I Used To Believe We Were Just Like Those Trees; We’d Grow Just as Tall and as Proud as We Pleased

Trigger warning: domestic violence

Me and Baby Tonia

On a grey day in early November, I walked home from Brownies, quite put out. I’d been practicing my limping all day, limping to school, at recess, to lunch, to Brownies…no one had commented. I have no recollection as to why I was practicing limping, or why it was important to limp believably. But it was obvious my limp needed work. Walking home I tried different styles, but no one was around to help me with my adjustments.  I limped up the front porch steps, and through the front door and stopped in confusion and wonder. A tiny black ball of fur was at my feet. I stood stock still as it sniffed my feet and scampered away.

Tonia jumped out of the kitchen shouting, “it’s my birthday present! I named him Midnight!” For her sixth birthday, Tonia had gotten the best birthday present EVER: a tiny black puppy! Larry immediately set himself to assuring Tonia’s puppy hated her most out of everyone in the house.

Tonia, Midnight, Me

Tonia held a strange position in our family. She was very obviously Joyce’s favorite, although Joyce loudly denied it. Yet she was also vilified as the meanest person in the house. Joyce claimed Tonia was mean and hated Larry before she was even born: when Joyce pushed her pregnant belly up against Larry’s back in bed, Tonia would kick until she woke him up. Never mind that if you put pressure on any baby in utero, they kick out against the pressure. This shows JOYCE being mean, not Tonia.

Joyce also said Tonia kicked when she heard Larry’s voice. Again, that doesn’t mean hatred. It means she could hear his voice and react to it. When Tonia was born she screamed almost constantly for the first month. When she wasn’t screaming she was projectile vomiting. More signs of hostility. Actually by the end of the first month the doctors found Tonia was allergic to milk. She was starving and her tummy hurt. A change of formula calmed the poor baby down.

Baby Tonia seemed to have a high tolerance for pain. She cried more out of fear or frustration than she did from pain. That meant smacking Tonia’s hands or bottom wasn’t much of a deterrent for unwanted behavior. It also meant Tonia was stubborn according to Larry; spiteful even. I’m very certain that neither Joyce nor Larry ever considered other types of punishment or behavior modification. Behave or get hit. Hitting doesn’t stop the behavior or you don’t respond to the hit? Hit more and harder. I learned at a very young age to stop (or at least hide) what I was doing and wail and cry my eyes out at the first swat. 

Tonia wouldn’t or couldn’t pretend to be hurt or heartbroken from being hit. Instead she was defiant, even mocking. She was saying “Come at me, bro” long before “Come at me, bro” was a thing to say. Or worse, she would get the giggles. My daughter does this too: at moments of high stress or emotion, she giggles. It’s a stress reaction and can’t be controlled. When Tonia lost control of the wheelchair and dumped her quadriplegic husband face down in the gravel driveway, she ended up laughing so hard she could barely be understood when she called for help. (Thankfully the neighbor on the other end of the phone call thought she was sobbing so hard she was fighting for breath.)

So Tonia would get a spanking which didn’t hurt so she wouldn’t cry, which angered the spanker so more and harder spanks were administered. When the spanking did begin to hurt, she still wouldn’t cry; she’d start giggling. Which enraged the spanker so the beating would get harder and last longer. In private I would beg Tonia to just cry her eyes out when the first hit landed, but she said she couldn’t; it didn’t hurt. I told her to PRETEND for the luvagawd, but she just couldn’t. And what was good for Pal was good for Buddy and Friend, too. We were spanked with belts, hairbrushes, whatever was close to hand. I remember getting spanked with a Barbie once. But Tonia always got the worst of it.

Joyce favored Tonia and used her as a weapon against Larry. She never failed to tell people how Tonia supposedly told Larry she hated him after he ran her over. Or how Tonia kicked Larry while she was still in the womb. So Tonia became Larry’s unfavorite.

Both Tonia and I had a hard time with toilet training because we were born with a ureterocele. A ureterocele is a congenital abnormality at the end of the ureter, which is a tube that drains the kidney into the bladder. It’s almost like a little balloon that blocks the drainage. This can cause the urine to reflux back into the kidney and cause a kidney infection and/or a urinary tract infection. It causes pain in the abdomen, sides, and back; fever, and painful urination and bad-smelling urine. The painful urination would cause little 2-year-old me and later, little 2-year-old Tonia, to hold in our urine as long as we could to escape the pain. Anyone who’s ever had to ‘hold it in’ while looking for a bathroom knows that at some point the bladder WILL release its contents, normally with the least bit of relaxation on the part of the holder.

The upshot of all this is that we wet the bed and when we did, we wet the bed A LOT. We also had very wet and smelly ‘accidents,’ as well as fever and pain from the kidney infection or UTI. Both Tonia and I had surgery to correct the ureterocele when we were three. All I remember of the surgery is insisting on sleeping butt up in the recovery room, much to the nurse’s dismay (tubes everywhere). My surgery went well and I have never ever had a problem since. Tonia’s didn’t go as well and she had a long time recovering. She ended up with a ureter opening that made it harder for her to hold in her urine. She also couldn’t seem to let go of the memory of the painful urination so would hold it in still. So Tonia continued having accidents and wetting the bed for a much longer period after the surgery than I did. 

