The Story Series: Home Is Where the Heart Is
I wasn’t fully an alien life form.
Childhood abuse, if it is habitual, becomes part of your daily life. Every episode doesn’t feel traumatic or life-defining. It is just part of the day; it isn’t until years after you are removed from the danger that you come to understand that pieces of you were actively dying, just slowly. At the time, it was all I knew. Life still happened, including positive, happy memories.
Living in one hotel after another meant being in constant contact with my sister, my mother, and, when he was around, my father. While I do not recommend hotel hopping as a living, my sister and I became Queens of making the best out of it. For instance, in order to be a “good” hotel, it had to have a pool, a hot tub and, if it really wanted to impress us, a hot buffet breakfast. Ice machines ruled: I preferred the thin oval shaped ones because they were easier to chew. If I could count the number of times I’d make an excuse to leave the room to “go get ice,” I’d be a millionaire; vending machines were fun, too, but they weren’t free, which lowered their appear because we might, or might not, have enough change for snacks. Also, they weren’t as novel to us because our grandparents managed the cafeteria of the local post office, which meant we were frequently tasked with “loading” the vending machines. Ice machines, though, were free, and produced ice chips that I devoured. Riding elevators up and down for no reason was fun too. The hot buffet breakfast was a bonus because it meant that my sister and I could go downstairs in the morning to get food — this meant getting out of the closet known as the room — and we could make subsequent trips for apples or bananas.
If we weren’t in a hotel room, we were usually in a car, driving down the interstate to some unknown destination. Mama put blankets and pillows in the backseat for us when we had to drive. I’d pile a pillow on my lap, listen to old-school headphones and sing to Tanya Tucker. If it was a particularly long trip, we’d lay the back seats down and make a bed, my sister and I jammed side by side with more pillows than we needed, and our packed stuff in the floorboards. We played “Doodlebug,” “Quiet Mouse Still Mouse” and paper games like MASH for hours. My MASH usually wound up looking something like this:
Marrying Aaron would have been impossible as we moved like nomads but, if I had, it would have been sweet because he was the first kid to ask me to be his girlfriend. We were in the fifth or sixth grade. He had blonde hair, blue eyes and he was my friend. Seriously, he and another kid I can’t remember and I were friends. Aaron was shy, but he was also persistent. For the record, persistence will usually win me over, a fact that first demonstrated itself when Aaron passed me a note that said, “Will you be my girlfriend?” I still remember the butterflies. I also remember panicking. I could not do anything without permission; getting in trouble was the scariest thing in my world. My father would use the smallest infraction to rape me, so I couldn’t just say yes. I needed permission. So I told Aaron I’d tell him the next day. Aaron didn’t much like this answer; I vividly remember the frustration on his face when he kept bugging me. He asked me again at lunch; a third time came in the hallway as we were transitioning to a different class. Finally, by the time music class rolled around, I was annoyed, he was annoyed, we were both annoyed. He said, “Come on, just tell me. Will you be my girlfriend?” as we moved to the benches in music class. Really, just to make him stop at that point, I said, “Okay, yes. Yes, I will.” My reward was his smile, which I still remember. If I could remember Aaron’s last name, I would look him up to tell him I haven’t forgotten him. For the record, I went home and asked permission, and my mother thought it was the sweetest thing and said “oh that’s wonderful.” Aaron and I proceeded to hold hands at the playground and we moved our desks together in one of the classes. Aaron was the first person I remember who made me feel chosen. His name would be on my “MASH” games forever.
Mr. Daniels was the Bible teacher who said I read well out loud, had creative and “well-written” stories and on whom I had a serious crush. Pete was a kid I went to school with; he didn’t know I was alive, but I thought he was all that. So much so that, when I went to Paris on the Senior trip, I brought him and Michael, another friend, back an Eiffel Tower. One of my golden moments of high school was during AP Psychology. The three of us were the only ones who took that class and, on that day, we had a substitute teacher. We were supposed to be working but Pete was complaining that he didn’t have a pencil; he was rummaging around in his backpack trying to find one. So I dropped mine on the floor, slyly, and then picked it up and pretended I’d retrieved it from my bag. I gave it to him. Moments later, I got in trouble for not working. Michael, the other friend, said quietly, “Oh, come on, she just gave him her pencil, give her a break.” Pete replied, “Yeah. Tiffini’s probably the sweetest girl I know.” The both of them have never left my memory.
