Stories about life in Liddonfield housing project and its impact on the Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood of Upper Holmesburg. These true stories reveal how government policy affected the lives of real people, from the project residents to area homeowners during the 5 decades of Liddonfield’s existence. Stories and articles are written by a former resident of the project.

FIGHT THE STIGMA!

FIGHT THE STIGMA!
Rosemary Reeves, Blogger, standing on Philadelphia Skyline

Jul 4, 2011

The Liddonfielders: A Housing Project Diary - Part 11

by Rosemary Reeves

Preface:  According to the website, Connect With Kids, one in seven children between the ages of 10 and 18 will run away and reasons include physical or sexual abuse and feelings of not belonging.


One Christmas, a relative came over with a bottle of wine.  My parents never drank.  However, in lieu of the occasion, they opened the bottle and had one glass each of the sweet Merlot.  Then they placed the cork back in the bottle and put it on a shelf, where it lingered for months without anyone drinking it.  Every now and then I was tempted to drink that wine when no one was around.
I was fourteen.  The previous two years, my mother allowed me to drink exactly one whiskey sour on Christmas.  She even let me make it myself.  In those days, it wasn’t terribly unusual to let a teenager have a sip of alcohol on special occasions.  Even in old movies, teenagers would hang out and drink beer in the local pizza parlor and no one thought anything of it.
I enjoyed making the whiskey sour so much that I even considered becoming a bartender.  I looked up bartending in some book at the library.  Eventually, I figured out a way to drink the wine without getting caught.  Since my parents never bothered with it, all I had to do was water it down so that the liquid rose to the exact same level as it was before.  I did this a few times and it worked beautifully.  After about a month, my father decided he would take a nip.  What a shocker!  Dad almost never drank and it was an ordinary day.  I couldn’t believe it.  I thought I was completely screwed.
“This wine is watered down!” he yelled after drinking it, “Who’s been into the wine?”  He immediately suspected my brother Kevin, who was seventeen by now.  Kevin swore he didn’t do it.  I was so scared that I let Kevin take the blame, though I tried to come to his defense.
“Maybe because it’s been there so long, the taste changed,” I said. 
“Don’t give me that,” Dad said, “I know what watered down wine tastes like!”  Mom had to calm him down.  What did it matter, anyway, she said, it’s been sitting there for months.  Don’t make a big deal out of nothing.  Somehow, she managed to diffuse the situation.  Maybe it was because Kevin was almost grown and Dad was becoming an old man.  Dad was 59 years old and less prone to become violent with a young man who was big enough to fight back.  I breathed a sigh of relief when Dad let it go.  That was close, but no harm done.
Dad still tried to lord it over us, but age had softened him.  He was not so quick to use his hands on a young man who was almost his size, an angry young man who was stronger, faster and full of rage instilled in him from years of abuse.  No one suspected me of drinking and watering down the wine, because I was a girl and a mere child.  As a girl I was underestimated.  As a child, I was considered innocent.  But I never really had a childhood to speak of, always having to deal with serious adult issues like poverty, domestic violence and survival.
I saw nothing wrong with drinking booze, because after all, my mother took pills every day.  Once, I asked her what they were.  She told me they were valium tablets her doctor had prescribed.  She said they were for her nerves and that the doctor said they were harmless.  In those days, doctors gave out valium like candy.  The Rolling Stones even wrote a hit song about valium called Mother’s Little Helper.  Mom even joked about it.  “Time to take my mother’s little helper,” she’d say.
Though I thought about it once or twice, I never tried to steal one of her pills.  I loved my mother and she needed them, but I didn’t think it was fair that she had something to get her through the bad times whereas I had to face my problems head on, problems created mostly by my parents and their bad decisions.  I just had to deal with their lack of parenting skills sober, grounded, a bundle of nerves myself.  I had seen other parents who acted responsibly toward their children and I knew mine were not acting in a responsible manner or in my best interests.  Yet, I was trapped, underage and under their control.  Mom loved me, but she did not love me enough and that hurt.  Her loyalty to my father overshadowed her love for me.  My safety and security would always come second, and when she went to bed with him every night I didn’t understand how she could bear to lay beside him, to touch him, after he abused her children all those years.
Dad's shotgun was in their bedroom closet.  Once, I took the shotgun out of their closet just to play with it.  I grinned.  It felt good in my hands.  I looked in the mirror.  I looked cool.  I turned my head and noticed Dad’s picture was hanging on the bedroom wall.  I aimed the shotgun at his image and looked through the site. “This is for you, Dad,” I said aloud.  I pulled the trigger twice.  “Pow!  Pow!  You’re dead.”  There were two clicks.  The shotgun was empty.
I wondered if I still remembered how to load the shotgun.  I wanted to see if I could.  I began rummaging through my parents’ closet, searching for the box that contained the bullets.  Just then our dog started barking, letting me know that someone was at the front door.  I heard the door open, then Mom’s voice greeting the dog.  I hurriedly placed the weapon back in the closet, went downstairs and kissed my mother hello, as if nothing had happened.  A couple of weeks later, Mom asked Dad once more to get rid of the shotgun.  “I think that’s a good idea,” I remarked.
