Memoir – Chapter 2 – Love

“Nothing’s perfect, the world’s not perfect, but it’s there for us, trying the best it can. That’s what makes it so damn beautiful.” – Roy Mustang

Full Metal Alchemist

His metal twinkled, dressed in all black he loomed above me, a frightening specter. All glinting silver earrings, chains and black combat boots. 

Mom, My older brother Sammy and I were singing in the street in Germany. I was 4 years old and when it was time for me to have my solo, mom would pick someone out of the crowd and then whisper in my ear and point them out. I would then step up to that person and sing for them. But this time I was scared. “Mom, he looks scary, please, I don’t want to sing for him.” And I tried as hard as I could to hold the tears in. 

Mom laughed her twinkly sparkly laugh and smiled gently at me, “just sing for him honey, he needs the lord’s love”. So I did. I stepped up to him in the crowd and pushed through my fear and sang for him and held my tears in. When it was over a part of me felt proud that I showed that man, who nobody else could love, Jesus’s love by singing him my song. I was too young to FF (Flirty Fishing) but I was already being used for the cause in my own way. 

Love was the central theme in our life. We believed in love, that was our mission. To be missionaries and samples of God’s love. Since the time I was born it was pumped into my head. 

There was a period of time, my earliest years, when the singing group consisted of Mom, Sammy and Me. Kerosene lamp hanging overhead, dad would stay in the van and tend to John who was 3 years old, barely a toddler. Mom and Sammy played guitar and the three of us sang together in the streets throughout Italy, Greece, Germany finally ending up in Austin, Texas where Janina was born. 

Mom was an island girl, born in Aruba to an affluent family. Her family had money but she had a rough childhood from what she used to tell us. She was a teen (15-16) when she joined The Family in The Caribbean. It was during this time, in Jamaica, that she met Dad who was smitten with her and asked her to marry him. She refused. Shortly thereafter she returned to her home and left The Family.

 While back home she enrolled in college, was getting her life back together, and fell in love with someone who was already in a relationship with someone else, and became pregnant this person. Mom would tell us the story about how she was pregnant with Sammy, at the age of 17, and for whatever reason, attended the wedding of Sammy’s father as he married someone else. Pregnant with his child. 

It was during this time that a Family initiative called “The Searchers” began. It was where Grandpa, the cult’s founder, sent forth groups of people who were designated and trained as “The Searchers”. They were tasked to go on a hunt for those who had left the family and use various methods to seduce them back into the family. Love bombing being one of them. They were to tell these backsliders that the Lord still loves them, The Family will welcome them back with open arms. These searchers would give these backsliders a second chance to dedicate their life to The Family. 

A group of searchers showed up in Aruba and found my mom. She was a single mom at the time with Sammy. They succeeded in loving her back in. 

I can only imagine how the conversation went. They hugged and kissed her and showed her so much support and said, “Look at  how these people are treating you with no respect, if you were in the family this would have never happened. We love you and would never use you and cast you aside like this. The man you love married someone else and doesn’t care about you the way we do.” Whatever it was that they said worked. She rejoined The Family. 

She bumped into my Dad again in the islands somewhere. He asked her to marry him once more and this time she said yes. 

Sammy was 8 years old when I was born. Mom and Dad were visiting mom’s family in Aruba and were living in a used car lot. I was born into a van with no wheels. It was perched on Cinder blocks and dad had turned it into a camper. (Are you seeing the trend now? It started all the way back then). Mom’s dad, our grandfather disowned her sometime later. As an adult I was able to establish connection with him and we exchanged emails and he told me about it.

Mom is feminine, happy, sweet and free. I have memories of her brushing her long black hair and rubbing in the coconut oil. She would twist it around and around and then wrap it up and around itself into a bun. She was always indulging in this hobby or that one of hers, and dad made sure she had everything and anything she needed if it was within our means. She taught herself stenography so she could write down the Lord’s prophecies as they were given to us, as an example of one of her hobbies. But the biggest hobby of hers was health and fitness, and she passed down that obsession to me. 

One thing you have to understand, as I write this, is that I love my parents and miss them everyday. Recently, I was chatting with my mom on a messenger app and it always goes the same. It always starts with the love bombing. 

“Hi Sue, we miss you very much.”

“You’ll always be our little girl.”

