When I turned twelve years old, I was excited for many reasons. Instead of attending a Sunday school class with all the kids eleven and younger, I could now attend the classes with all the older girls. I was officially allowed to wear pantyhose, have pierced ears and although I still wasn't allowed to shave my legs, I did get to finally choose my own hairstyle. I felt so grown up walking into church that Sunday morning in my wrap around skirt, my sister’s cool coat with the detachable fur collar and my "suntan" colored pantyhose! Eric was a much older boy of thirteen, and he had a crush on me. He smiled as we passed each other in the hall. It was a glorious start to my year of being the grown up age of twelve.
Hours later, as church was getting out, I walked into the foyer and I saw my parents talking with the parents of a young family. Our families had become friends over the past few months. They were young and had been stationed at the Army base near our town. They had three small children and as I walked over and stood next to my mother, I smiled at their young daughter. The adults stopped talking and I felt everyone’s gaze upon me. I quickly learned that my mother had just agreed to have me babysit for them. The plan was for me to ride home with the young family, instead of the half hour drive time to pick me up at my house. I waved goodbye to my family as I got into the backseat of the old station wagon. I remember thinking of games I was going to play with the children later. I liked babysitting but I had never watched these kids before so I was wanting to do a good job. I had no idea I wouldn’t be babysitting at all that day.
Something felt a bit off right from the start. The mood, as I sat at the kitchen table with their three children, was uncomfortable and I didn’t know why. Now, of course, I know what it was. Even at the tender age of twelve, my spirit was telling me that something was not right. Had I known better, I would have told my mother that I didn’t want to go with that family. But, like most young girls, I trusted my parent’s judgment and pushed my doubts aside. Why was I feeling weird about tending a few children? Maybe somehow, something was trying to tell me the truth. The truth was, there was no babysitting to be done. That was never the plan.
When I got to the house, we had a quick lunch and then the kids all took a nap. The wife went to lie down and as she passed by me, on her way to her bedroom, she gave me a look that terrified me. For the first time in my life, I felt horror and panic from a simple glance. I remember the feeling I had when his wife stared at me. It felt like she hated me and I wondered why. I heard the bedroom door shut and I found myself alone in the living room with the woman’s husband. He too, had an expression on his face that sent chills down my body. I felt uneasy, like I was a big bowl of ice cream and he was holding nothing but spoons.
I found myself three hours later off the side of a dirt road, with torn clothes listening to this man go over the pros and cons of ending my life. Things may have ended quite differently if I had panicked. The interesting thing is that I felt myself get completely calm. I felt like someone was sitting beside me in the car and they had a big strong arm around me. I felt every bit of my twelve year old strength bubbling up to the surface. That strength is what talked the man into taking me home where I belonged instead of out in the field. I convinced him I had no intention of saying anything to anyone about what had happened that day. I told him I didn't think it was a big deal and he believed me. He turned the car around and he drove me home. The invisible arm around me didn’t leave until we pulled into the driveway. I hurried out of the car but to my surprise, the man did the same.
This man was so sure of himself that he walked me to my door, came in and even talked with my father about having me babysit again. I, on the other hand, walked straight back to my mother who was sitting in her bed and told her we needed to call the police.
I went through more over the next few months than I care to explain. I talked to policemen and lawyers, judges and social workers. I was nervous and scared, but I was resolved to be strong and stop this man from hurting any other girls. I had to do and say lots of things I didn't want to do but my parents kept being supportive and reminding me I should be proud of doing the right thing.
After it was all said and done, he was discharged from the military, was sentenced to prison and the week after his sentencing when I was back at church, his wife walked up to me in the hall and in front of everyone, slapped my across the face and said "You ruined my life".
This one incident definitely changed me, but I am referring to being changed in a different way. It was the following year, when I was thirteen, when I stopped looking at the world through rose colored glasses.
My thirteenth year we moved to a new state to live closer to my mother’s parents. I know grandparents say they don't have favorites but sometimes, I think they do. I adored my grandfather. He was funny and kind. He would take us fun places and buy us little candies even when grandma said he shouldn't. He taught us to play Canasta, and he would sometimes slip us a card under the table and help us out because he thought it was funny to frustrate grandma. He was a big, wonderful jolly kind of soul that everyone loved especially his family. We felt safe and happy with him.
