When I was a kid, I used to have to go to my fathers house for summers. My parents were divorced and during a period of time, we lived in a different state from my father. To make up for the loss of time, the court system agreed to the duration of the summer months devoted to my fathers house to balance it out. This lasted about 4 years, but before that time and after, we lived about 45 minutes away. True to the 90’s, joint custody consisted of every other weekend and every Wednesday evening spending time at the “non-custodial” parents home. In my case, it was my father.
During the summer months I spent at my fathers house, my days went like this. Every day, Monday through Friday, my father and stepmother would go to work. For those 2 to 3 summer months I spend out of the entire year they would never take time off while we were visiting.
During this time, we had a very strict set of rules. I was not allowed to watch TV, but even if we could sneak it, they did not have cable or an antenna, so at best you could get a couple fuzzy daytime TV shows. I lived everyday for the 30 minutes that Roseanne would come on, it was the highlight of my days. That was the most I could sneak without being found out. The internet was not like it is today, it was dial-up, which would use the phone line connection. It was a risk to use because it would cut off your home phone line, so if anyone called and couldn’t get through, they new someone was using the internet. We had one old apple computer that my stepmother kept locked at all times, but even if you could get a few moments on it, it would take hours to start and connect to anything internet based. Cell phones were not a common thing either, they were still only for the super rich.
I was not allowed to turn on the air-conditioning units. They did not have central air or climate control in the house. There was a couple window units placed throughout the house, but were generally positioned in the rooms my father and stepmother would stay in.
I was not allowed to leave the house to play with neighborhood kids. If I begged my friends parents to give me a ride, I was not allowed to go over to visit friends from school. I was expressly forbidden to visit my grandparents, the sweetest people on the planet, who lived right down the street. Mainly because they were my mothers parents, so my father and stepmother had an issue with them in general.
The food in the fridge was off limits. We were not allowed to touch leftovers or cook anything that was in the fridge. If we snuck a couple bites of anything, we were punished and scolded. I discovered that in the pantry there were expired dry goods that didn’t seem to have been moved in a very long time. I began to systematically note what was never touched. After about a week, I made my first move, Ramen Noodles. Much to my dismay, after I cooked them, I realized that bugs had gotten into the packaging. By this point in the summer I was running out of other options, I had also lost a bit of weight as well. Knowing that in many countries they find a lot of their nutrition from eating bugs, I knew that as long as I boiled it, it should be ok.
I was 13.
I learned very quickly to not look at what I was eating, and to teach my brain to ‘turn off’ when I needed to. Hunger can teach you amazing things about yourself. Since I had to make this food source stretch for a couple months, I would only eat them once every couple days. After that ran dry, I went to instant oatmeal and grits, all of which were infested with bugs. I am telling you right now, boiling water became my go to – everything I could find, I boiled it, then consumed it.
We had a list of chores we had to do every day. The bathrooms were cleaned at least once a week and the floors vacuumed every day. We would have to change the sheets on all beds, wash them, then replace them every other day or so. Pretty normal stuff and I learned very fast.
We did not have a dishwasher, so it was my job to wash every dish that was used after every meal. My father and step mother would cook dinner only. It was usually until the meat was bone dry, similar to jerky, and there were so many spices that you were picking rosemary out of your gums for days. You learned to make due when that was the only meal you were given each day. On average I would stay up until 9 or 10 pm washing dishes, as my father and step mother watched TV in the other room. They insisted this built character, and in hindsight maybe it did a little, but overall it just built resentment.
It was also my responsibility to mow the lawn, maintain any yard work, and feed the two dogs that were chained up in the back yard all year round. If there was any upkeep that needed to be done on or around the property, that was on me. All during the peak of Summer in Virginia. The temperatures would get up to the mid to high 90’s, with a humidity level so high that if it got a slight percentage higher would mean you were literally swimming.
We had a 25 x 25 foot garden in the back yard because my step mother loved fresh tomatoes and herbs. It was my job to weed it every other day and to water it at least once a day. Every season it was my job to dig up everything, turn over the soil, and fertilize it. One year my step mother found out that I really hate eating raw tomatoes, so she doubled her tomato crops and made me care for them. Tomatoes require constant watering, especially in the full sun, during the peak summer months. When they would finally ripen, my step mother would slice them onto a plate, stick it in front of me at dinner and force me to eat them all. My father would sit in cowering silence as my step mother smiled maliciously at me. What they hadn’t realized was that by this point I had been living off of bug infested food for months. I looked my step mother straight in the eye as I crammed a handful of tomato into my mouth, then swallowed them whole without chewing. She was so angry; she called me disgusting and doubled my chores. In my mind I was doing as I was told, but I was quickly coming to the realization that no matter what I did it was never going to be done the ‘right’ way.
