“Mommy, why is it so busy?” my son asks.
“It’s Mother’s Day, honey. So people are out with their families.”
Behind us is a grandmother holding a baby on her lap, the middle-aged aunt dabbing at the food on his chin. The child’s mom, bags under her eyes, hair in a messy bun, gulps down food while it is still hot. One by one, my son points and asks about the people around us. He’s in that stage of toddlerhood when he wants to identify and sort everything into categories, including people.
Then he asks the question I’ve been dreading: “Mommy, why don’t you have a family?”
The questions come earlier than I’d expected, perhaps because my divorce has brought into stark relief the difference between his father’s family and Christmases alone with me. At my house, there are no clusters of cousins to help rip open presents, no aunts and uncles to read stories, and cooking a turkey for two people is a waste.
“Mommy, your mommy’s in Heaven, right?” he had asked me one night while brushing his teeth.
“That’s right,” I said.
“But what about your daddy? Is he dead, too?”
And there it was. “Do you remember when we were watching ‘Ninjago’ this morning?” I asked him, thinking about how to explain this is toddler terms. We’d watched two episodes of the Lego ninja show that morning while cuddling on the couch.
“And do you remember how Lord Garmadon hit his henchman?” In that morning’s episode of the children’s cartoon the bad guy had slapped a henchman across the face. Shocked, I’d paused Netflix to talk to him about hitting and respecting people’s bodies.
“Hitting is wrong,” he recited the lesson solemnly.
“Exactly. Well … ” — deep breath — “my daddy hit my mommy when I was a little girl. And that’s why I don’t talk to him.”
He asked a few more questions that I answered as best I could. I didn’t tell him that I could have kept my family by keeping my mouth shut. If I’d never spoken openly, let alone written about my father’s abuse, we’d have a place to go on Christmas.
My siblings chose to continue living in denial, making excuses for my father’s actions. But I’ve always had a mouth on me.
Back-talking, asking too many questions, being disrespectful; I’d lost count of the times that I’d transgressed an invisible, arbitrary boundary and ended up in the chair. The child-size chair was blue, with yellow and white daisies on the back. My dad would haul it into the kitchen and shove me onto the cane seat.
Next came a dollop of tabasco sauce, or horseradish, placed on my tongue. He’d walk to the sink and pour a tall, clear glass of water. Holding the glass in front of my face, he’d demand that I “apologize.”
I’d shake my head. Sometimes I’d swallow the sauce. He’d add more.
“Apologize.” The water, just out of reach.
I was about 4 years old, my son’s age. Eventually I’d give in, apologize, and gulp down the cool water to soothe my burning mouth. After every punishment he wouldn’t let me run off until I’d hugged him and told him that I understood why he’d punished me, and that I forgave him.
I’ve always been a good liar.
When we’d left the restaurant that morning, my son took my hand as we walked out the back door. “It’s just you and me, Mommy,” he said. In his smile I’d seen all the innocence and trust my childhood lacked. Hitching my purse higher on my shoulder, I leaned down and scooped him up.
Sitting on the floor outside my son’s room later that night, I whispered “Just you and me, baby, just you and me.” A prayer, an invocation, a promise to keep him safe.
I stood and went downstairs to get myself a glass of water before bed.