Book Excerpt from "Out of the Miry Clay" by Annie Stevens
I grew up in the central California area with a passion for being outdoors, and because of the mild winters, I enjoyed quite a bit of time outside of our modest home. Not gardening back then mind you, but just being outside to play as kids do. From tree climbing to adventure seeking I was always finding an excuse to go outside. Not that we needed much of an excuse to be away from our house. Mom was always chasing us out of the house so she could have some peace and quiet while her soap operas were on, plus she always reminded us “If you have kids, you have nothing!” We were always tracking in dirt, leaves or something that would mess up what she had just cleaned.
One of my favorite things to do was to sit under a huge mulberry tree in our front yard and watch the cars and people go by. I would sit for hours on the weekends from the time I was five until I was maybe 11 or 12, just sitting in between the huge roots in the cool dirt under the shade of that tree playing with my brother’s toys or maybe a neighborhood friend. I was a tom-boy for sure growing up with two older brothers and one younger one.
Sometimes I would play in the garden until my mom would yell at me to get out. My mom did all of the gardening back then and boy did she love flowers! We had a variety of fruit trees too that she would harvest and make these incredible jams, jellies and her delicious, fought over, fried fruit pies. She was a stay-at-home mom so she had lots of time to work in her garden when we kids were at school and my dad was at work. Raising five kids, and suffering from multiple health issues, didn’t deter her from being out in her sanctuary, her garden.
It wasn’t until I was about five years old that I learned why she spent so much time out there amongst the flowers, shrubs and trees. You see, my dad was an alcoholic who got very angry and physical when he got drunk. At first he took out all of his frustrations and anger on my mom, but as he got drunk more often, his anger would turn on my two older brothers and in time it would be directed towards me. At first, it was mainly for dropping something accidentally or maybe a look we gave him, when something was said, that we would feel the back of his hand on our faces or his leather belt on our back-sides.
I try not to remember all of my beatings, but the one that sticks out like it was yesterday is one that I must write about today in hopes of shining some light on a very real problem in our world today. Human abuse, whether physical, mental or verbal, is a very preventable condition. Our society over the years has tried to correct abuse, but sadly it continues even in our world of advancement and technology. What goes on behind closed doors must break our Father’s heart.
As this world has demanded that God be removed from our schools, homes, work and even in some churches, God, the ultimate gentleman has politely bowed out of the lives of men, and I’m sure, even with a broken heart. God will not force his love on anyone, for that would be rape. He wants all to come to the knowledge of Christ, but not as a forced commitment. It must be because of God’s love and his goodness that we turn to him. I was brought up to know God in an authoritarian way, with legalistic boundaries, corporal punishment and no grace.
Mercy was never known and certainly love was foreign in my life. Growing up like this was like drowning in a murky pit of clay. Little did I know that it was out of this miry clay that God would pour out his goodness to make my life what it is today. I share these next few chapters in hopes to give you a glimpse of that goodness from God even though I was in the middle of such a great storm. I was not alone.
Life Growing Up
My parents loved to fish along the rivers in the foothills of Central California. They would often pack us all up with our bologna sandwiches, Kool-Aid and their beer and off to the river we would go. Of course, my dad just had to have his beer. Mom drank some, but she knew her limits and I think deep down inside that she hated it. She would often just slowly sip her beer so she wouldn’t get drunk. When my dad wasn’t looking, I would see her pour hers out gradually, so he would think that she was his drinking partner.
More often than not my mom would wind up driving us home from our outings because my dad would be too drunk and unable to drive. So off to the river we went in our 56 Ford, two door Fairlane. By this time, my little brother had been born and was about two years old. Packed in the back seat of the car we knew to be quiet and stay out of slapping reach if my dad had gotten wind of our fidgeting and wanted to put an end to it. By the time we reached the fishing hole my dad was already drunk. How he ever got his or my mom’s pole ready to fish is a mystery to me, but there they were at the river’s edge while we were given strict orders to stay in the car.
It was July, it was hot, and four kids in the back seat of a car do not make for a quiet time. I called out to my mom to ask if I could get out of the car because the boys were already hitting each other. She said yes and went back to her fishing. As I exited the car, I turned to shut the big heavy door, which was hard for a small girl like me. About that time, and unknown to me, my little brother had his hand in the door to try to escape with me. It was too late. The door had shut on his little two-year-old hand.
