(by E. Jonus)
It felt like we had the world’s smallest family. I was always envious of spirited, plentiful clans dining alongside our three-generation table of four, comprised only of women: my grandmother, my mom, myself, and The Beast.
Like the elephant in the room, no one broached the subject of my older sister’s behavior, woven tightly into the fabric of our family. Sure, we had moments, and the moments could last for several hours, filled with laughter and joy, perhaps surrounding the baking of a rhubarb pie, made with stalks of rhubarb from my grandmother's enormous garden. I loved to walk its handmade paths and help pick berries and veggies, creating a love for vegetables that is still a passion for me. Ironically, my mother leaned toward fresh organic food—physically healthy, emotionally anything but. But inevitably the devil would rear her ugly head behind the façade of long, thick, perfectly coiffed hair.
“She’s in one of her moods,” Mom would offer hesitantly, as indication that she needed comfort from the scratches and bruises she sustained, and as forewarning of imminent danger. She was supposed to protect me, but she was somewhat checked out from parenting—the recipient of the same abuse that I was.
It was often considered taboo to talk about abuse in those days. Only 20 years later did I venture to share my secret with my closest friend, and she stated flatly with no judgment, “What you mean? Cathy was...physical? I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
My parents divorced when I was six years old, and divorce itself felt taboo. Maybe three out of my 30 Catholic school classmates had divorced parents. Years later, my mom told me that my sister had been teased about having divorced parents. I’ve always had a fascination with psychology—a curiosity about why people behave in certain ways. When I started reading about the children of divorce, I found page after page of a-ha moments. Early promiscuity. Oh, that’s me. Early drug and alcohol use, sometimes masked as “rites of passage.” Ugh, that’s me too.
My sister’s abuse started about four years after the divorce. It was constant and repeated. I believe this kind of abuse leads to more abuse—at least it did for me. When I was 14 years old, my Catholic high school guidance counselor kissed me outside his office—stuck his creepy 40-years senior tongue in my mouth. I didn’t tell a single soul. But neither my mother nor I told anyone about my sister’s abuse either—not even my husband when I married at age 35 (and divorced ten years later).
The police were called to our home many times. I recall one of the officers saying, “The next time we’re called, someone is going to jail.” I never wanted them to leave, but they always did, and we stopped reporting the incidents of abuse. It is interesting now that some states are considering enlisting psychiatric assistance when the police respond to domestic violence calls. It makes so much sense to me. Sure, my mom and I went to family therapy, which was a big expense for a single mother, but we both lied to the therapist out of fear for what might happen when we got home. My sister didn't see a therapist until much later, and various medications were prescribed, but whatever disorder unleashed her violence was never clear.
As a latchkey kid, I found refuge after school at the homes of friends and neighbors, while my sister made dozens of calls to them, making demands that never seemed to be satisfied. Even the dental office where my mom worked as a hygienist was not spared.
When Cathy was 18, my mother finally demanded that she leave home. My sister and I are estranged today. I tried to keep a relationship with her on and off over the course of our lives, until recently when I wanted to send a message that enough was enough. Our mom couldn't really let go, as I suspect a mom always wants to think the best of her children. After some years, her heart softened, and she allowed Cathy to return home. It was only a short time before her “outbursts” were once again too much to endure, and Mom kicked her out again, but they continued to see each other.
My mother and I achingly tried to support each other, long after we stopped trying to find a solution. As my mom approached 72 years old, I pleaded with her to call the police when The Beast would loom in her kitchen, demanding “Sit down! You’re not listening to me!” She would dig into our mother’s slender five-foot-one frame as Mom paced the floor, contemplating her escape. A few hours later, Mom would arrive at my home—no words, no packed bag, no shoes, only her car keys in her hand. My seven-year-old son was thrilled for a visit with “Grandma Kung-Foo (his nickname for her since it rhymed with Sue). “Can she stay overnight?” he asked “Please? She said she’ll read me two stories.” Mom and I smiled at each with a deep-in-our-bones gratitude. We both knew she was okay for now, and relief filled the air as we opened a bottle of wine, although the worry was ever-present.
Five years later, Mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The doctor passed along the official diagnosis as if stating that she’d had a ham sandwich for lunch. I was told, "Let us know when you feel your mom is at a point where she needs medication in an effort to slow the progression of the disease." I wanted to shout, "Now. Or actually, six months ago."
Mom is in an assisted living residence.The Beast still visits her, and only now that our mom is a shell of the person she once was do the two of them get along. My sister can't abuse her any more because there are people around 100 percent of the time. For Mother’s Day last year, I took our beloved dog Spike for a “window visit” with Mom, following pandemic precautions, and we FaceTimed all last year, but now I will be vaccinated and able to visit in person. She still knows my name. Our secret will be buried until I share it by writing about it. While I couldn’t stop what happened to us, I’m not going to stop until I can make a difference in someone else’s life.
E. Jonus speaks to youth groups to elevate awareness of domestic violence, and supports Sojourner Peace Center as a resource in Wisconsin. She is working on a memoir.
2 c. chopped rhubarb
1/2 c. sugar
optional: sliced strawberries
Combine rhubarb and sugar in a large saucepan over medium-high heat.
Reduce heat and stir frequently until tender and slightly thickened, about 5 - 10 minutes.
Add optional strawberries.