Sample Autobiography (1)
*All names have been changed or omitted for personal use as a portfolio sample
We had a tear-felt parting that evening and I promised Anne that the following day I would bring her something to cheer her. Before I arrived at the hospital, I stopped at my favorite florist and bought a large bouquet of sunflowers. When Mrs. Bens saw them, a smile as bright as the flowers bloomed on her face.
“I wanted to bring a little bit of summer to this room,” I said.
“Oh! And who’s this?” she exclaimed.
“This is Bruce,” I answered, adjusting the leash so she could see my beloved Bermese Mountain dog better, “I’ve told you about Bruce and Oliver and Sally. I wanted to bring all of them, but of course I can’t make any trouble with the nurses. I thought you should meet Bruce at least. He has a spirit about him that I thought might be just what you need.”
Bruce nudged forward against the bed and shifted comfortably under the light caress of Anne’s hand. She chuckled, “I can see that.”
“They’ve brought therapy dogs in before,” she said after a while, but I have to say I like this one better. He must be a nice companion.”
“All of my dogs are. I don’t know what I’d do without them. There were times in my childhood when the love and companionship of my dogs felt like all I had. I still find them to be the most loyal and unconditional of friends. The greeting I get from Duke each day when I get home is enough to make me feel like I might even deserve such love and devotion.”
“We all do, don’t you think?”
“I do,” I said, seeing the wistful look in Anne’s eyes. “Tell me, Mrs. Bens, do you have family nearby?”
“I’m not ready to leave them,” she said after a moment. Her voice sounded small and I watched as her eyes welled with tears.
“We never are. I wish I could make it easier for you, but I can’t. You know that as well as I do. All I can tell you is that there are many types of separation in life. We prepare ourselves for death by enduring small losses along the way. We separate by degrees from this thing called life, but no…we are never ready.”
Anne Bens closed her eyes briefly and I could see that she was struggling to catch her breath. I had to remind myself that even though her spirit was strong, her body was failing. There were at least two new bottles of medication on the bedside table.
“I can’t talk anymore about this miserable business of dying. There’s just one thing I need to know,” she said weakly.
“What is it, Anne?”
“That bastard, Roger. Tell me your mother kicked him to the curb.”
“I wish I could, Anne. I really wish I could…”
During her divorce from my father, my relationship with my mother only grew more negligible. Still, I tried to please her. I brought her flowers that I picked outside and she pushed my hand away saying, “Get those dirty things away from me!” On another occasion—Mother’s Day, I believe—I made her a knitting box out of cardboard. Knowing how she liked to knit, I thought she might enjoy having a box to put all of her knitting supplies in. To the outside of the box, I twisted and glued little bits of tissue paper as I’d been taught to do in school. I spent hours in my room, trying to get the design just right. When I was finished, I stole into the kitchen and put a pair of chopsticks and a small ball of string into my pocket and hurried back to my room. These I put into the box to represent the yarn and knitting needles, knowing that Mother would be upset if I took the real thing without permission.
When the day came, I took the box out from under my bed and felt a little quiver of excitement. I delivered the box to her with pride over breakfast. She said it was very nice and laid it aside. All day, I was filled with the warm glow that comes with meaningful giving. However, that night when my mother sat before the television knitting, the box I’d made for her was nowhere in sight.
“Mama, where’s your knitting box?”
“Oh, I must have forgotten it,” she said dismissively.
I went to look for it so I could bring it to her. I went into her bedroom and could find it nowhere. Somehow, I decided to look in the bathroom to see if she had laid it there by accident. That was when a bit of color in the bathroom wastebasket caught my eye. I peered inside, and there, crumpled at the bottom of the basket, was my box. On top of it, a few used tissues had been carelessly tossed.
From the conversations she allowed me to hear, I understood that my mother perceived that to be a difficult time. I tried, in spite of everything, to make her love me. One afternoon, she was in her bathroom, getting ready to go out again, or so I thought.
“Emmy?” She called, “Would you please come here?”
I jumped up from my games, surprised that she had called for me. Her voice sounded almost kind.
I stepped into the bathroom and saw her sitting on the closed lid of the toilet. She looked up at me and it was clear that she’d been crying.
