Kristin Lieberman


As I sit with my mother in the hospital, she hands me an old black-and-white photograph of my father holding me swaddled in blankets as my mother smiled next to him. The picture chills me, but I don't want to tell her that. Instead, I smile vacantly. I say nothing. "Look how he adores you," my mother says. It is my father's face that my mother wants me to see. "So adoring," she repeats in a dreamy voice. She wants me to agree, and I don't. I can still smell his whiskey breath.

I want to say, "No, not adoring," but my mother is old and sick. She wants me to remember that things weren't always bad. "Adoring," she repeats to herself now. I look down at the picture. My father holds me in swaddling blankets. He looks serenely at me, his eyelids lowered. I hold my right hand toward him in my presumably pink knit sweater. My hand looks like a stop sign. Even as an infant, I knew he'd be trouble.

It was taken around the holidays—maybe Christmas, 1955. Christmas Eve, probably, because the photo was taken in my paternal grandparents' back lawn, which brushed up against Three Rings Ranch, where thoroughbred horses were bred and trained. We spent every Christmas Eve dinner there, until I turned eleven or so, and my father was committed to the state hospital.

I remember the fence in the background vividly. As a child I offered sugar cubes to massive, skittish Thoroughbreds who came close to the fence. "Keep your hand flat," my grandfather reminded me whenever I held out my hand. "Keep it flat or that horse will bite your fingers off."

I remember the circular planter too, where my grandparents planted purple petunias, star esperanza, and pansies that never thrived. In the photograph I was swaddled in pale blankets with a knit hat and sweater. My grandmother was a knitter, and I imagine she made the sweater. It was pink, I presume, because that was her favorite color. The photographer was almost certainly my grandfather, who always squinted through his Fujica Automagic 35 at significant family events while the stummel of his full-bent pipe hung carelessly below his lips.

Back in those days, there were small cherry and peach orchards east of Palm Avenue down through Cherry Valley. Persimmon trees, apricots, plums, and avocados flourished in backyards. There were clear skies and clean spring water at the summit of the pass between the San Jacinto and San Gorgonio mountain range. Until the freeway was built in the 1960s, tourists on their way from Los Angeles to Palm Springs on Route 66 would stop for gas. They would buy ice-cream cones at Gray's or dinner at the Rusty Lantern. Some would grab a quick bite at the Oasis Café. In June, they stayed for the Cherry Festival, and in the fall they came to pick apples up in Oak Glen. The autumn weather was mild, except when Santa Ana winds blew, whipping hot air through the pass on their way from the Mojave Desert into Los Angeles.

There is no sign in this picture that the Santa Anas were blowing. Two cypress trees and one sugar maple stand tall in the background. No breeze ruffles my mother's coif, and she smiles with a new mother's glow, touching my baby head. She is twenty-four years old. My father is two years older. They are both beautiful.

During that December, the weather wavered in the high sixties and low seventies. My father wears a checked, short-sleeved, newly pressed shirt rolled up a bit at the sleeves, showing off a muscled arm. I see his pleated slacks, his black leather belt, and the bright silver watch that now lies cold in a vault. If it were a cool day, he would have worn the leather flight jacket that he earned in the Korean War.

My mother is dressed in an A-line black collared dress with three-quarter-length sleeves. Her waist-length black hair is done up in a sophisticated French roll hairstyle, her ears graced by simple white pearl earrings. Maybe she was gussied up a little more than usual because of Christmas Eve dinner. I do not know, and my mother cannot tell me now. Her memories come and go.

When I was thirteen years old, my father came home from the alcoholics' ward at the state hospital, and he was shouting in the living room. My mother was trying to calm him down. I stood up in my bedroom, two rooms away, and my heart was pounding. I was listening for a scuffle, or my mother crying, "Jim, stop. You're hurting me." I waited to see whether I needed to come into the living room and put my hands between them. I was ready to say, "Stop hurting my mom."

That is what I did during my childhood, for as long as I remember—once waking up when I was seven to stop him pulling her across the floor by her long hair. "Leave my mother alone," I said, standing in my too-small pajamas next to my mother in her nightgown, as if an eight-year-old girl had the power to stop a full-grown man. His shoulders slumped, he backed away. He stumbled into their bedroom—the sweet stench of Jim Beam whiskey surrounding him. My mother rubbed her head and got up off the floor. She took my hand and led me back to bed. She tucked me in and her hand reached up to her face. It was scratched and bleeding. One eye was swollen shut. "Don't go back," I said. "There's room in my bed." I scooted over to the edge of my twin bed. I was a little afraid of him, but I was very afraid for her.

