“The weak fall, but the strong will remain and never go under!” ~ Anne Frank
Even though I was in my own home, sitting in my own bedroom, I felt uncomfortable. I didn’t like the atmosphere that was in the air, the tone that was suddenly being set. It was dirty and I could hear it and it made me feel uneasy.
My bedroom didn’t have a door. It seemed like every bedroom I had in all the apartments growing up on Magnolia Avenue, it was always my bedroom that never had the door. The only privacy I ever had came from a makeshift sheet that was usually tacked up with a bunch of nails. This was always my bedroom door. There was never any way to block out the noise from the other rooms. There was never any knocking to announce that someone wanted to come in. Instead of twisting a doorknob to enter, it was always a sweep of the arm to push the curtain aside. There was never any privacy. My bedroom appeared to have been built as an afterthought, as drywall was slapped up into the main living room to try and create another room – my bedroom. However, the wall was never completed. At the end of the wall there was a small area of approximately four feet tall by one foot wide that wasn’t drywalled, as if they had plans to tuck something within the space. Not wanting to have a gaping hole looking into my room, I took a very large board and placed it up against the hole. I drew the “Love Is” characters on it so that it didn’t look unfinished. The board didn’t cover the hole completely, but it worked enough. Once again, my privacy as a young teenager was sacrificed.
Thanksgiving was upon us and my mother was at the grocery store buying food for Thanksgiving Day dinner. Mom had received her welfare check and she was buying groceries to fill the cabinets and fridge for the holiday. This usually meant we would have a treat of chocolate chip cookies or Neapolitan ice cream. We would also have a fat turkey for Thanksgiving, with all the trimmings, canned cranberry sauce, breaded stuffing that would be made from scratch and, eventually, shoved up the turkey’s tush to cook all day. Mom would make real mashed potatoes and not instant like we normally ate. Corn from the can that tasted more like tin than corn, salad, which consisted of only lettuce, drenched in Miracle Whip salad dressing. Dinner would end with a store-bought pumpkin pie with a dollop of cool whip. This menu was a yearly traditional meal that we all looked forward to having. Mom took her grocery list and food stamps and was off to the store to buy all the holiday fixings.
Mom asked me to stay home. She asked me to wash the dishes that were in the kitchen sink while she was at the store. I hated washing the dishes, mostly, because mom never bought normal dish washing soap. Trying to save her pennies, we washed our dishes with laundry detergent. The soap would never dissolve properly and I felt as if I was washing the dishes with pellets of sand. My brothers weren’t at home. Most likely, they were with their friends playing a game of tag football at Truman College, which we lived almost directly behind. I was left at home with Melvin and a man named Butch. Butch was a family friend, who we met and knew while living in another building years before on Sheridan Avenue. I remember Butch having two daughters, Maria and Sonia, both which seemed to have been slightly off not only in the looks department, but in the personality department as well. Maria and Sonia were mentally challenged to a degree and both lived in a home that offered assistance to their kind. On occasion, they would come to visit their father, spending the weekend with him. They were larger women and they always sat outside on the building’s front stoop. Maria, the redhead, was mean and feisty, while Sonia, the brunette, was more easy-going. Her personality was much softer. She would sit there and play barbies with me. Once, Maria picked me up and literally tossed me into the air and across the sidewalk. I fell into the dirt and landed on my knees. She said I was in her way, therefore, she decided to toss me like a ragdoll so she can get down the front steps. Their father, Butch was short and chubby himself, looked like he had no teeth when he talked and always wore his hair short, like a crew cut. He seemed to have a stuttering problem, where his words took forever to say. His wardrobe consisted of only white T-shirts and Dago T’s. I always found Butch to be on the feminine side, especially by the way he talked and presented himself. He was very flamboyant and liked to dance around the room to his radio. It was hard for me to picture him as a father. I would listen in on conversations between mom and Melvin, where they would comment that Butch was a queer and would suck a dick a mile long. I was old enough to understand what that meant. He liked men. However, it was obvious that he had a relationship with a woman at one point in time because he had two daughters. Butch also had a brother named John. He seemed to be the normal one of the family, that is until I woke up one morning when I was younger and saw him boinkin’ my mother on the side of the bed. Waking up from sleeping on the floor in our one-room apartment, I asked her what was she doing. She told me to lie down and go back to sleep, which is exactly what I did and I never mentioned it again. It seemed like this family, John, the girls and, in particular, Butch, had followed us from neighborhood to neighborhood and somehow was always in our lives from the time we lived on Sheridan throughout the time we lived on Magnolia. I didn’t understand it at the time, but I do now. Now that I was older, I knew exactly what was going on, especially between Butch and Melvin.
