You Say You’ve Cried a Thousand Rivers

Sean looked like a rock star. About the time he’d hit puberty, Bon Jovi appeared on the music scene and Sean looked just like him. The girls at school swooned and told Bonnie how lucky she was to have such a hot brother. She told them they wouldn’t think he was so hot if they had to listen to him smacking his corn flakes every morning.  

Sean leaned into the resemblance and cut his hair similar to John Bon Jovi. They both had the same ash blonde hair, the sheepish grin, the hipshot stance and artfully ripped jeans. Sean’s nickname among his friends and coworkers became Jovi. I could see the resemblance, but Jon Bon Jovi wasn’t good looking. He looked like Sean. Sean looked like me. We both looked like Larry, and Joyce had established quite clearly that Larry was ugly. Larry had a big Santa Claus nose, thin lips, greasy skin and hair… Sean was my brother and brothers aren’t hot. 

Sean and his girlfriend Tammy were terrible together. They brought out the worst in each other. Together they drank too much, partied too much, and spent too much money that they didn’t have. They were constantly moving from one house to another and I believe it’s because they kept getting evicted, either for not paying rent, or for being filthy. 

The first few times they had to move, both families would show up with vehicles to help haul household goods. But we’d get there to find nothing was packed and nothing was in a condition to be packed. Dishes needed to be done; dirty dishes piled out of the kitchen sink and across the counters. Laundry needed to be done; there were just piles of dirty clothes all over the floor. When you got the laundry up off the floor you’d find more dirty dishes and a bunch of actual garbage. You had to clean the house before you could move stuff and clean the house. The next time they asked for help moving, Tonia told Sean if they weren’t packed when we got there, we were leaving.  The next time we went over to help them move, we walked in, looked around and left. Funnily enough, a few years later Sean got a job at a moving company and worked his way up into a supervisory position.  But meanwhile…

Tammy started college because she wanted to become a paralegal. Then she dropped out to become a waitress and later a dancer at a bar. She said she could make more money with tips than she could get for financial aid. I told her being a waitress or a dancer has a finite shelf life before the tips start to drop off, but in the long run, being a paralegal would make her more money for a longer time. She didn’t want my advice. Then she got pregnant and Sean and Tammy got married and their whole relationship went to hell.

The drinking and partying and whatnot didn’t slow down with the birth of little Bradley. Sean and Tammy were still hanging out at the bars, still going to afterparties, having parties at their place. Their relationship had always been volatile but now they had violent fights with one another, usually ending with one of them moving out for a few days before they made up and started the cycle again.

Faith’s death reverberated across our lives in ways we didn’t realize. Our brief time of calm was at an end.

Tonia didn’t go to grief counseling; she didn’t go to counseling of any kind. When she and I would get together, we’d start out talking about Faith and then it would turn to talk of our past. I know we talked about Lynne beating Tonia up because my daughter remembers those talks. But I kept locking memories of that day up when we were done, so every time it came up, it was a new revelation to me. I certainly wasn’t helping Tonia with her grief. It was during one of these talks that Joyce told us she had come up with our childhood strategy of trying to avoid punishment by sending me in to talk to Larry first and then sending Tonia in to take the spanking if I couldn’t talk him down. 

I can’t describe our astonishment, our sense of betrayal. Why had our own mother sacrificed us like that? Why hadn’t SHE stopped him? It wasn’t as bad for me as it was for Tonia. I’d only been sent in to talk to an angry father. Tonia had been sent in expressly to get hit. I guess in Joyce’s mind it was no worse than being sent in to retrieve a pistol from a suicidal father. But my brain still fights to wrap itself around the idea of choosing a child —your FAVORITE child—to be physically abused instead of taking the hit yourself, or better yet, getting everyone out of the situation. Joyce not only knew about the arrangement, she’d arranged it. And she left us with Larry when she left home, somehow trusting him to suddenly treat us well?

Sunday dinners at Joyce’s became an excuse for drinking. Dan and Mike quit coming to the dinners; they decided it was too much family, too much togetherness, and a free meal wasn’t worth the weirdness. But Tonia, Sean, Tammy, and Jerome would get roaring drunk. Joyce didn’t drink at all and I’d have a beer or cocktail before going back to my coca-cola habit. Nick, AJ, Monica, and Kelsie would take baby Bradley and play with him while the adults had too much fun.

North Dakota had finally voted out its Sunday closing law. At one time almost all businesses were required to be closed on Sundays. In 1985, grocery stores were allowed to be open on Sundays, as well as convenience stores and restaurants. In 1991, North Dakotans voted to allow most businesses to open after noon on Sundays, requiring retailers to be closed between midnight Saturday and noon Sunday.  In 2019, the ND legislature repealed what had been America’s toughest Sunday restrictions, allowing retailers to open on Sunday mornings. You still can’t buy a vehicle on Sundays in North Dakota or buy alcohol before noon. 

Sunday dinners at Joyce’s were a good substitute for going to the bar and drinking.  I started calling them the Sunday night fights.

I was still working at the fabric store. I’d been moved up into a supervisor position because I’d agreed to work every Sunday in exchange for having Saturday evenings off, so I could spend Saturday nights with Tonia. We usually went out dancing. We’d stopped leaving the kids with Joyce, electing to pay for babysitters instead. Sean and Tammy would often join us. We decided to make a family holiday out of my birthday; an excuse to throw a party in August, the only month without a national holiday. I’d make coordinating or matching shirts for everyone in the family and we’d go out for dinner and then go out to the bars to drink and dance. Sometimes Bonnie and Jerome Michael would come into town and join us.

Bonnie had gotten married and had two little boys. During my birthday celebrations, Joyce would be the only sober person among a group of drunk daughters, sons, daughters-in-law, sons-in-law, and her husband. The babysitter would make a killing. But I started worrying about how much alcohol Tonia could put away and I wondered if Sean–who’d gone to rehab while I was in Germany–should be drinking at all. He claimed he could drink as long as he only had 3. But I’d never heard of recovering alcoholics being ‘allowed’ to drink.  Besides, he always had more than three. All in all, it was not a healthy or happy time.

We all seemed to be running, without knowing what we were running from. Or to.


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