Nancy Drummer (not her real name) is a wife, mom of two, and grandmother of seven. She shared her story exclusively with FirstforWomen.com.
My mom got married at 16, and had me when she was 18. While I was still a baby, my parents divorced. Soon after that, my mother met another man and moved out to Long Beach, CA, leaving me with my grandparents in Minnesota.
I was 3 when she came back for me. She stepped off the train, the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. She sat in the front seat, next to Grandma, and I sat in the back seat behind her. I couldn’t take my eyes off her long curly hair, somehow familiar, just like her voice and bright red lips. Somehow I knew this woman, though I didn’t know how. I just didn’t realize then that I’d spend the rest of my life getting to know Mom.
From then on, I mostly lived with my mother and stepfather and half-siblings, though I spent weekends and much of the summer with my grandparents. Mom was a wonderful homemaker, spotlessly clean and completely organized. Everything had to be perfectly folded and placed in drawers and on closet shelves. Yet no matter how hard I tried, I was messy. Sometimes when I took a piece of clothing from my drawer, I would wreck up a perfect stack of clothes and not fix them. Sometimes when I hung up a blouse or dress, I wouldn’t button the top button; other times I would hide the clothes I’d worn that day under my bed, intending to put them in the hamper in the morning when I wasn’t tired.
I did these things even though I never knew when my mother would inspect my drawers and closets, though it usually happened in the middle of the night. If something was out of place, the lights flashed on and the yelling started. I was called names. When I cried, she demanded that I stop. I tried really hard, but I could not, even when I was told that if I didn’t stop, I would get something to cry about. Next thing I knew, spit would fly into my face as my mom shook my shoulders and hit me with a belt. After that, I would be left to pick up the clothes that she had thrown around my room. I had to fold or hang, and put away everything perfectly before I could go back to bed.
My father tried to see me when I was 4. He knocked on the door and demanded to be let in. Immediately, Mom flew into a rage, dragging me into the bedroom where she insisted I hide in the closet. It was dark and I was frightened; but I knew my mom would get angry if I came out.
I heard screaming, “She’s my daughter; I have a right to see her.” After what seemed like a long time, I heard the door slam. I ran from the closet and looked out the bedroom window. From there, I saw my Dad, who was in the military, walking down the street in a green uniform. Look back. Look back. I’m here, my heart begged. But he didn’t look back. When he was out of sight, I walked into the living room, and there, sitting on a chair, I found a stuffed Bugs Bunny toy. I didn’t know it then, but that was the last plaything my father would ever buy for me—and the last time I would see him. Through the years, he’d send occasional letters via my grandparents. He died in Vietnam shortly before I got married.
Life with my mother wasn’t all bad, though. Almost weekly, Mom took as many neighborhood children as she could squish into her car to the roller skating rink where she would skate with us. My birthday parties were always perfectly decorated and had the best prizes. My mom went without things for herself, so I could have the best clothes, shoes, and toys.
Still, my dream was to live all the time with my grandparents. Grandpa was the one with a sense of adventure. He taught me how to sing, ski, fish, and boat. At their lakeside cabin, where we spent much of the summer, Grandpa hung swings and trapeze ropes from the trees at the top of the hill that led down to the lake. Sometimes I felt like a trapeze artist, swinging high in the air.
Grandma was the more serious and hardworking of the two. She may not have talked a lot about her love for me, but she showed it with her actions. When I was 7, I argued with Grandma until I persuaded her to let me take the bus alone to see a cousin. It wasn’t until I was on the bus that I thought maybe it wasn’t such a good idea. Frightened, I found a place next to a window and looked at the cars passing by. I don’t know how long I sat there in fear before I noticed Grandma in her blue car following alongside the rear of the bus. At the next stop, I jumped off, and quickly made it into Grandma’s car.
My grandparents didn’t expect me to be perfect. Mistakes were not blown out of proportion, as if I had just destroyed their entire world. I felt so safe there. When it was time to go back to my house, I’d get sad and fearful since I never knew what was going to happen there. It could be wonderful; it could be horrible. But I learned early not to show my mom how much I loved being at my grandparents because when I did, she would get jealous and not let me go back for several weeks.
As bad as things were, they were about to grow worse after I turned 12.