The Shadows of yesterday
(One Family's Crisis)
By Carmen Pena
Can you imagine growing up in a house saturated with secrets, lies, neglect and abuse? What if you were a child when all these things began to happen, and you being so young had no voice to speak out against the injustice that was being done, not only to yourself but, to your siblings as well? Do you think you can forgive, forget and overcome? If so, tell me how to do that because I have been trying for years to forget, forgive and move on. But, no matter how hard I try, no matter how many miles come between me and the ugly past; the dark shadows of yesterday keep battering my adult life like ocean waves, beating and crashing against the shoreline on a stormy day.
One would think that since you are an adult now; with a family, a brand new home and managing your own business, that you are successful; and by now have over come your childhood miseries, that by now you would have defeated the pain and won the battle, after all, it’s been nearly twenty-five years ago. However, because of recurring situations, time has not healed this deep, cancerous wound and now I feel scarred for life.
Who’s to blame for all of this misery that has invaded my life, my sibling’s lives since our childhood days?
Chapter 1 The Victims of Unjust Cruelty
Every child should have the chance to grow up in a loving, nurturing, protective family; a family with a strong foundation, no matter how rich or poor they are, because there are some things that money just can’t buy, and that is a sound peace of mind, and protection from the wolves that prey on the young, the innocent, the vulnerable and the unsuspecting ones, protection from the ones who hide their heads in the sand, or look the other way as they go through their lives with blinders over their eyes; hiding from the truth, covering it all up, pretending it doesn’t exist as if they have the perfect life, and they don’t want anything or anyone to compromise it.
This is our story, from our point of view, the victims of unjust cruelty. It’s not a crime to grow up poor, there will always be the “the haves and the ones who have not. But, in the year 1973, when I was four years of age, we were the ones who didn’t have; living in Santiago, the Dominican Republic, where my roots really began.
I, Lorena Ramirez came into being when my mother was just sixteen-years-old. At this young, tender age you can imagine that this was not a planned pregnancy. I was not the result of two souls lost in love, or a union blessed in the eyes of God. My mother wore no wedding ring on her finger. She did not hold the papers of claim that would bind she and my father ‘til death do us part.’ My mother, Sophia Ramirez, was young, naive and impressionable; who was captured by a smooth talking, married man. Not just any married man, but a married man who was her employer. A married man who it seemed was attracted to the young, shy and vulnerable. You know the kind; they use, abuse and just spit you out when they are finished with you.
My father, Alfonso Dubois also lived in Santiago with his wife. They were considered to be the upper class, the elite. My mother worked as their housekeeper; a maid who did the washing, cleaning and ironing. She was a servant for his family’s needs. And, after he won her heart with his flirting and emptied promises, she just became another notch under his belt, a conquest that ended with pain, despair and pregnancy.
After my father found out that my mother was pregnant, it was like he lost his mind, trying to find a way out of the situation that he bought on to himself. He even tried to have me aborted three different times by making my mother drink something that he thought would cause a miscarriage. But, it didn’t work, when that happened the only thing he could do was deny the fact that I, Lorena Ramirez was actually his. After I was born, my father took his wife, Marlana and moved to Rochester New York. He was gone forever from Santiago, my mother’s life and mine. Mom and some friends of hers tried to contact him by way of letters, trying to get him to own up to his responsibilities towards me, but every attempt was ignored because the recipient of the letters never responded.
After battling the fact that she was a young, single mother, Sophia Ramirez also had to live with the thought of her own father disowning her for having a child out of wedlock. My maternal grandfather lost respect for his daughter and he looked down on me because I was the result of her infidelity. My grandparents and my aunts felt completely different, they adored me and went out of their way to assist my mother in her struggles to raise me alone. That’s what I call womanhood; strong women looking pass the mistakes of other females and helping one another when the male species fail them. It was hard because by then most of my relatives, including my maternal grandmother was already living in the United States, a dream that we all had because of the conditions in Santiago. But, that’s my family; we have a strong bond, at least that’s the way it started out to be, too bad that bond was broken somewhere along this journey.
Once my mother realized that my father was gone for good, she did everything in her power to care for me. She was happy, I was happy and most of all she loved me and protected me. Her motherly instincts were intact. She was a perfect young, single mother until men started coming into her life, one by one.
