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>A Summer Job & Abuse

June 20, 2010

>This first post is light-hearted, the second, not so much. One of the never-to-be-answered questions in my life is what caused Mom to change her behavior. It started when I was seven or eight (see “Good Mom, Bad Mom”) and the negativity gradually and relentlessly increased, resulting in the abuse mentioned here and in posts yet to come. Mom’s later years were anything but happy.

A Summer Job

It’s June, 1958, just two weeks till school is out. I can’t wait to start summer vacation! Nothing to do but sleep in every day, spend time hangin’ out with my friends, stay up as late as I want. Summer, here I come! These were my happy thoughts one day as I arrived home from school. Antonio was there.

“Well, David, you’ve been wanting a bike for a while now. This summer you just might get it.” Antonio, sitting next to Mom on the couch, holding her hand, smiled as he told me this. Mom, too, was smiling. I didn’t suspect a thing.

“Really? Great!” I smiled back, already thinking ahead to how much more fun I could have this summer with a bike. “When?” I stepped right into the trap.

 “Just as soon as you’ve earned the money to pay for it,” he said. “I’ve found you a job.” The trap was sprung.

“A . . . job?” I looked at him in disbelief, as though the word were a foreign one and held no meaning for me. Which, in all truth, it didn’t. The thought of a job had never crossed my mind. What could I do in Mexico? Or anywhere for that matter? True, I had a job when I was ten, delivering the Sunday paper, but it didn’t last long. I didn’t like doing it and it showed.

Antonio continued. “You’ll be working in a taller, a mechanic’s shop, a couple of doors down from my factory. They repair and rebuild all kinds of engines: truck, car, boat, tractor, you name it, they do it. It’ll be good for you. You’ll learn some useful things.” If there’s one thing teens don’t want to hear it’s that adult declaration of, “It’ll be good for you!”

Mom and Antonio continued smiling, but now I could see what I had missed earlier: the smiles were those of the cat that’s trapped the mouse. I cringed at the thought of spending my summer working, particularly in a mechanic’s shop. Unlike many, if not most, boys my age, I had no interest in engines or in how cars run. No interest and absolutely no aptitude. My knowledge of cars stopped with knowing which end held the engine. (VWs confused me.) Everything about this job symbolized maleness: work, money, cars, mechanical things, getting dirty, working with other men. A rite of passage and I had no desire to be on the boat.

I looked over at Mom, my eyes pleading for help. No chance, not with that “gotcha” smile on her face.

SNAPSHOT: I’m standing in front of my new workplace. There’s no sign indicating what’s behind the long whitewashed wall and when I look through the open gates to the interior all I see is dirt, weeds and cars in various stages of repair.
Fast forward to a Monday morning, two weeks into summer vacation. All of my friends, Mexican and American, are already enjoying their freedom, enjoying the very things I’d planned for myself: staying up late, sleeping in, hangin’ out, putting logarithms, organic compounds and the structure of sonnets out of mind. I, however, have been condemned to three months hard labor.

Work started at eight so I had to get up at the unholy hour of 6:30, eat breakfast and catch a bus (two actually) to the light industrial part of Guadalajara where Antonio had his factory and the taller was located. I did not like this.

I went first to the pants factory and checked in with Antonio, as he had told me to do. Together we walked down a couple of doors to the shop to introduce me to the shop’s owner. I was hoping this would last a while, that they’d take their time showing me around, give me a manual or two to read, send me home to read it and tell me to come back when I’d finished. Which I figured could be next week. Or later. Anything to delay actually having to do something.

SNAPSHOT: The shop is small, dark and dirty. Vehicles not being worked on are scattered over the dirt lot outside. Weeds struggle up through patches of oil. A gravity-defying stack of tires tilts at a precarious angle next to a window, threatening to topple and break it. The lot is surrounded by a whitewashed adobe wall topped with shards of broken glass. There’s a privy in the corner of the lot and the cigarette smoke wafting out of it is mine.
Introductions took thirty seconds and Antonio left. I was on my own. As my eyes followed him out the door I saw two boys my age standing in a dimly
lit corner. I wasn’t at all reassured by the “We’ll take care of you” look on their faces.

