He would be her one and only child. She didn’t know that at the time she gave birth, but since she had thought twice about bringing him into the world, she suspected. Motherhood wasn’t anything she had ever dreamed about. She never played dolls as a child, and, as an adult, never had pangs of envy when other women she knew had announced pregnancies. She had only held a baby once or twice and couldn’t even remember the circumstances. She never really knew why she had gone through with this pregnancy, other than lacking the money for an abortion.
But when she saw his pink, wrinkly face and his tiny body, she felt a sudden connection and responsibility. She finally had a purpose: she would learn how to be a mother. This made her think things would change. He would make her life better, happier, softer. He would bring love to the house and make it a home. He would make them a family.
A nurse at the hospital gave her a book of baby names after discovering that she didn’t already have any names in mind. With momentary hope and care, she named him Nathan, meaning “a gift”. The nurse sensed that she was alone and completely unprepared, so she searched the hospital for some of the basics: extra diapers, blankets and bottles, a diaper bag, and a carrier to use as a car seat. The staff didn’t typically allow new mothers to leave alone, but, in her case, they just didn’t have another choice. So she drove herself and her new gift home from the hospital.
Her husband came home from who knew where a few days later. He never acknowledged his son. He neither spoke to him nor about him and he did everything he could to avoid being anywhere near him. He just didn’t want to look at him at all. He swore Nathan wasn’t his child, so he snubbed any of her attempts at association. Her bothersome pleading became just another excuse to use her as his punching bag.
Before Nathan, she had the schedule down pat. Mondays were always bad days at work, Fridays were nights of drunken stupors, Saturdays were hangovers, and Sundays were boring days with nothing better to do. She had come to expect it and wondered what she had done wrong when it didn’t. She always saw it coming and felt good about having the foresight to mentally prepare. She really wasn’t as stupid as he always said she was.
But she couldn’t schedule things as well with Nathan in the house – babies being so unpredictable. She had to hide his cries, his needs, and as he got older, his every movement. She started making sure Nathan was never in the same room with his father, because she ached, not for the beatings to stop, but for the schedule to return.
She loved her son, but he seemed to be making things harder for her.
Still, she lived with this man for six years, raising her son in fear. The boy heard and sometimes saw his mother get beaten every week of his life. He usually hid in his closet so his father wouldn’t remember he even existed – not that he did anyway.
Eventually, her husband started to spend more and more time away from home and, ultimately, left her for another woman. He simply forgot to divorce her.
When the food ran out and the landlord demanded payment, she walked to a tiny church not too far away and knocked on the door. The woman who answered let her in and offered her some comfort by recommending that she apply for assistance at the local social services office. She also said that the church would add her to the prayer list that Sunday. The woman let her use the office phone to call and make an appointment for the following day.
The next morning, she put Nathan on the school bus and walked to the closest city bus stop, three miles away. At the welfare office, she discussed her situation with a caseworker named Jane who actually offered her a job. They needed some office help and Jane decided that she could work part-time while Nathan was in school. Jane referred her to an apartment complex nearby which was on the bus line and wouldn’t require a change of schools. Jane arranged to have some of her and Nathan’s things moved and found some donated furniture.
The apartment wasn’t really fit for stray dogs. A few windows were broken out, paint was peeling off the walls, the floors had unidentifiable stains she tried to clean but never could completely remove, the kitchen cabinets were full of chewed up holes and rat droppings, and the water from the taps was a color she had never seen before. But, it would have to do, because she barely earned enough money to pay the subsidized rent and feed herself and her son.
Over the next months, she didn’t look for a better job or a better apartment. The thoughts never really occurred to her.
And, after a year of waiting to see if her husband would come back to her, she finally filed for divorce. She thought about trying to get child support, but she never got around to starting the process. Jane thought about forcing the issue, but decided that it wasn’t her business. He would never pay a dime to help the son, that, in his eyes, he never had.
