The Shadows of yesterday
(One Family's Crisis)
By Carmen Pena
After returning home from my New York visit, my life resumed its normal regiment. I never discussed my visits with my father to my mother; this was something she did not care to hear about. He was far from her life and she did not want to hear anything about him, his family, what he was doing, or how he was living. All she knew was that he and his family were living far better than she, and she didn’t want to be reminded.
The following Sunday, I attended church service as usual. The church that I belonged to was a church where my Aunt Valencia was the pastor; it was just a couple of blocks away from where we lived. Mount Zion was a small church, where it seemed the entire Spanish neighborhood worshipped, maybe because my aunt was a wonderful preacher or, because its location was so convenient for everyone. It was there that we met Teresa Mendoza, a fair-skinned woman who was a little over-weight with long dark hair. We didn’t know her personally, but she always sat in the last pew. She was always the first one to shout amen, when my aunt was preaching. She would always come to church looking happy as though she had no problems what so ever. But secretly, she did, and as it were, she pawned that problem over to us.
One Friday evening, while were sitting on the steps, outside the apartment, mom and I noticed Teresa coming down the street with an arm load of groceries. She must have been carrying 6 bags, which was too much for one person to carry alone. Mom saw how she was struggling and invited her to come up and rest for awhile. Teresa was relieved, and happy as we took her bags so that she could give her arms a rest. Mom invited her into our apartment where she did not hesitate to follow us into our quaint little living room. Mom offered her a glass of ice tea, which she was happy to indulge as she sat on the couch enjoying our company. When she was ready to leave, Gloria and I helped carry her bags home, we were surprised to find out that Teresa just lived up the street and around the corner from our house. After that, Teresa began coming over to our house on a regular basis, chatting with mom as if she was the only friend that she had in the entire world. After about two weeks of checking my mother out, Teresa began talking about her son, a single man who was supposedly a good catch because he was hard working; he worked everyday and did not spend his money foolishly. Teresa’s eyes seem to light up when she mentioned that her son was also single and available. I heard her tell my mother that her son could help provide for her four children. Mom just smiled and listened as Teresa made her son look like prince charming just waiting for his princess to be found. Teresa found her for him. It would have been better if this biddy ole lady would have left her son out of this picture because what she failed to mention was the bad side of her son; the drug abuser, the womanizer, the good for nothing bum and child molester that he really is. This is the entire package of Carlos Mendoza. He was nothing to brag about if you ask me, but maybe that’s why Teresa kept that information to herself. She knew that would have been a turn off, at least it should have been, especially when the truth bared itself.
Within a couple of days after talking about her son to mom, Teresa introduced him to my mother. The first day he came to our house, a red flag should have went up in my mother’s head, because there he was making a first impression in a drunken stupor. He was not handsome as his mother said, at least not to me. What I saw was a sloppy, over weight man with a beer belly; short, dark, greasy, curly hair that didn’t look like it was combed, and red, blood shot eyes that made him look like he had been on a drinking spree for weeks. What mom should have done was run the other direction, or refuse to open the door to welcome this man in. But, instead of doing that, when I walked into the living room, I find them nestled on the couch; mom with her long shapely legs stretched out over his lap, enjoying his company, and obviously enjoying the conversation. He was making her laugh and giggle. I watched as they flirted with each other, neither one seemed to notice that I had walked into the room
I guess mom loved his presence, because within a few days, Carlos was no longer living at home with his mother, but had moved in with us. You can blame it on loneliness, or you can blame mom’s behavior on the simple fact that she felt complete having a man in her life, and just moved him right on in before he could get away. He was going to be our breadwinner, our provider. I can’t say how much providing he did because every night when he came home from working the second shift, he was stone drunk and reeking of alcohol. He was disgusting to see in my opinion.
Mom fell in love with this guy so hard, I have to ask myself, what did she see in him? As soon as he moved into our lives, that’s when I and my sibling’s lives were turned upside down and inside out. The four of us were put aside in order that our mother could cater exclusively to him. Why? Why? Why? As soon as Carlos took up residence in our home, he became the king of the castle. When he married mom, which didn’t happen too soon because they didn’t get married legally until years later; But until that ugly day took place, he became the ruler, the owner of us all in a common law union with our mother. Carlos gave us such a hard time, as kids, we weren’t allowed to mention our real father’s names in his presence, or in our home. I was fourteen, Gloria was 9, David was seven, and Meleedy was just three-years-old when we began this roller coaster ride. It is not fair, or justified that four minor children were subjugated to this way of life.
Our lives with Carlos, stepfather #3, were not normal because of the fighting that we had to battle with. We had to deal with alcoholism, drugs being used in our house, a lot of yelling, manipulation, mental abuse and physical abuse. He did not dare try to harm me physically, I guess because I was fourteen. As it turned out, he only messed around with the young ones who couldn’t defend themselves. Of all the things that this man has done to interrupt our lives, the worst of it all was when he started molesting Meleedy at the age of three. This is the pain that I carried into my adult life, someone molesting my baby sister and nothing being done about it. Mom didn’t even believe that it was happening, why? Because she had a good man, and he wouldn’t do anything like that to hurt her. He is like a fox in sheep clothing and mom couldn’t or wouldn’t see him for what he really was.
