Finding Grace

A True Story About Losing Your Way In Life...And Finding It Again

Donna VanLiere

St. Martin's Press

Chapter One

 We moved to our home in Medina, Ohio, in the spring of 1970, when I was three. My brother, Brian, was seven and got his own room, the green one with the short, shaggy dark green carpet. I shared a room with my sister Mary Jo (we call her Josie . . . like Jocie, not Jozey), who is nearly ten years older than me. We got the baby-aspirin-orange room with the orange shag carpet, and my parents got the all-purple room. The family room was pink, the living room blue, and the kitchen had bluish-green-patterned indoor/outdoor carpeting and avocado appliances. The house screamed 1960s.

 There were a few homes on our road but it was mostly farmland. Our split-level house had a long, blacktop driveway, huge front lawn, brick front, a white barn in the back that would hold my dad's tractors and gardening equipment, and over an acre of land behind the barn for a garden that could feed most of Medina County (my parents never believed in small gardens). Our neighbor Mr. Lake also had a garden behind his barn. Bud Lake had a round chest that was slick as a watermelon. It actually glistened on hot summer days when he worked outside. When we met Mr. Lake for the first time I whispered to my mother, "That man doesn't have any hair on his chest." She tried to shush me but I was three and lacked whispering skills. Mr. Lake believed in using manure for fertilizer. He'd haul in a huge load from somewhere and let it percolate inside his barn before he used it. His garden always smelled crappy, but it was lovely.

 A dairy was just up the street and Mr. Lake walked to work there every morning with his lunch pail in hand. Sometimes (but not nearly enough) he'd bring home a package of ice-cream bars and hand them to me. Life couldn't get any better than on those free ice-cream-bar days. One morning as I played in the driveway I was talking to myself, weaving together an outlandish tale full of colorful characters, intrigue, and drama. I froze when I saw Mr. Lake peering from behind one of his trees, listening to me. "Go on," he said. "I can't wait to hear what happens." Stage fright hit me and I couldn't utter another word. I ran toward our garage door and heard Mr. Lake laughing from his yard.

Across the road was a pasture full of cows for the dairy and right next to us was an old farmhouse where our other neighbors lived. For the sake of this story I'll just call them the "Taylors." Theirs was not a charming farmhouse in any way. The exterior hadn't been painted in years and what was left of the old paint fell like curly, white pencil shavings around the house. A distinct odor of aged, rotting wood, cigarettes, and filth met you before stepping onto the porch. My mother was and is a no-nonsense woman. She and my father both grew up in east Tennessee working on farms that fed fifteen children in my father's family and five in my mother's. My dad's oldest sibling, my Aunt Stella, was born the same year as my maternal grandmother, Mary Hurley. As Grandma Hurley grew, got married, and began having children of her own, my paternal grandmother was still giving birth to her fifteen children. When she died in 1972, her death certificate claimed she was just worn out.

 My mother was always very practical (as I write this sitting at a plastic folding table I know the apple hasn't fallen too far from the tree) and called things as she saw them. On more than one occasion I remember her looking at our neighbor's home and saying, "Move next to a dump and you live next to trash." I didn't know what she meant.

 When we moved to Medina my mom worked at the latex factory, the flower container factory, and then later, the box factory. (My sister eventually worked at the pickle factory.) My mother settled on cleaning homes as a business because she could set her own hours and be home when we got off the school bus in the afternoon. My dad worked second shift in one of the steel mills in Cleveland, the same one he'd worked in since he moved to Ohio in 1955 and ultimately retired from forty years later. At night I'd fall asleep in my mother's bed and when my dad got home in the early morning hours he would carry me to my orange room. I never remembered a thing.

 After I learned to read I would crawl into bed with my mom and read her stories. Mother would come home from the factory and make dinner for my siblings and me, maybe do a load of laundry, or scrub a spot on the indoor/outdoor kitchen carpet before turning in each night. I'd rifle through my books or the ones we'd picked up at the library and read one after the other out loud to my mother as she fell asleep. I'd look over at her and think, "Why are you so tired?" I'd read till I got sleepy and then turn out the light, thinking about new books to bring home.

