If I had to choose one word to describe my childhood life, it would be unpredictable. Unpredictable because I never knew what or when something was going to happen. I never knew when my mother would take my standing up for myself as backtalk and slap me across the face. I never knew when my older brother Buddy would take his anger out on me with a punch to my stomach. I never knew when Daddy would explode.
One Saturday morning, when I was seven, my two brothers and Daddy were in the living room watching cartoons on television. Mom was in the kitchen doing breakfast dishes. I had the privilege of bringing Daddy a mug of coffee. But perhaps I had let the kettle whistle a little too long.
I carried his coffee through the dining room to his recliner, careful not to spill a drop. I arrived at his chair, proud not to have spilled any, and handed it to him. “Here’s your coffee, Daddy!” I said with a smile.
He took a sip and cried out. He threw the mug at me as he bellowed, “Are you trying to f#@king burn me?!” I screamed as the scalding coffee soaked through my cotton pajamas and onto my delicate skin. It was as if hot lava had been thrown at me.
My oldest brother, Paul, who was twelve years old at the time, flew off the couch. He whisked off my pajamas and underwear, scooped me into his arms, and rushed me to the bathroom. Kevin, who was nine, followed on his heels. Kevin remained silent, hovering in the doorway as Paul ran to the sink.
I jumped around in a panic. Tears streamed down my face as I inspected my scalded belly and thighs. I had never experienced such pain.
Paul turned on the cold-water faucet, then grabbed a bath towel from the back of the door. He soaked the towel and gently spread it over my belly and thighs. He tried to calm me down by saying over and over in a soothing voice, “You’re all right. You’re going to be all right.” The cold, wet towel against my skin felt like a cool breeze soothing a sunburn.
Mom rushed into the bathroom. “What’s going on?” she asked, visibly frightened.
“Daddy threw hot coffee at her,” Paul said as he again soaked the towel in cold water.
“Are you all right?” Mom asked me with alarm in her voice. I shook my head and started to cry again. She bolted from the bathroom.
“Are you f#@king insane?” she shouted at Daddy.
“She burned me!” Daddy said.
“Don’t you ever f#@king do that again! Do you hear me?”
“She’s fine,” he said.
Mom rushed into the bathroom and knelt in front of me. “Let me see,” she said gently. She pulled the towel away and examined my body. The pain had subsided a little, but I continued to cry. She threw her arms around me. I wrapped my arms around her neck and buried my face in her shoulder. “I’m so sorry, Sweetie,” she cried.
Paul hung the wet towel over the edge of the tub. He and Kevin returned to the living room. Mom retrieved antiseptic ointment from the medicine cabinet and smoothed some over my burned skin. “Let’s get you into clean underwear and a fresh nightgown.”
I cried out in pain as Mom pulled up my cotton briefs and rested the elastic waistband against my belly; she took them off. Even though the lightweight cotton cloth of my pink flowered nightgown was soft, it felt like glass-embedded sandpaper rubbing against my thighs and belly as I shuffled from the bedroom.
Mom led me into the living room. Kevin and Paul were on the couch. Daddy hadn’t moved from his recliner. Mom stood with me in front of Daddy.
“Your father has something he wants to say to you,” she said as she glared at him.
“I’m sorry, Pumpkin. You’re okay, aren’t you? You’re my big girl,” he said.
I knew he wanted me to say Yes. I nodded. He leaned forward and reached his arms toward me. I backed away.
“What? You’re not afraid of me, are you?” he laughed.
I stood there, frozen.
“Penelope Jane Marie you come here to me right now,” he ordered. I knew he was getting angry. Daddy always called me by my full nickname whenever he was dead serious. I inched my way toward him. He pulled me onto his lap and put his arm around me.
Mom returned to the kitchen. We sat in silence watching cartoons as if it were just another Saturday morning.
Although I shook with fear every time Daddy flew into one of his rages and spanked me (belt lashings would come a year later), I never doubted that he loved me. I was his Princess. But after he had thrown the coffee at me, things were never the same between us. Any trust I had that he would protect me was gone. I became guarded. My self-esteem plummeted as I decided that I must be a bad person for him to have done such a thing.
It has taken me a lifetime for me to believe that I am a person worthy of love. While other traumatic events I experienced during my childhood caused me to view myself as worthless and unlovable, there was something about that morning that left a permanent scar on my psyche.
Today, I know that his throwing coffee at me was not my fault. I was not a bad person. I had done nothing to deserve it. It was he – a man who expressed himself through violence – who was the transgressor.
Photo by Janko Ferlic on Unsplash