There were times when as soon as you walk into our house, you would smell this sickening odor. No it wasn’t air freshener, or the smell of food cooking. It was the smell of weed being smoked that was infiltrating the entire house. Carlos would be locked in the bedroom, and the scent would still seep from under the doorway. On several occasions, my siblings and I walked in on him sniffing cocaine. What could we do about it? Threaten to tell, tell whom? Mom wouldn’t listen to us. She already thought we were just plotting against her, trying to ruin her life. She thought this of me mainly, because I was the oldest.
Carlos was so irresponsible, one day he was keeping an eye on Meleedy while mom went grocery shopping. I came home from school looking for my sister; I found her in the middle of the living room floor playing with a 45 caliber pistol. I screamed thinking that any second the thing would go off, not knowing if it had bullets in it or not. All I could imagine was my sister lying on the floor with blood draining from her body. I immediately snatched the gun and put it back where it was and told her never, ever touch it again. Where was Carlos while my sister was off entertaining herself? He was passed out on the couch with an eight pack of empty beer cans scattered on the floor. I was so angry; I wanted to beat him with my fist while he was passed out cold.
Stepfather #3 was known for staying up late into the night, watching TV and drinking, and then spending the next morning sleeping the day away on the couch. How’s that for a “father figure” and the head of the household? Every time I would encounter some little annoying thing about Carlos, it just convinced me more of what a looser he really was. He was a danger to us then, and he is still a danger today. I can remember one day, he made me so angry that I wanted to call the welfare department on my mother because she was allowing these things to go on, putting us in danger. If she wouldn’t do it, then it was going to have to be up to me to do the right thing for us minors. But, when I dialed the number, and the person on the other end answered, I froze and became frightened, thinking that they may take my mother away, and put us all up in foster care, so I lost all courage and hung up the phone without saying a word. That was a big mistake, but I was only fourteen years old at that time.
During this time, Carlos was no longer working. He was just another recipient on my mother’s monthly welfare check, spending his time on the couch in front of the television with his alcohol, doing nothing but taking up space and acting like he was somebody important. But, mom seemed happy and satisfied with the situation. I can’t remember a time when she mentioned to Carlos that he needed to get up and be a man; get a real job so he can take care of us. She just let him do what he wanted, when he wanted. She was making him happy by not nagging him I guess.
Carlos was such a manipulator; he knew what to do to get his way with mom. Whenever he wanted to go out, he would look for any excuse to start a fight with us kids and then leave the house in a rage, slamming doors as he left the house to go on his week-end binges. When he would leave on Friday night, he wouldn’t return until Monday, returning home looking beat up and then sleeping off his alcoholic week-end all day. We had to be very quiet when he was sleeping. We could not disturb him what so ever. If any of us made any noise, and it woke him up; there would be hell to pay. This was beginning to be a pattern that went unnoticed by our mother. I say unnoticed because she never said anything about it. She never complained. I think she was afraid that if she did, her night in shining armor would be gone and her happy common law marriage would be dissolved. So, she lived with it, she accepted it. Maybe, thinking that he would change. But, people like that don‘t change. Why change when someone already accepts you for the way you are, good or bad? Besides, you can only change when you have the desire to change. Carlos didn’t have the desire. He was satisfied and so was mom.
There were times, I must admit when we were glad that there was a man around the house, just for protection. But, if you ask me, we did the protecting because most of the time, Carlos was too drunk, or too high to protect a flea let alone a family. Carols did show a little family togetherness a few times, when he was sober. He would take us on field trips, and being helpful by running errands for mom. One time he even came to my rescue when an old boyfriend of mine wouldn’t leave me alone after I broke the relationship off. Carlos approached the boy and grabbed him by the shirt and told him to leave me alone. The ex-boyfriend never bothered me again. But, that
wasn’t enough representation of a “father figure” because there were just too many other negative things that he had already done, those few good times does not constitute a we-balanced family, or that he was a great father figure/provider. He had already done too much damage. In my eyes, he was just pretending to be something he was not. I was not going to let him pull the wool over my eyes when he was sober.
I remember one day, after returning home from grocery shopping, mom and we kids were climbing the stairs to our four-bedroom apartment on the third floor. As we entered the building, we found that both apartments on the second floor had been broken into, the doors looked like they had been knocked of their hinges; as we glanced inside we could see that both apartments looked like they had been ransacked. With our hearts pounding, and our nerves on edge, we rushed to the third floor only to find that another apartment, which was next to ours, looked identical to the two on the first floor. I looked at mom, and her eyes were as big as saucers, and a worried look came across her face. We could see the police searching as they raided the empty apartment next door. The people they were looking for were gone.