“Mama, what’s wrong?”
“Come here, Emily.”
I went to her and stood before her. She looked at me and there was something sad in her eyes. I leaned forward to hug her and was surprised that she received my hug and even lifted her hands up to stroke my hair. I had very long hair at that time and I liked it very much. It made me feel beautiful, like a princess.
Suddenly, my mother stiffened and pushed me back a little.
“You didn’t brush your hair again.”
“I forgot, I guess,” I stammered, seeing that I had caused the anger to return again to my mother’s eyes.
“Don’t lie to me. You didn’t forget. You refuse to brush your hair because you’re lazy and you expect me to do it for you. Well, I won’t be taking care of it for you. I’m tired of being responsible for you. Move aside!”
I moved and she stood, brushing me aside. She fumbled for something and in another moment raised a pair of scissors in her hand.
“No!” I cried, “What are you doing?”
“Be quiet and turn around.”
“No, Mama!” I cried, but she whirled me around.
She began to roughly hack away chunks of my hair at a time. I was too frightened to cry. I watched her in the spotted, shabby mirror; watching my precious hair fall away from my head. My mother began to sob as she sliced away at my hair.
“You need to learn to be responsible for yourself. You can’t ever rely on anyone else. Especially not a man. Don’t let him have control of your money or anything, you understand?”
I was eight years old. She was screaming at me, and no, I did not understand. I saw the last bit of my hair fall away and realized that I looked like a boy with my hair shorn. I felt my mother’s pain and her wrath and I broke down at last and began to sob uncontrollably.
“Get out of here! Go!” she screamed, and I fled.
During my childhood, my maternal grandparents, Meme and Pop, would come to visit us in Vancouver. During their visits, I always tried to be nice and happy. I missed my grandmother and loved her dearly. I wanted her to see that I was being a good girl. And so I never breathed a word to Meme about the way I was treated by her daughter. My mother was still spoiled by them, but I believe my grandmother was not without some insight as to the type of person my mother was. Still, on one of their visits, Meme and Pop bought my mother a brand new, baby blue Buick Century.
One day after school, I came home, did my homework on the porch, and put my things in my room so that I could go outside and play. I still had no playmates, so I sat by myself for a while. I had been surprised to find my mother home, but soon saw that her bathroom door was shut and figured she was only getting ready to go out with Roger. I walked down the street a ways and saw Danny playing outside at Rick's house. I kicked some stones around and sat on the sidewalk. I was suddenly struck by the thought that I might be kidnapped at any moment. I wondered what kind of life I might be taken away to. As I sat there, I almost began to wish that it might happen. Then I began to wonder if my mother would even know or care if I were gone. I decided to test her.
I knew that she was aware of where Danny was, since he went to Ronnie’s house after school every day. But my mother had no way of knowing where I was. I hid behind a bush down the street and waited for her to leave. Eventually, I heard our front door close, followed by the short clip of her heels as she walked to her car. She got in the new Buick and shut the car door. Between the gaps in the bush, I watched her back out of the driveway and put the car into drive. Then I watched as she drove straight past my hiding spot, never bothering to look around or call for me. She just drove, eyes on the road ahead and leaving me with nothing but a cool chill that worked its way up from my gut.
Meanwhile, Roger’s presence in our house became an oppressive thing. The sexual abuse continued as before. As much as I tried to predict his actions and read his moods, I could not figure out a rhyme or reason to when and why he would molest me. I still had little understanding of what exactly it was that he was doing. No one had ever talked to me about sex. I only knew that what he did was wrong and that it disgusted me. He would push me down and grind on me, or he would sit me on his lap and grab my arms, forcing my tiny frame to stimulate him. The pain was excruciating at times. Roger was a gymnast with an athletic frame and his weight on me made it difficult to breathe. I might have wished to stop breathing, but I didn’t want to die that way and I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. Often he made me finish him with my hand. He tried many times to spread my legs, but I fought him and he did not push me farther.
Always, there was his terrible breath on me while he did his business. He always smelled of rotten, coddled things. He loved cheese and buttermilk and my mother was sure to keep plenty of his favorite expensive cheeses in the refrigerator, even though she skimped on food for Danny and me. As much as he loved these things, Roger also loved fat. My mother would make a dreadful soup out of ground beef, water, ginger, and oil. She never skimmed the fat off, though, because it was Roger’s favorite part. It disgusted me. The very smell of it reminded me of his breath on my face and I couldn’t help but gag every time this soup was placed in front of me. I refused to eat it.
When I refused to eat, Roger grabbed my ear and twisted it.
“Eat your food!” he howled, “You think you’re too good for it? You’re stupid, ugly, and good for nothing. I’ll tell you that much. Quit your whining and eat!”
When my mother was home, Roger’s sexual appetites demanded much of her instead and their bedroom door would be locked for hours during the day while Danny and I were left to amuse ourselves. Danny might not have understood what those closed doors meant, but I had been forced by my brutal stepfather into an understanding of their implications. I knew that what went on behind those doors was a lurid and terrible thing, and I hated them both for participating in it and for subjecting me to it. I continued to play with my Barbie dolls and my Barbie camper, transposing all of my childish dreams onto that imaginary girl. I imagined that I was older and free; independent and with a full wardrobe that I could sweep into a stylish bag and ride away with. As Barbie, I lived alone, self-sufficient in my own home on wheels. I wanted nothing more than to be that girl. Then there came a time when even campers took on a negative connotation for me, thanks to Roger.
My grandparents came out to visit one summer when I was nine years old. I was excited as usual to see them. My mother and Roger had planned to take us all on a camping trip in our RV. We managed to make it through a majority of the trip without catastrophic incident. Then, when we were on our way back home, I was sitting at the table with Meme, looking out the window and playing a game. Pop got up and walked to the front of the camper where Roger was driving. He said something to Roger and my mother, who sat in the passenger seat, and then returned to us. Some time passed and Pop told my grandmother that he had told Roger he needed to use the restroom. Outside, a rest stop flew past the window. Pop's eyebrows narrowed, “We might have stopped there.”
An hour passed. Through the window, a small town came and went. My grandfather said something to Roger, who hollered back, “It can wait. We’re making good time!”
Meme tensed beside me.
“Why does he torment you?” she hissed.
“He means to shame me, I think.”
My grandfather frowned. Another hour went by. Finally, my grandfather stood, resolute.
“Roger, I must insist that you pull over and stop this vehicle so that I may use the restroom. There’s a diner ahead.”
His tone brooked no argument, but Roger sputtered in anger and began cursing up a storm as he finally pulled the RV into a parking lot and turned off the ignition. He continued yelling as we all piled out. I hung close too Meme. We filed into the restaurant in complete silence. We sat at a booth and I was across from Roger. I dared not look up at his face. The waitress was a bubbly young lady. She looked directly at me and said, “Well hello there, how are you today?”
I looked up at her friendly face. I glanced at my mother who was giving me the usual evil glare. The moment felt like it stretched on forever. I wanted so badly to scream out, to tell the waitress that I was not alright. I wanted to grab onto her skirt and beg her to help my family. But in the end, I hung my head and said nothing. The moment passed and I knew then that I couldn’t do it. I didn’t care what happened to myself. I could bear to be taken away. But I didn’t know what might come of Danny or my grandparents if the truth came out.
The more my mother said nothing, the more Roger disrespected the rest of us. But no one infuriated him as much as my father. On his visitation days, my father would pull up to the curb in a borrowed car. He would stay with friends in the city and come to pick us up on the weekend. Danny and I would watch at the window for him, but Roger would go outside before us and lock the door behind him. On the front lawn, Roger would taunt and degrade my father; cursing and spitting at him and occasionally even punching and kicking him until my father would turn over the child support payment. I knew that my father was a highly trained officer of the law. He could have obliterated Roger with his right hand tied behind his back. How often did I wish that he would? But my father was a better man that that. He knew that we were watching him. He never laid a finger on the man who humiliated him and freeloaded in the house he'd bought and held his children hostage. Only when Roger had satisfied himself and tucked my father’s money into his pocket would he let Danny and I out of the house.
