in the Storm
Two weeks ago he’d decided to leave. After that it was just a matter of how. Joan, unsuspecting, would call him
a coward but he just couldn’t handle another emotional scene. He had picked tonight while she bowled on the Wednesday
Night Ladies Bowling League. Arriving after she left, he holed himself up in his bedroom jamming clothes, shoes, and as much
other stuff as he could into the old Samsonite. He’d make it out of the house before Joan came home but he couldn’t
avoid leaving without explaining why Daddy had a suitcase.
It took only seven steps to reach the front door from his bedroom, to feel seven sets of eyes glance up from the television,
watching him and the suitcase. He turned the volume down to get their full attention.
“Dad! What are you doing? We’re watching I Dream of Jeannie.”
one of the girls whined.
“Sorry, but I have to talk to you all for a minute.” He looked around the room, saw his kids regarding him
curiously. The baby crawled into Lizzie’s lap, put her thumb in her mouth and fisted her blankie in her other hand.
“You know your mother and I have been yelling at each other alot lately. Way too much.”
Several heads nodded in agreement.
“I don’t want to but I’m going to stay with your Grandmother for a little while so we don’t yell
The hum of the television was the only sound in the room. The air was thick
with tension, thunderclouds forming over their heads. They were quiet, deathly still. Movement of any kind would acknowledge
they’d heard what Daddy said.
“I’m not sure when I’m coming back.” He said finally.
This last declaration released them from their state of suspension. The
children erupted in outcries of denial, urgent questions, and bodies hurled at him. The six-year old clung to his leg, while
two others, arms spread wide, barred the front door as if they were powerful enough to keep him inside. Lizzie, his oldest,
held the two-year-old, tears sliding down her face, begging him with her eyes, “Please don’t do this”.
Voices tripped over one another, insisting, “Daddy, you can’t go!”
He fell to his knees and gathered them to him, his arms enfolding them in pairs and threes, then all, huddled together
in the eye of the storm.
He needed to go now but all he could manage was “I’m sorry. I love you.” Turning away, he heard Lizzie’s
voice accuse, “How can you leave us if you love us?”
He sighed in resignation, his six-foot frame shrinking, sagging under the weight his decision brought to bear on them
“Trust me that I do love each and every one of you no matter what else happens. I just can’t live here anymore.”
Amid clinging arms and clutching hands, he opened the front door to the chilly January night without a word. Wails of
protest assaulted him again.
“No, No! Daddy!”
“We need you.”
“We love you Daddy!”
He opened the car door and looked at his sons and daughters shivering in the shadowy light of the porch, the legacy
of seventeen years with Joan. They’d never meant to have so many kids but the Catholic Church offered few realistic
options to keep their family small. He wished they had more money, eliminating the enormous pressure on their marriage, but
in spite of working two jobs, they still couldn’t get ahead. The final straw came when he discovered overdue bills for
credit cards he hadn’t known about. Deep in debt, consumed by job and family responsibilities, and a severe lack of
a social life were factors feeding their growing animosity toward each other.
Calling out “I love you all” one last time, he got in and started the engine. He kept watch in the rear
view mirror as he moved down the street. Brave little Michael let go of his sister’s hand, scrambled down the steps
and ran after him, yelling, “Daddy come back!”
But there was nothing more to be done this night. Tom pointed the car toward his mother’s house and drove away.
Once vibrant and pretty, Joan sat on the bed amongst discarded candy wrappers and an ashtray full of cigarette butts.
Mystified, she gazed in the mirror at the woman with wild bleached blond hair wearing a stained nightgown. A thousand times,
she’d asked this disheveled woman “What have I done to deserve this?” A thousand times the woman’s
red-rimmed eyes reflected perpetual misery and constant fear.
Unopened credit card bills lay on the dresser, “Overdue” stamped on the outside. The balance written in
the checkbook register was a paltry $14.32, enough for a couple days of groceries which at least meant they’d eat. But
the credit cards would have to wait, as would the mortgage, the utilities and the insurance. Again.
Her sister called yesterday asking when she was going to get off her duff and do something. “Do what?” Joan replied. “The last time I had a job I was nineteen. Employers don’t
want a 35-year-old woman who was a secretary in 1954. And besides that, I’ve got seven kids. What am I supposed to do
Mary replied, “Joan, I love you, but goddamn it, you’re a wreck. Unless you do something with your life,
you will never be more than Tom’s ex. Is that what you want? Is that what you want to be to your kids?”
“I don’t want to be his ex. I want to be his wife. Just leave me alone.” And she’d slammed
down the phone.