I looked around. Was this how I was going to spend the rest of my life? An inept mechanic in a rundown auto repair shop in a dirty industrial section of Guadalajara?

The owner, don Roberto, began showing me around, intending to start by introducing me to the two boys I had seen. Before that could happen, though, one stuck his head deep into an engine compartment and the other disappeared into a small storage room. They clearly wanted nothing to do with me, which suited me fine: I wanted nothing to do with them.

“We’ll help you learn everything you need to know,” don Roberto said, his hand on my shoulder as he gently guided me around the shop, pointing out and naming all the pieces of machinery and what they did. I had no idea what he was talking about. He went on to explain to me all the different jobs they handled but I was only half listening, wondering how I was going to handle those two boys. Or, more to the point, how they planned to handle me.

After the grand tour, my first task, thank God, was a simple one. Even I could handle this. “There are two cars ready for pick up today,” don Roberto told me. “Wash them, clean the interiors. You’ll find a vacuum in the office. If you have any questions, Chachi and Gabriel can help you.”

Chachi and Gabriel. There they were, staring at me again. They were smiling, but not the kind of reassuring smile that meant, “Sure! We’ll be glad to help you!” And why should they? Here I am, the rich kid, taking a job I didn’t need, didn’t want and couldn’t do, from someone who needed it, wanted it and could do it.

I spent the rest of the day washing the two cars. I made sure I spent the rest of the day washing those two cars. If I had to work, I was going to ease into it as slowly and cautiously as possible. Don Roberto wasn’t happy.

“¡Oye, tu, David!” he called to me around noon when I was just finishing up the first car. “You have to work faster than that! We’re running a shop here, not a babysitting agency. Shouldn’t take you more than an hour to get one of those cars ready!” I could hear Chachi and Gabriel quietly laughing.

I figured I’d better work a little faster and the second car took me only two hours. Don Roberto sent me home. “Nothing else for you to do today,” he grumbled. “See you tomorrow morning.” Chachi and Gabriel, leaning against the work bench, watched me as I left, Chachi quietly whistling, Gabriel flipping a hammer and catching it, flipping and catching.

I showed up at eight every day that week but there were only so many cars to wash. Now they expected me to lend a hand and start learning how to actually work on cars.

It didn’t take long for my mechanical ineptitude and lack of a work ethic, or even any interest in the job, to become apparent. Don Roberto quickly figured out I was more trouble than it was worth, even though I’m sure Antonio was paying my “salary”. It took far too much time to show me how to do something and then repair the damage I’d wind up doing. It isn’t good, for example, to dent a carburetor by dropping it on a concrete floor. Even the things I could do, “gofer” things like fetch and put away tools, move cars, clean up, I did with little enthusiasm. The only two things I did well at this “job” were eating doughnuts in the morning and hanging out in the outhouse and smoking the rest of the day. Whether this was a planned, conscious sabotage or not, it worked. I lasted a week. And I got my bike anyway.

And now, all these many, many years later? Did I ever develop any mechanical aptitude or burning interest in cars? Nope. The most I can say is that VWs no longer confuse me.

Physical Abuse

SNAPSHOT: Mom still grips the tennis racket in both hands, her face contorted in rage. We’re in my bedroom and I’m lying on the floor, holding my arm. My face is expressionless, a blank.
Smoking was widespread among my friends, both Mexican and American and it wasn’t long before I, too, started. It was an adult habit that we felt was cool and made us more grown-up, more sophisticated. And cigarettes in Mexico were cheap (a pack of Faros cost just a couple of pennies) and easy to buy, no questions asked.