Anyway, other than playing senseless games, we also saw lots of different places like Canada, where they taught me to eat mustard on French Fries and a car he was working on fell on my dad, breaking his arm. We lived on the beach and in the mountains, and I went to 20 different schools, which was very hard, but taught me how to be adaptable and how to get along with virtually anyone. My grandparents took me on a cruise to Bahamas when I was so young I barely remember it. My uncle paid for me to go to France with the school for my Senior year, which was a dream come true. Christmases and birthdays were treated like magic. My mother rented a limousine for my sixteenth birthday. My sister, a couple of friends and I were picked up at school and taken to the horse stables. The memory of one of the friends rolling down the window at a stop light and saying to the driver next to us, “Excuse me, do you have any grey poupon?” making us all laugh is treasured. Later, after I got to ride my favorite horse, Prince, we had to ride back to the school in our ratted, ugly car…. we didn’t all fit properly, so I rode in the floorboard with a couple of girls jammed in next to me. It was magic.
Music was an integral part of my life. Country music, specifically. I sold my entire collection of The Baby-Sitter’s Club books (which was a really, really big deal) to a neighbor’s kid so that I could go to the annual Fan Fair (today called CMA Fest). Back then, you were allowed to sleep out, which meant you got to talk to the other die hard country music fans. This was a highlight of my pre-teen and teenage years and I got to meet, several times, artists whose music kept me dreaming.
In the midst of tragedy, when there were physical fights happening and fear ran rampant, my sister and I were each other’s harbor. We’d check on each other at night if the fighting got too bad. I remember telling her stories to help her go to sleep, beginning with “This Little Piggy.” We were very different people, but we always knew that, if the other needed something, we had someone there for us.
They say that home is where the heart is. I’ve struggled with this my entire life. Because, in truth, home was a contradiction. I was supported and loved, but I was also abused, on and off for eleven years. I don’t have a good reason for why didn’t you tell; unlike too many children, I could have. I had people in my life that I believed loved me. But shame is so, so powerful. Shame makes lies feel like the truth. When my father would tell me, There’s nothing I can’t do, I believed him. On multiple occasions, my father would just vanish. We’d go to bed at night and wake up with him gone. He took us to a movie theater and never came back to get us. He would just drive off — and stay gone for weeks at a time without a word, leaving us without money in housing we couldn’t afford, leaving my mother to rely on his parents (because hers wouldn’t or couldn’t help). My grandfather had a friend drive from Nashville to Florida to pick us up from a motel after one of my father’s disappearing stunts because we didn’t have a way to go anywhere. I watched how hard we struggled during times like this; I didn’t know how my father got money, but I knew he found it, and that kept us afloat. I’d also seen him go to jail for various petty crimes — and then he’d come home. So I’d learned that just because you called the police didn’t mean things changed permanently. What would happen if he came back?
The lie of rape is that there’s something different about you. For me, this was true: I made a life of pleasing adults. If there was a slim possibility it wasn’t allowed, then I wasn’t going to do it. I tried to distance myself from the word home because, no matter how many happy memories were made, there were arrows piercing my heart; I didn’t really feel happy as a whole. Whenever something joyful happened, I held my breath, waiting for it to be taken away. The smell, sight or feel of my father made me wish I could disappear. Selfish: I’ve been called this my entire life. No matter how much I try to give to others, no matter how hard I work to make everyone else’s life easier, in the end, the ones who know me best called me selfish. I grew up feeling like a fraud — only I didn’t know who the fraud was: was it the Tiffini who tried to please everyone or was it the Tiffini who couldn’t sleep and cried too easily? Tears were seen as evidence of selfishness, but I was nearly grown before I stopped crying as easily. I didn’t know who I was supposed to be, and every time my father came, I heard you’re nobody. It’s amazing how powerful degrading touch can be.
In the book Holding Home , Mary Beth is the younger sister of Michael. Their father beats their mother — and forces eight-year-old Michael to do the same so he can “become a man.” The book is told in alternate points of view between Michael and Mary Beth. They are each other’s refuge; Michael protects her, even if reluctantly. He lets her believe that their dad is a prince who just has a bad side; the beast. He lets her sleep in his room when she is scared, and he helps her learn to protect herself through imagination by building her a “magic fort” that they will only use when she is scared.
Anyway, I almost took the fort down on the eleventh day after we put it up. I almost took it down, but I thought I better not cause maybe the magic is real, and it’ll help us if I don’t bother it. So I left it alone. And it’s a good thing I did. Cause that night, that night, it was real bad. It was so bad that even though I knew I should go downstairs to help Mama, I was just a little scared to. I mean, if he did that to her, why wouldn’t he do it to me too? I was thinking about going downstairs when my bedroom door opened and Mary Beth came in. Mary Beth is so small, she’s so short and skinny. She’s so pale too. I wish she wouldn’t come in my room… But I’m kind of glad she does too, cause it gives me something to do. Making her feel better makes me forget how bad it really is downstairs. I tell her it’s ok, that nobody’s really hurting anybody. I tell her they’ll stop soon. Sometimes you just have to lie to little kids. It hurts less that way.