She thought about calling a friend, picked up her address book, flipped through it. Dumbfounded, she realized nearly
all of the entries were friends from St. Xavier Catholic High. They’d lost touch over the years and had their own families.
The remaining names were Tom’s Navy buddies and people he worked with. Wives of these men would not be open to hearing
her side of the story, wouldn’t care to listen to the sad, embarrassing tale of a woman cast aside, living in near poverty
with seven children under the age of sixteen.
A knock on the bedroom door jolted her from brooding over her crappy life.
“Mom, we’re ready to put the cake in the oven.” Lizzie announced.
Oh! The cake. Since they couldn’t
afford a store-bought cake the kids had offered to make one for the baby’s third birthday. All she’d asked is
to let her put it in the oven for them.
“Okay. I’ll be right out.” She put a robe over her nightgown and pulled a brush through her hair.
“Not great, but what the hell,” she muttered to herself as she shuffled to the kitchen on pink slippered feet.
What greeted her
in the eight-by-nine foot room could be legally declared a disaster. Pans and mixing bowls cluttered the counter and cake
batter splattered across the stove and walls. Powdery cake mix, eggshells and measuring spoons lay abandoned on the gray Formica
Taken aback, she
screamed, “Get in here, all of you!” She threw a discarded mixing beater at the sink. Missing, it caromed off
the toaster and clattered to the floor with a splash of chocolate batter.
She whirled around, scowling at the kids frozen in fear at the kitchen door. They hovered just beyond the jamb, poised
for a quick escape, having felt the effect of her temper before. Joan wasn’t sure what made this mess so damn frustrating,
why she felt so out of control when it was such a little thing.
Why can’t these kids help out a little bit? Can’t they see I’m doing
Working herself up to dole out punishment, she was brought up short by seven pairs of terrified eyes waiting to react
to whatever action she took. In their faces, she saw something way too much like the face of the woman in the mirror. Her
fury abated as quickly as it had risen and she collapsed into a kitchen chair.
She said, “Come on in. I’m not going to spank you.”
Permission given to breathe again, their relief exhaled into the tiny kitchen. Entering quietly, they began to clear
the mess. She watched them wash the counters, fill the sink with soapy water, and get down on their hands and knees to wipe
up the cake batter. Doing her job.
Lisa, eight years old, stepped up to her mother, arms outstretched. Joan swept her onto her lap with a fierce hug and
Lisa squeezed back.
“When is Daddy coming home?”
from this too often-asked question, Joan opened her mouth to reply with her usual, caustic, “I don’t know”.
But the room grew still as all the children inched closer wanting an answer too. For a moment she wished Tom would relent
on his promise to return when things changed, but not knowing what to change, they’d made no progress to reconcile their
differences. Giving her children false hope was unfair and they deserved better.
She braced herself to tell them the truth. “I’m sorry kids but I don’t think your father is coming
back any time soon.” As soon as she said the words she felt a bit lighter, a little freer.
of the kids cried, nor did she. They didn’t ask why and she didn’t say. A cleansing breeze blew away the dark,
low clouds threatening their world replacing them with a sky still overcast but less ominous.
Lisa from her lap to the floor, she jumped up from her chair urging cheerfully, “What do you say we get this birthday
cake in the oven?”
Eve was always held at Grandma and Grandpa’s house in the family room converted from their basement. Lizzie was happy
to see that it looked the same as every other year. The tree in the corner was trimmed with gold and silver, the barstools
were wreathed in garland, and Grandpa wore a Santa hat. Cousins mingled as they searched for presents with their names on
them under the tree.
parents had agreed to split the holiday in two, Christmas Eve with his family and Christmas Day with hers. Their mother was
home preparing for holiday morning euphoria destined to make them extremely happy but would surely break the bank. Lizzie
was worried about her being alone especially since Carol King’s “It’s Too Late Baby” was playing on
the stereo when they left. Maybe later, she’d slip upstairs and call to say, “I love you, Mom.” Maybe she
could make her Mom’s Christmas Eve a little brighter.
Since that night almost a year ago, Lizzie, now sixteen, had led the others in caring for the house and their mother.
For several months, chores like cooking dinner or changing the baby were delegated to whatever child was at hand. They checked
the completed chores off the list Mom made and puzzled over what she did while they were in school. Once, when summer break
came, Mom took them on a drive out in the country. Armed only with a picnic lunch, optimism for a rain-less day and their
own imagination, they drove along singing at the top of their lungs. Choosing a random spot, Mom spread a blanket, and for
that one afternoon they were free from chores, money problems and worries about their future.