I hid my smoking from Mom as much as I could. I thought myself successful, but of course she must have known. She must have smelled it on my clothes and on my breath and in my room. There must have been other telltale signs as well: cigarette ashes on my window sill, reports from adults who had seen me smoking. She regularly asked me if I had been smoking and I just as regularly lied.

One Saturday morning my friend Val Rathbun and I climbed a tree in the vacant lot next to our house on Avenida 12 de Diciembre. We were sitting up there talking and I reached into my pocket, pulled out some matches, my pack of Delicados (cheap, strong, and, curiously, oval cigarettes shaped like a carpenter’s pencil; maybe carpenters smoked them), and lit up. Bad move. Almost instantly it came: “David Garl Gardner!” Mom never called me by all three names unless she was angry. “Get over here! IMMEDIATELY!!I knew I was in deep trouble.

I flipped away my cigarette, too late, of course, and handed over the pack and the matches to Val. I thudded down to the soft earth under the tree where we’d been sitting and walked the short distance to the house.

The front door closed behind me. “Get UP here!” Mom was in my room, searching for cigarettes. I walked in and stood by the foot of the bed, only too aware of the steely cold fear that rose up from the pit of my stomach. I tried tuning it out, focusing on the fringe dangling from the bedspread, little brown balls, dozens, scores of them. I wondered how they were made.

The fury was unleashed immediately – screaming accusations of lying, of stealing her cigarettes (how did she know?!) and money to buy them. Her neck muscles knotted from the strain. The more she screamed, the angrier she became. I tried to remain impassive but I’d never seen her like this before and I was scared. This was a new, brutal anger. Her fury mounted, escalated, crescendoed. And then she saw the tennis racket, still in its wooden press, on the wall over my bed. She grabbed it and came at me. Using both hands she swung it at me with all her might.

Although it happened in a flash I saw it as in a slow motion dream. And, like a dream, I couldn’t do anything to stop her or ward off the attack. The racket struck my left arm just below the shoulder. One part of my brain saw the whole scene unfolding but another part detached itself and I knew I was not going to make a sound, not let her see my fear or pain. The force of the blow knocked me to the floor. The pain was immediate and brutal. I lay there silently, showing nothing.

I got to my feet, clutching my arm, looking at Mom impassively, unwilling to betray any emotion. Her face, just a few moments ago colored red with fury, was now pasty, drained of color. Her eyes were leaden.

“I can’t move my arm,” I said. She dropped the tennis racket on my bed and brushed by me towards the door. “Let’s go.”

We went downstairs, into the garage and got in the car. Five minutes of silence later we were at the home of a retired American doctor who lived across from Monte on Avenida Boturini, a few blocks away.

With a curt “Wait here,” Mom went up the steps and rang the bell. A maid opened the door and they disappeared inside. I wondered what story she would concoct to explain my injury. A few minutes later she reappeared and motioned me in. The doctor had me sit down and asked what happened.

Mom interjected before I could say anything. “I told you, he fell out of a tree.” I said nothing and the doctor continued his examination, frowning.

The doctor looked hard at Mom. “Fortunately, there are no broken bones and no lasting damage, not physically, anyway,” Another long hard look and I thought to myself, “Don’t make it any worse, just let me get out of here.”

He went on. “He’ll have a major, and very painful, bone bruise for the next week or so. Keep it iced and try not to use it. And stay out of trees.” The final look he gave Mom let us both know he wasn’t buying her explanation.

*     *     *

Mom had for many years been verbally and emotionally abusive towards both my sister and me. Every aspect of our lives was fair game for Mom’s criticisms, always harsh and often dripping with sarcasm. In my case, she criticized my friends, my grades, my clothing, my habits, my appearance, my manners, my lack of ambition (I took to telling adults who asked that I wanted to be a petroleum engineer when I “grew up,” hoping that would impress them and Mom, though I had no idea at all what a petroleum engineer was.) Val was criticized for acting like a baby, for crying when her long hair tangled and Mom yanked a comb through it, for being selfish and self-centered, for her grades. We lived with daily, sometimes hourly or even minute-by-minute criticism but up until the tennis racket incident she’d never been physically abusive.