I embraced the time I got to spend with my father. The whole time we were with him, he told us over and over how much he loved us. All the time, he showered us with praise and affection. He felt bad, I know, that he couldn’t be with us. And always on Sunday mornings I would begin to feel the anxiety that came with having to return to my house of horrors. On many occasions I would have rather died than go back there. If I told my father how bad it was, I thought he might kill Roger and then he’d be locked away and I’d never get to see him. And if he didn’t kill Roger and Roger found out that I’d told, Danny and I would likely be beaten to within an inch of our lives I was sure. It would be worse than it was now. Telling my mother was never an option. She, of course, did nothing. It was clear to all of us now where her loyalties lay.
Sure enough, when I was ten years old, my mother and Roger were married. The ceremony was performed the day after my birthday, so that all day on my birthday I had to listen to her talk about the wedding. I felt that, somehow, it was an inconvenience to her to have to wait that extra day. Forever afterward, my birthday was a non-event; a mere hurtle on the path to their wedding anniversary. Yet there was a wonderful positive side to their marrying. My grandparents moved to the city two months before the wedding date and Danny and I were to live with them. My mother sold the little house on 15th Avenue and moved into a one bedroom apartment, where it was clear that children were not welcome.
“Stupid woman,” Anne grumbled, “What was she thinking?”
Beside us, Cathy shook her head. She had come in several times during the story to check Mrs. Johns’ vitals and administer her medication, but this last time she had stayed to listen to the remainder of the story and I offered for her to stay.
I smiled. “I think she was desperate. She was a Chinese woman and a divorcee to boot. Maybe she thought no one else would have her.”
“How can you defend her like that?”
“I don’t defend her. But I spent my life forgiving her, over and over. It comes natural I guess. Over the years, our relationship eroded even further. I have no contact at all with her now. I have peace with that. I’m not angry with her anymore.”
“Thank God you were able to move back with your grandparents,” Anne said, “Did your life change then?”
“Oh, it was better for a short time, but by then I was terribly troubled. The damage had been done. I didn’t like myself and most of the time I wanted to be anyone but me. I’d been called ‘stupid, ugly, and good for nothing’ so often, it kind of stuck. On top of that, whenever relatives or friends would see me, throughout my life, they would say, ‘Oh, Emily, you are the spitting image of your mother.’ I didn’t see it as a compliment because I didn’t see her beauty. She was always considered a beautiful woman by everyone else, but I didn’t like her. I didn’t want to be like her and so these similarities made me like myself even less.”
“Why do women insist on destroying each other?” Cathy said, “We’re so quick to judge each other. I’m as guilty of this as anyone, as you know,” she winked at me. “Is it because we’re all so insecure with ourselves?”
“Probably,” I said, “We perpetuate our insecurities and leave these legacies of hurt behind us.”
“Mrs. Bens, you seem as though you might be the most secure woman here,” Cathy quipped.
Anne rolled her eyes.
“Insecurity is just fear,” she said, “Your mother’s Roger—he was insecure. I can’t imagine the demons that must have been chasing him. Damned sorry excuse for a man if you ask me. Your mother, I think she wanted to be free of her fear but she couldn’t. She tried to warn you against letting a man control you but then she fell into the same trap. I never did need to marry a man to feel better about myself. Jonathan and I were together fifty-two years, had three children. But I never let him put a ring on my finger.
I wouldn’t marry because I always felt I had to prove something. I had a sister and oh, she was the beautiful one. And smart, too. Everyone was always telling her how lovely she was and she would gloat and prance around like a princess. I was the ugly sister, and the dumb one, too, but I had more sense in my little finger than that girl ever had in her whole body and I spent much of my life trying to prove it. She never understood me and I never understood her. We’re the closest of friends now…that’s the funny part. You know what I learned—much too late in life? That she’d always felt the same way. She thought I was the strong one. And we laughed about it later. Who were we trying to prove it to? Well, ourselves of course. We can be our own worst critics.”
Cathy and I smiled, enjoying Anne’s sudden burst of energy. For a while afterward, the three of us sat, talking and laughing, each casting the shadow of our own fears behind us, for a time at least.