by Cheryl Vollmar
It’s taken a long time to fully understand why my mother raised me the way she did. She’d grown up being beaten and raped in a home that was backwards, backwoods, and even more religious than the home she built with my father. Religious applies loosely because my grandfather was a minister who didn’t always practice what he preached. Mother was made to cook, clean, and wait on her family like a servant. Her father believed a woman belonged at home rearing the children and taking care of the home, so she was not allowed the luxury of an education past the age of sixteen when she was old enough to get a job. She also met my father that year; he was thirty-eight at the time. My grandfather thought my dad had money because he drove a little sports car, and happily gave her away in marriage just ten days after she turned seventeen. I was born two years later. She went from being a child to being a wife and then a mother before most girls her age had even completed their first year in college. She hadn’t had the opportunity to date, or get to know herself like most people do in their late teens and twenties. She didn’t know what the world was like outside of her little bubble of home and church life, and never learned how to survive on her own. She was raising me as best she could only with the resources and examples she had from her own parents, and those resources were twisted and absolutely insane.
We rarely had interaction with our relatives on my mother’s side. When holidays came around, it always seemed like Mom felt obligated to participate in family gatherings despite her upbringing. I was too young to comprehend why she told me not to be alone in the same room with certain family members, but I remember being frightened by it. Despite her past and her fear of what could happen to her children, she never completely broke ties with her abusers, and even tried to reconcile with them. Upon examining my past I’ve recognized this behavior in myself at times, and have come to realize it was a behavior taught, but one I never wanted to learn.
Mom always told me that she knew what she was doing when she married my father. Perhaps she did, but I believe her motives were just to get out of the hell her father and brothers had her trapped in, and she got lucky. Despite the twenty-two year difference in their ages, my parents were a shining example of a happy marriage. My father was a kind and gentle man who did everything in his power to provide for and encourage us all. He took care of my mother; he was the calm to the angry storm inside her. Although she was never seen by a medical professional, Mom had several signs of some sort of mental health disorder. She could very easily fly off the handle for little to no reason at all. With everything she had endured as a child, PTSD was quite plausible and sometimes I could see signs of bipolar disorder. It seemed like the more time passed the more she resented marrying and having children so young, making the storm sometimes impossible to calm.
My parents had made marriage seem so easy. I only recall seeing them argue twice during my childhood, although now as an adult I know it was more likely they just waged their wars behind closed doors away from me and my two siblings. For the longest time, I was under the impression the key to a happy existence was to avoid conflict by holding in the things that affected you and how it made you feel. I held my emotions in as much as possible, even into adulthood, until I met the breaking point and all my doubts and fears, every little thing that upset me, just spewed from my mouth as salty tears ran down my hot face. I couldn’t justify my actions in these moments. I couldn’t explain why I was bringing up things that had no relevance in the present. Even now that I recognize it isn’t healthy, I still find myself holding things in and allowing resentment to fester when I should simply voice my concerns or disappointment. I think it comes from a fear of the unknown and confrontation. I don’t want to fight and argue; I don’t want to risk losing another person or risk being homeless again. And I never quite know when I’m being unreasonable. I’ve been told so many times that my opinions and feelings are invalid that I eventually began to believe it.
Dad worked all day while Mom ran a daycare in a large room Dad built on to our home when I was seven years old. She was great with the children who came into our house, but quickly lost her patience and composure when it came to her own kids, and I always seemed to receive the brunt of her frustrations. Although some of the kids occasionally saw what happened to me at the hands of my mother, only one person ever stepped in or said anything. He was a man who had worked for my mother, and he was immediately fired for confronting her. I found out years later that my mother had threatened to publicly accuse him of acting inappropriately with the children if he ever said a word about how I was being treated. But I had no knowledge of him ever acting inappropriately with anyone. He was a very kind man, actually.
Mom was over-protective, and raised me in a very sheltered manner. She showed no mercy when it came to passing judgement. Expectations of behavior, acquaintances, grades, and chores were high, often too lofty and ridiculous for me to ever meet. This resulted in what seemed to be a never ending emotional and physical assault that slowly broke me down a little more every time I attempted to please her and failed. I was expected to act like a little lady at all times; sit quietly with my legs crossed and my hands in my lap and not speak unless spoken to. We spent countless hours in church every week, and more often than not, I was punished severely once we returned home for not being able to live up to those standards. I was told very little of the outside world, and often the view I was given skewed far from the truth. No one in the house was allowed to watch a movie with a rating higher than PG-13, and even some of those films were even considered too risque. The only music that played in the house was gospel or country, and country was considered worldly in my parent’s view. There were very few conversations in regards to sex and relationships or drugs and alcohol. The ones held were typically short and laden with scrutiny. Rather than teach me how to form my own opinions and make responsible decisions, I was conditioned to believe anyone or anything that went against the Pentecostal beliefs was to be avoided at all costs, Hell being the ultimate punishment for crossing those lines.