But there were to be more incidents of physical abuse and they would follow the same pattern: a sudden rage, the explosion and afterwards . . . nothing. No apology, no mention of what had happened. The incidents were simply suppressed, ignored, snipped out of existence like taboo news articles in prison newspapers, the gaping holes accusing reminders of the unmentionable.

I’d been spanked a few times as a child but nothing that could even remotely be considered abuse, certainly not on a par with the tennis racket attack. I wonder still what pushed Mom over the edge. Was it her drinking? Was her relationship with Antonio crumbling? Was she being pressured to return to the United States by my grandfather, who had never wanted her to leave in the first place? I simply have no explanation, not for the tennis racket attack or for any of the other attacks. The next one came not long after.
SNAPSHOT: Mom, seated at the dining room table, still clutches the fork. You can read the rage in her face. Valerie is crying. My chair has been pushed back and I’m disappearing out the front door.
I was home from school for lunch and we were sitting at the dining room table, Mom on my right, Val on my left. Mom was in an angry mood, and we were arguing about something. I should have known better than to argue when Mom was like this but I argued anyway. Without warning, she grabbed her fork and stabbed the back of my hand, drawing blood from the four puncture wounds. Her face was again contorted with rage.

Hurt and confused, I threw back my chair, leaped up and ran into the garage. I got on my bike and pedaled furiously back to school, crying. My hand was bleeding and swollen and hurt like hell. Between the tears that blurred my vision and the pain it was hard to control my bike. One thought kept replaying itself over and over in my mind: what if she’d had a knife in her hand instead of a fork?

When I returned home from school later in the afternoon my hand was still badly swollen and had turned black around the wounds. It throbbed viciously. Another incident censored, ignored, snipped out of existence.

Later in the evening, after dinner, Val came up and looked at my hand. “Does it hurt, David? Is there anything I can do?”

I was still too close to tears to answer so I shook my head and gave her a weak smile.

To my friends who asked about my hand, now bandaged, I told them the car door slammed on it. I was too embarrassed, too ashamed, to say what really happened. Typical, I suppose, of children who have suffered abuse.

Like the tennis racket incident, the only belt-whipping I ever got was related to my smoking. Mom kept a jar by her bed for dumping loose change into and I used to raid it for cigarette money. I never took more than I needed; she’d never notice such small amounts missing. Wrong. Mom suspected and then one day she caught me.

“Take your belt off and give it to me.” I did.

“Take down your pants and lie on the bed.” I did.

She took the belt and whipped my bare legs and bottom, twelve, maybe fifteen lashes. Again I determined not to flinch or make a sound. When she finished I pulled up my pants and looked at her, surprised by what I saw. I was the one who had been whipped but, haggard and defeated, she was the one who looked to be in pain. I hadn’t shown any emotion at all. I took my belt, slowly threaded it through the loops and left the room. I never went near the change jar again, not because of the whipping but because of what I had seen in Mom’s face.

As an adult I don’t think often about the attacks, about being clubbed and stabbed, but when I do, the memory is vivid and the fear, for however brief a moment, returns. And I wonder: What might Valerie have suffered at Mom’s hands that I never knew about?

Abuse is insidious. It can destroy a person’s heart and soul and its effects are felt for years afterward, sometimes a lifetime. People who are abused, physically, emotionally, verbally, sexually (thank God that wasn’t my situation!) undergo fundamental changes to their psyche in order to survive and hold on to some semblance of normalcy.

From childhood on, we all work at building up our self-esteem, at creating a positive self-image, one that allows us to face life and face the world with confidence. To do this, we need support and encouragement from people around us. Perhaps the most vulnerable period in these efforts to create a positive persona is the teen years. Teens are just beginning to strike out on their own, explore the possibilities of adulthood, and to understand who they are and their place in the world. Doubts and uncertainties exist.