It was just me and my mother, Sylvia Ramirez. We were poor, but we were happy, a family in those early days of Santiago, in the Dominican Republic. I was an only child for five years. I adored being with my mother, having her around was all I needed and wanted, even though my father was no where to be found, life was still sweet and good until…Jose Hernandez came into the picture, the first stepfather. No, this isn’t one of those things where the child is jealous of the man in her mother’s life. Jealousy has nothing to do with it.
This was the beginning of the “Stepfathers from Hell.” There have been four major men that have been a big part of my mother’s life while I was growing up; and out of the four, including my own biological father, Alfonso Dubois, only one could deserve a medal of honor and respect because he was the real, true father figure. He did not hurt us physically or mentally. Single mothers really should be careful who they bring home to be the head of their households and the stepfathers to their children.
Jose, Stepfather #1 was the first, physically abusive male figure in my life and in my mother’s life. The only thing good and worthy that came out of their relationship are my sister Gloria and brother David. Everything else is sour grapes and garbage. Jose was big, 6’2 with blue eyes with black, curly, short hair; very intimidating image to a four-year-old. When we moved in with Jose, we relocated to his small wooden frame house with two bedrooms, a kitchen and living room; the bathroom was a toilet in a old outhouse that sat in the backyard of the home. Mother must have thought she was marrying her knight in shining armor. I wonder, what did she think? If she had to do it all over again, would she? Would she make changes? Would she even think about us?
Perhaps, my mother’s choice of men, and her lack of self esteem began after the desertion of my father Alonso that set her on the path of no return, not just for herself but, for her children as well.
I was five-years-old when Gloria was born. It should have been a happy time for my mother and me, but how can you honestly find happiness in an abusive family?
Where can a five-year-old go to escape the physical and mental abuse bought on by an adult? Jose used to scare me so bad, especially with his discipline, he was always too rough and mean. He didn’t know how to be gentle, not with me or mom. I believe he found pleasure in chasing me around the house with a leather strap, ready to beat me anytime I done something wrong.
I can recall so many times when he would physically attack my mother in front of me, he didn’t care. He didn’t show any passion at all for either of us. I remember one particular time when he was using my mother as a punching bag, hitting her with his huge fist; she was screaming hysterically and crying, pleading for him to stop, but he wouldn’t. Then there was another time when I walked into the room and saw him terrorizing and hurting her. I grabbed the first thing that I could find, which was a small, thick metal rod, and I jabbed it into his behind as hard as I could. Mom and I had to run for our lives after that happened. We escaped the wrath of the mad man that day. But, that was short lived because like always, mom returned home when she thought he had cooled down, and then the ugly episodes would start all over again; a few days, or a week later. As I look back on it….it was crazy and the scenes are still etched in my mind.
After my sister Gloria was born, things settled down for a bit, Jose was trying hard to be human, but he didn’t last long. Soon the abusive behavior began again and the monster was back. I wondered often, ‘was he crazy? How could he do this to us?’
They even went through a separation period that lasted for several months; peaceful months that weren’t long enough now that I think about it. When the separation was over, and they called themselves reuniting, that’s when my brother David was born. Now, I had a sister and a brother; I was thrilled…for a little while because all of a sudden, out of the blue, I was taken away from my family. At that age, I didn’t know why, but I heard that the reason was accusing Jose of touching me inappropriately. Why get rid of me? Wouldn’t one get rid of the violator, especially when it is a child who has been violated, at least investigate the accusations? Even though I don’t remember much of that, probably because I blocked it from my mind, I don’t believe a child would lie about something like that. What do they have to gain? Besides, I am not a liar, I don’t plot and plan revenge; after all, I was six-years old when I was taken away. I may not recall the alleged sexual abuse done to me by this man; however, I do remember the beatings he gave my mother. I remember him chasing me around the house with a leather belt, and him picking me up from school. I know for a fact that stepfather #1 had hurt me physically, emotionally; every time he hurt my mother, he would hurt me, even if he didn’t touch me.
