Continuing from my previous post (2 of 4) of the same title . . . :
In my previous post, I listed three of a handful of items that, taken together, have led me to believe there is a substantial possibility that my sister was sexually abused by our father.
Here is a fourth:
Memory of an Incident at the Dining Room Table:
The memory I’m about to recount by itself would mean little, but in the context of the items I’ve mentioned in my previous post, and of various specific aspects of my own experience of being sexually abused as a child by our father, this memory, for me anyway, carries substantial potential import.
I was twelve or in my early teens – no older than fifteen I would say. We were seated at the dining room table and in the process of eating dinner at the previously-mentioned house on Hampton Avenue in Nashville. (This was when we were still living in that house as a legally intact family, before my parents divorced and, with my mother moving out, our father continued living in the house but by himself . . . until, that is, my parents married each other a second time, which second time lasted for about ten years before they divorced again, but those are other stories . . . .)
I was seated in my usual place at the circular table – between my mother and father and with my back to the living room window. I believe my brother, who was about two years older than me, was at the table as well, which could argue for my being only twelve or thirteen or so, since my brother had, I believe, started going to boarding schools away from Nashville by the time I was fourteen or so, although he could have been back home during a holiday period. In any case, I believe I remember my brother being seated, as usual, on the opposite side of the table from myself (if one considers the two sides as having been made by a line running through the table’s center from my mother to our father) in a chair closer to my mother, while my sister, Alice, was seated on the opposite side as well, in a chair closer to our father.
The specific part of the memory carrying the import comprises only a few, brief moments: my sister – after looking towards our father, or perhaps after being spoken to by our father, and if she was spoken to, I can’t recall what it was our father said to her – lowering her head and looking down (at her plate? her hands in her lap? I can’t recall precisely) with a certain feeling about her, a sunken heaviness of shame, then bursting into tears and dashing from the table to her room.
Also carrying import is what I recall feeling as these few, brief moments transpired: a sense of knowing what my sister’s shame was about, but without being aware, at all, on a conscious level, of what this “about” was about.
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this site, and attempted to articulate, or at least suggest, the mechanism and process of in Preludes, an extended short story focusing on my sexual abuse as a child by our father, I had no conscious memories at this time, of this dining room table incident involving my sister, of my own experience of our father’s sexual abuse. Conscious memories did not begin to return for me until a point in the first half of my twenties, when the memory of a single incident (of my father masturbating in front of me under the pretext of toilet training, in the downstairs bathroom of the house we were then living in on Central Avenue in Nashville; occurring, to the best of my recollection, when I was three or four years old) came back to me, following which when I was thirty-four years old the bulk of my sexual abuse memories concerning our father, catalyzed by a life crisis I was facing at the time, returned.
So yes, I had no conscious memories of my own abuse at the time of this incident concerning my sister, and yet I had the definite sense of knowledge of the source of my sister’s shame, which source, as I’m suggesting here, would have been our father’s sexual abuse of my sister.
One specific reason for this sense of knowing may very well, I believe, have to do with a resonance between this dining room table incident involving my sister’s possible sexual abuse by our father and an earlier dining room table incident involving my own sexual abuse by our father. This earlier incident, the memory of which I recovered when I was thirty-four, forms the basis of one of the chapters of Preludes, which chapter is based to a substantial degree on the details of the memory itself. The setting of the chapter is the family dining table during dinnertime (in a house like the one we lived in on Central Avenue) the evening after the the father had come to one of his son’s beds in the middle of the night and, under a pretext of punishment, raped the son, whose name in the story is “Sam.” I quote here the paragraphs of that chapter most relevant to this earlier resonating incident:
. . .
As always, they held hands, bowed their heads, and closed their eyes, and his father proceeded to say grace: “Bless, oh Lord, this food to our use and us to thy service, in Christ’s name, Amen.” Before the prayer was finished, the boy opened his eyes to examine his father’s face—gloom-darkened, as it often was, but, it seemed to the boy, more so this evening than usual. The boy kept looking at his father as they took, from under their forks to the left of their plates, the thick, white paper napkins his mother bought at the West End Avenue A&P, unfolded them, and laid them on their laps. (Linen napkins, embroidered with the initials of female ancestors, were reserved for Sunday dinner and guests.) He kept looking as his sister and brother, and then, at his mother’s prompting, he also, handed their plates to their parents, who served them the dinner the maid had prepared. He kept looking as their father, his tie fastened to his starched white shirt by a thin brass clip, picked up a silver carving knife and its two-tined matching fork to slice the meat loaf that filled the china serving platter before him, placing the juicy slices on each of their plates as they were passed to him; and as their mother used silver serving spoons to add green beans, glazed carrots, and mashed potatoes from china serving bowls, spooning gravy over the potatoes with a silver ladle from a china tureen, then offered them home-made rolls from a cloth-covered wicker basket. Through all of these routine dinnertime activities, the boy glanced away from his father as briefly as possible—to unfold his napkin or when his mother took his plate to serve him his vegetables, then handed it back to him, or offered him a roll—returning to his father’s face each time, searching for the smallest sign of acknowledgement.