Hearing my little brother’s screams, my mom who was coming up anyway, quickly opened the door and released his hand. Because of the huge amount of rubber around the doors back then, his hand was not broken, or even hurt. He quickly stopped crying and we thought all was well, until my dad came running up the hill to see what had happened. When my mom told him what had happened, his anger quickly flared towards me and he pulled off his leather belt and whaled away at me. Because he was so drunk, only one or two hits landed on my back and I started to run from him into the woods. He viciously swung to hit me again, but I had already started running away from him and the belt slipped from his hand and flew into the woods. My mom screaming for him to stop didn’t calm his anger. He grabbed the nearest tree limb lying on the ground and started staggering up after me.
By this time I had run up a grassy hill only to meet a couple who had been walking along a road and enjoying their day. I was screaming with fear when the woman opened her arms to welcome me to safety. Then they saw my dad coming up the hill with the tree limb in his hand, ready to swing and inflict pain. The man yelled at my dad to stop and that he was going to call the police. In what seemed like forever, in silence, the man took his date by the arm, and started to pull her away, and left me there alone to face my angry dad. The woman reluctantly let go of me and whispered something to the man and then they were gone.
My mom had topped the hill at this point and just stood there as if waiting to see what would happen next. My dad dropped the limb, cursed at me and then turned to stagger back down the hill and return to his fishing. Had it not been for that couple who I had met on the road, I might have suffered far worse than two welts on my small back. My mom ushered me back down to the car and I sobbed quietly in the floor of the back seat while my brothers were taken outside. It was only the beginning of worse things to come.
Later that afternoon my dad was falling down drunk. With every step he took to come back up to the car he either tripped or threw up. We were told to get into the car and wait while my mom helped get my dad to the car and get him inside. He was angry and became violent shoving her away as she tried to put him in the passenger seat. He slid over to the driver’s side and fumbled with the keys to try and start the car. My mom had tumbled down the hill when my dad had shoved her away, so she was trying to make her way back up the hill to the car.
By the time she had gotten back up to the car my dad had started the car and began to pull away without my mom. She was screaming at him to stop and we kids began to cry that he was leaving our mother behind. What a sight we must have been. My mom was running after a car full of screaming kids with my dad so drunk that he was practically passing out while he was pulling away. He just kept going until he ran off the road and into a tree. All of us kids were thrown to the floor and my dad was unhurt, but now passed out. My mom still running up to the car was screaming even louder as she approached the car to find us all on the floor crying. She opened the door to get us all out and to make sure that we were unharmed.
Only bruised and scared we exited the car and she had us sit on the grass while she checked on my dad. When she tried to wake my dad he stammered and slowly came to. Getting out of the car and seeing the damage to it he then awoke like he was back in boot camp in the army. He grabbed my mom and shook her like a rag doll blaming her for the wrecked car. She tried to tell him that it was he who wrecked the car, but he wouldn’t have it. Slapping her around in his drunken rage was just too much to take. All of us kids were crying by now watching our mother get beaten. Then my dad turned on us. He flew into our little huddled group like a football player going after a fumbled ball. We scattered like mice trying to avoid his grip. My little two year old brother not knowing what was going on, just sat there and took the brunt of dad’s weight as he fell on him.
By now my mom was grabbing at my dad’s neck trying to pull him off. When she finally did, my little brother was lying there still as if he was asleep. This sobered my dad up quickly as my mom was screaming. My little brother had been knocked unconscious by the weight of my dad. They tried to wake him and finally did as my little brother began to cry. I don’t remember what happened next, but we made it back home and were sent to our rooms without dinner. Now one would think that a person would give up drinking after almost killing their child, but not my dad. He just kept on drinking and my mom stayed married to him.
I didn’t fully understand the dynamics of my parent’s relationship back then. Why would my mom stay with an alcoholic that beat her and her kids almost every day? All I knew in my young little mind was that I didn’t want to be there. Even my mom began to physically and verbally abuse us as she funneled her anger on to us. From that point on, I would be constantly thinking of ways to leave and never come back to such a horrible family. Yet deep inside I wanted them to change and be loving parents like so many of my peers had. I had the bedroom off our living room and it had one of those louvered doors so I could hear everything that went on after my dad came home from a night of drinking.
