Triggered

The news is getting to me this week.

For those of you who don’t know my story… when the Munchkin was five years old, I was sexually assaulted on a first date. Now, I’m no idiot. I had done my homework: I checked public records on the man. I Googled and checked social media. Professionally, he was who he said he was, and he had no criminal record.

But that night, I broke my own rule and went to his house. And I paid dearly for it. It was eight days before Christmas.

I didn’t report it.

Not to the police… he warned me (via text message and email afterwards) that it would be my word against his. And who would believe me, a poor single mother, against the word of a well-established financial professional?

In a moment of overwhelm, my outcry witness was my ex-husband. He was the only one who ever saw my bruises in person. And yet, a week later, he told me that he would use the fact that I had had such an “error in judgment” to prove I was an unfit mother and take out son away from me.

I later told my pastor at the church I attended at the time. His first question to me was, are you sure you’re not pregnant? Not was I hurt, or what did I need… his concern was whether I was “at risk” of an abortion.

I didn’t told another soul for three years.

These days, my family knows. I talk about being a survivor. The statute of limitations had passed, so nothing will ever happen to the person who attacked me. On the day the statute expired, I burned all the clothes I’d worn that night. I can read (most) articles and have considered volunteering for our local women’s shelter. Sometimes I can even watch episodes of SVU (which used to be my favorite show, before he took that from me).

So the story about Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford shouldn’t bother me… except it does, for one detail of her story: his hand over her mouth.

You see, that night I struggled to get away until he pressed his forearm over my neck, choking me. At that moment, it became all about making it home alive. My son needed me to get home. I had to survive.

Nothing triggers me like a reminder of that instant. Breathing as best I could with an arm compressing my windpipe while I tried to hold still against the blows of a man who had no concept of a safe word or consent.

I believe Christine Ford. I have been there. And I’ve spent this whole week wondering what I would do if, some day, the person who attacked me were ever to be cast into the public eye. Would I be brave enough to come forward? To try to protect other women and the public? I already sometimes regret not having reported him. I did what I had to do to protect my child. I later sought trauma counseling with a RAINN-trained therapist. I found an attorney who could protect my from my ex’s empty threats.

But reading all day long every day for a week the back and forth of the Kavanaugh story and how so many people think “she waited too long” or “she’s just looking for attention” or “she must be a Dem operative trying to throw the nomination” or “he was too young to be responsible” or “that was so long ago, don’t let it ruin his future”… it’s awfully hard to fight back the flashbacks when the reminder is everywhere.

Christine Ford was doing what she had to do to protect herself and keep living. She tried to forget (like me), she built a good life (like me), and she moved on as best she could, finding a healthy relationship with a good man (like me). I honestly don’t think the politics matter one damn bit. If it were me, I wouldn’t care if the patron saint of my political party were the culprit: someone has to stand up for us women and survivors and potential future victims.

Our culture lets men get away with behaving badly. And it’s bullshit.

So this week, I’m triggered.

And I believe Christine.

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Dating while Brown in a Red State

Antonio is coming in for the weekend tomorrow.

I finished two of my summer classes this week, so he thought he’d come in so we could celebrate a little. He was thinking ice cream. But I have been trying to find ways for us to get out more, now that I’m so close to having life return to somewhat “normal”.

One thing we both enjoy but for some reason have never done together in our three years is go wine tasting. We’ve tasted at home, or at dinner, but not gone to a winery and just enjoyed a leisurely tasting. So I thought, “Hey! I could surprise him with a trip to French Lick!” I haven’t had a nice glass of French Lick Catawba in ages, and that sounds just lovely. And I hear their cafe’ (which is new since I was there) is really good.

And then I suddenly realized… I don’t know if it’s safe to take Antonio there.

My dad’s family is from Orange County, Indiana… home of French Lick Springs and the incredible West Baden Springs Resort. If you’re from down there, you call it “the Valley”. Springs Valley, to be more precise. My grandpa was born there. My great-grandparents both worked for the hotel’s original owner, Mr. Sinclair, back before the Great Depression… my great-grandmother was a maid who used to babysit the Sinclair children, and my great-grandfather was a livery driver who , as family legend holds, used to drive for Al Capone when he came to town.

But there’s a darker side to Springs Valley and Orange County. The side that was – and still is – a stronghold of the Klan. My big family secret is that I am only a few generations descended from a grand wizard of the KKK in Orange County. We don’t talk about it, OBVIOUSLY. It’s not something we’re proud of.