“We really love you Sue.”

I pick up the scraps they throw my way and I bite my tongue. But the internal argument continues. I have vowed not to rock the boat. What happened was in the past. I should be past it by now. Just shut up and be the bigger man. They did what they did because they didn’t know any better. They thought they were helping you. They did what they thought was best at the time given what they knew. 

But the facade doesn’t last long. I can’t hold it in any longer so I blurt out, 

Me: “If you loved me, if you loved us so much, then why did you keep us entrapped, and beat us like slaves until we broke away from you, violently I might add. Why did you physically abuse us?”.

Mom: Everybody at that time was spanking their kids. My dad used to spank me too. 

Me: He drew blood from your body with how hard he beat you? Why can’t you just apologize and acknowledge what you did was wrong? How could you let Dad do those things to us?”

Mom: “How can you say these things to me. You were my best friend. You were my workout buddy. I’m sorry if you feel hurt about the past.”

Ahh, the first glint of the knife. The first tiniest pin prick. Nothing too crazy, she’s just testing here. But she’s not wrong. Working out was pretty much one of the only things I was allowed to do. And so I was obsessed with it. 

At various hotels we stayed in we were always working out together in the gym. I would read about Arnolds bodybuilding routine’s, I would buy women’s weight lifting magazines and study them like crazy. Before weight lifting for women was a thing, I weight lifted.

Even though she had 10 kids she was always in shape and in good health. I remember when we lived in Hawaii I was 3 years old or so at this point, she gave me a barbie exercise book as a gift. That’s when I started working out. She worked out for as long as I can remember and I exercised with her. 

But mom, she was devoted to Dad. She thought he was a man of God. She did whatever he said. She never tolerated any of us talking back to him. Us kids knew she was smart. Smarter than dad we thought, so we never understood why she just always did what dad said when surely there was another way. They were a true team. They upheld each other, loved each other. 

But no, my best friend? That role went to John for sure. We were only a year and a half apart and we shared the same experience growing up. If mom was my best friend, she was one that you couldn’t tell absolutely anything to. We learned from an early age not to entrust her with anything. When I was around 10 I tried to really talk to her about how I was really feeling about things. But whether feelings or thoughts, she would pretend to empathize and listen and then she would go straightaway and tell dad. So that was a dead end.

Whenever people would take pictures of us they could see the love and happiness in mom and dad’s eyes. Wow, they thought, they really are a loving family. Mom would witness to whoever would approach us in between our sets. She would speak softly and lovingly to them about how Jesus is a loving God who just wants us to be happy here in this world. She was so affectionate with them. She would place her hand on their arm gently. 

The family had waged war on the traditional church, we were God’s endtime army tasked with the mission of spreading the message of God’s love to the world and mom took this very seriously.

Writing about mom is very hard and confusing for me. She was all of the trappings of a mothers love without the actual effects. Gentle sweetness, whispering to you, and guiding you. But to do what? To strip away each sheith of dignity, each defense, one by one, until the full length of the knife is revealed.

Me: “Mom, we needed a mother, a parent, not a best friend!”

Mom: “How could you say these things to me, I’m your mother. You know in some countries they cut your hand off for disrespecting your parents.” A brief view of the knife and then – Dad jumps into the chat. “Susan, this is Dad, you made your mother cry. How can you be so mean to your mother. You all were naughty children who needed training.”

Me: Training your kid is breaking their finger? Not letting them have relationships or friends? You guys were shitty parents.”

Dad: “Why don’t you just move on. You’re going to die old and alone if you continue this way. My aunt Edna died an old crazy lady. and Oh, I forgot. You were a bad parent too. We are the same, you and I. You are truly my daughter”

This cuts particularly deep. For a brief period of time I had custody of the middle kids, when the youngest were too young for me to take as well. I couldn’t  handle it and eventually we all split up. So yes, I had failed. But I was just a sister trying my best. Should the same judgments be applied upon me as them? Because I attempted to shoulder the burden, does that mean their sins have been passed down to me along with the burdens?

My heart is racing at this point, should I push the argument? To what end? 

