Quiet Behind the Front Door - Erica Urquhart
Fist to face. Swollen left eye watching him with fear. Is this the meaning of passion? Is this how one copes with frustration, trying, but not fitting in, running into roadblocks, in the pursuit of a better life? Is this the depth of insecurity changing his life can instill? Does a man take out his frustrations on those closest to him, his wife? Does he become the worst version of himself? Or does he run away?
Fist to face, the burst of excruciating pain, the sensation of blood leaving bone, tenting the barrier to the outside world. One punch was enough to bend the little girl still looking for a counterfeit, for the warm embrace of the father who left her too soon. A heart she knows could have been full like before, if death hadn’t come, lurking behind the front door. Because of death’s blow, her punctured heart was leaky, disqualified from filling to the brim, once again. Her heart in this partially-filled state, his fist bent the orifice that remained, cracking it open, threatening to shatter it to pieces creating a flask incompetent to retain, contain, absorb, or reassemble.
Had she met and married a sensitive, gentle, middle-aged man, I think her life would have been different. Unfortunately, she was drawn to someone just as confused as she. He may have been slightly older in years, but he was not sensitive, nor was he gentle. Her husband adored alcohol and he needed to be in control. My aunt failed to appreciate that having stability and being controlled are separate and distinct. Discovery of the former in the absence of the latter was a lifelong challenge for my aunt.
A few miles away in our living room, I was watching my mother frantically search for a listing. Her challenge brought to my awareness the fact that the San Diego County telephone book was a big book. Flipping through the thin pages loudly and hurriedly, I saw the moment my mother found what she was looking for in the gargantuan tome.
“Do you have any vacancies? A mother with two small children, ages 9 months and two-years… Yes, we need her identity to remain confidential.”
After the quick telephone call, while still hanging up the telephone, she both grabbed her purse and my hand, then we exited the front door of our apartment.
It was very dark outside. I wasn’t afraid because my small hand was cradled in my mother’s larger one. The drive to my aunt’s apartment from ours was no more than five minutes. After reaching my aunt’s front door, we waited. Walking around to her small patio, my mother said my aunt’s name and finally, the front door opened. I stared at my aunt as I waited for my mother’s piercing words, the predictable onslaught in response to the bruises on my aunt’s face. However, only two words were spoken.
Just as my aunt and the boys exited their front door, my uncle appeared from around the corner, heading our way. Unlike any other time I had seen him before, his eyes were feral, fierce, and frightening. In response, my mother’s look was unfazed. She said nothing. Her silent dismissal instantaneously diffused his fire. He withdrew his ire, lowered his head and silently turned around.
Quietly, my aunt and baby cousins made their way to our car, my mother’s first car in California. The little yellow Pacer with black racing stipes was so small and there were so many of us. We three children squoze ourselves into the back. Marcus, the two year-old who I had taught to walk, sat next to me and I held Marlon, the toddler, in my lap. As the tiny car pulled out of the parking lot, I gave a pent-up little squeal. That night, the boys and I witnessed the power of a single person to make things right.
Before my aunt and cousins moved to California where I was born and where my mother and I lived, they were living where my aunt and mother grew up, in Mississippi.
Circumstance and life events brought my mother’s family from a position of relative plenty to a place where my grandmother, who had never worked, became a housekeeper to make ends meet. With my grandfather’s illnesses- diabetes, hypertension, and their sequelae- the savings they had left were not enough for my mother’s university tuition and expenses. As was my grandfather’s last wish, my mother was in her final semester at Jackson State University. The only child still living at home, my aunt was my grandparents cherished child of later life. A teenager with parents in their sixties and seventies inherits both freedom and responsibility.
For my aunt, the identities of her parents, their assets and losses, had determined in great measure the foundation of her own life experience. The specters of death, racism, segregation, poverty and self-doubt in a moment of crisis are all plagues that can, if experienced too early fracture one’s soul in an irreparable way.
“I was the one who found him.”
Although several years had passed, in the telling, my aunt had a haunted look in her eyes. She told me she was her father’s friend, partner-in-crime, fishing buddy, and caregiver.
“Usually, I would come home from school and cook lunch for Daddy. My, no, our mother, your grandmother, usually worked late, so I would help with some of the household chores. Having older parents is different because they aren’t as strict as they were with their grown children. I was only 14 when I found Daddy that way.”
I’ve always viewed my aunt as fragile, frail and mischievous. Cherubic cheeks, tiny teeth and a loving smile, my aunt is very kind, sweet, actually, and a fantastic cook. She liked to tell me family stories while preparing a meal. A fighter, she is not. She will tell you herself that something intangible broke inside her that day in February when the eerie quiet greeted her boisterous opening of the front door.
“Daddy! Daddy! I am home…” Her voice trailed off as she saw him slumped over in his favorite chair, the remnant of a smile on his face.
Why did he have to go while she was at school, all alone? Always seeking protection, for my aunt it was choices- husband, career, where to live- from that fateful day forward, that would be elusive, tedious tasks. Loneliness and memories would occupy too much space, squeezing out the more mundane essentials of daily life. Her older sister, my mother, was away, finishing her studies, in college. Her brothers were married adults, miles away with their own families. Her mother was working non-stop to make ends meet. Not only did she lose a father, she came home to an empty house everyday wondering how she could continue to walk through the same door, re-live that moment and pretend it didn’t hurt as much as it always did. Behind the front door, during those quiet afternoons, a gremlin-like hunger for a love that could not be replaced was born.
Erica Urquhart is a Mother, daughter, other seeking to make sense of the female experience.