“Never let them hit you in the face when you’re wearing your glasses.”
It’s funny, I’m sure my mother passed down other motherly advice to me over the years, but that’s the one that stands out in my mind. The words of a women who had just gotten the shit knocked out of her by her husband, my father, and the tone she used was just as mundane as if she was telling me never to overcook potatoes for a potato salad or the whole thing would turn out mushy.
“It hurts like the devil right here,” she said, motioning towards the bridge of her nose, “when someone gets you when your glasses are still on.”
“Okay, I won’t momma,” I replied as I hopped up onto my usual perch on the bathroom counter, between the sink and the spot where the towels went, to sit and wait for her to wash her face. She spent the next few minutes fixing her make-up while, at the same time, she blotted the blood from her lower lip.
It was late and past time for bed. I was 8 years old and shouldn’t have been up this late – I had already changed into one of the flannel nighties that my mother had sewn for me, the one with the purple rosebuds. I had been sent off to bed once this evening. I had already brushed my teeth the first time I had gotten ready to go to sleep that night.
But my mother had received the increasingly common late night call from the Wickiup Tavern, the bartender phoning to say that my father was too drunk to leave on his own accord. This meant, of course, that she would have to drag me out of bed, buckle me into the backseat of our big blue Buick, and drive about 20 minutes out of town in the middle of the night with me tow to retrieve him. My father’s paper-mill shift had ended at 8am that morning but had been sidetracked along the way, as he often was, by one of his favorite distractions.
Typically, he would still drive himself home regardless of how much booze he had consumed that day. And even though he had just driven 20 miles without killing himself or others, there were times where he was too annihilated to even walk the 10 feet from his truck to the entrance to our home. I’ve always found that strangely impressive.
But then there were the nights where he couldn’t make it off the bar stool.
I have clear memories of these trips to the Wickiup. My mother would carry me to the car and buckle me into the back seat. And we would drive to the bar in silence. I think my mother assumed – or hoped – that I had fallen asleep, but I just sat there quietly and waited, wondering which version of my dad we would be picking up.
Would he be angry and thrashing about upon realizing he was being removed from the bar?
Or would he be passed out?
I always hoped for the latter.
This time he was mostly docile, mumbling to himself about not getting to finish his beer. Goddamn waste of money…
I can still visualize him from my vantage point in the backseat, his head against the headrest, but then flopping to the left…then to the right…then to the left as my mother took the sharp curves in the road as fast as she safely could, both to get me home and back in bed – and to get my father home before he woke up again and started in on her.
It looked as if she had gotten him home quick enough, but he woke up just as we pulled into our driveway.
“Where the hell am I?” he bellowed at my mother.
She got out of the driver’s side of the car, “You’re drunk” she replied, “I need to get Lisa back to bed.”
“What the hell do you have MY daughter out so late for? Some kind of woman to have a little a girl out so late…what kind of mother are you?” he would call out to her, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he was the reason I was out in the middle of the night. Not that she could tell him that. “Get back here when I’m talking to you!” he ordered, but my mother was carrying me inside and ushering me off to use the bathroom one more time before bed.
When I had finished my business in the toilet, I could hear through the door that he had somehow managed to command his legs to carry him into the house this time. The door to the refrigerator was slammed closed, rattling the contents, and the distinct sound of a beer can being opened came from kitchen.
“Tom, you’ve had enough,” I heard my mother say, followed by the unmistakable and not uncommon sound of the back of my father’s hand across her face.
“Who do you think you are…who do you think you are? When are you going to learn you don’t talk back to me?” he slurred as he struck her again, this time knocking her head against one of the cabinets.
Exactly. When was she going to learn? I remember thinking this at the wise age of 8 years old. I mean I sure as heck knew better than to talk to him when he was like this. I had learned.
I stayed hidden behind the bathroom door.
My mother wasn’t crying tonight. At least not that I could hear. He mustn’t be hitting her quite as much this time, I thought, relieved. It’s a pretty good night. Not like the last time.
I had grown used to the fights, usually started when my mother would make the mistake of speaking at what was clearly the wrong time, and almost always when he was drunk.
When he came home from the bar the previous Thursday, he was especially pissed about something. I wasn’t sure what exactly, but I saw the look in his eyes when he walked through the back door. I had seen it before, and it wasn’t ever good. I ran like hell to my preferred hiding place on the stairwell to my room, door closed. I stayed at the bottom of the stairs, though, listening to things being knocked off tables and to my mother’s voice calling out to me, “Lisa call the police. Help me, call the police!”
I didn’t call the police, though. I was paralyzed in fear with no idea what number to call even if I could have moved. This was before the days of 911, and the only phone numbers I knew were my own, Paul’s, Jeff’s, and Julie’s. Oh and Scott’s. But the police?
Oh, my dad would have been so mad at me! I didn’t move.
I wondered where the cat was. I wondered if my mother would be able to drive me anywhere the next day, or if it was the start of a few days where my mother wouldn’t leave the house. Until she felt better, of course.
I wondered if I could have a sleepover on Friday. Maybe Julie could come over.
No, this night was a different story, much better indeed. Instead of being beaten so badly that she would panic, trying to escape his confused, drunken anger, calling for help…tonight she would simply be knocked around a little for speaking to my father in the wrong tone of voice. She would join me in the bathroom, remove her glasses, tend to her wounds, and gift me with the piece of maternal advice that I would remember above all others:
Never let them hit you in the face with your glasses on.
Thank you, momma.