Each time Mom attacked me, verbally or physically, I felt an erosion of me, an undermining of who I am. My image of me was being replaced by my perceptions of Mom’s image of me, at least insofar as it was communicated through her words and her behavior. Good people, competent people, people with ambition, integrity, intelligence, while they may be criticized, are not viciously attacked verbally and physically by those who are supposed to love them. I began to feel that my faults were so great, so ingrained and irremediable, that Mom had no choice but to do what she did, either from frustration or because there was no other way to change me. I internalized all the faults Mom charged me with and they replaced the more positive self-images I had been trying so hard to build up. The new me was, indeed, a pretty worthless human being and it was my own fault.

This also goes a long way toward explaining why I didn’t defend myself.
Why didn’t I push her away or restrain her or find some way to ward off the attacks? After all, I was taller and heavier than Mom, and certainly stronger; it wouldn’t have been too hard. I think anyone who’s been abused knows the answer: it lies in the fact that, deep down, I felt I must have deserved the punishment. If I were a better person, if I were a better son, Mom wouldn’t have to do this. And it’s telling that I always thought of it as punishment, rather than what it was: abuse.

Abused children desperately seek ways to shield themselves, to placate the abuser, to forestall the next assault. I did this by being impassive. I learned to
hedge my responses to Mom’s questions and accusations, to reveal as little as possible. Or, better yet, say nothing at all. This gave me space to assess my risk. Was I going to escape with just a verbal fusillade? Or was something more, something worse, coming? If so, I needed to steel myself for it, betraying no fear beforehand, remaining stoical during and afterwards. This was important to me because, while Mom could instill fear and obedience in me, could inflict pain, I was not going to give her the satisfaction of seeing me grovel or beg or plead. Whatever was coming was unavoidable, but I could maintain some inner sense of both dignity and defiance.

Unfortunately, while this may (or may not – I don’t know) have been an effective response at the time, I’ve paid a price ever since. My desperate need to mask my thoughts and feelings those many years ago has carried over into adulthood. I find it hard to express emotions to others. Times when I want to reach out and hug my daughter or wife, say something comforting to a friend in need, I find I can’t. Part of the problem is that I try to rehearse everything I’m going to say or do, get it not just right, but perfect. That way, there can be no criticism. But “perfect” is never there and that means I leave myself open to criticism, just as I did so many years ago. So it’s safer to remain silent, uncommitted.

This is a problem that manifests itself in personal relationships with family, friends, colleagues and in one-on-one conversations with just about anyone. It’s difficult for me to talk with people because I might say something they think is stupid or foolish. I’ve gone to staff parties, events where I know everyone present, see them and talk with them professionally on a daily basis, and leave early because . . . Actually, I don’t know the “because”; I just feel uncomfortable talking to people.

Rationally, I know this is not only silly but counterproductive. I’m in no danger, there is no threat. But this defense mechanism adheres to me like barnacles to a ship’s hull, almost impossible to remove.

Interestingly, I have no problems when the audience is impersonal. I’ve hosted programs on community radio stations for over thirty years, I’ve spoken to large groups of people, even sang and played guitar in a trio to an audience of 15,000 educators at a rally. None of that bothers me.

In a sense, there is one positive in all this. My fear of criticism has been a driving force to excel in my chosen field, elementary education. I’ve always made sure that my standards for myself were higher than the standards anyone else could hold me to. Just like so many years ago, this minimizes the chance that I’ll be criticized. It’s also  made me an effective teacher.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 24, 2010 6:30 am

    >Dave, you are very brave to share all this. Thanks a lot. Guiomar

  2. June 24, 2010 2:20 pm

    >I long ago came to terms with this and other incidents. I also long ago came t terms with my memories of, and feelings about, Mom. As I've mentioned elsewhere, we are who we are both because of and in spite of the way we were raised. My Mom did much more for me than she ever did to me, things that have served me well my adult life. And it's useless spending your life being bitter or letting resentment fester over the years. Dave

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