The abuse went on for several more years before my mother finally decided that she had had enough, but the damage was already shaped in my mind. I was uncomfortable and very unhappy living in that house, and my mother, it seemed didn’t have a clue that I was being affected. It was my maternal grandmother who took me away while she was in Santiago, coming all the way from United States to visit the family that she had left behind. When I was taken away from my mother’s home and forced to live away from my family, I was devastated. Why did I have to leave and not him? I wasn’t the one hurting her. Did I do something wrong? Why didn’t someone ask me what I wanted? I had so many unanswered questions when my grandmother took me to the home of Mrs. Gallo. Was my grandmother trying to protect me the only way she knew how, since she was living in the United States? I didn’t know Mrs. Gallo, she wasn’t a relative. I was living amongst strangers, not to mention having to adjust to a new school. It was hard and I was miserable even though Edna Gallo was a good woman; she still wasn’t my mother, she wasn’t even family. I never understood why I was bought there, and why I stayed for almost a year.
Mrs. Gallo was a fifty-year-old woman with 6 children. Of what I can remember, she probably weighed about 170 pounds, with mid length, salt and pepper colored hair, which she wore in a bun on top of her head. She ran her own little café shop on the busy main street of Santiago. While I was under her care and supervision, I did have a long list of daily chores to do; I guess you could say I was earning my keep. While she was busy selling deserts and drinks to her customers, it was my job to keep the bottles washed and cleaned for refills. She would also have me doing errands for her, running on foot from one store to the next to pick up supplies that she ran out of. I remember almost being hit by a car once, while I was on one of her many errands. She kept me busy with work, either at the café, or in her home. Mom would come and visit me every once in a while;
However, every time she would get ready to leave, I would plead with her to take me with her. It was a sad moment when she would ignore my cries, my tantrums and then walk away from me as if I didn’t matter. I can recall one particular time when she came for a visit and started to leave, I carried on so bad that she finally gave in, perhaps in desperation, or maybe it was out of anger because she gave me a warning; stating that there was no food for me to eat at her house. Her cupboards and refrigerator were bare; but I didn’t care, I was going home where I belonged. I was going to be with my family. But, much to my surprise I soon found out that there was no food. She couldn’t feed an extra mouth not even for one day. That night for dinner we ate tomatoes. The next morning, I was returned to Mrs. Gallo’s; I stayed with my foster mother until my mom divorced stepfather #1, by then, she had given birth to our new baby brother, David. When Jose was gone, I returned home. I was happy to be with my growing family, but I wondered…..was Jose the cause of me being sent away, he’s gone and I am back? Will I ever find out the truth, or will I always have to go with my on assumptions? The picture looks very clear in my mind.
After the divorce, my mother decided that she was going to live her life as a single parent, just her and us kids. She was not going to go through the hassles of men and relationships anymore. Twice burnt was too many times. She was going to focus on us and get her life together. That’s when we moved in with her sister, Aunt Rosita, Aunt Rose is what we called her. Rosita Guzman was a plump, big chesty, dark skinned woman. She was always laughing and joking around. She had a cheery disposition.
She was always in a good mood. Aunt Rose had five children of her own, all of us living in her big, three bedroom house. With eight kids running around, it was noisy and somewhat crowded, but nothing like living with Jose. Living under Aunt Rose’s roof was serene. We didn’t have to be afraid, and we didn’t have to go hungry.
It was during this time and I was eight-years-old, that I met my father for the first time. A day and time had been set up for him to come by. I was so excited, Gloria and David had a real flesh and blood father, and they knew him. Now I was about to meet mine. I was ecstatic. When the moment arrived I stood looking up into his face, starring up at him into his hazel colored eyes and his caramel colored skin. I thought he was the most handsome of men on earth; he looked like a movie star to me and I loved him instantly because he was my daddy, regardless of what he done to my mother. I was on cloud nine, that’s how proud I felt that day. But, that too was short lived because he only gave me twenty minutes of his life, and then presented me with a Mickey Mouse watch, a small token of his love, and then he was gone. I didn’t get to find out anything about him, if he had other children, if he was still married or anything. He was just gone. He slipped out of my life just as fast as he slipped in. The next time I saw Alonso Dubois was six years later, I was fourteen-years-old.
Not long after that unforgettable visit, my paternal grandmother, Antonia Dubois came to visit me out of the blue. This was the first time I had met anyone on my father’s side of the family, ‘my roots’. This strange lady entered my life in just one day and begged my mother to let me come and live with her for a while. No body asked me if I wanted to go; if they would have, I would have said NO, but there I was being taken away from my family again, to go live amongst strangers. How could my mother let me go like that? I asked myself that question over and over again. Was it better for her not to have me around? I lived with my grandmother for a year. It was both good times and bad.