There were four more years to go until I could escape this hell.  Home felt like a prison.  I saw a movie where a prisoner put a calendar on his wall and drew an X through every day that passed, marking the days until the end of his sentence. “Mom, I want a calendar,” I said.  I put it up on my wall just like in the movie and marked every day that passed with an X. 
Four years was too long.  I fell into a deep depression.  Once school let out for the summer, I slept all day to escape reality, coming downstairs only for a meal and then going back to sleep.  I thought of little else but reaching my eighteenth birthday, when I could finally leave my parents’ house.  I stopped seeing my friend Dolores.  I didn’t want to see anyone.  I didn’t want to go outside.  I just wanted to crawl into my shell and sleep until my eighteenth birthday.
Once, Mom literally dragged me out of bed, pulling my arms until my body slipped off the mattress and onto the floor.  She was yelling all the while that I had to get up and join the human race.  “What for?” I asked.  I kept resisting.  My body was limp dead weight and she could not force me downstairs herself.  She called my sister Sharon.  It took the two of them to get me off the floor and my feet moving.  The depression was so crippling that every step felt like lead.  Once downstairs, I spoke to no one. 
“I think you need a psychiatrist,” Mom said, “No matter what it costs, we’ll find the money.  Say the word and we’ll send you to one.”  But I refused.  I did not trust adults because all they did was hurt me.  I thought they were all stupid and that I was far more intelligent than any of the adults I had encountered.  Mom and Dad shouldn’t have sent me to that private school because now I was smarter than them.  I read psychiatry books in the library.  I diagnosed my own parents.  I knew fancy terms for their neurosis, disorders and dysfunction.  In my mind, adults were liars and hypocrites.  Go to church on Sunday.  Beat your kids on Monday.  That was a rhyme I made up and I’d sing it in my head throughout every church sermon.  I looked around the church and wondered who else was beating their kids.  Adults were the enemy, always bossing me around, and I was tired of it.  The problem was, I never stopped to diagnose myself.  My father had passed his anger onto me.  I felt what he felt.  I hated the world and everyone in it.  I wanted to lash out, to release the fury inside.  Whenever Dad flew into one of his rages, Mom would say, “You’re an animal, Jim!”  I was an animal now, too, a wild panther backed into a corner, hissing and ready to strike at those who caged and attacked me.
At St. Hubert High School, three girls were constantly bullying me as a team.  One day, it became physical.  One of them put her foot out to trip me as I walked past them.  I fell violently to the ground.  The books I was carrying flew out of my hands.  They laughed as I lay stunned on the floor of the school hallway.  Before it had been just name-calling.  Now, it had escalated to physical violence.  This triggered something in me.  I thought of my father and all the pain he inflicted over the years and someone was about to pay.  Suddenly and without warning, I flew into a rage, beat up all three of them and they were afraid of me after that.  Word got around the school that I was someone to be reckoned with and no one dared to bully me anymore.
I began to disrespect my mother.  I spoke to her with sarcasm and snide remarks.  I demanded she get a divorce.  She refused.  My perfect mother suddenly seemed flawed and weak.  The unshakable bond between us was disintegrating.  I still loved her dearly, but I viewed her as an unwilling accomplice in the abuse, since she let it go on.  When I grew up I wanted to be nothing like her.  I wanted to be the opposite of her. 
At about that time, one of my sisters had attempted suicide through an overdose of pills.  A relative had stopped by her apartment and found her slumped on the floor, unconscious.  She was rushed to the hospital and got her stomach pumped. She survived to try it again a few more times. 
At fourteen, I disappeared for three days.  In lieu of going to school I went to a park outside of Philadelphia, in the suburbs, where I lingered until dusk.  There was no way I was going back home.  I’d sleep in an alley if I had to, in the woods, in an abandoned house, anywhere but go back home.
While I was in the park a strange man came along and started talking to me.  He was many years older.  He asked me if I wanted a bite to eat.  I was starving and worried about having to sleep outdoors.  He fed me and took me to a motel, where I lost my virginity.  He gave me cigarettes.  While he was taking a shower, I opened the door of the night stand, out of curiosity.  There was a Bible in the drawer.  I flipped through the pages.  Every passage was familiar.  They had drilled the Bible into me in St. Dominic Grammar School catechism class.  He came out of the shower.  “Someone left a Bible in the drawer,” I remarked as I lit up another cigarette.
He laughed.  “All hotels and motels have a Bible in the drawer,” he said.
“Why?” I asked.
“Come to think of it, I have no idea,” he remarked.
“Well, that’s plain silly if you ask me,” I said and put the Bible back.  I felt so grown up.  I enjoyed breaking the rules.  I had violated just about every rule I was taught.  If this was what it was like to be grown up, I couldn’t wait for the day I wasn’t a child any longer, legally speaking.