We entered our apartment not knowing if our apartment would be next on the list. It was a scary moment. We found Carlos acting very nervous and scared. He then took a small packet of something from his shirt pocket that was hanging in a closet and flushed it down the toilet. I guess he was trying to hide the evidence just incase the police had reason to bust our apartment. Again, mom didn’t object, she wasn’t afraid for us, but she was worried about Carlos. One would think that after this, Carlos would be gone for putting us in jeopardy. No one else in the family did drugs, even though later on we found that he was the one who introduced our brother into this demon life style. No one drank as much as Carlos either, not even mother.
Yes, as time went on….all the ugly secrets of Stepfather #3 came out. But, it did no good because mother still stood by her man for better or worse, casting her children aside in order to hold on to what she had.
I can recall so many holidays; Christmas, New Years, Thanksgiving, The fourth of July, Memorial Day, even Mother’s Day, year after year we kids spent that particular holiday entertaining ourselves because mom and Carlos left us home alone while they went to Teresa’s home to celebrate the holiday. Of course mom would cook our special meal, but she never shared in it with us, all because Carlos wanted her to spend the day with him and his mother. No kids were allowed. That was sad, especially during Christmas. We didn’t have that great of a Christmas celebration. We weren’t lavished with an over abundance of gifts, and sometimes we didn’t even have a tree. New Years, came and went without a celebration in our home because mom was off celebrating, bringing in the New Year else where. It was like Teresa had forgotten that mom had kids before she met her charming son. They didn’t care that we felt left out and alone. These were the times when I was particularly sorry that we had befriended the lady from our church because as it turned out, since the first time we invited her into our home, and helped her with her groceries; she did nothing but bring sorrow into the lives of the children of Sophia Ramirez. With the introduction of her son to our mother, our lives slowly unraveled. I will always curse that day when he came into our lives.
During this mad time, I had no where to turn except to my church, my religion. Anyone else that age would have turned to drugs, alcohol just to escape from the ugly reality that was surrounding them; but not me, I saw first hand, the affects of those crutches. They are just temporary fixes, like putting a band-aid on a broken finger.
I always had to struggle to prove myself so that people around me would accept me for who I was, from the schools that I attended, to the church where I worshipped. I always wanted to fit in, and have a place where I could feel I belonged. Even though I fit in with my family, I didn’t belong in that household, after everything that happened, none of us children really belonged in that household.
I was just a poor girl from another country, trying to adjust to this new life, and accept the things that were handed down to me, all the while smiling on the outside, but crying on the inside. No one made it easy for me. Why can’t people accept other people for who they are, for what they are without putting them through changes because they look or act different? Being poor, coming from a dysfunctional family is not a disease that one can catch. I was just a teenager who was just trying to find a safe place, a haven for security and a sound peace of mind. Didn’t I deserve that, didn’t we all?
As my teen years progressed and I went from freshman to sophomore in high school, my grades began to falter quite a bit. I was intelligent, but with all the negative things going on around me in and outside of school, that made it hard for me to concentrate and focus. I had too much on my plate and none of it was dessert. Maybe I wasn’t an “A” student, but that didn’t stop me from dreaming of having a successful future one day. If no one else wanted for me, if no one else cared, then I had to at least want it for myself. It was that dream and my faith in God that kept me going as a stressful teenager. I prayed for better days and a better life, if not in the present, then somewhere in the future, during my lifetime.
There were times during my sophomore year in high school when my schedule was very hectic. Time was important, but for me there wasn’t enough of it. I was always rushing; up at 6am to catch the bus to school so I would be there by 7:30. I would leave school at 2:30 to be at work by 3:30, and then I wouldn’t get off until 10 am, then I would go home. If Gloria was in the hospital with one of her asthma attacks, which happened at least once a month, I would catch the 11:00 bus to go to the hospital to stay with my sister since our mother couldn’t tear herself away from Carlos to spend the night with her ill daughter. I guess it was better for mom to be home with Carlos instead of me being alone with the monster. See how God works?
I remember one particular time when I was waiting at the bus stop, it was 11:30 at night. I was on my way to the hospital to be with Gloria for the night. I had missed the bus, so I was waiting for the next one to arrive. It was spooky standing out there all alone on a dimly lit street. I knew it wasn’t the best thing for me to be doing, but I couldn’t leave Gloria all alone. She was waiting for me. I began to say a silent prayer as I waited. It wasn’t long before a black pick-up truck pulled up and stopped, right in front of the bus stop. A man with a strong, masculine voice questioned me about being out there alone so late at night. He warned me of the dangers and then insisted that I return home immediately. Of course I couldn’t go back home, I had to get to the hospital. It was important that I catch the next bus. The man explained that he was a police officer and he refused to leave me standing out there, waiting on a bus by myself. He then insisted that I get in his truck; ordering me as if he would arrest me if I refused. I finally gave in after much hesitation. He was relieved, but I was nervous and scared as he took me home. Thank God he was a good guy, decent and he was really concerned about my well being and safety. That was the first time in a long time that someone showed concern for me. I didn’t know how to react. He even told me to tell my mother not to put me in harms way like that ever again. A young girl should not be permitted to be out on the streets late at night and alone. I guess he was doing his duty, to protect and to serve. As I look back on that night…..I was grateful for the cop in the black pick-up truck.