…is one of my favorite people in the “real” world, that mystifying place where some of us have to earn a living by doing things other than what we would ideally do. After all, even Socrates worked as a stonemason before he inherited enough money to make him a marginally financially independent philosopher. Penny is currently using writing and artwork to illuminate her soul’s journey. The following is the beginning of an autobiography in process.
-- Penny Heffernan
We all have a voice. We all have a story. This is my story.
“Dear one, from a cold and painful beginning, you have turned into a warm, loving and giving person. You accepted God’s call. Well done, my good and faithful servant.”
The journey through life is never easy. It took me sixty years but I finally discovered that the trip is well worth it.
At five years of age I wet the bed at night.
“You do that on purpose,” mother screamed.
“I don’t…...,” but before I could utter another word, mother ripped the covers off me while she grabbed my arm and pulled me out of bed. Mother tugged at the wet mattress and shoved it onto the floor. Her face was twisted with rage. She forced me to lay on the wires of that old bed. I remember looking through the rusted, spiral wires at the old linoleum that retained its bright colors under the bed. The coils dug into my skin each time I moved. I tried to lay very still while I memorized the various shapes and patterns on the floor. I don’t remember how long I had to lay like that, but this method used by mother to stop me from wetting the bed didn’t work.
There was only mother and me. My father died from injuries sustained while serving in the Navy during WWII aboard the aircraft carrier USS Wasp. I was 15 months old when my father died. It seemed to me that the natural thing would be for mother and me to form a strong, loving bond. That, however, was impossible. Mother had a violent temper.
I was a latch-key kid. While mother worked as a secretary in downtown Chicago, I took care of myself after school. I was in third grade during a frigid Chicago winter when I came home during lunch break one day and discovered that the apartment key was not around my neck. I began to panic at the thought of what mother would say when she found out. I did dumb things like that all the time. No wonder mother called me “stupid.” I was afraid to go back to tell the nun I couldn’t get into my apartment. The nuns at St. Aloysius Catholic School weren’t known for their sympathetic nature. They corrected us on everything, whether we needed it or not. It was supposed to be good for the soul.
Not knowing what to do, I simply sat on the frozen wooden steps at the rear of the apartment. I had on a hooded jacket but left my mittens in my desk at school. The school uniform skirt left my legs bare. The short cotton socks and tennis shoes offered no warmth and soon my toes were icicles. I pulled my knees up to my chest and wrapped my arms around them. I rested my head on my knees and drew myself into a tight ball hoping that would keep me warm. I closed my eyes and tried to ignore the cold, the wind, and the rumbling sounds from my empty stomach.
My mind sketched a picture of daddy and me going on a trip far away. Mother wasn’t with us. Daddy told jokes as he drove along in the car. We both laughed hysterically. We sang along with the music on the car radio. We were happy just being together. I knew by the tug on my heartstrings that daddy adored me. It was something I felt, deep within.
My dream transported me to a pleasant, comfortable place. A deep sleep took hold of me as I curled up on the frosted steps. I must have been asleep for about fifteen minutes when I heard a squeaky voice call, “Girlie……. girlie, wake up before you freeze to death.”
The lady next door was about 80 years old and although I never spoke to her before, I had seen her last summer hanging her laundry in her yard . She didn’t know my name. I guess that’s why she called “girlie” out of the open window.
“Get in here and I’ll give you some soup.”
I went to the back door and stepped into the warm kitchen. The room welcomed me with various cooking aromas. There was meat roasting, something sweet baking, and I heard a bubbling sound from the large pot on the old stove. I felt completely safe and comfortable in this stranger’s kitchen. I sat on an old wooden chair that felt warm against my cold bottom. The tiny, wrinkled lady set a bowl of soup and a few crackers in front of me. I ate in silence. The hot soup thawed my bones and warmed my soul.
“So, why were you out there on the steps?” she finally asked.
I thought it was okay to tell this nice lady the truth.
“I forgot to take my key to school this morning and I can’t get back into the apartment.”
