When I think of strength I think of my mother. I think of all the things that tried to break her. I think of her abusive childhood, her cancer diagnosis, all her surgeries, and losing my dad. She’s the strongest woman I know and if there’s anything I’ve learned from her it’s that when life happens, you have to put on your big girl pants and push through. Because in the end, you’ll come out better than you were before. You’ll come out a warrior and a champion.
Our relationship is a roller coaster. In the past she was my worst enemy and I held a lot of resentment to her from my childhood. I didn’t agree with her parenting style or all the secrets our family kept. Like how our family was excluded from fun activities or occasions. We weren’t allowed to have fun with all my other cousins. I dug and dug until I striked something that made sense.
My grandfather, my mother’s father was ashamed of us. Or maybe he was ashamed of himself for the abuse he put my mother through during her childhood. His drunkenness made all of us uncomfortable. We all steered clear of him because when he was drunk he would pick on anyone and sometimes even became violent.
My poor grandmother.
She was the one he picked on the most. He would call her names and pull her beautiful blonde hair. I never saw any marks on her body, but when I looked into her eyes, I could see the pain. I could see what he was doing to her and it angered me.
Why would no one save her from his abuse?
Why didn’t anyone save my mother when she was a child?
Why didn’t anyone save me when I was being abused?
The cycle of abuse kept turning and I found myself in the middle of a family struggle. I found myself questioning my thoughts and my relationships. I found myself not able to trust anyone in my family. I became the outcast and the black sheep. I was alone.
When I think of strength I think of the reasons why I ran across the street to explore the horse barn. Across the street from my childhood home was a barn. The driveway had crumbled concrete coming up and not all the electric fences worked, but this place was magic to me. I came here to find something I was missing.
I remember when I found this place I was the only one there, so I took the opportunity to visit each horse and each field. The smell of the dirt and hay filled my nostrils and it felt like I was in another world. I felt weightless. I felt free. Thankfully our neighbors didn’t mind a kid wandering around their property in the middle of the day.
My mother has a horseshoe shaped scar on her head from the many brain surgeries she had to remove the tumor they found decades ago. Sometimes I wonder if it was an accident. Did they know she would have a child who would fall in love with the beauty of the horse?
Outside of the barn I attended Franklin Heights High School and endured the frightening walks through the hallway to each class hoping no one would call out, “bitch” or “whore”. More times than not I wasn’t so lucky. When I would come home from school I would go to my room and try not to think about the mean things my peers would say to me. I had more things to worry about like how my mother would make me feel worse, like I deserved the torture I recived at school.
At the barn, away from all my problems, I felt accepted. I knew I could trust my friends when I told them about my sexual assault at a party a few months prior. They gave me the support I needed.
When I told my parents and my friends at school about it, I was outcast and labeled a liar and a whore. I was forced to be put on birth control that made me gain weight, lose my hair, and become miserable. I didn’t feel safe anywhere.
When I was at the barn with all the horses and my friends I felt alive. I felt whole and worthy. I felt like I had a purpose in the world. There was one horse in particular that I had fallen for.
Her name was Tivey and she was a Polish-Arabian mare with tons of spunk and sass. She was white with speckles of orange and brown in her coat and she had the prettiest blonde hair. I remember spending hours brushing and braiding her mane in her stall staring into her beautiful dark eyes. TIvey taught me how to be strong. She taught me how to stand up for myself and never take a moment for granted. She was the kind of horse that loved to work. We had riding lessons that her owner and my friend gave us once a week.
Jean taught me how to be strong as well. She is the kind of woman who knows her worth and will speak her truth even if it causes discomfort with others. She’s not afraid to tell it as it is. If you can’t tell by her braided purple hair, she’s a bad bitch. I remember the day she told me she wanted to make a deal with me.
It was a hot summer day and we were working cleaning stalls and feeding the morning grain. We were walking towards the riding arena when she asked me if I wanted to take care of Tivey for her and in exchange she would give me riding lessons on Friday night after school. I couldn’t say yes fast enough.
During the rest of her life, TIvey spent her days grazing in the field, rolling in dirt, and riding in and outside the arena on the weekends. Her and I were inseparable and I’m so grateful for the opportunity to have known her before she passed away.
When I made it through high school and graduated, I made it a goal of mine to move away from Ohio after college. I felt that there was nothing left here for me to explore and I needed to stretch my wings and explore something new.
When I think of strength I think of myself. I think of all the things that tried to break me. Moving to Michigan feels like a fresh start. I have a new job and a new place to live with the love of my life. He’s taught me how to be strong. He pushes me in similar ways that my friends back at the barn did. I feel alive here. I feel whole. I feel free to be me and worthy of all life’s opportunities. I know that I am strong because when I look back I see all the challenges that I faced. I see the struggles at night and the mornings where I wake up and think, “why did I wake up this morning? What is there to life?”.
When I think of strength I think of the degrees I earned and the dreams I followed to get to the place I am today writing this story to you. When I think of strength I think of how I walked away years ago from my mother and her abuse and how that changed her. Now I can look her in the eye and hold a conversation. There is still resistance, but I was able to let go of a lot of resentment and pain. I like to think she was able to let go of some too.
My family will always be a mystery to me. The secrets they keep around my mother and my grandmother’s abuse will always anger me, but I also know that the cycle of abuse gets to stop with me. I get to live a life that is free of violence and pain. I get to have a family of my own and raise them with love and safety. I get to be the mother I never had.
I don’t blame my mother for the way she treated me when I was growing up. She was processing her own trauma from her past. She is in control of her own actions and accountability needs to be taken, but I understand why she behaved the way she did. I understand that trauma gets handled differently by everyone and not everyone gets the help they need. I only hope that one day she faces her demons and comes out stronger than ever.