It would take years to piece it all together, but fitting together the puzzle pieces of my life became something I was driven to do.
For the next ten years, I had no memory of my life before I stepped out of the bathtub on the night of “the shooting,” as it was referred to in our family on the rare occasion it was mentioned. It was near the end of my high school years before memories and pictures from before the age of seven came back to me. It would be another ten years, when in therapy, that I began interviewing everyone I knew, who knew us, who knew anything at all about my parents, the shooting, beforehand, or afterwards. The smallest of details became beneficial to help me create the most complete picture, so I could somehow make sense of it all.
I do remember vividly several hours before the shooting, my mother picking us up from Brownies in the parking lot of the church. We girls were laughing and giggling with her because she had a new hairdo and we were saying our mother was the most beautiful woman in the world! My mom, whose brown hair was normally flat to her head, had it teased into a beehive! The sun bounced off of it and she was all smiles.
My mother was having a date with my father that evening. Before he came to get her, she told him over the phone that she had a surprise for him. The surprise was her new hairdo. When he arrived that night and found out it was only her hairdo and not dropping the divorce like he’d hoped, he told her he had a surprise for her.
But let’s go back a bit.
My mother was an only child, born to a German immigrant father and a Lithuanian immigrant mother who settled in Northern Virginia, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. My grandmother had left her first husband who abused her, and my grandfather, who was very much in love with her, waited seven years for her divorce to become final before they could marry. My mother was their only child, born to them in 1928, in their later years. When my mother was five years old, her mother was finally, after many years of mental instability, taken to a home for the mentally ill, where she would remain for the next 47 years, until she died. My grandfather had done everything he could to keep the woman he loved in the home with them. When she took a log from the fire and threw it under the bed, he knew it was too dangerous to keep her there. The stress of losing her made his hair turn completely white. No one knew exactly what happened to her, what kind of illness she had, but soon after she was institutionalized, she became catatonic and remained that way until her death.
Our granddaddy was such a loving man that I later believed the love in our family must have trickled down from him. We grew up with his saying, “I see God in every blade of grass.” Mom remained with her father for two years, going to public school, but not being cared for properly, while my grandfather worked. The next-door neighbor woman and my grandfather became lovers, and she suggested putting Mom into a boarding school several miles and a world away from my grandfather. Even though she felt truly loved by her adoring father, Mom was essentially raised by nuns in a Catholic boarding school in Washington, D.C. She loved the nuns and got a tremendous education but was never able to heal the effects of the double abandonment she’d suffered.
Mom studied hard and became a competent nurse.
My father was the middle child of five – two older sisters who became nuns, and two younger sisters who married and had children. His mother was a stern woman with thick ankles who was rarely affectionate. I remembered my grandfather as a cheerful man for the most part, always playing a game with the toothpick in his mouth: did he swallow it or not? It would disappear for long stints and then, uh oh! There it was again.
My mother and father met in the late 40’s at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. Mom had not had much experience with men, just a few beaus. She and my father broke up once, but just when my mother felt she was over him, he came back into her life, asking to marry her. They married in Washington, D.C., and remained there until the twin boys, Carl and Jeff, were born; soon after, they moved to my father’s hometown, Louisville, Kentucky.
Whenever I have spoken of the shooting and people learn I am from Kentucky, I can see them conjuring up backwoods people with bare feet, out in the boonies and mentally jumping to Well, that’s what those kinds of people do in Kentucky. But my parents were highly educated people, raised in cities, then living in the suburbs in the 50’s and 60’s in Middle America. My father wore a suit and tie to work each day. One friend was surprised when he saw early pictures of my brothers wearing suits and ties and us girls wearing fancy dresses and hats. He assumed we’d always been very poor, which was definitely the case after my father left, but not before.
From the time my brothers were very young, my father was a harsh disciplinarian. He believed in heavy spanking and, when my mom begged him not to, he told her that he had been raised in a family, not she, and he would show her how a family was run.
Next, Aaron was born, then Mary, then me, and then Judy – all of us were two years apart.
If there were only one word to describe my father who had been an English and philosophy major in college, it would be charming. Everyone loved him. He was intelligent, talked to anyone about anything, and laughed often and with gusto. Until he came home.
To simply state it: my father was a raging alcoholic. He drank. He raged. He beat his children. Once, in my late twenties, I was sitting at my older brother’s kitchen table. I said to him, “Jeff, how often did our father beat us?”
