Now five, almost six years old, with long, blond, matted hair, feet without shoes, sporting tar and dirt like a widely dispersed birthmark, I recessed further into being a shy, anxious child. My anxiety was elevated by the loudness that reverberated so often within the walls of my dingy home.
Veronica and Howard’s hate-filled relationship tormented all of us for two more years. I tried to close my ears to the words that would never be uttered in churches or in other children’s homes.
Leaving my house at sunup and returning after dark, I learned early how to take care of myself. Grandma worried about my gadabouts. She once asked me how I could tolerate the smell inside those dumpster bins. Glowing with pride, I showed her my latest find. With a shrug I said, “They’re not so bad once you get used to them, Grandma.” Compared to the fresh, close-up, in-your-face smell of the dog poop Howard smeared on me, trash bins smelled heavenly. Most of all, I wanted to avoid Howard and my mother as often as I could, especially their eyes—his foreboding, violent, or vacant, and hers angry, hate-filled, or blank. Those big old trash bins provided the perfect hiding place for a child that never felt safe.
I felt bitter hatred for Howard, but sometimes there were other feelings right alongside the bitter ones. I didn’t understand just why, but there was some kind of softness in my heart each week when he brought home the milk bottles. It was the highest-valued commodity in our household, and was carefully rationed to each of us.
Watching him carry the heavy wire crate of glass milk bottles always brought feelings of surprised tenderness. Howard performed this task with military-like precision, week after week, year after year. Carrying the crate inside the house, he gently placed the container on the floor by the refrigerator. Kneeling down, as if the open fridge were his special holy altar, he would lift each bottle, wipe it off with a clean rag and stand and place it with painstaking exactness in a row on the top shelf. His kneeling and standing was like a genuflection, and he performed this task with inexplicable reverence. It was like he was conveying love and mercy to those bottles of milk that he wasn’t able to extend to his family or to himself. With an observable sense of pride, he would close the refrigerator door and carefully wipe it clean. I always felt a strange sense of awe as I watched this ritual. On those occasions, when our eyes would meet, I felt as though he was thanking me for recognizing his intent. It wasn’t much, but it was at least one job well done to support a family that never had enough food, love, or peace to go around. To be continued………