My only saving grace, the only thing that helps me is knowing that I’m miles away from them. They can reveal the knife. They can prod me and attach me psychologically and emotionally, but they can’t hurt me physically anymore. Even though us kids got broken bones, we still have our lives intact, even though Dad used to say that “He brought us into this life, he could, and probably would, take us out.” And he tried. He really tried. But I digress, this was supposed to be the chapter about mom. 

When I got my first period when I was 11 or 12 it was when we were living in a Bus. I cracked the door to the porto-potty booth and called for help. Dad showed up, 

“Dad, can you please get mom.” 

Mom arrived, a suspicious look on her face. 

“Mom, I’m bleeding.”

She said to wait and she returned a time later. She tossed a pack of panty liners onto my lap and walked off. There was no discussion about it. There was no explanation. I had heard about it from some other family girls that we lived with in New Jersey once, when I was about 7. They were looking forward to it. It meant they were women. I lived in fear of it, and when it finally came I was devastated. 

How was I going to manage having a period and living in a bus or van without running water? It was already so humiliating having to poop in paper bags when we lived in vans that didn’t have a porto-potty booth. Now I was going to add blood to it? Whatever what happened I would need to procure period supplies and at the very least always need to have toilet paper. It was one of the most horrifying moments of my life.

From that moment on, mom never asked me whether or not it was my period and if I had all supplies needed. Henceforth I would steal money out of the basket and find a way to slip off and buy my own pads undetected. I didn’t know the difference between panty liners and pads. I learned for myself that panty liners, although cheap, were not what you use when your flow is heavy.  For the most part I just used toilet paper which after years of trial and error I had perfected a system of how to fold, wrap and place the toilet paper in my panties for the most protection. I tried tampons once and mom saw a tampon floating in a toilet that I had used when she went in after me into the stall during our break from singing. When she came out of the stall she applied her lipstick in the mirror and said in her sweet sing-songy voice, “You shouldn’t use tampons, they are bad for you.” She slid the lipstick back into its chamber and rubbed her lips together, spreading it in an even coat.

I lowered my eyes and looked away and nodded my head in acknowledgement. There was no more talk of it. 

Now that I think about it, I don’t know what Janina did when it was her period. I never heard a peep about it. But when it was Caroline’s time, I tried to be there for her and provide pads for her. Not as much as I should have, but I did what I could so she wouldn’t feel the shame and humiliation I felt.

Mom hadn’t had a period since I was born because after she had a kid she nursed them until they were about two years old and then handed them off to me to wean and care for, and then she was pregnant again, and the cycle continued. She had a kid every two years so nursing them was her birth control. 

Weaning a kid was always the hardest. That was my duty as the older sister. They slept with me and I would wake up in the middle of the night when they cried for mom’s breast. I would give them the bottle and then sit on the edge of a bed and bounce them to sleep, if it wouldn’t wake up whoever else was sleeping in the bed. Or I would just put them over my shoulder and walk them up and down the hotel room, stepping over people sleeping on the floor as I went. I would just rock them in place if it was a van we lived in. The one I remember the most was weaning Caroline. Sometimes Dad helped. I remember seeing him singing and bouncing some kid or another to sleep. He would pat their back in time to the rhythm of the song he was singing as he bounced on the edge of the bed. I guess I learned how to do it by watching him.

“Sleep little baby, sleep little baby, sleep little baby, it’s time to go to sleep.” Sang to the tune of the hymn “Oh how I love Jesus.”

But back to Mom!

Mom showed me how to cook, and once I was of age I was in charge of cooking (and grocery shopping) duties from then on. One meal I used to cook was liver, brown rice and spinach. She showed me how to soak the liver in milk, then coat it in flour, season it, and fry it until it was well done. Then there was steamed spinach on the side and brown rice. “Brown rice is healthier for you than white, and liver has a lot of healthy nutrients and Iron.” she would say. She was devoted to health and fitness. Some of the other meals we had were spaghetti bolognese, or sliced meat and cheese sandwiches for example. My favorite bread out of all the places in the world I’ve lived is from Switzerland. I haven’t been able to find that bread anywhere else. Burnt and crispy on the outside, soft and warm on the inside. Another meal was stewed beef with vegetables. Or Split pea soup with bacon. If we had an oven (if we were in a house, or a hotel with a kitchenette for example), then it was Roasted Chicken with Brown Rice and Vegetables. We usually had some kind of Salad with everything. Mom was into health more than anything else. So we ate healthily to the best of our ability.