I had finished up washing the dishes. I wanted to get back to my room and not be around Melvin whatsoever. The utter sight of him made my skin crawl. Him sitting there in his recliner chair, smoking, polluting the air that I breathe, wearing his creepy little shorts. I even noticed that they were hiked up more than usual that day. Melvin and Butch were watching TV. They were eerily quiet and said little to me. Leaving the kitchen, I crossed their path, walking back into my room. Even though I had no bedroom door to shut me out of their existence, I felt relieved to know I was in my own space. Standing in my room, I was in front of my own TV, flipping channels and trying to pass the time until mom got home. She had just left for the store and I wished that she were back home already. Melvin and Butch were in the living room. The living room consisted of two twin beds, which was sort of set up as a bedroom, with the beds up against the walls. It seems like we never had a formal living room either. Most likely, because mom and Melvin could only afford a one-bedroom apartment and my brothers always got the bedroom… and the door! As Melvin sat in his recliner chair, Butch was sitting on the edge of one of the beds, the one closest to Melvin. I could hear both of them starting to talk, their voices low, almost whispering, as if they were trying to hide what they were saying. I started to get that uncomfortable feeling again, that same feeling as when I knew Melvin was about to touch me, my breasts and, eventually, my vagina. I felt like I was in the middle of something that was wrong, something that shouldn’t be happening. As I stood in front of my TV, I turned down the volume slightly so I could hear what was going on in the other room. I was hesitant with my thoughts. I was hoping I didn’t hear what I thought I did. In between the whispers, there were noises coming from their room. They were sexual. I started to make noise of my own in my room, moving things around my dresser, banging books, trying to remind them both that I was still in the house and only a few steps away. I was hoping that they would stop whatever they had started. Did it work, I thought? Unfortunately not. They both ignored me, as if I was the Wizard of Oz himself… “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”
Moments later, they continued with their groping one another. By this time, I was so uneasy with them being there that I yelled from my bedroom, “You two better stop because I can hear everything that you’re doing!” Silence filled the living room once again. When is mom getting home, I thought. For some reason I knew that they would stop once she got home, as I knew what they were doing was behind her back. They probably couldn’t wait for her to leave. On the other hand, did mom know what they were doing and, most likely have been doing, for years? Is this why she asked me to stay home with them, in hopes that they wouldn’t do anything with each other while I was in the apartment? I had a strong feeling that mom knew many of the inappropriate and crude things Melvin was doing, but just kept them all to herself.
I heard them start-up again. I could hear the wet noises coming from their privates, the slapping of skin back and forth. I could hear their whispers. By their conversation, I was under the impression that Butch couldn’t get it up, as Melvin kept asking him, “Are you sure you don’t have to go to the bathroom? Well, let me try again.” With that comment, I had heard enough. Swinging open my curtain, I stepped out into the living room. Melvin and Butch did some shuffling with a jacket that lay over Butch’s lap. I told them that they were both sick fucks and didn’t they realize that I was just in the other room? I also told them that I was going to find mom and tell her what was going on and what they were doing. With that, I stormed out of the apartment and headed to the grocery store up on Sheridan and Montrose, where I knew mom was shopping. Was Melvin nervous that his dirty little secret would be exposed? Did he even care?
As I ran to the grocery store in late November, I realized that I should have worn a jacket, as it was quite chilly outside. However, I left the apartment so quickly that I didn’t even think. I just knew that I needed to get out of there. As I was racing to reach the grocery store, my mind was having a race all its own, thinking of what I had just witnessed back at the apartment. Why can’t I have a normal life? Why do I have to live the way I do? Why do I have to run looking for my mother and report to her what I had just witnessed? Would she believe me? I never ever shared with mom the sexual abuse that Melvin did to me. Not only did Melvin like little girls, he also liked older men. Would this open up something that I knew was going to be just awful? I didn’t want her to know what Melvin had done to me. I didn’t want to disrupt our already dysfunctional life any more than it was. I didn’t want to be in trouble. I rehearsed in my mind how I was going to tell mom once I found her in the store, that Melvin was having sex with another man and while I was only in the other room.
I felt like I was running a marathon, as I ran down Montrose Avenue, past Racine, Clifton, then underneath the El tracks and then finally past Kenmore. Just up ahead there was the Jewel grocery store on Sheridan Avenue where mom was picking out a turkey for a family dinner. A dinner where we were all to sit down and be thankful that we were together, a family that doesn’t harm or fault one another, a family that doesn’t allow sexual abuse in their lives, even though I knew it was all lies.