What I am very proud of, however, is how my parents made a conscious decision to raise my sister and me differently. To raise us to be accepting and to understand that race does not define a person. My dad’s interest in anthropology and my mom being raised by someone who grew up in a multi-ethnic community in Canada went a long way toward their own personal views of being people who embrace diversity, and passed along those values to us. My dad and his brother have both deliberately broken a generational “curse”, so to speak, in raising children (me, my sister, and two of my cousins) to be open-minded, accepting people who work with, love, and befriend people from all walks of life. (My two cousins are both doing amazing work in the areas of LGBTQ+ advocacy and Native American advocacy, but that’s another post.)

But down in Orange County, the Klan still lives. Even some of my extended family never outgrew those old, dangerous ways of thinking. Lots of people down home still believe in racial segregation and white supremacy. They’re not people I’m close to, but I’ve been to family reunions in the past and you hear things. Back before I knew how to speak up.

I can take Antonio somewhere else. We can come up with plenty of other places to celebrate, to spend time together. I can even think of a dozen other wineries nearby where we could do the same thing. But three years in, this is the first time I’ve run into a situation of not feeling safe to take him somewhere. I am so insulated from this in a way, because my home here in Bloomington is so diverse and all-embracing (for the most part). That’s the beauty of living in this literal liberal mecca in the middle of red Indiana… Antonio and I never feel unsafe together in downtown or out-and-about. But that’s not true all around us.

Bloomington is a bubble. Sure, we joke about “never pulling over in Martinsville”, but the fact of the matter is that this is real. Especially under the current administration. I sometimes recheck Antonio’s wallet just to make sure that his US passport ID card is still there, even though I know he never takes it out… just as peace of mind for me. I worry sometimes when he’s out flying, because while he may be relatively safe in an airport, we don’t always know what lies outside the terminal for a commuter crew. I worry that someone with an agenda may pull him over and never stop to determine that he’s a naturalized American before something terrible happens.

I don’t have any answers for this tonight. I just needed to write. For all the horrible atrocities taking place in our country tonight, for all the scared children ripped away from their parents at our southern border, for all the black and brown people being murdered in the streets… I see you. I know that my issue of where to go on date night is nothing compared to what you are facing just for being alive in what-used-to-be-America. I’m so sorry. This is not what we are meant to be. I promise to keep using my voice to fight for you, and to keep my eyes open. We can’t go back to this being normal.

In the meantime, I’ll be coming up with a new idea for date night.
I can buy my French Lick wine at Kroger. I can never buy another Antonio.

On Behalf of a Grateful Nation…

Ed. Note: This piece was written both as catharsis on the loss of my grandfather, and as ethnographic research paper for Dr. Marvin Sterling‘s ANTH-E393 World Fiction and Cultural Anthropology class at Indiana University. It is both biographical and fictional. 

The sky is a brilliant blue. There’s a warm breeze drifting up over the hill from the river below. The beauty of this late summer day betrays the solemnity of such an occasion. I’ve always thought so. Some might complain about duty in the cold or rain or snow; to me, it always felt like the weather should match the mood. It’s as if the warmth of the sun is a slap in the face to a family in mourning.  Continue reading

On Ma’s porch swing…

Today was a busy day. But I couldn’t let it pass by without taking a moment to remember my “Ma.”

My paternal grandmother would have been 85 today. She left us almost eight years ago… the unexpected complication of a perforated ulcer. I had already been thinking about her birthday, four days before mine, for several days. This morning, my Facebook memories brought up a story I’d forgotten. 

A couple years back, the Munchkin and I were having a discussion about cicadas. He finds them creepy. I told him that, while I don’t like the way they sometimes divebomb one’s head, and I do agree that the empty shed skins are creepy, that I love the sound they make… 

Hearing the sound of cicadas takes me back to my childhood. When I was younger, every summer I would spend a week in Southern Indiana with my paternal grandparents, Ma and Pa. There was usually a trip to Holiday World, hitting golf balls into the back field with Pa, walks in Cox’s Woods, visiting great-aunts, and sometimes a drive down to Springs Valley and to the tiny hamlet about ten miles down the road where my grandfather grew up, to be spoiled with a trip to the old five-and-dime store. 

But in the evenings, we would sit on the front porch, eating ice cream, watching lightning bugs and listening to the cicadas. I remember one summer in particular when one of the 17-year cycles emerged… one evening the cicada song was so loud Ma and I couldn’t hear each other talking, though we were sitting next to each other on the porch swing. 
I got to know my father’s parents more in the last five years of their lives than I had in the previous twenty. You see, they did something remarkable for me. 

