I can still hear the distinctive scraping sound of the board sliding across the opening in the floor and see her creeping down the ladder. She only came down to empty the slop jar and replenish her food and water supply. How long had she lived up there, a week? A month? A year? I don’t remember. But I will never forget her dark, glaring eyes and wrinkled frown when she turned and saw me standing there. I’ll never forget the cold-steal blade of anger and hatred piercing my soul or the hurt and confusion I felt.
It was a makeshift bedroom daddy half-heartedly put together for the two of them when my grandmother came to live with us. Mom laid a carpet remnant across the plywood floor and somehow, daddy maneuvered a full-size bed through the narrow opening. Then came an old dresser, and a couple of makeshift night stands and TV. Mom added some personal touches with a few lamps, a pretty bedspread and setting pictures on the dresser. There were no windows or walls or ceiling covering the exposed, unsightly wiring. No heating or air. Just a temporary, cave-like room for my parent’s privacy.
Now, mom made it her permanent home; her escape from a disgruntled mother-in-law; an emotional strike against a family who didn’t seem to care or appreciate the sacrifices she made. Let them fend for themselves. Let them do their own cooking and cleaning, washing and ironing and dealing with the bill collectors banging on the door.
But that’s not what drove her to live in the attic. That’s not what pushed her to the brink of insanity.
For years I hated her foster-mother and the abuse my mother suffered at her hands. I hated my grandmother for putting her in an orphanage and my alcoholic grandfather for molesting her. I hated that my mother was too afraid to run away from her foster home and get help. I hated that she was never able to recover; that she never experienced freedom from her horror-filled childhood. And I hated that the aftermath of her abuse ricocheted through the family poking holes in our souls.
Even today I still wonder how it feels to a child to be held and kissed. To be praised and loved unconditionally. What does the world look like through their fearless eyes? What does it sound like without cruel and condemning voices shouting in their ears?
Looking back, the attic is as dismal today as it was decades ago. Secretly, it holds my mother’s tears, her broken soul and raging screams against an unfair world and a God who would allow bad things to happen; especially to a defenseless child. It holds the secrets of a little girl longing to be loved so that she could know how to love her own children; to be less critical and more patient and understanding. Only the attic knows how she longed for her husband’s physical and emotional support; to help lift and carry her heavy burden and to prove the words of love he spoke to her. And only the attic knows what led her to climb down that creaky ladder that day, put away the slop jar, and join her family again.
I wish I could say that things got better after that, that my youngest brother stopped getting into trouble, drinking and doing drugs. I wish I could say mom never had other breakdowns and that daddy got a job and mom didn’t have to work three jobs to keep our heads above water. I wish I could say that we learned to communicate without screaming and yelling and hurting one another.
But I can’t go back and change a thing. I can only keep pressing forward with a better understanding and perspective than I had as a child. I can appreciate the loving family God gave me through my husband and my son and his growing family. And I can accept that I live in a broken world and bad things are going to happen. It’s not my fault. It’s not God’s fault. It’s just the way of a fallen world. We all have a choice in how we play the cards we are dealt.