“Can we – we get in the fo-fort?” Mary Beth’s voice wobbles. She is scared. I am too. I nod and kick back the covers. Even though I don’t think magic is really real, a part of me really hopes it is. We climb in. It is dark and I know that scares Mary Beth so I find one of the flashlights and turn it on. Then I find the other one and give it to her. Mary Beth thinks we’re playing now. She says, “We have snacks!”
I don’t care about the snacks. Instead, I lay down on my pillow. I can still hear the fighting. Mary Beth is talking excitedly. She’s happy we’re hidden under sheets and pillows and blankets. She has no idea. That makes me sad. I want to be hopeful like she is, but I know better. I just know better. We eat a few chips but then the noises downstairs get louder. We hear glass shattering, then a loud thud, then Mama screaming stop. She begs him, says please. Me and Mary Beth look at each other. Mary Beth’s eyes look sad. She pulls Teddy up and wraps her arms around him. Then she lays down and sticks her fingers in her ears. She doesn’t ask me to make it stop. I want to go make it stop but… If I use the belt, even if it’s to help her, does that make me like Daddy? Mary Beth thinks Daddy’s a monster. Would she think I was a monster too? I don’t go downstairs. I lay down beside my sister and play with the flashlight, turning it on and off, pretending it makes it easier to ignore the sounds from downstairs.
The truth is that home is complicated for most people. It’s the place that shaped me; the people in your childhood are the people who help define ideas that you will carry with you for the rest of your life. The scars formed at home are the hardest to heal because the price to heal each scar is a bit of innocence. To a child, grown-ups are magical creatures, heroes, and, well, how would you feel if the Prince in Cinderella deliberately hurt her or if Ariel never got to live on land? I don’t want a young reader to read this blog and think that, in order for something to be abuse, it has to be earth-shattering and you walk around with dark clouds following you every, single day because, actually, abuse is most dangerous when its slow. The trusted adult deliberately grooming you, telling you how beautiful you look, asking you for a kiss in exchange for an A on the next test–that’s abuse. Being gaslighted — told things like, you know you can’t do that or Why can’t you just be like everyone else? or you know you don’t have the same experience they do or Well, if you didn’t want to get attacked, why did you go there in that? — these are all forms of abuse. People asking you to continually put their needs above your own — you can’t do that thing you love because this is more important, being told your tears “aren’t real” or made to feel like you’re less than or seeking attention or being selfish for feeling whatever you’re feeling — this will hurt you.
I saw a very difficult interview with a man who was terribly abused for eleven years as a child. He was finally removed and adopted, taken to America with a family who loved him. But, in the interview, with tears in his eyes, he said, “No one understand this, but sometimes I miss it. It was what we knew. It was where I was raised. It was home. Even though, if I hadn’t come to America, I would undoubtedly be dead, sometimes, I miss it.” He misses it because it felt familiar. He misses it because, when people hurt him, he felt it was real; when people were kind to him, he didn’t believe they really knew who he was. He misses it because, in the middle of the pain, there were bright spots: kids he played harmless hand games with while he was trapped in a crib, being around other kids who rocked because rocking makes them feel comforted. Safety feels strange. Learning how to make his own decisions for himself without being told what to do is daunting and overwhelming.
Holding Home opens with this story about a caged bird. At the end of the story, the bird, after fighting against the bars for so, so long, finds freedom. When the cage door is open, the bird is free to fly. But the door to the cage doesn’t lock back — it remains open. So, a free bird could easily revisit the gilded cage at will. We don’t have to be on our own and we don’t have to keep a vow to never look back. Tiffini secret: I used to be afraid of joy because joy might take away, somehow, the seriousness of the pain I’d been through. I didn’t want to be hurt anymore — I wanted joy. But, also, I didn’t want to forget because to me, forgetting risked saying that all I’d lost really hadn’t mattered after all. But that is a lie. Finding peace and joy after pain doesn’t undermine or “make okay” something terrible. That little girl I lost, the little girl Tiffini who still can feel the weight of a heavy knee holding her down, can still feel the scrape of fingernails on her skin, she mattered then and she matters now, and what she lost will never, ever be okay. No matter how much peace or joy I find. Holding home, to me, is about holding the people who taught me to dream close to my heart, reliving the memories made with them whenever I need reassurance that kindness is real. Holding home is about consciously deciding what to take with me and what to leave behind.
I’ll take the music, the writing, the horses, my sister and mother; I’ll take the lessons of faith and family, the values of putting others first and exercising creativity at every opportunity. I’ll take all of these things with me while I consciously also create a life where stability is prioritized, peace is prized above all, and open communication is taught. This is how cycles are broken and hearts are mended. I don’t have to leave the pain behind, either; it can come because I will use it to remind me of where I’ve been so that when a new mountain pops up in front of me, I’ll know: it can be climbed.