As I walked around the store, I took a look down each of the aisles looking for mom. One after another, I knew she had to still be in the store somewhere. Finally, I found her. By the look on her face, I could tell that she was surprised to see me there, especially since she left me at home. She could tell from my own face that I was upset. I began to get angry, which made me start to cry. All my emotions were trying to spill out all at once. I tried to keep my voice down and explain to her what was happening back at home. The more I talked, the more upset I got. I told her that Melvin and Butch were doing things to each other in the living room and that they knew I was in the bedroom. She told me to stay with her, as we went to check out and buy the cart of groceries.
Mom hailed a yellow taxi, where we put all the groceries into his trunk. I remember sitting inside the cab, with its huge bench seat from window to window, looking out the window, trying to anticipate what was going to happen once we got home. Instructing the driver where to go, mom and I didn’t say a word all the way home. The palm of my hands were sweaty, as I rubbed them against my pants. My heart began to pound faster, as we pulled up in front of our building. We unloaded the groceries from the trunk and made our way up the stairs and into the apartment. Once inside, we both realized that Butch was gone. He left, leaving Melvin sleeping in one of the beds in the living room. Mom instructed me to put the groceries away, while she sat on the other bed, lighting up a cigarette. I could see her sitting there, puffing away madly, as she watched Melvin sleep and half-undressed, her head sagging low. I went into my room shortly after I was done putting all the groceries away. The silence was nerving, so I turned on my TV. I never heard another word again about the incident that happened that one holiday afternoon. I don’t know if mom ever confronted Melvin about the situation or if she kept everything to herself. Most likely, if she had brought it up to him, he would have denied it, calling me a lying whore. However, if I knew my mother, she didn’t open her mouth whatsoever. She didn’t like to confront Melvin, as he was abusive and violent. Surely, this was one of her own secret tortures within. Oh, how that asshole controlled her.
That year, Thanksgiving had come and gone, without a word being said of what had happened just days before. We continued on with our holiday meal as if we were the perfect family, smiling, laughing and joking. As we sat at the table pretending as if nothing was wrong, I would try to make my brothers giggle during grace. Grace consisted of just a few generic words. We never said grace at any other meal except for Thanksgiving. “God is good, God is great, let us thank Him for our food. Amen.” Done. As my brothers would recite the grace, I would extend my legs underneath the table, so my naked toes would reach their side of the table. As their heads were bowed low and praying, my toes would creep up from underneath the table, where they would be just inches away from their faces. Their eyes closed, my toes danced directly under their noses, wiggling them back and forth, slightly skimming the tip of their noses. We tried not to laugh out loud because the atheist in the room would have gotten pissed off because we were giggling during grace.
Melvin had sexually abused me when I was younger and it was a dirty little secret that only he and I knew. However, that day with Butch, I learned of Melvin’s other dirty little secret; that he liked to fuck men, too. Sadly, it appeared that mom had her own secrets of Melvin already scared deep within her mind that she kept there until one afternoon where she no longer could.
I found mom sitting on the back porch one summer afternoon. I came home and, as I always did, I asked my usual question… “Where is Melvin?” It was a pleasure when he wasn’t around. The atmosphere was more at ease, my brothers and I were more at ease, comfortable, as we didn’t have to whisper or walk on eggshells, tiptoe around an abusive drunk. We didn’t have to watch what we said, especially in front of Melvin, where it would trigger an argument or an ass beating. “Where is Melvin?” I asked again. “He’s sleeping in the garage.” My mother responded. I could tell mom was hiding more information than Melvin just sleeping in the garage. I questioned why he was in the garage sleeping when he had a bed in the house. “He’s in the garage sleeping and has locked the side door. I couldn’t get in, but I looked through the window. Melvin is sleeping with his pants half down, next to another man.” She quietly confessed. I thought to myself, was it Butch? But, it wasn’t. Then, she proceeded to half-ass show me a set of pictures that she found of Melvin, where he had taken at one of those photo booths in Woolworth’s. Melvin had pulled his pants down and took pictures of his genitals. I could tell that she was upset, but I wasn’t sure if it was more over the found photos or of Melvin being in the garage sexually with another man… again. Surely, it had to be both.