"I'll be all right. Go to sleep, Sis," she said as she closed my bedroom door. She always called me Sis. I was the big sister, the oldest.

"No. Mommy, don't," I said.

"Go to sleep." She stood up and pushed her hair back and smiled. She turned off the light and closed the door.

I stared at my books and my musical teddy bear, and eight-year-old me wondered why she didn't stay with me. I pulled the blankets over my head and grabbed a flashlight. I stayed all night listening to make sure my mother wasn't hurt again. In the morning, I got up, rubbed my red eyes, and walked into the kitchen, where my father was spreading avocado from one of the trees in our garden onto buttered toast with my brother, acting as if what he did the night before never happened. I took some juice out of the refrigerator and peeked into my parents' bedroom. She wasn't there. Then I went outside and turned over rocks in the garden and peered at the bugs under the moist, dark stones until she drove home hours later with my little sister. She was wearing sunglasses over her blackened eye. The incident the night before was never spoken of again.

I have an aversion to avocados. I never eat guacamole, which is odd for a native Californian. Whenever avocado comes with my food, I brush it away.

The beatings and my child interventions continued. But one day, when I was thirteen and my mother said, "Jim, stop," I came out of my room and went to my mother. But by then I was not an adorable blond child. I was an awkward, pimply teenager with oily hair. His Oxford button-down shirt, rolled up to his elbows, was tucked inside his belted tan chinos. His fist was up and I said, "You said you'd stop drinking. You're hurting Mom. Stop." Usually, he turned his back to me, as if he was humiliated about being called out by a child, and retreated to their bedroom, where he passed out unconscious on the bed. He never seemed to hurt her when there was a witness.

That day, he looked at me as if I was nothing, a bug to squash, an unreliable witness. "Shut up, Sister," he growled as he slapped me hard about my head and shoulders. My arms rose up instinctively, but he still came at me, so I crouched down on the floor. He kicked me in my side while he swung at my head and face. It hurt, and I began to cry. I looked through my arms at my mother. "Help," I said.

She said, "Jim, stop," but she did not move. There was something about the stunned way she looked at me that made me feel both betrayed and more afraid. I kicked back and crawled away. I looked at his glazed, drunken anger, and now I knew he would go after me, just as he did my mother.

My mother got between us. She said, "Leave her alone, Jim," and he pushed her away. I slinked to my room, while my father ranted at my door about how disrespectful I was and how I needed to learn a lesson. I put my hands over my ears. I didn't want to hear any more. A few minutes later it was quiet. I heard their bedroom door slam. My mother peeked inside my room. "Sis?" she said. I didn't answer her, so she came inside to talk.

"I don't want to live here anymore," I said.

"When we walk out of here, we walk out together," she replied. Her arms were folded close against her chest. I thought, What are you waiting for? Let's leave now, but I didn't say that. I didn't think that after all the violence she endured, anything would make her leave him. Behind her, my little brother and sister were hiding in our Jack-and-Jill closet.

"No," I said. "I want to go now."

Without warning my father crashed through my bedroom door and pushed my mother aside. He put both of his brawny hands around my throat and squeezed. "I've had enough of you," he slurred. His mouth was close to mine now, and the smell of whiskey burned my throat. I put my hands on his forearms, and they were tight. He was serious. I couldn't pry him loose. He squeezed my throat until I couldn't breathe.

"Stop," I said, trying to fight him off. "Dad, stop."

"Jim, stop it." My mother came from behind him and tried to pry his hands off me. Seeing my mother, my little sister ran out of the closet where she was hiding and beat on his back with her little fists. "Get off her. Let go," she cried.

"I'm going to kill you," he said to me.

"Daddy," I managed to croak. I looked at him straight in the eye, but his blue eyes were dead pools, like seas without hope. A hopeless, endless ocean of Jim Beam whiskey. I knew it from the bottles he hid all over the house. I smelled it on his breath. It made me want to throw up.

Later, when I become a scuba diver, I startle and have to swim to the surface when I recognize the same look in the eyes of blacktip sharks. Most divers enjoy swimming with sharks. If you're careful, it's usually no problem. We aren't in their food chain. I know that's true, but I can't get over their eyes. A dead, flat glare in a silent beast looking for prey.

