Honor your father and your mother
Opening presents on Christmas usually brings a sense of warmth to children. It’s like drinking hot chocolate, only there’s no hot chocolate and your insides just feel good. Somehow through the colorful wrapping paper and the gift beneath, the act signifies coziness, love, and belonging. The children who experience those feelings have never had to feign excitement over a gift they hated in fear of being hit by their drunken father.
At the age of eight, the most important thing about Christmas was the one thing I truly ever wanted; my father to lose custody of his children. If that wasn’t going to happen, well then, I also wanted toys. I needed stuffed animals, and video games, and electric blue nail polish. The only good thing about having forced visitation with our father was that we three Schmidts got not one Christmas, but two. Granted, our father’s gifts were usually sub-par and bought from the dollar store or cheaply made, but this was also the man who’d forget to call on my birthday, so I never really expected much other than at least fifteen minutes of not having to live in fear.
“Do you like it?” he’d ask as I ripped off the red paper. Somehow, the red glow of the Christmas tree only made him look more menacing.
“It’s great,” I said automatically wincing. He’d gotten me a necklace, but I don’t wear jewelry.
“Do you have any idea how much money I spent on that?” He knew I hated it. My stomach dropped as his voice frosted over.
“No, no, I love it. Thank you!”
He’d grind his teeth and wait for Jacci or Laura to open their presents, too. Our shoulders would be pulled up to our ears, constantly bracing for impact. When we’d go to bed that night, we’d stay up.
“Someday, we’ll steal a car,” Jacci would say in the darkness above my head as we lay in bunk beds. “We’ll drive into the sunset and never come back here.”
Slowly, and one by one, we’d drift off to an uneasy and un-restful sleep counting down the hours until we’d be safe at our real house again.
At my mother’s house, there would be presents galore. We’d open a majority of them Christmas Eve with the exception of a few, and the following morning we’d open the rest while magical red velvet and white rimmed stockings appeared on the table. As we plunged our greedy hands inside, we extracted small trinkets, a CD that we’d wanted, perhaps a book, and sometimes money.
While most children receive Christmas presents with the intentions of playing with them, the year my older sister, Laura, got a silver hand-held talk-boy under the tree from our mother, the three young Schmidt sisters went to work hatching the escape plan.
The mission was simple: catch our father abusing us. Catch him drinking, screaming, smoking pot in his bedroom, hitting Jacci, Laura, or myself. We knew if we could get proof, we’d never have to see him again. So the day his blue truck recklessly pulled into our dirt driveway for his weekend visitation, Laura was sure that her contraband was stuffed neatly away.
When I climbed into his vehicle, his large arm trapped my small frame in an awkward embrace. “I missed you so much,” he said with the smell of cigarettes clinging to his breath.
I moved my head away in a feeble attempt to create distance. He wrapped his arm tighter, keeping me restrained and helpless. I didn’t say anything because in school and in church I’d been told that lying is bad and you shouldn’t do it.
“Well?” he asked, voice edging with anger. “Aren’t you going to say you missed me?”
I swallowed hard, forcing the words out. “I miss you, too.”
His lips pressed hard against my cheek, a gesture that turned my stomach. “I love you.”
And the cycle repeated leaving me feel raw and ugly and exposed, like peeling a deep sunburn a day later.
I spent the hour long car ride stuffing my face inside my shirt to keep from inhaling the second hand smoke that never left the truck. When one cigarette ending another began. By the time we got to his house, the breath of fresh air when I stepped out of the truck was a godsend. It vanished as we went into the house. Stepping in was like stepping into fog. Old cigarette smoke lingered in the air suffocating anything that tried to breathe. For the most part, he seemed sober but I knew he’d drink. I knew he’d turn angry and violent, so as Jacci, Laura, and I shuttled our suitcases into the bedroom, I watched him like he was a rabid dog that had just contracted the disease wondering which of us he’d end up biting.
Just before the sun set, when he walked out the door, a collective breath was let out. It’d be a few hours before he came home from the bar. I passed the time playing video games on the couch with my sisters.
By the time he stumbled through the living room door, we were all safe in bed that first night.
On Saturday morning, we took our turns sneaking to the kitchen to steal food that wasn’t rightfully ours because he’d bought it. We’d eat it quickly in our bedroom and hide the wrappers. Soon enough, Jacci, Laura, and I ventured out to the living room where he already was.