Before she was fully recovered, she was run over by a car and her pelvis was cracked. When it healed, there was a small chip in the pubic bone where the bladder leans against it. Sometimes the bladder pushed into this chip and then when the bladder was emptied, some urine could be left in this divot and cause an infection. Tonia had to learn to be vigilant about emptying her bladder and watching for signs of infection. But when she was three and four years old, that was a lot of learning that most of us never even had to do. She continued having bladder issues for a while. 

So Larry started calling her Petey Bed. I think it was supposed to shame her into getting her bladder under control. But she was born with a bladder defect, and then HE RAN OVER HER with a car. Instead of helping her learn control, he called her Petey Bed. And not just at home; in public, in front of her friends, everywhere. 

When Tonia got her little dog Midnight as a birthday present, Larry taught the puppy to ‘sic’ Tonia. He would nip at her feet and ankles. If Larry kept encouraging Midnight to sic, the dog would actually bite Tonia. Sometimes Larry would tell Tonia to run and then sic the dog on her. I remember her crying once after he told her to run; she didn’t want to get bit and scratched by her own dog. Larry shouted at her that she’d better run and Joyce chimed in, reminding Tonia that she ‘didn’t feel pain,’ so it wasn’t a big deal. Despite all this, Tonia seemed to understand it wasn’t Midnight’s fault; he was doing what he was trained to do. She loved that dog with all her heart and we took him everywhere we went. 

Tonia also refused to be treated poorly. She refused to do things that would hurt me or Sean, either physically or emotionally. She refused what she felt were unfair punishments. I remember getting in trouble for running on the stairs one day and Larry telling us to come get our spankings. Tonia stood at the top of the stairs facing him in his bedroom and refused to go over to him. He shouted, “Get your little ass over here!” Tonia told him he couldn’t say that to her; if she wasn’t allowed to say ‘ass,’ he wasn’t allowed to say it to her. 

Larry lunged at her and she flinched aside, causing him to trip down the first stair. Tonia laughed and Larry grabbed her by the shoulders to shake her and she pushed. She put her hands on his shoulders and SHOVED. The two of them went tumbling down the stairs, almost in slow motion, Larry still trying to spank Tonia and Tonia punching out wildly to block the blows. When they reached the bottom, I ran to Tonia and started pulling her away, back up the stairs to our bedroom. Larry stood up, seeming to tower over us. He said, “Get your ass in your room.” I had her on the landing by then and she pulled free. She turned back to Larry and said, “You. Can’t. Say. That.” I pulled her into our room and shut the door.

Tonia and I had a strange arrangement. If she was Joyce’s favorite, I was Larry’s. That left Sean to be nobody’s favorite. But Tonia and I loved him hugely. Sean wasn’t the athlete that Larry had wanted; he wasn’t the genius Joyce had wanted. He was kind, sensitive and shy. He got in trouble for moving too slowly, for doing things without thinking first, for being Sean. Tonia and I believed our life’s duty was to protect him. For myself, I thought my duty was to protect them both.

If we knew a punishment was coming from Larry, we had a plan. He hit the hardest and the longest. So I would take responsibility for whatever had happened. I’d go to Larry and cry with remorse and promise it would never happen again. This ruse worked amazingly often and kept the beatings down. However if I couldn’t calm Larry, Tonia would taunt him, tell him I was lying, SHE had done it and she wasn’t even sorry. She would get the spanking rather than let Sean or me get it. Sometimes neither of these options worked and we all got it.

As adults, talking about this weird plan, Tonia and I wondered how it started. Whose idea was it? Was it a plan we talked about, or did it happen organically? We wondered if Sean or Joyce knew. Joyce heard us. She told us it was her plan. Apparently the punishments didn’t stop with us; it was obviously Joyce’s fault if we were bad kids. I don’t know if he hit her. But I do know Larry would break or ‘lose’ her belongings. Joyce told us that if she saw a Larry Storm coming, she sent me in to sweet talk and charm him and calm him down. If that didn’t work, then maybe hitting Tonia would do the trick. If not, we all suffered. 

Tonia and I were appalled and heartbroken by this revelation. How could she sacrifice her kids to this man, instead of protecting us?  Joyce was nonchalant, even cheerful. Why would she NOT send her girls in to calm the monster? After all, she’d been sent in to retrieve a gun from her suicidal father. What’s a few slaps compared to that?

Tonia grew up being defiant to protect me and Sean, and herself. She was no less defiant as a mother. We were told all our lives how mean and stubborn Tonia was. But I swear to you: I never knew anyone who loved as fiercely as Tonia did.

Michelle, Tonia, Sean

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: