“Ghost Stories: RED.”

December, 1960

There once was a photo of my mom when she was 3 years old. In this particular photo, she was wearing a beautiful pale blue chiffon dress with ruffles and silk ribbons.

I know this, because she told me.

She told me that it was her favorite dress. It was a new dress, not one handed down to her by her older sister. It was an expensive dress. The most expensive dress her mother had ever bought for her. And when she did, it was the greatest expression of love my mother had ever known in her very young life.

I hated that dress – and I hated that photo of her wearing it. I hated them because I knew the story behind them. I knew that dress was never an expression of love – it was, at best, an expression of shame and (I hope) of guilt, and a disgusting two-faced gesture made to cover up a great wrong that had been committed. A wrong which my mother could forgive but, so far, I can not.

You see, my mom grew up in a very abusive home. Abuse rendered at the hands of her mother – hands that are meant to protect and nurture. My mom’s dad was gone a lot, on the road, providing for the family as a truck driver. From what I was told and came to understand, there was a lot of discord in the marriage and my grandmother was not wrong to be upset… but that is never an excuse to be cruel – especially when it comes an innocent child, like my mom.

In this particular incident, one which stands out amongst the many others in my mind, my mom had made some kind of mess in the kitchen and was expected to clean it up. At just 3 years of age, of course “messes” are going to happen – and, when left alone to clean it up, she was at a loss for how to do it and, understandably, felt helpless. She opened up the kichen cabinet which held the household cleaning supplies and therein she found a bottle of Mr. Clean – her light at the end of a very dark tunnel!

She opened the bottle and poured it out onto the floor… but, as she stood there, anxiously waiting, the bald headed, bold faced, earring wearing super hero of household messes failed to magically appear. Now she was left with an even bigger mess, and no idea what else to do. When her mother walked back through the door her irritation at the previous mess escalated to irrational anger at this even bigger mess. She grabbed my mother by the arm and began to beat her. As my mom screamed and cried and struggled to get away, my grandmother grabbed the closest thing she could find, a high healed shoe, and continued this sadistic beating. She then threw my mother down into the basement and locked her there in the dark by herself. This went on for 3 days. My mother was just 3 years old.

When her mood had finally passed, my grandmother retrieved her daughter from the basement and proceeded to show her “love”. She hugged her and kissed her and took her shopping. She bought her this beautiful and expensive dress… which just so happened to cover all of the marks that she had inflicted upon this tiny child’s body – just in time for their family photos.

I remember the story so clearly, that I remember the blueness of the dress. Imagine my surprise, decades later, when I came upon that photo and discovered that it was actually in black and white. I no longer have that photo. I burned it, along with my mom’s journal (which I’d aptly named “the red book of pain”) a few years ago when I made the conscious decision to let go of anything that causes me pain or sadness or which possesses a negative vibe that I simply can’t ignore. In writing this blog, I hope to further release the remaining negative energy I hold regarding this incident and this particular person. We called her “Red”, for the color of her hair and the fiery way in which her temper would flare. We laughed about it then but, looking back now, it’s really quite sad; for a mother of four to literally love no one but herself.

As a child, I didn’t fully understand the magnitude of this story, or any of the other disturbing sequels that followed – but, growing up, the one thing I remember most about my grandmother was how she was always trying to buy our love. My mother never let grandma babysit us and we rarely ever spent the night at her house – if we did, mom stayed there with us and slept in the same bed. There was never any emotional connection or bond nurtured with her, and it’s no secret that I have always favored my grandfather when it comes to my mom’s side of the family.

He knew what it meant to be present and in the moment with us. He didn’t shower us with presents or bribe us with gifts. He provided space for us to roam, lessons for us to learn, protection from harm, and hard work to make us strong. He listened to me when I was spoke, comforted me when I was hurt, and held me when I was sad. He explained complicated matters in an elementary way without ever condescending my youth. He offered sound advice, exuded a quiet confidence, and possessed an easy sense of humor. He was gentle and kind, and never afraid to express his truest feelings. He was kind to people and gentle with animals. When my parents died, I was called upon to make some very difficult decisions – decisions I would have to live with for the rest of my life, and the only person whose opinion mattered to me, was his.

“Do what you gotta do and don’t give a damn what anybody else thinks – and be happy! That’s what I do!” – Dale Sheffer, October 2017

On November 2nd, 2017, my sister and I were standing beside our parents grave. Their friend, a favored local musician, was serenading them one last time, playing his guitar and singing their favorite song. Family and friends were paying their respects and saying their goodbyes, as they walked by the grave, casting yellow and white daisies down upon them. My grandmother paused in front of me and asked about some jewelry. Initially, I was confused.

“I bought her so many nice things…”, my grandmother lamented, and my heart began to ache, but not in a good way.

I’m still not sure if the moment I witnessed that day was the true blue bleeding love of a grieving mother who had just lost her child… but as she stood before me recounting all the things she’d bought for my mom – the silver, the gold, the diamonds and rubies, I could feel myself drifting away.

That’s when I saw it – how selfish she really was, and I knew I would never be able to look at her the same way again. Rather than trying to empathize with the distorted love of a dysfunctional mother, or giving her the most basic respect as my maternal grandmother, I pitied her with disdain.

There is still so much beauty to be found in this world, but she’s still too disillusioned to see.


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