Luckily, just a few months later, she met a new man. After knowing him for three weeks, she moved herself and her son into his rented house. They all lived together for six years - six more miserable years. Though this man didn’t beat her up, he had so many obsessive rules and mental problems that she started longing for the dependability of physical torture.
He worked nights so he insisted that the house be in full darkness during the day. He duct-taped foil to all the windows and ordered that no lights should be turned on. He didn’t like noise much either, so there were no telephones or televisions. He had a car, but she couldn’t use it. It took just a few weeks for him to decide that it was too good for her.
She had one living relative: a sister who lived about 500 miles away. They had always enjoyed writing to each other over the years, but, when he started reading her mail and forbidding any communication, her sister eventually gave up trying to get through to her and never wrote again.
And so, every day, she came home from work and waited, sitting as motionless as possible on the couch, for Nathan to get home from school. She had to meet him at the door to make sure he didn’t make any noise. She learned how to cook meals according to his schedule (dinner was breakfast and breakfast was dinner) and without making a sound. Morning after morning, she and Nathan got ready for work and school in silent darkness so his sleeping wouldn’t be disturbed.
Soon after Nathan turned ten, Jane, her caseworker told her about a better job. It was full-time, still on the bus line, and paid more money. She didn’t like the idea, because Nathan would be alone in the house after school and she just knew he’d make noise. But her caseworker had been insistent. He was old enough to know the house rules, after all. She grudgingly interviewed and was surprised when she was offered the job.
With more money coming in, her boyfriend quit his job and stayed in the house sleeping most of the time. The only time he left the house was on her paydays. She signed her checks over to him and he gave her a weekly allowance, but it was never enough for household groceries and Nathan’s school lunches. She cooked huge meals at home and hoped her son didn’t get too hungry. Nathan never complained to anyone but himself.
And then, two years later, this man left her, too. She wondered why but had no way to contact him to find out. She stayed in his house and paid rent until his lease ran out. Nobody said a word so she stayed and just kept paying. She took the foil off the windows and got a phone and a television. She tried to contact her sister but the number had been disconnected and she didn't think to write. She never heard a word from the landlord when she met the next man and moved out.
He was 50 years old and had never been married. They met in the parking lot of the grocery store. She talked about him at work as women normally do, but nobody knew of him. They asked about his family, but she didn’t have much information. He never talked about anyone, other than an occasional casual mention of his mother who had died when he was in his twenties. It was surprising in their tiny town that nobody could place him at all. She took him to a company function once to show him off, but nobody seemed to like him. When she later prodded, they reluctantly told her there was something about him that just didn’t seem right.
But he had money. He had worked for the phone company since he was 18 years old and could retire anytime with full benefits. He paid cash for his house years ago. Finally, she had met someone who could support her and Nathan.
Six weeks after meeting him, she moved herself and her 12-year-old son into his house in the woods. It was so far in the country, their mail was held at the downtown post office because there essentially was no address for any delivery route. Luckily, 911 dispatch never had to find her.
Then, three weeks later, she quit her job. It was her only experience with money and she planned to enjoy every minute of it. He gave her money for lasik eye surgery, frequent makeovers at the mall, weekly massages and a new wardrobe. He also gave her an American Express card. They married about a month later.
And then the real trouble with Nathan started.
She never asked why, but her son and new husband didn’t get along. Her former co-workers reassuringly told her that he probably wasn't adjusting well to people being in his house after so many years living alone. They tried to be positive because she was so happy. He just didn’t seem to like Nathan very much at all.
He also didn’t like his new wife out of his sight for a minute. He was so jealous, so protective, only wanting her for himself. She thought he was so sweet and she felt more loved than she ever had in her entire life. She didn’t want to think about anything bad. If she thought too much, she might think about how hard things had been since Nathan came along. And she certainly didn’t want to think about her son ruining this wonderful new life for her.
She had spent so many unhappy years with no money and she vowed never to live like that again, no matter what. She was finally happy, able to afford things she wanted and living with a man who obviously cared so much about her. She just wanted to keep her husband happy, too, and, if that meant certain tiny sacrifices from her son, that was the way it had to be.