The parents and lifestyles of any friends I made outside of church were thoroughly investigated by my mother for wholesome standards before I was allowed to spend any sort of time with them, and usually I was only allowed to see those friends if they came to my house where my mother could supervise what was being said and done. I was expected to make nothing less than an A in any subject in school. In my early years of education this was an easier demand to meet, but once I reached fifth grade I was annexed from my small country school to the larger district nearby. The old school was a year behind in curriculum, which caused a great deal of confusion and difficulty for me. But instead of getting the help I needed, I was treated as though I wasn’t trying hard enough. Rather than being guided to grow into a responsible adult, my life was ruled by fear. Fear, not of what the consequences of my actions would yield, but fear of what my mother would do to me.
Mother believed wholly in the spare the rod, spoil the child philosophy. I was hit often – sometimes with a hand, other times with whatever object was nearby. I was no stranger to how belts, hangers, or even the retro wooden spoon that hung on the kitchen wall felt when being used as a weapon against me for my transgressions. Once, a ping pong paddle was warped on my bottom, at which time my mother laughed and joked about framing it and hanging it on the wall as a constant reminder to behave. There was the time she told me not to utter another word as she verbally assaulted me, then slapped my face and head repeatedly for not talking when she took a moment to catch her breath. As I got older, I was tasked with making sure my brother and sister behaved. If they did something wrong and I didn’t handle it properly I was punished for their actions. I was given a heavy load of responsibility at home when my mother decided to return to school to continue her education. If I didn’t complete my chores and tasks to her unattainable standards and in what she considered to be a timely manner, I was punished.
I believe I was spanked more often than slapped because the welts and bruises to my bottom and legs were easily covered and relatively undiscoverable. I learned at a very early age to take what was coming to me without screaming or crying. Sometimes I would go to her to be punished when I knew it was coming, just so we could get it over with. If I just took it solidly, with little reaction, my mother tended to stop sooner. On occasion, she liked to get a fist full of hair or a tight grip on my arm to hold me steady while she tore into me, but if I were fortunate enough to not meet this fate while being whooped, my best option was to wrap my arms around my lowered head and wait for her to finish. Sometimes if I did this, it would make her more angry and the punishment was doubled. After it was over and she had calmed down she would tell me at least she hadn’t broken my arm like her parents had done to her as a child, or at least I wasn’t being raped. I don’t know if she was trying to justify her actions to me or herself when she’d say things like that, but it was a lose-lose situation for me either way. I was a tender-hearted and fragile child, and this chastisement forced me into reclusive behavior to avoid further pain and punishment. I would spend hours at the piano losing myself in the music I created, or alone in my room crying in front of the mirror, wondering why I was such a terrible child.
My siblings were not immune to punishment, but were also too young to fully grasp what was happening to me. My brother was a difficult child from the moment he was born and received a fair amount of scolding and spankings himself. But Mom usually left his punishment to Dad to handle. My sister was the youngest and fit perfectly into the “can do no wrong” stereotype that often comes with being the baby of the family. I was the practice child: when they fucked up with me, they changed the way they handled similar situations with my siblings. My brother has his own mental health rap sheet, and understands where I am mentally to a certain degree because of our upbringing. But my sister somehow made it through life thus far relatively unscathed. She is the child to be proud of, the child who doesn’t struggle with social situations, the child who is right with God. She is also the most like my mother in so many ways, telling me and my brother that we are faking mental illness because we are lazy or not living a holy life, just as my mother has done so many times.
I have very few fond memories from home and school. I’m not saying there were only a few good moments of my life; I’m sure I’ve forgotten more than I remember. But the bad moments, the times I was vulnerable, in fear of failure, those are scars that still ache when they push to the forefront of my mind. It’s as though all the hard times cover up the good parts. I can’t remember who gave me a beautifully engraved turtle dove ornament that I still have. I can’t recall the names of my fellow players in Powder Puff football. When my classmates outside of my main group of friends add me on social media, I sometimes have to rack my brain to remember any sort of interaction with them. But I remember the bullies. I remember being singled out in class, then laughed out of the room as I ran to the bathroom to expel the bile brought to my throat from anxiety. I remember being called Cheryl Vomit. I remember all eyes on me as a couple of band mates lifted my skirt with a drumstick as I unknowingly played the cymbals. I remember being tripped up the stairs, my braces busting through my bottom lip. I remember so much, and yet, so little.
Dad didn’t witness the way Mom took her rage out on me during the day, and I didn’t tell him for fear of what would happen to me or to our family. I honestly didn’t know if he would even believe me; I thought surely he would stop her if she was being too rough with me. But her forms of punishment weren’t as harsh when he was home, so he didn’t realize how bad things had been until I was an adult and began counseling. I would confront my mother about something detrimental that had happened, and she would always deny it. She would get angry, sometimes furious when I brought things to light, and try to say I was a pathological liar. Dad began to put it all together while Mom and I would argue. But by then the damage had been done.