 The Franklin Sylvester Library was just off the square in Medina. I would crawl on the floor between the stacks of books in the children's section in search of two or three new ones to take home. Long before I could read I loved to flip through the pages of a book and look at the pictures. The individual volumes in the Childcraft books that still stand on my parents' shelves reveal my scribbling then as I learned my ABCs and my failed attempts to write my name (the Ns are still backward). One winter's night my mother bundled me up to take books back to the library. I set three books on top of the car while I put on my boots but forgot them as I climbed into my seat. When we got to the library I searched the car for the books, thinking I'd left them at home. Mother discovered one of the books still sitting on top of the car; the other two had no doubt come to an ugly ending somewhere along the route. I was petrified as we walked into the library, so frightened that the lady behind the desk would take away our library card or worse yet, that she'd ban me from stepping foot inside the library again. I don't remember if my mother paid for the books or if the woman behind the desk was just gracious to an absentminded child but we left that evening after checking out two new books. We went home and had a piece of chocolate cake. There was always dessert in my mother's kitchen.

 My mother was and still is an amazing cook. She had dinner on the table every night. A little neighbor girl up the road timed her visits to our house at dinnertime and was always ecstatic when my mom asked if she wanted to stay for dinner. "Oh, is it dinnertime? I guess I could stay," she'd say, filling her plate. She was accustomed to Ramen noodles or a cold sandwich and was just beside herself when my mother put mashed potatoes, green beans, corn, coleslaw, corn bread, and baked chicken on the table. My mother was raised on a Southern farm and in the South you do not have a meal unless there are at least three vegetables on the table. That's the rule. We had a little dog named Jack; he was part Pekingese and part Pomeranian, not a good mix for children. He was high strung and temperamental and my arms still bear scars from more than one run-in with him. After any meal we could drop a piece of food into his dish, plink, plunk, and he'd come tearing through the house. My mother took him to the joint vocational school to get his hair cut once and the students shaved him bald except for the fur on his head. He looked like a Dr. Seuss cartoon animal and was so ashamed that he came home and hid under the drum table in the corner of the blue living room. One morning my mother caught him taking his daily constitution in her bedroom and she was so angry that she picked him up and shook him. Tiny poop shot out like torpedoes onto the purple carpet and she ran for the door with Jack hanging like a sack of potatoes in front of her. That was high comedy for a kid and I fell down laughing. My mother didn't. Jack was mean, but I loved him; he was a constant playmate. Give me a few Barbies, baby dolls, and Jack, and I was set for the day. I was a happy kid.

 George and Tess Taylor lived next door to us with their five children, all of whom were much older than me except Tom, who was my age. Sometime after our move I walked with my mother across the field that divided our homes and met the Taylors. Tom was in the yard playing with the family's shaggy, bounding yellow dog. "I'm Tom," he said, pounding the dog's side. "And this is Ziggy, the butt-sniffing dog." He smacked the dog's muzzle back and forth and took off running. Ziggy chased after him and pushed his snoot into Tom's rear end, hoisting him into the air. "That's why we call him a butt sniffer," Tom yelled, laughing.

 "Stop doing that to that dog," Tess said, taking a drag off her cigarette. "You'll turn him mean." Tess had a mess of reddish-orange hair and the longest toenails I'd ever seen in my life. She was wearing sandals (no way those nails could .t inside a shoe) and an orange jumpsuit with a belt that tied in the front. Although it was the seventies I can proudly say that my mother never owned a polyester jumpsuit. Tess was down to earth and warm, and called me "Sugar Pop" most of the time.

 Tom had dark hair and eyes like his dad, his brother Kevin, and his sister Cindy, who had enormous breasts. Of course the hugeness was accentuated by the lack of bra she often excluded. As Tom and I played in the backyard one day he stopped, doubled over, and vomited right on his feet. I ran to the house to find Cindy. She was on the front porch, ironing. Her breasts swayed from side to side as she moved the iron back and forth over a shirt. "Tom just puked," I said.

 "He did what?"