Then, on the day before Easter my sister and I were invited to sleepover. When we arrived at our grandparent’s house, my sister and I were handed a big bag of clothes one of our cousins had outgrown. Mixed in with the jeans and t-shirts were a few fancy nightgowns. As far as we were concerned, we had just been given ball gowns! We felt like princesses but when it was time for bed, my little sister wanted to go home.
I waved goodbye when my mother picked her up and was about to go to bed when I heard my grandfather call my name. He wanted to see my “princess” gown. Thirty minutes later I was down in the basement, in shock, in tears, ripping the nightgown off and putting on my regular clothes. I left the house in the middle of the night and walked home. I had just experienced sexual abuse by my own grandfather, someone I looked up to. I wondered if maybe it was my fault for wearing something I thought made me look pretty.
Just like before, when I arrived home I went straight up the stairs and told my mother everything. She didn’t say much other than telling me we were going to confront my grandfather in the morning. I couldn't sleep at all, and as the sun was coming up I was trying to picture how I was going to handle testifying against my grandfather. We drove the short few blocks to his house and I began to feel that invisible arm around me again. My mother and I walked in and sat down on the sofa in the living room. I listened as my mother explained what I had told her. My mother had almost finished her speech when my grandfather walked in.
He looked terrible and sad. My grandmother told me that she knew what young girls were like "these days" so I probably ask for it. I remember thinking that maybe I was partially responsible because of what I had worn and I wondered, is feeling pretty “asking for it? My grandmother thought so. Before I had a chance to defend myself my grandfather started yelling at my grandma. He really let her have it and then he apologized to me. He walked off and two seconds later he was back in the living room with his shotgun. He told my grandmother that if she blamed anyone but him, he would kill her and then himself. She shut up, and we left.
I hadn't even made it to the car sitting there in the driveway when my mother grabbed me by the neck and said "You are NEVER to tell anyone about this. Never, ever or I will say you are lying." And true to her word, that is just what she did. She lied, and lied, and then lied again.
It was my own mother's words that hurt me most. The phrase "blood is thicker than water" made complete sense that day and I quickly realized it was his blood, not mine. She was on his side this time and I was an army of one. It was years later at his funeral that I looked down into a casket and whispered "I forgive you". I walked back to my seat, with a sister on each side of me and noticed a white haired woman I used to call grandma glaring at me.
When I think about how typical this scenario is I get really mad. How many girls out there are silenced because of guilt, loyalty and repercussions? What would you do if you were that mother? These men assaulted my body, but my mother’s attitude assaulted my heart and my respect for her. Parents are supposed to put their children first. The job of a parent is to protect, guide and teach through example while providing a home that is a safe haven from the evils of the world. This is what I believed then, and still to this day believe. I remember thinking that if all these things are what parents did, I had no parents. Nothing I could think of excused my mother’s behavior. Nothing except selfishness. I felt battered, but far from broken. I knew I was on my own. I would parent myself. None of these people could damage was my spirit and it was my spirit that was boldly and confidently telling me that I deserved more than what I had been given.
Mahatma Gandhi said, and I quote: “Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will”. I think you have got to have faith to truly have an indomitable will. I held tight to the belief that God has a plan for me and he will help me through anything if I let Him. I had indomitable will to overcome and survive the trials that could easily break me. There I was a girl of only thirteen, vowing to judge others by their actions instead of their words. I became super protective of my siblings. I felt broken but rebuilt myself with much stronger materials. I believe each of us can do the same no matter what it is that tries to break us.
The moment I heard my mother say the word NEVER, I became my own parent and resolved to do a few things. I would never rely on anyone but myself. I would only trust in what my own spirit whispered to me. I vowed to never let anyone betray me. They would never know much they hurt me. And, most of all, I resolved to take every single bad experience in my life and turn the pain into a strength. The strength to tell my story and to hopefully help someone else. It is possible to take the bad things that happen to us and learn from them. Wisdom, after all, is just healed pain.
So whatever you are going through right now at this very moment, hang on and keep up your faith and your will power. Each time we survive, we take a step towards becoming the person we were meant to be. On that Easter morning, many years ago, I left my Grandfather’s home a changed young woman.
Time turns all little girls into women but it is our spirit and determination through the times we struggle, that will define the kind of woman we become. I was thirteen years old the day my world changed but I was also thirteen years old when I knew I strong enough to get through those changes.