I grew up in a small town in Maine, with my father, my mother, and my three siblings: my sister, Yvette, who was six years older; my brother Steve, three years older than me; and my brother Paul, three years younger than me. We were a Catholic family. My father made sure we practiced this religion faithfully in the early years of my childhood, but expectations for me to attend church began to fade as I approached the middle school years. Prior to that, we would be in church most Sundays. I liked the sense of community in the church; an opportunity to hide in public seemed preferable to the nightmare that was happening between the walls of my house.
In church, my father would insist that I sit several rows behind the family, telling me that he could not have one of his failures within his sight and think about God. He would explain to others, "She hates her brothers and doesn't want to sit with them." My father seemed to believe that God had chosen him to be one of his disciples. During many lessons, my father explained it was his job, as assigned by God, to fix me and turn me into someone they could both be proud of. And if he failed, God would not allow him entry into heaven. Many times, in a drunken state, my father would tearfully beg me to stop being a horrible daughter and learn my lessons so he could be at peace with God when he died.
To a six-year-old, trying to figure out how to "be better," "be good," "be smarter," "be prettier," "be tougher" during lessons that made me feel bad, stupid, ugly, and weak was impossible—it was as though someone had asked me to grow wings and fly away, which later became a fantasy I would create while in the deep recesses of the cold cellar. The weight of needing to do the impossible at the expense of my father's ultimate salvation added to the cloak of guilt I would wear for many years to come. Nonetheless, I thought of church as possibly being the place for me to learn exactly what God wanted me to become. So, in addition to the break from the walls of the cold cellar, I welcomed our Sunday trips for the chance they gave me for understanding.
At the conclusion of the service, the priest would stand at the back of the church, shaking hands and greeting people as they left. On most Sundays, my father would place himself to the right of the priest to shake as many hands and warmly greet as many folks as the priest greeted. The calculated relationships my father formed with others in town helped keep his secret world safe from questions and scrutiny. As a result, the priest, along with the chief of police, the other foremen at the mill, the principal of my school, and the neighborhood doctor could all be found on my father's list of close friends. Watching my father being so well liked and respected by so many in our town cemented the idea in a little girl’s head that the problem was indeed with her and renewed the internal drive to fix the problem.
We walk into church on the afternoon of the Good Friday before my seventh birthday. My father enters first. Mom didn’t come with us. Yvette is walking right behind my father and holding my little brother’s hand as he tries to jump up the steps instead of climbing them. Steve is following behind them and taps my brother on the head as if to try and distract him further. I am in my usual place at the back. We are here to walk the Stations of the Cross, and I’m feeling excited that my father has allowed me to come along. As directed, I carefully stay at the back of the crowd and move from station to station. I watch as Yvette works to keep Steve and Paul from talking and fidgeting. I can’t really understand everything the priest is saying, but I need to concentrate and try to memorize it—on the way here, Daddy said I need to pay attention and learn these stations, so that’s what I’m trying to do. I can’t hear or see very well from the back, but I’ll get in trouble if I try to move closer. The old woman next to me has a necklace in her hands and I can’t tell what she’s saying, but she keeps talking about Mary, and it makes it even harder to hear what the priest is saying. I listen hard and look at the statues of Jesus as people hurt him and he falls down.
When we get into the truck to go home, my father asks all of us if we have any questions and no one says a word. “Cheri, tell me what the first station is,” my father snaps.
I carefully answer, "They tell Jesus he is going to die."
My father angrily responds, "They condemn him!"
I feel so bad for not remembering that word, but surprisingly, he tells me that’s close enough and to go on to the second station.
"He carries his cross," I respond.
"Keep going," he demands.
"He falls down," I say. I pause, waiting for approval, but then decide just to keep going while I can still remember. "He sees his mommy," I say for the fourth station. Still no response, so I move forward, but the tightness rises in my stomach as I am starting to forget what comes next. "Someone helps him with the cross and he falls down again," I quickly utter because I cannot remember which happened first.
"You left out getting his face wiped," my father shouts at me. "Just stop and shut up, you stupid bitch."
I sit silently on the floor of the truck, needlessly repeating the steps in my head, hoping to get them right before I’m asked again, but the damage has been done.