I wonder what mom would have thought if she knew I was on Melvin’s long list of weird sexual antics. Would that put her over the edge? Would she have cared? Did she already know? Did mom just accept Melvin’s sexual preferences? Would she finally kick him out, I thought? Being sexually abused was my own little secret and I had no intention of releasing it from my frightened mind. I was so afraid that the family we did have together, my brothers and I, would disappear, just like the little girl, Judith, who we knew growing up in our apartment building. The Department of Child Protective Services came and took her because her parents were unfit, or so they said. This had always been in the back of my mind that they would come and take my brothers and me away, never to see each other again. We were young enough to be tossed into the system, but not old enough to be on our own. Therefore, I always kept my mouth shut. My brothers and I lived at home until we were old enough to make our own decisions and move on.
It was years later when I finally had my own studio apartment, I announced that I would cook my first Thanksgiving Day dinner for everyone. I invited my brother, Jeff and my mother over to spend the day with me. Mom knew enough not to ask about Melvin’s invite. My brother, Steve, was living in Michigan at the time and unable to attend. I wanted to have all the trimmings to my dinner just like mom always made. I lived in a one-room studio apartment that consisted of a small kitchenette, bathroom and walk in closet. The appliances were small, particularly the stove. It was one of those small apartment stoves and was half the size of a normal one. It was difficult to cook a regular meal on, let alone a ten pound turkey in the oven! However, I still tried.
“On Thanksgiving Day we acknowledge our dependence.” ~William Jennings Bryan
Following my mother’s tradition, I set my alarm for 4:30 in the morning to prepare the turkey so that it can be popped into the oven by 5:00. Mom shared with me on how to make the stuffing and prepare the turkey, step-by-pain-in-the-ass-step! Getting up this early in the morning to prepare a turkey wasn’t exactly my ideal way of starting my day. I was so tired that I prepared the stuffing between yawns. The onions weren’t diced to perfection, they were more like chopped into chunks. The bread looked as if it was hacked by a hatchet than torn into bite size pieces. As for the celery… let’s just say that they would have looked better in a tall glass of Bloody Mary’s!
The stuffing was finally prepared, with its seasoning of sage that seemed to permeate my hands, along with the onions. Shoving the stuffing into the turkey’s cavity between slitted eyes, I packed it as much as I could. As I tied the legs up with twine, as to make sure the stuffing didn’t’ have a chance to escape, I maneuvered the pan into the small oven at 350 degrees. The turkey was in the oven to roast by 5:00 a.m. It was shortly thereafter, that I popped myself back into bed to continue my dreams!
Hours later, I woke to the smell of turkey wafting in the air. It seemed more pungent than ever, most likely due to my small apartment. Cracking open a window, I began to prepare the rest of the meal; potatoes, corn and, of course, that overly drench Miracle Whip salad. Jeff and Mom arrived a few hours later, where we sat, chatted and waited for the turkey to be done. I checked the turkey and basted several times throughout the morning. By 1:00 p.m., we were all getting hungry. Mom commented that the bird was in that oven for almost eight hours now and surely it would have to be done. She was the expert, I thought. Turning off the stove, I pulled the turkey out and oven to make its grand debut.
What an entertaining disaster, I thought! The turkey that had been bathing in its own juices for almost eight hours wasn’t even near done! It was so rubbery that it could have bounced its way back to the farmland from where it came! Mom and I came to the conclusion that it was due to my “Easy Bake Oven” of a stove. Because it was so small, the oven must have not been able to accommodate the size of the turkey. My first Thanksgiving dinner was a flippin’ flop! Laughing our way through the rest of the meal that we could eat, I had to make the best of the moment, so I took pictures of my first attempt at cooking Thanksgiving.
It may not have been the traditional meal that we were use to having, but we made the best of what we had. In the end, it’s not about the meal and what you cooked or how much effort you put into it, nor is it about what went right or even what went wrong. It’s all about being thankful. My last Thanksgiving at my mom’s house with Melvin’s behavior is a memory that will always be in my mind, but I believe it’s an experience that made me stronger, not only in values, but in beliefs. My life growing up was full of challenges, but it showed me how important family is and to let nothing stand in the way of relationships. Family doesn’t hurt family, family is love and, when you have love, hurt should never exist. Simple.
Thanksgiving and the holidays are all about being together, together with family and friends and the ones you truly love. Sharing time with one another, laughing, joking and experiencing a joyful moment that will all too soon be a part of the past. We need to seize all the memories we can, holding each one of them close to our heart because as our years move on into the past, the making of memories become less and less.
Although my first turkey was a failure, I would like to think the moment of being together was a memorable success.
“As we pause to thank Him for the blessings of the past year, we must not forget to thank Him for the lessons we have learned through our difficult times. We are not to be thankful for just the pleasant, easy things, but ALL things.” ~ Millie Stamm