Despite her attempts, his complaints started almost immediately after they married. He had a long list of house rules and got upset at the slightest deviance. He had rules about how to fold clothes, how and when to cook, how and when to vacuum, how to eat at the dinner table. And he had written procedures for stocking the kitchen pantry, washing the car, mowing the lawn, making the beds, cleaning bathrooms. But she made sure all his demands were met. It was his house, after all, and she had no intention of leaving.
Buying things for Nathan wasn't easy either. Her husband had to approve any purchases for the boy. He gave her money for groceries with directions that it was for the two of them. He insisted that her son, at age 13, was old enough to get a job and fend for himself. He complained if he saw Nathan looking for extra snacks in the kitchen, doing too much laundry, taking much too long showers or asking his mother for anything. Nathan didn’t know what to do, so he tried his best to avoid him altogether. But his best wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t long before Nathan was moved into the attic to live.
The attic had its own door leading outside and stairs to the back patio. So, the annoyance of seeing him coming and going to and from school was not a problem anymore for her husband. They quickly installed a small kitchen and bathroom, eliminating the need for him to come downstairs at all. She would sneak her son food from the grocery store as often as she could without her husband noticing. Nathan learned to ask for extra helpings from the lunch lady at school, cook boxed macaroni and cheese and hot dogs and ate alone every night. Nobody cleaned for him, did his laundry, bought him clothes or shoes, helped him get to or from school, or even asked how he was doing. He still never complained to anyone.
The day he started his freshman year in high school, his mother and her husband were on vacation in Hawaii. Luckily, he was old enough to get himself there the first few days without any help. And he got a job after school to support himself in the attic.
When he graduated high school, she mailed a few announcements to make sure he would get some gifts, but he attended the ceremony alone.
The day he turned eighteen, Nathan walked to the recruiting office, signed the paperwork and left for Marine boot camp. He never talked to his mother again. He did not return her phone calls or letters and she gave up after a year of trying. As usual, she never really knew why.
And so, she lived in the woods with her husband. They stopped going to the tiny church that had helped her a lifetime ago. Then, they stopped going to the mall, to the grocery store, to the movies, or anywhere in town. They essentially disappeared. Initially, a few people from church and former jobs checked on her every so often. She snappily responded to everyone that asked that "things are fine". The questions became such a bother for her and people felt like their concerns weren’t welcome, so they stopped calling. And it didn’t take long to unintentionally forget about her.
Over the coming years, Nathan married and had three children. He was an excellent father. When his kids asked about their grandmother, he lied and said he was raised by his father, who, he lied some more, had died admirably in combat. He told them that he never knew his mother.
Her husband died twelve years later. It wasn’t long before the house became overgrown with weeds and grass. It had always been hard to detect from the street, but now it was barely visible at all. Eventually, it just seemed to disappear. With her in it.
Decades and decades passed. Nathan’s 40-year-old granddaughter ended up moving her family onto the property after she received a notice demanding back taxes. He would have hated these people taking over his land, but, if only on paper, they had been and always would be considered family.
She spent a full year demolishing the house and rebuilding it from scratch. When they jack hammered the foundation of the house, they found a dirt cellar below the kitchen. An old rusty lock was still attached to the shredded, termite ridden boards of what had once been the door. Inside, there was an old-fashioned hot plate, a small refrigerator, and a lamp still plugged into an extension cord hanging from an outlet in the kitchen above. There was a tiny table covered in cobwebs and dirt, and a thread-bare mattress used by generations of varmints. The undetectable blood stains had long since blended in with the Georgia red clay. When they looked more closely, they found an old Bible, resting between two mattress springs, still open to the passage she was reading. Yet, nobody would ever know she had even been there.
As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you. (Isaiah 66:13a)
-- Karen Rutherford, March 2006
-- ~ 2,800 words