Antonia Dubois was a Caucasian lady, a born again Christian. She was medium height, with long dark brown hair, with just a few strands of grey starting to appear. She looked sophisticated, posed and proper. She also had hazel colored eyes, just like my dad’s. He resembled her more than he resembled his father who went out of his way to make me feel like family, unlike my maternal grandfather. I used to run to get his slippers when he would come home from work. He always let me count out the money that jingled in his pant pockets and let me keep it. The biggest thrill for me being with them would be on Saturdays, when grandfather Abbot would take me to his farm and I would help him with the vegetable garden and the animals. Grandmother Antonia wasn’t as lenient or soft hearted as her husband, she was more of the disciplinarian, and she was strict. I was afraid of her. In a way, she reminded me of someone else who had problems disciplining. It seemed I would always find myself in big trouble because of my lack of manners; I had trouble being posh, and elegant. I was not the debutant type. There is not an uppity bone in my body.
There were two other cousins living with my grandparents at that time; my cousin Kelly, who was actually Caucasian looking with long sandy colored hair. Her father was a rich, white man. She was nine-years-old, and grandmother treated her like a princess.
The other cousin who was also nine-years-old, was my cousin Torres, he was black with tall, slender features. His skin tone was darker than mine. He used to sleep in a room outside the house. Why that was done, I do not know. We were relatives even though our skin tones came in all shades from white, to deep chocolate brown. It seems in the Dubois family, if you were brown skin, you were treated differently. Torres and I were like Kelly’s hand maids, doing all kinds of things for her. If she wanted a sandwich, we would fix it for her. If she wanted something cold to drink from the corner store, we would have to go get it for her. But, regardless of all that, she was still my best cousin and friend. I loved her.
Grandmother Antonia had her good moments too. I remember she bought me some gifts for our Christmas celebration on January 6. It is our custom to celebrate the three wise men in my country, and not Santa Claus like the do in the United States. One thing great that I can attribute to my father’s mother is the fact that she sent me to church every Sunday. She put me on the right track. She gave me something to believe in and trust. She taught me faith in God. She is the one who gave me my religious roots. It is this root that has kept me from loosing my adult mind during all of this.
My mother would come for visits sometimes; I didn’t put up a fuss like I did before when she started to leave with out me. I suppose it was because I was older, and maybe, being with the Dubois’ wasn’t all that bad. At least I had a firm foundation and home life. There was some stability.
Once when my mother came, she stayed for three whole days, and on the third day she and Grandmother had a heated argument about something. Mom packed her bags in a rage, ready to leave instantly; only this time she took me back home with her. I was happy to be reunited with my mother, my family again. When I left Grandmother Dubois’ house, I was nine-years old. Mom had just moved into a new apartment. I was happy to be with my family, but deep down inside, I felt like a nine-year-old intruder because mom didn’t seem happy that I was back under her care, maybe because she now had three kids to take care of. Before I came home to stay, mom was sharing the new apartment with another aunt, her sister, Sonja had three children. This was also another nice three-bedroom home. But, mom soon found herself having to move again when Sonja decided to move out of the apartment. Mom couldn’t afford the payment on her own; the rent was too much, and she needed help. By this time, David was almost two-years-old and Gloria was three and a half years of age.
During this time, mom did have another relationship, and she fell in love all over again, at least that’s what we thought. For the second time, mom decided to marry Martin Garcia. This was her way out of her tough situation. You see, in my country, single women with children marry for support, not love, which comes later, if it comes at all. Single women look for men who can help them take care of their children. Stepfather #2, Martin wasn’t anything like Jose, or my dad. He was a good man, a hard working man and an excellent role model of what a father should be. He wasn’t very good looking, and he was much older than my mother. He was an excellent provider, even though we were still poor as dirt. Martin was already taking care of his own six children from a previous marriage, the fact that he was already a breadwinner for his family, proved to my mother that Martin Garcia was a stable man and he was responsible. She could depend on him. She would not have to worry about him hurting her physically because he wasn’t like that. He was the perfect man for her situation, and love had nothing to do with it. She was safe, and Gloria, David and myself; we felt safe and secure. It was a perfect union for us as his extended family.
After they were married, we moved into Martin’s old house. That meant there were nine children living under the same roof with only one bathroom for all of us to share. I will never forget that old, rundown, wooden frame house, and the joys and pains that went with it.