Though they thought Mom was getting better, as if healing from a long illness, times like those were rare. Every other
Sunday Dad would take them to Grandma’s only to return them to an extremely inquisitive mother. Insecure about Tom replacing
her with another woman, she demanded to know what went on when she wasn’t around. Upon their arrival home she fired
questions at them. “What did you do?” “Where did you go?” “Who did you see?” Lizzie was
so tired of having a foot in each camp, feeling loyalty toward her father while shielding her mother from the painful answers.
Lizzie anticipated being asked about tonight especially since this was their first Christmas with just Dad. Her father
was well on his way to holiday joviality, his drink apparently bottomless. He greeted them with kisses, lips flavored with
Seagram’s Seven and Coke. His good mood led her to believe he might say yes when she asked him to see their Christmas
tree knowing Mom would be waiting up for them. If the Christmas spirit prevailed, she’d get the children to bed allowing
her parents a moment of privacy and perhaps reconciliation.
The presents they’d chosen for Dad were Aqua Velva shaving lotion, Hai Karate cologne, work socks and a wallet.
They’d made a card in the shape of a Christmas tree, colored by each of them, decorating it like a real tree. Lisa had
written a poem especially for their pretty card and printed it neatly inside. It was their big present to Dad because he said
he liked their homemade gifts better than the ones they bought.
Lizzie watched Dad smile with pure joy as his children tore off wrapping paper, revealing wishes granted. There were
footballs, model airplanes, dolls, tea sets, and hula-hoops. The children began the business of thanking everyone, then quickly
turned to play with their new toys. Now it was the adults’ turn to open their presents.
Dad’s gifts lay in front of him on the coffee table. Michael flew by in search of the football his cousin had
thrown and the ensuing tackle jostled their Christmas card from the table. Lizzie rescued it from the floor littered with
crumpled and discarded gift-wrap.
Grandma yelled down the stairs, “Tom, can you come up here and help me with something?” Moments later, as
Lizzie anxiously awaited her father’s return, she heard footsteps on the stairs. Unfamiliar black heels, shapely, stockinged
legs under a gray skirt stepped down followed by her father’s black dress shoes and navy slacks. Lizzie’s gut
wrenched as if she’d been punched in the stomach. Instinctively, she rushed across the room to protect her siblings.
“Who is she?” whispered Lisa.
“I don’t know. Show me your new doll, sweetie.” Lizzie said to distract her. Pretending to be absorbed
by their new toys she focused her hearing and peripheral vision on her father and her.
His hand on her waist, he guided her through the room, assisting her to a seat next to his on the sofa. Ignoring everyone
and everything, he concentrated on making her comfortable.
She was a slender brunette, short straight hair held back on one side with a sparkling silver barrette. Her A-line skirt
was topped with a creamy white
sweater that her mother would die to fit into. Lizzie scrutinized every detail, committing it to memory for examination later.
Dad made introductions all around. He caught Lizzie’s eye and waved for her to come over. Longing to shake her
head no, she saw her father’s “you better do as I say” look, and she stepped reluctantly to his side.
Oh this was horrible! How could he bring
this woman to their Christmas Eve Party? Even saying hello would feel like a betrayal
to her mother. But her father was oblivious to her peril.
“Lizzie, this is my friend, Pam. Pam, my oldest, Lizzie.” Pam greeted her with a glossy pink lip-sticked
smile. Lizzie held a lopsided grin for the maximum time allowed before she’d be rude, then hurried back to the kids,
now gazing in horror at this Pam person. Lizzie’s head felt light, her hands trembled and her breath came in short shallow
gasps. But no one noticed. No one saw her comprehending eyes shed tears of grief for her lost father.
Tom grabbed the present on top of his pile. Inside he found the black wallet, waved it to the kids, yelled “Thanks”
and handed it to Pam to admire. Finally all his gifts lay on the table. Lizzie wished they had spent their hard earned money
on Mother. Once she learned of Pam, Lizzie feared her mother would totter on the precipice of defeat. The distance they had
traveled in this stormy year were gone, erased by black thunderclouds rushing toward them, winds scattering the fragile peace,
theirs for such a short time.
Lizzie grabbed their special Christmas card from under the tree and hid it behind her back. She’d memorized the
poem printed in purple crayon. Now the words plodded reluctantly through her head.
You are the best.
We love you so, above all the rest.
We’re sad and blue and Mom’s alone,
We want to know when you’ll be home.
Rising, she approached the untended bar. Staring one last time at the letters that spelled Daddy, she stuffed the envelope
containing the hopes of seven hearts into the trashcan, shoving it deep among discarded boxes, shredded ribbons and torn gift-wrap,