Somewhere, perhaps, in the depths of the boy’s heart, far beneath the level of his consciousness, with its complete forgetting of what had happened, a wild hope feebly stirred—a hope that, were it put into words, could perhaps have been articulated thusly: that his father would set down the carving knife and fork, look him full in the face, and, after settling himself with a long, deep sigh, say in the calmest and sincerest of tones, “Sam, I made a terrible mistake last night. You didn’t misbehave and so, of course, you didn’t need to be punished. In fact, I was the one who misbehaved, and terribly so, and not just in punishing you for no reason, but in the horrible way that I did it. Sam, my dearly beloved son, can you ever forgive me?”
But his father finished serving the meat loaf silently, with averted eyes, serving himself last, then—responding to their mother’s tautly cheerful, “Bill, would you care for some vegetables?” with a leaden “Yes,” the same way he’d said the prayer—passing his plate to his wife via the boy’s sister, receiving it back, hunching over his food, and becoming completely absorbed with his eating.
The china, a Blue Willow pattern by Wedgewood, was for everyday use. The boy’s mother had given it a prominent place on her bridal registry, along with the sterling silver flatware—engraved at the handles in elaborate cursive with her initials—which also was for everyday, and which the boy, his sister, brother, and mother, following the father’s lead, now picked up to begin eating. The pattern’s platter, serving dishes, tureen, and plates all depicted a faraway world of gazebos, pavilions, and willow trees bordering placid lakes and gently flowing streams over which glided pairs of beautiful, broad-winged birds—a world of harmony, order, and tranquility into which the boy would, on many evenings as he ate, frequently find himself escaping. But tonight the boy didn’t notice this world at all, nor did he pick up his knife or fork as he kept looking at his father.
The boy looked from his father’s laden fork, his cheeks bulging with food, his tensing and releasing jaw muscles, back to his own plate, but he didn’t feel hungry at all—this though he felt an emptiness inside greater than he’d ever known. When his mother offered the butter dish for buttering his roll, he shook his head slowly and returned his attention to his father, who, sullen-faced and hunched over his plate, continued forking in mouthfuls, chewing dully, swallowing, then forking in more.
The more he watched his father eat, the less desire the boy felt for the food on his plate. Each time he looked at it, it seemed even less appetizing while the feeling of emptiness deepened. The boy looked from his food back to his father again, waiting for his father to offer him the smallest crumb of recognition—a word, a smile, the briefest glance, anything at all. A movement as small as a raised eyebrow might have struck the boy as a sign of acknowledgement, of approval even, but his father gave him nothing, seemed unaware of his existence as he stayed hunched over his food, consuming it with a mechanical regularity; his eyes glazed, seeming to look only half at what he was eating and half inside themselves; his attention absorbed completely with nothing left for the boy.
“Why aren’t you eating your food, Sam?”
His mother’s words broke his focus. His sister and brother looked up for a moment, glanced at their mother, then their father, hurriedly looked back down at their plates and returned to eating their food; but the boy, who usually ate more quickly than they, still hadn’t taken a single bite. He looked at his mother, her brow furrowed with incomprehension, then down at his food, then at his father. His mother looked from him to his father, then back to him. The emptiness inside him felt like it wanted to, needed to, absolutely had to maintain itself. Glancing again at his food, then back at his father, he felt himself sinking into his emptiness.
“Sam, I want you to eat your food.”
His mother’s tone had sharpened, but the boy continued to stare at his father—at his father’s mouth taking in food, chewing and swallowing; at his father’s eyes and the way they seemed to be half-looking inside themselves.
“Sam, I will not let you leave this table until you eat your food!”
His mother’s tone had sharpened more, turned absolute.
The boy cycled through again—looking at his mother, his father, then at his food—as he felt himself sinking further and further into the emptiness inside him. Then, sensing the hopelessness of it all, he picked up his fork, and, releasing a long, quiet sigh, cut a small piece of meat loaf from the slice his father had put on his plate, secured it with the tines of his fork, lifted it, put it into his mouth, and—his mother’s eyes fixed upon him, his father still ignoring him—slowly began to chew
The central resonance – as I feel it when I recall these two dinner table memories together, side-by-side, as I’m now writing – had to do with the sense of shame – or perhaps it was shame admixed with guilt – which I propose I and my sister felt in common in response to our father’s sexual abuse, combined with our father’s complete refusal – or utter incapacity – to acknowledge the behavior on his part constituting this abuse, or give even the slightest hint or indication of the possibility of such an acknowledgement, within the public (in a family sense) setting of a family dinner.
More to follow in “My Sister’s Tragic Early Death—The Possible CSA Backstory (4 of 4).”
The entire contents of this post and the previous and upcoming connected posts – outside of a few for the most part minor changes and additions – can be found in a single very long post I posted on July 19th of this year . I’m re-posting that longer post’s contents again, as a 4-post series, to make them more easily digestible, and also since, now that I’ve started using Twitter and can post tweets linked to this blog’s posts, the contents of that longer post are among the most important of this blog’s posts to me personally and, I believe, the most potentially useful to others. If you want to read everything at once and together, click/tap here to view the July 19th post.)