This kind lady didn’t judge me or scold me. She busied herself in the kitchen as she gently said, “Well, you just sit still until you feel warm enough to go back out in the cold.”
I was forty minutes late getting back to school. The not-so-pleasingly plump nun leaned toward me and shook her chubby finger in front of my nose and growled, “You will be punished for coming back late.”
The nun never even asked why I was late. I didn’t volunteer the information because I was certain she wouldn’t have cared that I almost froze to death.
I tried to stay out of mother’s way. It seemed like I couldn’t do anything right. Because I upset mother so much, she frequently hit me with a wide, leather belt. It appeared to me that mother got such great pleasure out of hitting me that I decided to pretend I was a statue during the beatings. I kept my body rigid and maintained a defiant, blank stare with each snap of the belt against my bottom. I never allowed myself to cry, no matter how much it hurt. I refused to show any emotion. It gave me some kind of power to hide my pain from mother. I didn’t want her to know how much she affected me. I didn’t want her to know how much she hurt me. I didn’t want her to know how much I hated her.
I wanted to tell mother to stop hitting me. I wanted to shout, “no more!” But I couldn’t find my voice. It was buried too deep. The very essence of my soul was extinquished. This was my life. There was nothing I could do about it. This was all I knew. For me, there were no pretty, pink dresses, no walks to the ice cream parlor, no hugs, and especially, no laughter.
Mother remarried when I was nine. A year later mother had a girl, and two years after that she had a boy. While mother rushed off to work each day for the four to midnight shift , I raced home from school to care for my brother and sister. My stepfather worked nights also. He was a quiet man and never acknowledged my presence. I wondered if he knew I lived in the same house. He was very devoted to “his” children. I noticed that my brother and sister were treated differently by mother than I was treated. I figured their dad would never have allowed his children to be beaten with a belt.
In my early teens, I had a lot of responsibility. In addition to cleaning our apartment and watching my brother and sister on a daily basis, I was in charge of grocery shopping every Saturday. The neighborhood grocer made deliveries in worn out cardboard cartons. Mother checked to make sure I didn’t forget anything on her list. If I forgot something, I got a lecture from mother about my stupidity. I hated grocery shopping.
One day, mother sat across the table from me and said, “I’m going to have another baby.”
My eyes filled with tears as I stared straight ahead.
“What the hell are you crying about?” mother asked.
“That means I’ll have even more work to do around here,” I said in a weak voice. I felt overwhelmed. I was in second year of high school and already taking care of children and a household. There was very little time for teenage fun.
Cindy, my cousin who was only six weeks younger than me, lived next door with her parents and three brothers. Cindy was my best friend. Actually, she was my only friend. One day, we made plans to see a movie. I had to mop the kitchen floor before going out. I was anxious to get out of the house so I mopped the floor fast and furious. I washed only where foot traffic made its marks and neglected the floor under the kitchen table and chairs.
Mother looked at the careless job I had done and growled, “You’re the laziest kid I’ve ever seen! You can forget about going out today.”
I started to speak but before any words crossed my lips, mother’s hand came up and slapped me hard across my face.
“I can’t stand the sight of you!”
I never argued with mother. I figured I would never win. I never tried to defend myself and plead my own case. I was afraid it would make mother more furious.
I ran to my room and fell onto my bed. This time I let the tears flow. I cried as if my heart was going to break. I wished my heart would break. After all, when something is broken, it doesn’t work any more, does it? I rocked myself in a slow, rhythmic motion. I lay curled up like a baby, trying to comfort my body, my soul, my spirit. I wondered why the only touch that was familiar to me was mother’s angry hand.
It was times like this that my heart ached for daddy. Many times I envisioned daddy with a stern look on his face as he scolded mother, “You have no right treating my little girl that way! I want it stopped right now!”
The thought of daddy scolding mother comforted me.
I had a feeling that it wasn’t daddy’s idea to leave me. I guess God wanted daddy for himself. I wanted to yell at God and tell Him that taking daddy from me was a dreadful idea.