"Stop it," my mother and little sister screamed, scratching and pulling at him until he finally let go and backed away, heaving, his face hot and red.

Choking, I dodged past them all, dashing to the bathroom, where I locked the door. I looked in the mirror, heaving with sobs, and touched tiny bruises appearing on the side of my neck. Mascara ran down my cheeks. I wiped it off, still sobbing. I was a confident, cautious child. Somehow, I always felt safe. Now I knew I was no longer a child and I was no longer safe. If I wasn't careful, I would become prey.

There was nothing to do but to leave. I had learned from watching my mother that if I didn't leave, he would beat me again and again until the ambulances came, as they did some nights when they took my mother away.

"She fell," my father said to me once when I was seven or eight or nine years old. An ambulance had taken my mother to the hospital in the middle of the night. She had, I would later learn, a broken nose and jaw, and cracked ribs. Her face and body were covered with bruises. "She fell at work," he added sheepishly.

"Why do the ambulances always come here if she falls all the time at work?" I asked. He said nothing, but turned away and walked to the kitchen. I watched as he took a bottle from the kitchen cabinet and gulped the whiskey straight down from the bottle. He could drink a half a pint that way. I was probably the only girl in my elementary school who knew the volume difference between a half pint and a fifth of whiskey. I had seen too many bottles. Did I ever really see him sober? All of my memories of him say no.

We did leave together shortly after my father tried to kill me. In a drunken state, my father told my mother he would shape us all up if he wanted. Shaping us up with his fists, his muscled arms, was what he had in mind. Even after we left, he broke both doors of the house we moved to, a house that belonged to my mother's parents. He showed up at all hours of the day and night. He saw me holding hands with my first boyfriend and called me a whore. My mother finally had to get a restraining order. Even then, the cops showed up at our house at least once a week when my mother called.

Nine months later my father died alone in a dumpy hotel in town. He was forty-one years old. The cause of death was listed as pneumonia, and secondary cirrhosis. He had passed out and aspirated his own vomit. A maid had found him three days later. When my mother told me he was dead, the first feeling I had was relief. I saw him at the funeral home, and he didn't smell like whiskey. He smelled like embalming fluid. I threw up in the bathroom.

Two years later, when I was seventeen, I ran away to college. I ran as far away from home as I could, and I never returned, except to see my mother. I feel guilty about not seeing her often enough, but there was always that smell of embalming fluid and whiskey that kept me from starting the car or buying the airline ticket.

My husband and partner for the last twenty years is a handsome, muscled man who is loving and kind. He also likes an occasional glass of scotch. I'll drink an occasional martini or glass of wine, but not whiskey, not scotch. For a long time, I would feel edgy when he opened the bottle, if he opened the bottle, for a drink before dinner. The smell of scotch is not far from the smell of blended whiskey. But he's gentle, and a good father and husband. He has never touched me or our children except with love.

Over time, I've relaxed and learned to respect my husband's enjoyment of fine scotch. I bought him a bottle of expensive eighteen-year-old scotch for our eighteenth wedding anniversary. He was very appreciative.

My mother is in hospice now. She told me recently that she's bought a gravestone. She wants to be cremated and no funeral. "I don't want to put you kids through another one of those," she said. Instead, she wants us to spread her ashes over my father's grave and bury her with him.

"Are you sure about that?" I asked.

"I have three good reasons for doing that: you, your brother, and your sister."

Shaken, I thought to myself, She still loves him. He's the only man she has ever loved, the father of her children, the man who broke her nose, her jaw, and her heart. More than any other aversion I have, the thought of her being buried with our abuser is the worst.

"After you bury me," she said, "have a party. Laugh, tell jokes, and share stories about me. No more tears, Sis."

I swallowed my misgivings. He can't hurt us now.

"Whatever you want, Mom." I smiled.

Kristin Lieberman has a BA from Simmons College, a JD from Albany Law School, and an MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles. She was a finalist for the James Kirkwood Literary Prize at UCLA Extension where she earned her certificate in creative writing, and she has studied with Jim Krusoe, Steve Heller, Sharman Apt Russell, and Alistair McCartney. In 2011, her essay "Thin-Skinned" and her short story "Salty Water" were nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Kristin's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Broad River Review, ep;phany, McNeese Review, New Madrid, Penmen Review, Recovering The Self: A Journal of Hope and Healing, and SNReview.

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