The room I was allowed to sleep in was in the attic, but I was only permitted to sleep there if there were no guests currently staying with us at the house. It had one window fan and no air-conditioning. It would get upwards of 110 degrees in that room. One day a window air conditioning unit was installed. I was so excited. I remember feeling utter relief that I could finally get some sleep after weeks of sweating through my clothing every night. Finally, I wouldn’t wake up in the middle of the night due to the symptoms of heat stroke. I could barely contain the excitement….UNTIL they informed me that I was not allowed to use the window air conditioning unit, ever.
I laid in bed staring at that window AC unit, like a big red button with a sign attached saying, “Do Not Push”. Every night it was just there tormenting me, while I sweat out 50% of my bodyweight. The heat got worse as the summer went on, and all the while I was begging the powers at be to let me fall asleep. I would sneak downstairs in the dead of night to drink water and lay on the cool linoleum until my legs stop shaking.
After a few weeks, in a moment of weakness during a particularly humid period of days, I turned on the AC unit. It was the best sleep I had experienced in my life. It was so comfortable that I didn’t wake up in time to turn it back off. When my step mother woke up to go to work, she heard it running. I was woken up by her crashing into the bedroom door, screaming at the top of her lungs about how I disrespected her wishes. I was punished with names and endless scolding. The rare time I could actually catch a TV show was taken away as well. And at this point my chores had already been so increased, that they were coming up with random tasks and adding them on for good measure.
Turning on that AC unit was the straw that broke the camels back. I was lectured, scolded, and mentally abused for days. I was told that I was lucky I was even allowed to sleep there. I was lucky that my father followed the Virginia Court systems wishes to see me, let alone spend time with me. I was lucky that I wasn’t being abused physically, because in this situation it would be a normal occurrence. But I was lucky because they were kind enough to look past my flaws.
When we moved back into the Virginia area and lived 45 mins away from my fathers house again, the ‘every other weekend’ routine kicked back into gear. I was told that all of my weekly chores would be condensed into each weekend that I visited their home. I worked from sun-up to sun-down. Housekeeping, lawn care, pet care, dish washer, carpentry assistant, maid, resident ‘whipping boy’, gopher, patsy, entertainment, servant, and all around punching bag. I had gotten so good at doing my chores that they started accusing me of not doing them at all. Stating that things looked or smelled too nice for someone like me to have done it. I would have to use an exorbitant amount of bleach because they insisted they couldn’t smell it, so I must be lying about actually doing the work.
Much like Daryl from ‘The Walking Dead’, I learned to adapt and to even thrive in some instances. I learned skills that the average kid does not. I am definitely not justifying their behavior by saying that all children should be treated like this in order for them to learn and grow. As a mother, I look back and am completely appalled that they were allowed to do any of this. I don’t care what the court system enforced, I would fight tooth and nail to ensure children in my care never have to experience that. The anger behind these rough life lessons sometimes bubbles to the surface of my consciousness. A simple reminder that I am not stuck in situations like this, and never will be again, tends to snap me back.
During these years my psychic abilities would rapidly come and go. I was going through my transition into womanhood and the hormones greatly affect my precognition. There were always spirits around, and the spirits would come to me in waves asking me for help. They would come to me, get a sense that I was going through rough stuff and scuttle away. Much like how humans do when faced with uncomfortable situations, spirits do the same. There was nothing they could have done for me. I occasionally had a spirit friend that would direct me to a lost book, that no one would notice was gone, and it would help me find a world to be lost in for a week or two. Until my stepmother realized I was enjoying reading and quickly packed every age appropriate book in the garage never to be found again.
There was an older lady that haunted my fathers house as well. She was a staple to that property and is probably still there. I think she may have died in the house, or at least came close to death there. She had raised her family in that house, had great emotional connections to that house, and she also did not know how to be of any help to me. She would come and just stare at me, never saying a word. I would beg her for help of any kind, and she would impress the knowledge that ‘this too shall pass’ as her only response. At the time I did not understand, but as an adult I know exactly what she meant.
That part of my life was just one small fraction of what I have experienced. Since then I experienced even more extremes of human cruelty, but most importantly, I experienced the love we find in ourselves and in others. The simplest of kindnesses that can wipe out all the past wrong-doings that you experienced. It takes every bit of my determination to wake up each morning and make the choice to see beauty in everything around me. Sometimes making that choice to be positive is simply an act at first, but then over time you start to truly feel it deep in your core being.
The things you experience in your life do not define you, the choices you make with that information however, does.