 I couldn't remember the other word for puke. My mind raced: It was a grown-up word, what did it start with? Hurry. Hurry. Oh, I got nothing. "He just opened his mouth and all sorts of chunks flew out," I said. She jumped off the porch and I couldn't believe that whatever was under her T-shirt was actually attached to her body. She helped Tom to the porch and went back to her ironing. I watched in silence then finally asked, "Do you have water balloons under there?" She reared back her head and laughed. I didn't know if that was a yes or no.

 I don't know where George worked and I don't think Tess did anything more than smoke cigarettes and paint her toenails. I'd often catch her slathering on a new coat of candy-apple red when I'd be playing at their house. I'd look down at those ugly, glistening nails when she was finished and wonder if she took the skin off George's shins in bed each evening. These were the things that kept me up at night. That, and why Tarzan didn't have a beard.

 I never really got to know the oldest siblings, Marty and Tabitha. They weren't interested in me and I don't remember having a conversation with them. Kevin was in the middle: younger than Cindy and older than Tom, he had long, greasy hair and a dour personality. "There's just something about that kid that I don't like," my mother said time and again. I didn't like him, either, but I didn't know why. He'd never done anything to me, and like his older siblings he never paid attention to me, but I hated it when he called Tom a little shit or piss head and I wondered why George or Tess didn't make him stop. Cindy was definitely my favorite of Tom's siblings. She gave me a piece of candy any time I asked for it and that made her tops in my book. After awhile I learned to ignore her great, heaving breasts and love her for the buxom candy dispenser that she was.

 Tom was either at my house in our giant sandbox making what he called "butt butt trails" or I was crossing through the field to play with him and Ziggy. My mother was at the grocery store one afternoon when Tom came over to play. We wandered into the barn, a place my mother had told me countless times I "had no business being in," and I climbed on top of a huge oil barrel with a lid. I was pretending to be a bus driver when my weight collapsed the outer rim of the lid and my leg fell down into the barrel. I screamed as sharp metal broke the skin on my thigh, just above my knee, and my leg was immersed in oil. To this day I don't know why my dad had a huge barrel of oil inside the barn but he did and I took a bath in it. I tried to pull myself out but couldn't get a good grip; my hands were too slippery. Tom yanked on my arms till I was able to hoist myself up and over the rim.

A dark mixture of oil and blood streamed down my leg and I grabbed one of my dad's barn rags to wipe it off. Tom found a rag and began wiping as well. I was a bloody, oily mess and my mother wasn't home. I sat on the barn floor and pressed the oily rag onto the cut, waiting for it to stop bleeding but it wouldn't. Tom pushed the rag harder into my leg as we waited. With my vast medical knowledge of boo-boos, I quickly surmised that I needed a Band-Aid. I stood and bent over, holding the rag in place as I made my way to the house and down the mudroom stairs. I took short, quick steps through the family room, careful not to drip oil or bleed onto the pink shag carpeting, and climbed to the middle of the stairs that led to the kitchen. My teenage sister was sitting at the table, eating. "Donna needs a Band-Aid," Tom said, standing beside me.

 "What for?"

 "She scratched herself in the barn." I felt the blood soaking through the rag and pressed harder before I bled on the blue stairs.

 "Let me see it," Josie said.

 "I don't want to come upstairs," I said. "Just throw a Band-Aid down to me."

 Josie got up and saw the rag I was holding to my oilstreaked leg. She took me into the mudroom and cleaned me up, using a clean rag to stop the blood. "By the time you grow up that scar will be two inches long," she said. It's not, by the way. When my mother got home from the market she was told by the doctor that it was too late to put stitches in my leg because it had stopped bleeding. Later that night she said, "I told you you've got no business playing out in that barn. Guess you learned the hard way." Parents always fall back on that.

After I fell out of the apple tree (the same one my mother told me not to climb) and broke my arm, my mom said, "Guess you learned the hard way." After I fell down the stairs (the ones my mother told me not to run on) and broke my other arm, my mom said, "Guess you learned the hard way." And after I broke my first arm again trying to jump over a lamp on the end table in the family room while watching The Carol Burnett Show (the lamp my mother told me to stop trying to jump over), my mom said, "Guess you learned the hard way." I never got to finish that episode of The Carol Burnett Show.

