair with his leg crossed, nodding at her like she was a child. Then he would go outside to mow the lawn or disappear to the bar. My mother would rush to her bedroom, and later magically resurface with a big smile, lie on the floor, and play Chutes and Ladders with us. The whole time I would stare at her glossy eyes and watch little bits of mascara crawl down her cheeks.
My sisters and I dealt with it very differently. Stacey, the oldest, was the good girl, straightening and cleaning her room. Stephanie, the youngest, would become even more introverted and quietly hold onto my mom's leg. I took center stage. I would do a crazy dance or impression and watch my mother's face light up. I learned early on that laughter is more like Novocain than real medicine. I was the comic relief. So this "gift" that people said that I had was actually a survival strategy, although later it became a tool of manipulation.
Growing up in chaos, in a home where any second the floor could give way, I learned to dodge bullets and keep on movin'. It was every man for himself. If I stood still I was an easy target. I wanted to be a kid and have fun. Instead I was busy worrying about when the next disaster or argument would break out between my father and any one of us.
My father is not what you would call a cruel man. He kept his distance both emotionally and physically from all of us. He never asked me or my sisters questions about life, school, boys, the weather, or anything, ever. He simply didn't care. The only time he did communicate was to tell us something was wrong. "Jesus Christ, Kathy, why didn't you pay this bill?...Lynnie, clean up your room...Stacey, move the car into the garage...Stephanie, did you take my goddamn brush again?" He spewed negativity, and we absorbed every drop.
My father never laid a finger on any of us: no hitting, no hugging. Nothing. Mentally he knew how to hurt us, though, always knowing what button to push at just the right time. My mother, sisters, and I became daily obstacles between him and his beer. He would do whatever it took to clear his path to get to that bar stool. He was an alcoholic. This was obvious to me, but no one dared talk about it, especially my mother.
He was different when people came over to visit. He was on his best behavior, laughing, making jokes, talking to me like he cared. He'd brag about me to his friends. I was the shiny Corvette covered up in a dark garage, only shown off when there was an audience. We always kept up appearances and I was a fake and a phony just like him, playing along with the charade. I loathed the idea of anybody knowing how my family truly lived behind closed doors. Once the friends left and the party was over, it was back to status quo cold, distant, and tense. I was more comfortable with that anyway.
My father never told me that he loved me, so my mother said it every chance she got. She thought she could love us enough for both of them. When you're little you know where the love is because you gravitate toward it. The affection only came from my mom, so I found myself in competition with my sisters to get it. I knew there was only so much to go around and I wanted as much as I could get.
I never understood why my mother stayed with him for so long. She married him at nineteen. She was young, naïve, and wanted nothing more than to be a mother. My father made that simple, by being neither a husband nor a dad. She was determined to make it last. My mom enabled and ignored, putting on a show for everyone. She spent so much time pretending. No matter how bad it got, and it got bad, she wasn't going to leave him. My mother took her vows very seriously, as she grew up in a strict, Catholic household where she was taught to stick it out. My father didn't cheat or leave her black and blue, so he was a fine husband. They slept in different rooms and when they weren't arguing they were nowhere near each other. In my entire life, I never once remember seeing them hug, kiss, or show any sign of affection toward each other. I must have been the only kid in grade school that begged her mommy to get a divorce.
By the time I got to high school, I had so much rage inside of me I thought I was going to explode. Not knowing how to deal with this, I threw myself into all the extracurricular activities I could. I landed the lead in each school theater production, was on the forensics team, was on the homecoming and prom courts, and earned straight As. I tried to be the best at everything, but acting was all that I really loved. I knew that I had some talent and beyond that, it was a great escape. I was a big fish in a small pond. In any case, I planned to get the hell out of Dodge as soon as high school was over. I grew up watching my father drink his life away and seeing my mom wasting away with him, both of them rotting in that town. I told myself day after day that I would never be like that. I knew that after graduation if I didn't leave when I had the chance, I would be stuck in Danville. I felt the wet cement drying around my feet and needed to get away before it was too late. Drivers, start your engines. So I began running and didn't stop. I had no idea at the time what I was running to or from, but I knew that if I moved away and went to the big city, nothing or no one could catch me. Not my small town roots, not my alcoholic father, not even myself. I was going to live in New York City and start a new life.
Copyright © 2005 by Lynn Marie Smith