Mostly he was raging at my mom because he thought she’d had an affair, or she was spending too much money, but it was just an excuse to beat her senseless. I would hear her begging for him to stop, or not to hurt us children, but my dad seemed to be fueled by her cries for mercy. I would then either bury myself under the blankets to try and muffle her cries, or I would run into my attached bathroom, close the door and sit on the toilet seat and plead to God to make my dad stop hurting my mom.
I don’t remember exactly what age I started using my bathroom as a phone booth to God, but I was somewhere around five or six years old when I would go in there to escape and talk to an unseen God that I believed was listening. I knew that there was a God and I hoped that he cared enough to take a moment and listen to pleas for either my mom or for my brothers. Sometimes I would just sit silently to see if I could hear God answer me. I never did hear his voice, but I felt like I could say what had to be said and leave it at that. I won’t go into all of the details of the beatings we got or why. It doesn’t matter now, but I know now it was because of his alcoholism that my dad gave over his self-control to his own anger and bitterness.
I’d gone back to our house some years later to see the old neighborhood. I was quite surprised at how close the houses were to each other. You know how everything looks so big when you’re younger. I was sure that the neighbors must have hated living next to our family hearing all the yelling, cussing, and screaming from us kids or my mom pleading for my dad to stop hurting us. As the years went by, we kids learned to stay away from the house during the day, and to be quiet at night to avoid any confrontations with my dad.
I understand now why my mom was always so unhappy and she would often retreat out into the yard to just be alone and work in her garden. It was a place that she could tell herself why she had to endure and stay with my dad. It was a place where she could find courage. It was a place that she could gain strength. In some weird way she loved my dad in spite of his drunken behavior. That’s a love that I will never understand. I don’t believe anyone; man or woman should stay with a person who beats on another. It’s not Biblical, nor is it safe. Yet she chose this road and it wasn’t until I was in my thirties did I learn why. By the time I was fourteen my mom had had my little sister at forty-five. She had major complications during her delivery that resulted in a total hysterectomy and a two-week stay in the hospital.
One of the nights that she was there my dad had come home late. Not drunk, but his attributes were different. His dark olive skin was ashen white. My dad called us all into the room to hear the news of our mom. She had hemorrhaged through the night and they didn’t think she was going to make it.
Time would only tell if she would return home. That was the first time that I had ever seen my dad cry. He was broken. All the years that he had abused her came in like a flood. Here he sat with his new baby girl in his arms and just wept. I think that at that point I had never felt a rage in my heart towards my dad as I did that day.
I would blame him if my mother died and then I would leave, run away as far as I could just to leave him in his anguish and self-pity. I buried that hate deep down inside and became the mom that my sister needed at that point. Not even knowing how to care for a newborn, and having no one to ask, I said a selfish prayer to ask God to bring our mother home to us.
My mother did recover and came home within a couple of weeks. It was slow going and she was able to give me instructions on how to care properly for my sister. I was grateful for the retreat that my dad had towards the alcohol, for it meant peace in our household and that no one was being beaten, but his strict disciplinarian ways kept us on our toes.
One day while my mom was feeding my sister I’d asked her if she’d ever thought about leaving my dad. She took a deep sigh and said, “I’ve thought about it, but I have nothing of my own, and my family has disowned me, so I have nowhere to go. I’m stuck here raising you kids that I wish I’d never had.”
I was shocked and hurt to hear that she never wanted us. That we had been the reason why she stayed there and took her beatings was because of us. I got up from her side of the bed and sharply stated, “Well I’m leaving and I will never live my life like you! I will grow up and be happy and have a wonderful life, and I will never let anyone beat me or my kids.” I left the room, slamming the door behind me as I went out the front door.
Tears streaming down my cheeks I got on my bike and just rode. Not knowing where I was going or caring, I just had to get away from what I’d just heard my mother say. I was a mistake! We all were. We were the reason that she hated her life. How could she blame us? We were children. It wasn’t our fault we were born. It was hers!
As I rode to the local high school, it was summer time so I new no one would be there. I came to a grassy area, threw my bike down and just sat there under a huge tree and wept for what seemed like hours. With every sob and tear I vowed to leave such a horrible home with no love in it.
In all the years that I lived with my parents I had never heard the words, “I love you” spoken towards us kids. We were never hugged, nor did we hug each other. We were the source of each other’s pain. We wanted nothing to do with getting close. Self-preservation was our goal. Family was a foreign word. I had to make a choice at this point. I was no longer wanted; there was no reason to stay. I just wanted to end it all.