We live in the Bible Belt, and I grew up in two large families which both observe Christian faith. And although my parents, long divorced, were (and are) much more liberal in the ways of modern relationships, our extended families remain fairly conservative. So, when I became pregnant at age 23 with no husband, I thought for sure that my grandparents would disown me. I truly believed that I would lose them. I was so afraid, I couldn’t even tell them myself, leaning instead on my dad to break the news. 

A couple weeks later, I came home from work to find a bag on the front porch. Inside were groceries, gas money, and a sack full of baby onesies. And a note, scribbled on the back of a receipt: “Sorry we missed you. Ma and Pa” That was just the beginning. 

Throughout my pregnancy, the Munchkin’s early years, and through my divorce, my father’s parents were wonderful. They weren’t the emotionally distant old people I remembered growing up with. They were affectionate, warm, and doted on their only great-grandchild. They bought clothes and baby things. They helped with groceries when money was tight. They were never wealthy people, but they were generous. It was a surprising and wonderful gift they gave me, to be able to know them differently in their final years. 

This is one of my favorite pictures of my grandmother. Not because it’s wonderfully composed, but simply because this is how I remember her: sitting on the porch swing and caring for her family. I wish I, as well as my sister and cousins, had had more time with the woman she was in those last five years. But I will always treasure the time that we had, and how they didn’t turn their backs on me when I needed them. Whenever I hear cicadas, I remember them, and I smile. 

Happy birthday, Ma. Love you always. 

When a teacher passes on

Sometimes you meet someone who leaves an indelible mark on your life. Who teaches you something you carry with you forever.

I’ve been blessed in my life to have met several such teachers. One of which was my childhood priest, Father Ron.

I’ll never forget the first time I laid eyes on him… this larger-than-life Italian who drove into our small town on a Harley, wearing a leather jacket and smoking a pipe, shaking up everyone’s notion of what an Episcopal priest was “supposed” to look like. I was 7 years old… and his Pittsburgh-Italian accent, salt-and-pepper hair, love of photography, and complexity fascinated me even then. I used to cherish afternoons spent playing with his boys (the eldest the same age as me, the youngest the same age as my little sister) at the rectory, Saturday afternoons working around the parish hall, and spaghetti pitch-in dinners, watching him standing guard over his own made-from-scratch sauce until it was ‘perfecto’.

As I got older, I began to learn that behind that tough exterior was a deep and intelligent mind, a soul who truly understood both the struggles of humanity and the quest to connect to something higher. He taught me to question everything, to never accept the teachings of man without weighing it against what you know, the wisdom of your teachers, and the stirrings of that inner voice. He was a man who had stared hell in the face and carried on anyway… he was tenacious and compassionate. I have carried his lessons with me since childhood. Even now that I’m grown, he never seemed to change. He always seemed invincible. During my last visit, though too long ago, left me smiling at how he never changes… relaxed, sharp-witted, opinionated as ever. I have been trying to find some time to go down and visit again, to introduce Munchkin to the giant who had such an impact on me.

Sadly, Ron passed away from this world this week. As much as I am saddened, I know that his family is heartbroken. He was a loving father, husband, and grandpa. He was a wonderful teacher, listener, and friend… and the world is a little bit darker without him. Those of us who were lucky enough to have crossed paths with him are forever changed.

When someone who has such an impact on our lives passes on… when someone we felt was impervious becomes mortal… it leaves a hole. It doesn’t matter that as my life became busier and I moved away from my hometown that I no longer had the time to sit talking with him for hours. I could walk in the door at any time and it would feel like no time had passed at all. He was just that kind of guy. 

Ironically, I just ran into his youngest son out of the blue the other day. We talked for quite a while, reminiscing about our childhood memories, shadows of a time that was much easier… before tragedy struck their family more than once, before my parents divorced, before any of us grew up and had our children and started our own lives. We smiled, laughing over how Ron (now long-retired from the priesthood) never changed. He was as loud and opinionated and funny and stubborn as ever. A giant. Invincible. I told him to tell his dad I said hi, and that Munchkin and I would be down to visit soon. 

But sometimes ‘soon’ isn’t soon enough. 

Ron wasn’t one to dwell on “woulda, coulda, shoulda”. He would tell me not to be sorry for one second that I didn’t get to see him one more time. The last time we talked he told me how proud he was of me… of my photography (which meant a lot coming from him, a professional photographer before he became a priest), and of the way I was building a life for myself and raising my son. I guess that’s all I need to know, to carry in my heart. 

Still… I know that any time I catch the scent of pipe tobacco and freshly-stewing spaghetti sauce… I will think of him.

Rest easy, rabbi. You are loved.
*Vita mutatur, non tollitur.*

Me & Father Ron, when I graduated from high school. May 1999

Me & Father Ron, when I graduated from high school. May 1999