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I’ve written about the sisterhood that lovingly cared for Mother during the nine days she refused food after being told she had a mass in her colon and needed a blood transfusion. Two-and-a-half years earlier, we’d done the same for my father, when he had a stroke and was unable to swallow.
Sister Laura and her partner Erma are just a few doors down from me, now. We’ve spent the last few weeks unpacking their lives, which means unpacking much of mine as we examine photographs, love letters, and Mother’s journals, entries that reveal nothing about a woman whose mother died young after her father abandoned the family, nothing about the serious bouts of depression that sent her twice to a hospital’s psychiatric ward, the first time when I was a teenage. According to her handwriting, she had the perfect life, perfect husband, and perfect children. We asked Mother’s best friend about this. They’d known each other from the time Mother moved in with her aunt and uncle at the age of ten. We learned nothing, because this friend knew nothing.
That our mother chose to perceive and project perfection is strange, striking, and heart wrenching. Yes, we’d like to know more and we asked her on her deathbed if there were things she’d like to tell us. She said: “I’ve had a fairytale life.” She’d often said this but added, “With the exception of Chase’s death,” after her grandson was killed in Iraq almost six years ago. We’ve concluded that Mother was complicatedly and utterly resourceful.
I wish I could write about my mother, pour it to the page, and not feel the aching loss of missing her with a longing that’s impossible to voice. It’s strange. She said she had a perfect life. We know this can’t be accurate, yet she was the perfect mother.
My intention was to write about Erma. Forgive the detour, please. I’m not sure I can tell you about her without crying. Because Erma’s mother, Agnes, was hideously imperfect.
Recently, I wrote about children of war.
Erma is a product of a different kind of war?childhood neglect and sexual abuse. She was born to an alcoholic mother who perceived a daughter as a rival. Her mother never said the words she needed to hear, that each of us needs to hear: “I love you.”
I contrast this with my childhood. If Daddy had a business trip, Mother wanted us with them. Rarely, did they travel without us four. My brother Richard has a picture he enlarged, one among many, for our father’s 80th birthday. It shows our parents, in their late thirties or early forties, on a cruise, without us. Richard had added a caption?Mother’s words: “I miss the children.”
Erma lived in orphanages and foster care from the time she was three until she married at seventeen. For brief periods, she’d return to Agnes, only to be sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriends. One of them tattooed Erma’s arm. Today, she bears a scar, a large circle, from the removal procedure, a remnant of “jailhouse art”. Most of the scars, though, are unseen.
The psychology of child abuse and neglect is a paradox. Staying with the abusive parent is damaging, but being separated from that parent and placed in an orphanage can be terrifying. Despite the horrors of living with her mother, Erma missed Agnes and longed for her. And there were particularly frightening times in orphanages. These included afternoons when children, dressed in Sunday best, lined up and were put on display for adults who’d come to select a child to take home. Erma’s brother Jimmy was chosen. Erma wasn’t. Living without Jimmy was a cleavage to her soul.
At some point, Erma created and found safe rooms. One of these was a space beneath a porch. This was her hideaway from rejection and where, in the safe room of her mind, she fantasized a family, using sticks and giving each a name. This family was essential to her survival and included a mother, father, and three brothers, Wesley, Jimmy, and Bobby:
As they walked past the children, Wesley pointed and said he wanted the
little girl with the orange hair. That little girl was me. That’s the day a little
girl joined the family. Her name was Erma. She was very small with orange
hair and green eyes. All the family loved her very much.
Erma still has these sticks. They are sewn into the pocket of a coat.
Years later, when Erma visited her mother in a house that Erma bought her, Agnes defiantly defended her actions: “I took care of you until you were three.” But her mother spoke the most damaging words of all when Erma was sixteen: “You are nobody.”
At the age of sixty-four, Erma bought a spiral notebook and began writing about her life, hoping to understand herself and to find peace.
Erma knows the brutality she endured is the reality of millions of children. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, child sexual abuse is reported up to 80,000 times a year. Obviously, many more cases than this are unreported.
Studies support a cycle of violence?that the abused grow up to become abusers. Erma, the gentlest person I’ve ever known, whose voice can calm the most out-of-control child (she worked with emotionally disturbed children), broke this cycle, marrying and raising a healthy family. Her husband and children knew nothing of her past until they read her book.
Erma Steppe is one third of the sisterhood, a woman whose strength and ingenuity allowed her to endure and triumph over chaos, an unimaginable pain she would not allow to define her life.
Erma’s story is a published book, now. Its title is I’m Nobody. Her mother told her she was nobody. Erma no longer believes this.
Missy Beattie lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Email her at email@example.com.