 My days were filled with as much playtime as I could pack into them. There were plenty of trips to the emergency room but I had fun getting there. That was still the time when mothers told their children to go outside and play, and called them inside at dark to take a bath. If there were problems in the world, I was unaware of them, but that would change.

 When I was five or so Tom ran into his garage and I followed. I hated the Taylors' garage. It had a dirt floor that had turned black from what I imagine was junk-car oil leaks and, of course, it smelled. There was always that pervading smell anywhere in the Taylors' house. Kevin was working on his dirt bike. Tom knew all the right buttons to push with his brother and in a .ash Kevin was on top of him, smacking him in the head. The whole beating-each-other-up thing was foreign to me. I'd never seen siblings all-out slug each other but the Taylors did it on a daily basis. Tom squirmed and screamed until Kevin released him. "Get out of here, you little shit," he said, kicking Tom's leg. Tom laughed and we turned to go. "Hey," Kevin shouted. "Come here." Tom stepped to him and Kevin pushed him away. "Show me your crotch," he said, looking at me. I had no idea what he meant.

 "What's that?" Tom asked.

 "Your vagina, you idiot," Kevin said, as he continued to look at me. I still didn't know what he was talking about. He lunged for me and pulled down my shorts. He held them at my ankles and I fell, yanking up my underwear. He laughed at me and I scrambled to my feet, running after Tom again.

 In my mind I assumed that Kevin was just being a jerk. He was always a bully and a tormenter to Tom, and I thought that was what he was doing to me. I didn't tell Tess what he did. I didn't even tell Cindy, and when I got home I didn't tell my mother because she might not understand that Kevin was just being an idiot and because of him she might not let me play with Tom anymore. It made perfect sense to me at the time. We always replay scenes in our minds of what we should have done and in those instances we always say and do the right thing. It never happens that way in real life.

 Tom picked all the best places to hide. His house was full of tiny doors that led to a small attic or crawl space but I never went into them. They were dark and smelly, and in my mind I always imagined there'd be rats or snakes in those tight, damp spots. Tom would creep inside one of those small doors and wait for me. He would wait for what felt like hours as I traipsed from room to room looking for him.

 I was five or six years old and hadn't entered kindergarten yet when we played hide-and-seek one stifling day. I don't know why we chose to play inside on such a warm day but I heard Tom running through the hallway above me as I counted. Then I heard Kevin yelling, "Get out of here, piss head!" The door closed and I heard Tom scramble farther down the hall. I tiptoed upstairs and pulled open the small attic door at the top of the landing. The attic spaces in the house had long lost any sort of insulation and a blast of heat hit me in the face. Slivers of light streamed into the space and I shut the door. Tom wasn't in there. I looked behind the door of the girls' room and crept to their closet, swinging open the door. Kevin and Tom's door was open and as I walked past I noticed the room was empty. I went into the bathroom at the end of the hall and snatched back the shower curtain. Tom wasn't in the room at the end of the hall, either, so I knew he had to be in his and Kevin's room or that creepy little attic entrance inside the room.

 I crept into the room and waded through the clothes and debris on the floor toward the attic door. I reached for the handle when I heard the bedroom door close and lock behind me. I turned to see Kevin; his pants were open. In an instant he grabbed my arms and pushed me to the floor, holding me down. He laughed at me and pulled my face toward his naked body. He laughed louder and I tried to get up to run home but he held me down, pushing my head hard onto the floor. I lost all feeling. No one burst through the door to save me. The walls didn't crumble on, the floor didn't swallow up, and a bolt of lightning didn't strike down what was happening.

 I never discovered where Tom was hiding that day. I think he was probably crouched down inside that attic and stayed there long after I left. I don't know how long I was in that room or remember any details of how I got out the door. I have no memory of walking home or what I did once I got there but I do remember knowing that what had happened was wrong and that I should never talk about it. So I didn't.

 Ever.

 Excerpted from FINDING GRACE by DONNA VANLIERE
Copyright © 2009 by Donna Vanliere
Published in April 2009 by St. Martin's Press

 All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.