He stopped abruptly, head tilted down, his soupspoon half way to his mouth, glaring at me over his glasses. “You’re kidding, right?” as though I needed an answer to something completely obvious. Without dropping his spoon, his eyes steadily on mine, he very slowly said, “He beat us every single day.”
Since Jeff was one of the oldest, he got beaten daily for nearly thirteen years. I was the fifth of six, so my memory was not as good as his. I knew to take his word for it. The standard punishment meted out by my father was that if someone did something wrong, he lined us all up, oldest to youngest, took a belt and went down the line. Every time I see the captain blow his whistle and line up his children in “The Sound of Music,” I think of my father. My father used a belt, a board, a switch, a wooden spoon, a tree limb, whatever was handy.
I can see all six of us kids, walking around the living room, searching the floor; I can feel the fear, his control over us as we look for any shred or speck of dirt, his mantra being, “If you can see it, it’s too big for the vacuum.” Our job was to make the floor “spotless” before vacuuming. Another of his sayings was “You can get the jelly into the peanut butter, but you can never get the peanut butter into the jelly.” God help one of us if we got the peanut butter into the jelly. When he asked a question and we stammered, too afraid to answer, he stomped forward and yelled in our faces, “Yes? No? Pee in your ear? Which one is it?” Whatever that meant.
We children were united in a constant state of fear. When my father was present, there was a sucking in of air among us, as if we were holding our collective breath, mentally communicating to each other not to make any quick or sudden movements, not to raise our eyes upward so as to disturb the heaviness of the load we so evenly balanced. There would be no tattling in this house. No child could have survived the guilt of knowing he had brought onto a sibling the hand of my father’s wrath.
Usually we were hit together, while in a group, but there were times he singled out a child. One act of cruelty I could not think about for years without sobbing was the day he told Aaron, “If you do that one more time, I’m going to get a switch and whip you 100 times.” Well, Aaron, being the little boy he was of about eight or nine, sure enough, did it again. My father flew out the door and got the thinnest, longest branch from our willow tree in the front yard, peeled off the leaves, and headed into the boys’ bedroom. I heard my father whip and begin to count. “One! Two!” The cries coming from the room were so horrifying that I went to the door and opened it a crack. I saw little Aaron running around the room like a squealing pig, jumping up and over the top of the bunk bed and sliding down the wall behind it, running round and round the room as fast as he could while my father caught him with his whip on all sides of his body. He whipped and counted. “Twelve! Thirteen!” Knowing he would not stop until he reached one hundred, I closed the door and sat outside listening to Aaron’s high-pitched, before-puberty screams and squeals. It was the saddest sad and the clearest love I ever felt toward one of my siblings.
There were times when my father was so displeased by something the boys had done, he pulled the car over and told the boys to get out and pull their pants down to their knees. There on the highway with cars passing, he whipped them for all to see.
Aaron told me, when we were older, of two occasions when he, my father, and my other two brothers were walking in the woods. My father beat Aaron until he was unconscious. He forced his two older brothers to leave him there on the path, high up on the ridge of our land, as the three of them walked away, back to our campsite down the hill. Aaron woke up alone.
One day I opened the medicine cabinet in my parents’ bathroom, only to have the box of baking soda tumble out, spilling baking soda over the sink and beyond. I was so terrified that I did not spend the time to clean it up. Thinking that I would be caught in the process, I ran. Later, when my father saw it, he lined us up and asked for a confession from the culprit. He wanted to give a “demonstration” to the others, of what would happen to them if they also did something “bad.” I could not speak; I remained still. I was terrified he would beat me mercilessly in front of my siblings. My silence caused all of us to get hit with the belt. In my guilt, I never told anyone what I’d done.
Often when my father got mad and was clearly moving to whip one of my brothers, I heard the brother beg, “Please, Daddy, just give me a demonstration!” The meaning was clear: if the child got a “demonstration” or a preview of “what was to come,” it would cause him or her to stop doing whatever it was that bothered my father, so as not to get “the real thing.”
The clearest first memory I have of making someone laugh, is the day my father saw me do something “wrong” while I was out on the screened-in back porch. I do not know what I did. I only know that to him it was wrong. He said, “Come here!” I, of course, was terrified and froze in my tracks. He came closer. I backed away. Again, he said, “Come, here!” as he was coming toward me. I backed away squatting, cowering in the corner and said, “Please, Daddy, oh, please, Daddy! Just give me an invitation!”