We watched television and then the guy I was with fell asleep.  I closed my eyes, but in the quiet of night I began thinking about my family.  I wondered if they were looking for me.  I thought Mom must be frantic.  Someday, I would explain it to her and tell her that I had no choice.  I felt bad about worrying my mother so.  I imagined myself knocking on the door of my parents’ house years later, after I had become a full grown woman and traveled to all the places I had read about in books and my father was too old and frail to hurt me anymore.  Mom would open the door and I’d say, “Mother, do you recognize me? I’ve missed you.” 
I pictured her as an old woman, scrutinizing my face.  After a moment, she would say, “Is it you, my Rosie? You’ve come back!”  She’d throw her arms around me and weep with joy.   Maybe by then, she would have gotten tired of Dad.  Maybe she’d end up blaming him for my disappearance and he’d be long gone.
By the third day, the man who had found me in the park had grown weary of me.  He said it was time to take me home and wanted to know where I lived.  It took a lot of coaxing to get me in the car, but it became clear that he was finished with me.  He dropped me off four blocks from my parents’ house.  I just stood there while he drove away.  What was I to do now?  Keep running?  Find someone else to feed and harbor me?   I had no money.  It was hopeless.  I walked until I was just one block away from the house.  I just couldn’t go back there.  Not yet.  I sat down on the curb for a long time, savoring my last few hours of freedom.  My stomach started to rumble.  I was hungry.  It was time.
The door to my parent’s house was locked.  The key was somewhere in my purse, but I didn’t bother with it.  I knocked and my sister, Eileen, came to the door.  “Rosemary!” she said, “Where have you been? We didn’t think you were ever coming back.”  I didn’t say anything.  She hugged me and I came inside.
My sister, Jean, was the next person I saw.  She hugged me, too, and then my brother, Jimmy, who was back from his army service in Turkey, did the same.  The family must have been holding some kind of vigil, because all of them were there.  They were all touching me, as if to convince themselves that I was real.  Everyone was talking to me at once.  They asked so many questions for which I had no answer.  Mom came rushing in from the kitchen.  “Get back, all of you!” she commanded, “Let me see my Rosie!”
Mom threw her arms around me and started to cry.  I broke down.  Eileen asked again where I had been.  “That doesn’t matter, now” Mom said, “All that matters is that she’s home.”
My father looked very subdued.  “I’m glad you’re home,” he said, “Your mother and me were worried about you.”  He reached out to me, but I recoiled from his touch.  Whenever Dad tried to touch me, the hair on the back of my neck stood up and shivers went down my spine.  His touch was creepy and repulsive to me.  Everyone seemed uncomfortable for a moment.  Dad broke the awkward pause by saying that I should have talked to him and mom if I was so unhappy.  “You can tell us anything,” he said.  I knew that was not so.  How could I tell Dad that I hated him and I wished he’d get out of our lives?
“Do you want to talk about it now?” Mom asked. 
I shook my head.  “I’m tired,” I told her, “I just want to sleep.”
“Yes, you do look tired,” she remarked, “Go ahead to your room and sleep for as long as you want.  Come down when you feel better.”
It was a tiny bedroom meant for one, but I shared it with my sister, Eileen, who was thirteen years older.  Eileen was an artist who painted portraits for a small fee.  She placed an ad in the newspaper to procure customers.  She would paint their likenesses from photographs the customers supplied.  Though many people answered the ad, portrait painting took time and art supplies were expensive.  The endeavor generated only enough income to purchase more paint, with a little left over for spending money, therefore, Eileen still lived at home.  She was old enough to stand up to Dad and she often did, which sometimes entailed running for her life.
Our two beds were squeezed up against the walls on either side, with only a few inches of space in between.  There was an open area by the door that left just enough room to put an easel and canvas.  Eileen liked to indulge in one cigarette after another while she painted.  She would stand before the canvas with brush in hand and an ashtray on a cardboard box beside her, enveloped in a cloud of smoke, which resembled a kind of mystic aura given off by the budding artist in the throes of creativity.  It was something to see.
Over time, the faces of countless strangers would take form on canvas and I often wondered what the people were like.  Sometimes I looked at a portrait of someone and asked my sister, “Is he nice?”  She’d tell me yes or no.  One was an architect.  Another was a dentist.  There was also a bride and groom dressed in their wedding attire.  I disliked having to share such a tiny room but I never minded the paintings taking up space.  It was like being in an art gallery without having to pay admittance.
I entered the room, relieved to get away from everyone.  After taking a step or two, I bumped into the easel.  The painting started to fall but I caught it before it hit the floor.  I gazed at the likeness of an elderly woman with her arm around her grandson.  Luckily, the painting was dry and I had not smudged it.
After a couple of hours Mom entered the room.  “I don’t want you to be miserable,” she said, “When you left it almost killed me.  I didn’t know if you were alive or dead, or if someone took you.  What happened?  Won’t you tell me?”
I recalled being in that motel room, smoking cigarettes like grown-ups do.  I remembered the smiling face of that handsome man and the things he whispered in the night.  I could not look my mother in the eye and tell her what I had done.  “I need time,” I said.
“I won’t press you, now,” she replied, “We’ll talk about it when you’re ready.”   

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