When we arrive home, my father tells my siblings to go to their rooms. My mom must already be in her bedroom because I don’t see her anywhere.
“Get down to the cold cellar,” my father shouts at me.
I run downstairs as quickly as possible and sit in the dark corner, waiting to see if my fate will simply be him locking the door or if there will be another lesson before the imprisonment. While I sit very still, trying to get the stations of the cross right in my head in hopes of gaining some salvation, I hear my father go up and down the basement stairs a couple of times. Why isn’t he coming and locking the door so I won’t escape?
"Get out here!" he shouts.
I jump up and go out into the basement, excitedly reporting, “Daddy, I’ve been thinking hard and I’m sure I can now tell you the steps of the cross!”
He looks at me with an odd smirk, and my body immediately freezes as I anticipate the danger that I know is ahead. I see boards lying in the shape of a cross on the floor in front of me, and I know these will be used for my lessons.
"Take all your clothes off except your socks," he demands.
I know I’m going to learn the lessons on the Stations of the Cross in a way that means I will never get them wrong again.
“I cannot believe I have such a stupid child for a daughter.” He grabs my arm and throws me to the floor, startling me.
I put my hand out to break my fall and my finger jams between the boards and the floor. My body lands on the top of the cross and the edge of one of the boards pokes into my stomach. I’m trying to think about the stations and the lessons, but I’m just terrified as he continues to yell, “I will not have a stupid daughter living in this house. God will not have it and I will not have it!”
My brain races to remember. “Station 1: Jesus is told he has to die. Station 2: Jesus carries the cross. Station 3: Jesus falls down. Station 4: Jesus meets his mommy. Station 5: Jesus gets help carrying the cross. Station 6: Jesus falls again. No, that’s not right. Station 1: Jesus is told he has to die. Station 2: Jesus carries—”
He grabs my right hand. A sharp pain shoots through my body and I feel like my head is going to burst. I try to pull my hand to me, and it won’t move. I blink away tears as I try to figure out what he just did to me. Then I notice the hammer in his hand, and I focus on the blood I see dripping from my palm. As he repeats the ritual with my other hand and then my feet, my body jolts every time he hits a nail. I look down and watch my socks turn dark red as they soak up the blood from my feet. My body begins to feel numb, and I drift off to sleep with my mind still trying to remember which station number was someone wiping the face of Jesus.
I open my eyes and I can’t see anything in the complete blackness of the cold cellar. I have no clothes on, but something is wrapped around each of my hands. I carefully lift each one, checking to be sure it’s no longer attached to the cross. I do the same thing with my feet. I can feel the weight of something, but my socks are gone and have been replaced with some type of bandage. I lie very still as I feel the rhythm of the throbbing in my hands and feet and slowly fall asleep again.
After I’ve gone several days of waking briefly and sleeping again, my father releases me to go back into the house, where I discover that Easter has come and gone and only a couple of days remain of spring break, before I return to school on Monday. My hands and feet still hurt, but they’re getting better. My mom changes my bandages and the throbbing begins to subside. I am so relieved to be out of the dark and damp cold cellar. I’m especially excited tonight, as I curl up in my soft bed. As I lie here quietly, I listen to my own breathing and feel a deep sense of relief that I have survived another round of lessons. As I curl my arms around my pillow, something rubs against me. I lift my pillow and pick up my bloody socks, which are tied together in a tight knot. I know instantly that these socks are my father’s way of making sure I will always remember my lessons about the Stations of the Cross.
Many years later, when I was in my fifties, I began experiencing tremendous pain in my left foot. After I visited the orthopedic surgeon and went through an MRI, the surgeon determined that apparently a piece of my cotton sock from that experience had lodged in my foot and, in response to a foreign object, my body had built a protective shield around the piece of lint and kept it encapsulated. Unfortunately, the capsule had shifted when I lost a bunch of weight and was now sitting on several nerves, causing pain and numbness in my toes. I needed surgery to have the capsule removed. Going to the hospital is always a challenging experience for me because of the number of surgeries and hospitalizations I have experienced. As I lay in the operating room waiting for my surgeon, I replayed the memories of the experience that had caused the original foot injury and thought about the bloody socks he had left under my pillow to help me remember. In the moment I was being put to sleep for my surgery, I wondered how my father could have thought I would ever be able to forget.