He burst out laughing and spun around to my brothers who’d been watching. Shirking off whatever I’d done, still laughing and shaking his head, he walked away. I’d meant, “Please, Daddy, give me a demonstration.” Those older than I got the “joke.” I did not. All I knew was I made my father laugh and the beating that I was about to receive had now vanished into thin air – like magic! This must have made quite an impact on me, because I later became a class clown and tried to wiggle my way out of things with humor. At the very least, I learned that one word, phrase, or sentence – said at the right time – could be very powerful.
When my mother’s Aunt Stella died and left Mom money, my dad went to Canada to settle the will. I remember vividly my brothers gathering around my mother under the cigar tree in the backyard begging her to make our father leave. I could hear her saying to them, “So, you would like it like this all the time?”
“Yes, Mom, please,” the boys begged. “Make him go away!” I did not know then what I was to learn later in life: if a father beats his son long enough, one day the boy will turn on the man and lash out at him with greater violence. It makes me wonder now if my brothers were afraid of what they might do if my father were to stay and continue beating them. There must have been so much going on in their thirteen-year old minds.
Where was my mother during all of the beatings? Whimpering to the side. Always there, not far off, whimpering, crying, and pleading for my father not to hit his children. But he did and there she stood. Crying. And into her arms we fled after a beating, crying.
I think my mother knew the time was right. She had to do something.
It is true that my mother was clearly a codependent, a term used for the person who enables the other to continue his raging alcoholic behavior. She should have left him early in their marriage, as the children came. But I will give her this: she tried. I don’t think one can ever underestimate the power one’s religion holds over some people. My mother was a devout Catholic. Her own father lived with another woman, yet would not divorce his still mentally ill wife, who by then had lived in an asylum for over thirty years. My mother was raised by nuns in a Catholic boarding school. She was awakened by nuns in the morning and put to bed by nuns at night. She studied with the nuns and she played with the nuns. Her best friend grew up and became a nun. Mom went to a Catholic nursing school. We went to church every Sunday and she enrolled her children in Catholic school.
My mother went to priest after priest to tell each one of them of my father’s brutality and that she wanted to leave him – which, of course, meant divorcing. Each priest told her the same thing: if she divorced, she, along with her children, would be banished from the Catholic Church, from all she’d ever known. I believe it was more than my mother could endure.
But on that day in the back yard, I could see my mother’s eyes taking in the expressions on my brothers’ faces. They were begging. Begging to have the beatings end. Maybe she, too, sensed the two thirteen-year-old boys were reaching the place where their suppressed anger from years of abuse could get the best of them. Apparently, my father had already received a broken rib from a “playful” wrestling match.
And so, though fearful of my father’s rage and the prospect of being banished from the church, my mother told my father she wanted a divorce.
He moved out of the house – the house he bought, the house where he sat at a desk working from home, doing much of his insurance work when he wasn’t at the office, the house where his wife lived, the house where his six children lived, the house where he’d lived for twelve years.
Now living away from us, my father had fits of rage where he stalked us, driving up and down the street. My mother packed us all into the car and took us to drive-in movies night after night. I can still smell my fear as I am sitting on the floor board of the car behind the driver’s seat, my knees balled up to my chin as we are leaving our driveway. My father is lurking about; I am told to stay down.
Moving from this state of fear, literally to a state of joy where I watched Julie Andrews’ portrayal of Mary Poppins in the movie of the same name and Maria, the singing nun, in “The Sound of Music,” had a significant effect on my life. Even today while I am singing and dancing in my classroom, I feel her presence. She was just a character in a film, one I saw after escaping a brute, but to me, she was reality. After a summer full of fleeing our father, pulling into a graveled parking space, sitting on the hood of the car or in chaise lounge chairs, watching these happy movies, I sensed the difference between good and very bad.
Sometimes a lie can hold back danger. Most summer nights at the drive-in were a dollar fifty a carload, so we were able to afford that, but on regular nights the price was $3 for adults and kids under twelve were free. One “regular price” night driving through the gate, the ghost of fear keeping us all company, we kids heard the ticket taker ask if there were any kids over twelve in the car. “No,” our mother lied, and the ache it gave to each of us as we drove through the entrance, having listened to our saintly mother, was almost palpable. We each knew then that it was either lie, or turn the car around and be back “out there” where he would surely find us. But for now, we were safe among strangers, here to enjoy our family’s brief respite from reality. Lying was wrong, but I learned sometimes it was a dire necessity.
