Our earliest recollections from childhood often involve a vivid sensation that pains, excites or shocks us into self-awareness.
Sometimes, what occurs is brutal.
This is the story of my first memory.
She was bleeding from both brows and pumping her legs against the slick vinyl floor when I entered. With her back pressed to the kitchen cabinets, this woman kicked like she was trying to save herself from dropping off a cliff. Elegant fingers, with bitten-down nails and knobby knuckles, clawed at the countertop above. Tangled at her breast was her hair, grown long since college with hanging, breezing bangs. They were plastered to her temples now, blood-soaked to the color black. Her eyes were mouths to the mascara rivers running down her cheeks. This woman’s small frame froze when the man standing near came closer.
He grabbed something from the oak table in the center of the kitchen. His cowboy boots clicked as he approached the woman on the ground. He squatted down and turned his head to inspect her, as he would to see if a shot animal was dead.
He scratched at the nape of his Texas neck, truck keys still in hand from the drive home. Forearms dangled densely from elbows planted on his knees. The keys tinked against the 22 oz. glass jar in his other hand, the Yankee-brand candle from the table that caused the afternoon’s argument. The man leaned in toward the proud head of the woman’s body. He did not speak loudly to her, but made sure she heard his words.
I did not hear what my father said to my mother before he swung. The mass just crashed into her jawline, crowding her teeth to the harsh left. The impact drew blood. He swung again. More dripped to her chest.
My parents met in the stormy winter of ’83 at Angel Fire Resort in New Mexico. Dad was working on ski patrol and recently had an encounter with one of my mother’s friends. The meeting between the men ended badly, with Dad breaking the other guy’s nose on one of the mountain’s runs. The day after the bloodshed, Mom charged through the patrol booth while eight months pregnant to bring my dad to justice. He was fiddling with the channels on his radio when she blew in with winter’s wind.
It’s important to mention here that she was not only visibly carrying my older brother Sepp at the time, but also married to her first husband Joe. My father knew this about her, but he wanted her anyway, even while she screamed, “I want this man arrested!”
My mother didn’t know his charm before busting down the door that day. His smile is what quickly lured her in, as in the past when it attracted all the beauty queens that loved him then. Those never lasted, though, and marriage was not an option until he met my mother, causing him to pursue her from that day on, for better or for worse.
Dried, dripping wax ran down the side of the glass in my father’s hand that day. They were melted by the flame my mother set that morning to make the kitchen smell like Eucalyptus. My father was furious because she left it beneath a cabinet unattended. “You could’ve burned the house down,” his red face yelled after a swing.
My mother’s cry stirred me to action even at three years old. I leapt from my spectating stance and into her chest to save her, to keep my father from hitting her again. He repeatedly swore at me for interfering, but he did not make me his victim too. Instead he collapsed the kitchen around us, cracking the pantry door and tipping the spice and cookbook shelf. I hid close to my mother and listened to her heartbeat and its heavy strange heave. I felt her arms fall across my legs and back. Her breathing slowed as her bleeding teeth did. It eased even more as the door slammed and the shrinking growl of my father’s Harley told us he was gone.