I connected to music at a very early age. I began piano lessons at five, wrote my first piece for the piano at six, and quickly picked up the ability to play by ear. I was drawn to the deep and lonesome tones of the minor keys, and found a certain comfort in them. I had a natural rhythm that lent itself to not only the piano, but the drums as well, and learned to play years before I joined the school band in the fifth grade and met my best friend Allison. I found refuge in Allison. My mother found Allison and her mother, Lori, loathsome. She said it was because they were crude, rude, and opinionated; I believe it was because they represented something my mother would never understand. Once, she told Lori that Allison was a terrible influence on me and would end up a druggie on welfare with six children. Lori challenged her to wager a bet on it. Not one to gamble because it was sinful, my mother (offended, of course) declined. She would have lost her shirt with that bet; I was the one who ended up with the drug problem and illegitimate child, not Allison. I was reaching an age where my mother wasn’t as capable of controlling every aspect of my life, but she did her best by only allowing sleepovers in our home and limiting how much time I spent with Allison away from the sanctity of her punishment. Allison was the only person I felt comfortable confiding in, but I still only told her a fraction of what my life at home was like. But a fraction was all she needed to hear to understand what was really going on when no one was around. All of my other friends considered Mother to be relatively cool because she would put on an act when they were around, as if to try and prove that I was delusional about whom she was behind closed doors.
Allison taught me more about the world than my mother ever would. By the time I was thirteen, I had developed deceitful and devious ways of keeping whatever was going on in my own little world to myself. There was a lack of trust from my mother when it came to making decisions on my own. I think this was because she had come to realize she couldn’t have really prepared me for life outside of our home and church. I mean, how could she prepare me, when she hadn’t experienced it herself? So I figured I would just go ahead and be the untrustworthy person she claimed I was. I was tired of constantly feeling like a disappointment, so I frequently lied to my parents and friends about where I was going or what I was doing so I wasn’t met with any disapproval. I didn’t understand that I should have been more concerned with how I felt and what I wanted, rather than the feelings and thoughts of anyone else. But the deep seeds of fear planted in me as a child had grown into a tangled, suffocating mess. I discovered pleasure in rock music, cigarettes, and sex; all of which were normal for a teenager, but would have sent my mother into an outright frenzy. I snuck boys into my room late at night, awkward hands fumbling as I learned how to touch a boy and how it felt for someone to caress me under the moonlight hazing through my room. I was becoming addicted to the attention I received from the guys who came in and out of my circle of friends, no matter how insignificant, positive – or negative – it was. I kept thinking someone would see how good, how compliant I really was and want me forever. But they all came and went.
My first real boyfriend was more than content to just kiss me for hours at a time. He never tried to get any further than second base with me despite my many attempts to seduce him. It confused me. I couldn’t understand why he didn’t want to have sex with me. And of course I couldn’t talk to my mother about it like other girls could. She had made it very clear that pre-marital sex was a carnal sin, but never told me how easy it was to lose yourself in the heat of passion. I didn’t recognize him for what he was: a gentleman. Instead, I viewed his self control as a lack of interest and broke up with him about six months into the relationship. I thought if he missed me enough, he would come back and take what he really wanted. I did all I could to make him jealous. Hanging on random guys; making sure he could see just how desirable I was to others. But he didn’t come back and a year later he fell asleep behind the wheel of his pickup on his way home from work. He was ejected through the back window. He suffered a blow to his head that turned the back of his skull into mush and killed him instantly. His body was found lifeless on the pavement. Despite the fact that we weren’t together, this loss affected me deeply. His death was in no way my fault, but I was guilt-ridden and wished I hadn’t treated him the way I did. I grieved endlessly, feeling as though I was never going to be allowed happiness because I wasn’t living the way my mother expected.
This was just the beginning of the insanity I call my love life. I tried to copy my parents’ love story, not realizing that it was more than a little screwed up. For the longest time I thought I was supposed to marry the first guy who proposed to me, so that’s exactly what I did. That’s how it worked for my parents. I was never told how to determine if someone was really ready for marriage or if they were worthy of me. Instead, I had been led to believe that God would simply place the right companion in my life. I look back on it now and cringe, wondering where I would be now if only had I known what was to come after the decisions I had made.
It was all downhill from that point.
Cheryl Vollmar is a red-headed hot mess, specializing in bad decisions since 1979. She has held well over fifty job titles in twenty years, and decided on a whim to choose Writer during the 2013 National Novel Writing Month. She is the proud mother of a kind-hearted fifteen year old boy and a precocious five-year-old Yorkie, and resides in southwest Missouri. As a homebody, she loves to cook and bake, and, much like her job experience, has too many projects crammed in her crafting closet thanks to her addiction to Pinterest. Born into a musical family, she also sings, plays piano and drums, and likes to think she has an eclectic taste in music. But her favorite past-time by far, is riding behind her ole man on their Harley Fatboy, where she swears the wind sings harmony to whatever tune she has playing in her head.
She believes with enough coffee, anything is possible.