Even though my father was living outside the house now, the priests encouraged my mother to “date” him and try to work things out for the sake of their marriage and the children. Part of that working out was going to meetings – AA for him and Al-Anon for her. He picked her up for a “date,” they went to their meetings, out to eat afterwards, and then returned home where he dropped her off.
On that particular night, the night of the shooting, my mother, after seeing all of us so thrilled about her new hairdo, told my father on the phone that she had a surprise for him when he picked her up.
When he arrived before she had finished dressing for the evening, my mother came out of the bedroom in her fine-lined, red corduroy robe, and showed him her hairdo. When he realized that the “surprise” she had for him was only her hairdo, he became very angry. Possibly he’d been expecting her to “drop” the divorce proceedings. He gathered my three brothers and my mother around the dining room table and told them he had a surprise for them.
My mother thought his surprise for her was that he was going to give her the record album, “Camelot,” a film they’d seen together.
He went back into my parents’ bedroom and found a gun under the wrapping paper of the closet floor, the only gun my mother had not removed because she thought it was a BB gun. He reappeared with a 12-gauge shotgun. When he got back to the dining room table where the four of them had faithfully remained, he perched the gun up on the table, in a fashion that led Jeff to believe he was going to give them a lesson in cleaning a gun.
It all happened in a matter of seconds. My father announced to the boys, “I’m going to kill your mother, you kids are going to an orphanage, and I’m going to jail for ten years!” With that, he raised the gun and pulled the trigger.
My mother had been seated directly across from him, in fact, in my seat at the dining room table. He lifted the gun and pointed it at her chest. As she realized what was happening, she immediately stood and turned to her left to run. The force of the blast went through the right side of the middle of her body, blowing up her arm and torso. Shotgun pellets were driven into the dining room walls, into my brothers, and into all parts of my mother’s body.
My brothers ran. My nine-year old sister, Mary, was down the hall, in my brothers’ room, ironically, watching “Gunsmoke.” Running, Carl burst into that room, frantically locking the door. As he jumped out the window, my father kicked the door down. He stood in the doorway, holding the shotgun at the ready, but his prey had fled. Our mother stood behind him, holding her side, saying, “Don’t hurt the children!” Distracted by our mother, he ignored Mary.
Each brother sped off to a different neighbor’s home – one to the Gentrys,’ one to the Thatchers,’ one to the Chathams.’ And, interestingly enough, my mother called out the name of the Bolts,’ yet a fourth neighborhood home. We knew all our neighbors well, and the four of them instantly thought of four different families. What this signified to me later was that, similar to our church parish, we were very closely connected to our neighbors. My mother was a pied piper to all the children in the neighborhood and a friend to all the adults. She was known as one of the most loving people that many in our neighborhood and church had known. The shooting devastated them.
As far as the sound of the “blast” of the gun that night, I did not hear it. Whenever I was in the bathtub as a child, whoever I was with, we played underwater. We were always having contests to see who could stay under the longest. We went down side by side and then turned our heads sideways to open our eyes, blow bubbles, and come up laughing. Judy and I even kissed underwater and hummed songs to guess which ones they were. Since I was only one wall and five feet away from the blast, I think I must have been underwater at the time.
Neighbors heard it in all directions and reported the gunshot sounded like a tin trashcan being thrown against a brick wall. My first memory was my mother’s knocking on the door and her screams, “Go get the Bolts!”
Those words and screams I heard, and the pictures I saw next stayed in my head every day from that day forward. At some point in my life I heard people say that advertisers filtered pictures of popcorn and fizzling colas into movie frame pictures – so fast that no one could consciously notice them – so that moviegoers would jump up and run to the concession stand. Subliminal persuasion it is called. No matter where I was beyond that night, no matter what I’d been previously thinking or enjoying, the “blood scene,” as I’d later call it (to distinguish it from what I called the “bed scene” that same night with my father), was to “pop up” in my head several times a day. For no rhyme or reason, it was there. And it did not leave. Each and every day for the next 21 years, I was visited by the vision of my mother squatting and whimpering on the hearth, her eyes bugged out like a scared rabbit’s, Mary’s little body leaning in, her chin jutting up the barrel of the shotgun that was held so forcefully by my fierce and maniacal father.