If we were living in tents travelling through Europe we used a kerosene stove. In vans we used a two burner electric cooker. We always had generators. Dad would start the generator and put it underneath the bus. I can still remember the familiar hum of a generator, that sound signified light and electricity and home. 

I smile because I can still hear mom’s voice as she laughed at one of Sammy’s jokes. She was hardly ever not gentle with us. She was one of the kids and yet not one of us. She had an inner strength. An inner strength that made her ok with whatever was happening. She never yelled or raised her voice. When she was mad at you it was just a look of disapproval on her face. And her words got more staccato and clipped. 

For the most part she just sat next to dad, or somewhere off in the room while we were being punished, a neutral expression on her face. She never comforted us afterwards like dad did for the ritualized beatings, she never tended to our wounds, whether from accidents or beatings, that was dad also. 

If we fell and scraped a knee it was dad coming with the hydrogen peroxide or alcohol and cotton balls, it was dad suggesting movie night, it was dad suggesting that we go to the zoo for a break from singing. Then on special occasions, once in a blue moon, dad would cook his specialty, fried chicken for us. That was always a special occasion. It was dad saying “yes” when we asked if we could order chinese food. 

But it was also mom who taught me how to read. It was mom who combed my hair into two pigtails and put in the colorful hair elastics with balls at the end. The colorful barrettes. There was one time when we were in a salvation army and I asked mom if I could get a spanish language book, berlitz or something like that for .25 cents and she didn’t say no, she said ask dad. Dad subsequently said no, but she didn’t say no. That was nice. 

I never got the feeling that she cared about us. When I say us, I mean each of us individually. She didn’t really get to know who we each were individually. She cared about us within the context of her great mission to win souls to the Lord. If “we”, us kids as a uniform whole, were not doing anything to hinder that goal, then she was happy. If we got beatings for various infractions, if we didn’t have friends, if we didn’t each have adequate schooling, if we had individual talents, if we had individual personalities, that wasn’t anything that she cared or knew about. 

When she taught me how to read it was because Grandpa had a mo letter that talked about getting your kids to learn how to read early so they could start reading The Word. It was a family directive. Did she care about me learning to read outside of that? I couldn’t say.

After John, Janina and I learned how to read, all of the other kids stayed pretty much at the same scholastic level. The smallest pocahontas, age 3, sat with Ivan, age 13, learning their a,b,c’s or addition. Because I was really interested in anything and everything other than that I taught myself what I could. 

I asked her once, when I was 21 years old, after I had made the decision to leave after a brutal beating which involved an acoustic guitar being broken over me. Mom knew that I was leaving no matter what, no matter what they did. I was prepared to die but I was leaving, no matter what. I asked her, “Don’t you want your kids to have friends and a home to live in and families of their own?”. She said, so sweetly with a smile on her face, “What greater place could you all be than right here serving the Lord?” And that’s when I knew. This wasn’t an us against the world situation. We weren’t on some quest to find a home, the ideal situation for all of us. This life was what they wanted. They were happy. This was the goal for them. I, no we, all of us kids had been misled all along. I felt devastated and betrayed because I had really believed in them and trusted them and thought they had my best interest at heart. They would never be happy with me expressing myself in any way. They would never accept me outside of the context of fulfilling their great mission. In their minds, I wasn’t an individual entity. I wasn’t a human being. I was an individuality-less soldier in God’s Army as were my brothers and sisters, and the other kids all over the world who were born into The Family.

What’s interesting is that, as a child, I wasn’t cursing, or doing anything bad really, or saying anything really. Mostly when my parents would become enraged it was because I questioned them or “defied” them. But it wasn’t the words that I said, it was an attitude that I had that they hated. And so from a young age I learned to squelch that shit down. To devour it. To turn it inward. “For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry”, they quoted to me over and over. So therefore, I was a witch. Dad saying “Don’t be a witch” and quoting that verse to me were some of my earliest memories.

So bottom line, mom did some care-like basic tasks for me, and thereafter I was expected to do those things for my sisters and the rest of the kids. I think that in terms of typical parental roles or tasks, once the bare minimum for survival was met she wasn’t really there. Mom wasn’t a caretaker or someone who played an adult role in our lives, that role went to Sammy, our older brother. 

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