While living with Martin, I had the privilege of attending a Christian school with the rich kids. I should have been happy, but I was not. The only reason that I was able to attend the “Colegio Alianza Christiana,” was because of my high academic grades, which entitled me to a scholarship. But, not matter how well my grades were, I was still poor. I was still an outcast because I didn’t fit in with my peers. My shyness around new people made it hard for me to mingle with my uppity classmates. But, how can you become close friends with girls who tease you because you are different, because your clothes are old, and not new like theirs? I remember having to wear the same old school uniform for two years because we couldn’t afford to purchase a new one, even though I was growing like a weed. So, the second year that I had to wear that same blue dress, the hem was taken out so that it would give more length to my growing body. Thank goodness, I was getting taller, and not wider.
It was hard adjusting to the new school and the new girls, but in due time, some of the ones who used to abuse me with their comments, they became some of my best friends. Even though I was shy at school, when I came home to my neighborhood, I was a bit more outgoing because the kids from my street were just like me, poor. We were one in the same; therefore, I could be free to be me, especially as I romped in the street playing baseball with my neighborhood friends. I loved those moments because it let me be a carefree child. It was so hard for me to be a free spirited child back then because so much of my childhood was not perfect or ideal. To escape those moments of sadness, when my world was just too much for me to carry on my shoulders, I would pretend that I was a clown. I fell in love with the funny looking characters, especially the happy looking ones with the painted on smiles. They always appeared to be happy on the outside, if they were sad, hurt or carrying around a secret burden of weight on their shoulders, like myself, they didn’t show it. Their real life was camouflaged by the sunny disposition that was permanently painted on their faces. There were so many times that I wished that I was a real clown, I even considered joining the circus when I grew up. My feelings towards clowns just stems from what I was going through, and I just wanted to hide my feelings and my pain, and my despair. As a child, I just wanted to be like the rest of the kids; happy, with no worries and no fears. But, that was not a reality for me and my siblings. I even went as far as volunteering to dress up as a clown at the summer festivals given by our church so that I could entertain the children, I could hide my feelings and what was going on in my life behind the make-up of a clown. No one would ever know or see just how miserable I really was. I was the perfect clown image, especially when I need or wanted my mother and she wasn’t there.
Just when I thought everything was going to finally come together for us, because we had a nice big family with half brothers and sisters, a mother and a father who were tending to us all; it was short lived because as soon as my mother received her green card, she deserted us for three years to move to the United States. And, even though she was leaving with purpose of making things better for her, and getting a better life than what was dealt to her in Santiago, she left us in the hands of a man who could barely feed his six children let alone three extra ones. When mom left for the US, my brother David went to live with his father, Jose. But, Stepfather #1 returned him to Martin as soon as David became sick. Jose couldn’t even take care of his own son when things got a little rough, or too much for him to handle.
The separation was hard on Marin; it was hard on all of us, and especially me because it seemed that I was always being separated from my mother. But, Martin stuck it out. He didn’t mistreat us, or abuse us in the absence of our other. AS children, we were safe left in the hands of Martin Garcia. We may not have had enough to eat some days, but you could always go to sleep at night knowing and feeling that you were safe and secure. With nine kids running around, we didn’t have enough of everything, but it was so much better than before. WE used to eat hard boiled eggs, bread and green bananas, with the eggs being cup into one fourths so that we all would get a piece. When we did have meat, it was just one little piece of chicken; the neck, a wing, or a piece of the back. The legs, breast and thighs were just for the grown-ups and the older kids. We always had a meal of some kind with Martin, even though it may have been small.
While mom was gone, my siblings and I became very close. David used to call me momma, and since our sleeping arrangements were so limited, Gloria and I always slept together. I would always read her bedtime stories to help her get to sleep. She loved it and so did I. We found older friends in the neighborhood who would help look after us while Martin was working. They did our laundry when it was needed. They were real good, dependable friends.
Mom was gone for three, whole, long years, and during that time, she would come back to Santiago for visits, at least once a year. When she’d come, she would arrive bringing gifts. It was during one of those visits that she became pregnant with our little sister, Meeledy, whom we didn’t get to meet until some time later, when we children finally received our visa cards and moved to the land of plenty, the land of opportunity, and the land of happiness, the one and only…… United States of America.