“What’s mine is yours,” he said, offering some façade of normalcy.
“No thank you,” we said, careful not to offend him, or take what he was offering.
“Look,” he said, ushering the three of us to left of the large fish tank. Finally, his finger pointed to a small white box. “It’s a caller ID.” And then he stood, waiting for us to feign excitement for his brand new purchase. He smiled broadly, clearly proud of his new toy.
“Cool,” Laura said, trying her best at something that looked like a smile. Jacci and I nodded in unison, not caring, but falsely interested.
Soon enough, he left for the bar, and the dark cloud around us lifted slightly. Only one more day to get through until we were home. Minutes later, the phone rang. Laura checked his fancy new caller ID and our mother’s number popped on the screen.
“Are you guys doing okay?” she asked.
“Yea, we’re fine,” I said keeping the conversation short.
“Would you mind deleting my number off his caller ID?” she asked Laura at the end of their conversation. She did it without question.
After the phone call, the three of us wasted time playing outside on the jungle gym or exploring the woods in the backyard. When we got tired we raided his VHS collection. Each visitation weekend, our father would rent videos from the local store. At his house, he had two VCRs which he would use to copy them. Anything we wanted to watch was at our fingertips. Laura or Jacci picked out the movie, and we sat on the couch until the credits rolled through.
Just outside the house, gravel crunched under four black rubber tires as headlights spilled through the windows. “He’s home!” one sister said running from the main door back to the couch. Our few hours of freedom and happiness quickly vanished as he took drunken steps toward the house.
“Hi girls,” he said with glossy eyes and an eerie smile. “Did anyone call?”
“Mom called,” one of us answered.
“Anyone else?” he asked, glairing.
“We let the answering machine pick up,” Jacci answered.
As he made his way to his precious white box, Jacci, Laura, and I bolted for our bedroom.
Technically, it was Laura’s and mine, but Jacci refused to sleep alone in her room, across the hall from his. Each weekend we were trapped there, she always slept in the top bunk with Laura. We turned on video games, careful to take small breaths in the hopes he wouldn’t find us. Because locks weren’t allowed to be turned in his house, even if we were changing, we shut the door in a poor excuse of safety. In seconds, he burst into the unlocked room.
“Where is the number?” he screamed, eyebrows so close together, they’d be able to hold quarters with the creases they made.
“I deleted it,” Laura said without thinking. Her eyes got wide, like the time he forced her to spray a hose into a hole where a trapped mouse was hiding.
“You what?” he screamed, louder, angrier, face turning redder.
“I deleted it,” she repeated, more quietly, panic overtaking the look in her eyes. “Mom called and asked me to delete it. You said—“
“--That is my caller ID!” he screamed, forgetting his what’s mine is yours speech earlier in the day. “Do not touch what isn’t yours!”
With lightening like speed and precision, our father grabbed Laura, hard by the shoulder and dragged her from the room as she screamed, “I’m sorry! It was just a number!”
Momentarily dazed, I remained sitting on the brown saggy bean-bag chair, while Jacci launched into motion, searching frantically for the talk-boy that could at least record what happens next.
In the living room, Laura was thrown face down on the couch by the time I saw her again. In the darkened safety of the kitchen, Jacci pushed the red record button on the talk boy and placed the device as close to the living room as she could get it without him noticing we were there.
Dad was screaming at Laura while she wailed, terrified of how badly he’d hurt her this time. Jacci and I remained hidden in the shadows of the kitchen. I looked to her helplessly to rescue our fallen sister, but instead of being heroic, she pushed me behind her as we stood in the doorway between rooms. The scene was no longer in my view.
He screamed more. Laura cried more. Dad took off his belt to beat his daughter. I peeked my head around the corner daring to look, and saw him straddling my ten year old sister who squirmed beneath his weight, a small butterfly getting her wings ripped off.
There was a rush of motion beside me, and I followed the blur into the living room. Jacci jumped onto Laura’s back screaming, “No! Stop, Dad! You’re not going to do this! Stop, Dad!”
Our father shook his head. Dropped his belt, and walked out the door.
Which is why, as a young child, I only had one prayer, one wish. That my father would lose custody of his children. Or die before he killed one of us.