It was the fall of 1969 when my mother finally found the courage to escape the terrorizing and horror of living with my father. After 17 years of marriage, twice being nearly beaten to death and watching helplessly as he beat and tossed her three little girls around, she had a job, a plan, and friends.
It happened one morning on her day off while The Monster was away. Mom surprised us by saying, “OK girls, it's time to see how fast we can pack this house and get the hell out of here!” My father had spent 12 years in military service, which, as anyone who has lived in the military will know, gave her an experienced edge in efficient, quick packing. At first, I couldn't grasp what she meant. Huh? We're moving again? But, the look on her face told us all we needed to know; she'd finally found a way to save us! Thank God! I would live to see my 14th birthday.
Fear and excitement rallied us all to do our best. Within three hours we had every possession packed and loaded into the car. Our adrenaline was so ramped up, we were giddy and shaking with fear and hope. Could this really be true? I had never anticipated such a change in our lives. In those days, women and children were expected to quietly and meekly do as they were told without question. My sisters and I had learned very young to do exactly what we were told. To question or to even give any voice to his demands was to guarantee a slap in the face. So, we left that day.
Within a few weeks, my mother had found the challenges of this change in our lives to be very difficult. Her job paid minimum wage, a paltry $1.15 an hour. Having absolutely no savings and no family members any better off than we were, she tried moving us to Reno, Nev., to get better-paying work. I, for one, was thrilled to go somewhere that had natural water and trees. We had lived in Minnesota on my grandparents' little lake resort and I had missed it terribly.
Reno didn't work out for my mother, so, back to Tucson we went. That was where our cousins and grandmother were, that was where my mother's emotional support was. There my mother could get her job back. An affordable place to live was a bit tougher to find.
We ended up in a very small trailer, a travel trailer, in the yard of a house the landlord lived in. This trailer was 8 x 16 feet, which meant it had no bathroom. None at all. The bathroom was about 40 feet from the trailer in part of a shed. It was unheated. Now, Tucson is a warm place, but it does get cold enough in December and January to warrant indoor plumbing. Even my grandparents' cabin in Minnesota had indoor plumbing! But, we were used to deprivation since The Monster had never been a good provider. After quitting the military, he was habitually gone somewhere "looking for work" and leaving us, or really, my mother, to fend for ourselves.
So, as a kid not knowing how money does or doesn't work, I only knew that our lives had always been hard. This move was no different. Make the best of it. Get from one day to the next as best you can. Run to the potty, run back to the trailer. This little piece of heaven had trees and grass, which, for me, was as close to the lake as we would get in the desert. The trailer had a bedroom in the rear big enough to fit a wall-to-wall bed where my mother and oldest sister slept. I was the middle kid and slept on a fold-out sofa in the living room with my 9-year-old sister. Between these rooms was a kitchen big enough for one to cook.
As Christmas approached, I knew we were not going to have gifts. It was obvious that Mom had no money for anything extra. We'd be lucky to have propane to cook. Food was a maybe. Gifts was a "not-gonna-happen." I felt bad for my little sister, though. She still had visions of Santa finding us. One cold afternoon Mom took us for a walk to a Christmas tree lot to find a tree. Yep, there would, at the very least, be a tree. You know about Charlie Brown and his spindly trees? Our little tree would make Charlie Brown's look like a giant redwood. We decorated that little piece of Christmas as well as we could and felt the hope that comes with this holy time.
On Christmas morning there were three small gifts under that tree. I couldn't believe it! How did this happen? Where did these come from? I knew darn good and well there was no Santa and I knew darn good and well that Mom had no money. But, as a child taught never to question the world of adults, I kept my mouth shut, smiled meekly and opened my little gift.
And what a gift. Now, I was very familiar with what jewelry my mother possessed. I used to love to look through her jewelry box and try on her earrings and necklaces. This Christmas she had given all of her girls an identical gift. We each held in our hands a cameo necklace, what had once been a matching set of earrings and necklace. Somehow, Mom had found a way to give her girls a precious gift that came at a time of great need. We all needed to believe in the greater good of life. We desperately needed hope. We each needed to believe in the magic of Christmas. But most of all, we needed to know, without any doubt, that we were truly loved.
At the time, I wasn't as thankful as I became years later. As a mother of my own three little ones, I understood what my mother's sacrifice really meant. She did her very best to show us that she loved us. She had successfully freed us from a life of terror and great uncertainty. She did rescue us from The Monster.
I saw my mother off as she passed away in 2003. Not a single day goes by that I don't think of her and thank her for her tremendous sacrifices made for her girls. I miss her with each memory but, especially, at Christmas. Thank you, Mom.
Nancy Doepke, Greenwood