Chapter 3.3: We Left Him There

Chapter 3.3: We Left Him There

Things had begun to sour in my parents’ relationship in Palacios. My mother who had grown up poor and who had married into deep poverty was deeply frustrated that, after having finally reached a middle-class lifestyle in California, she now found herself again right back where she started. We were desperately poor in Palacios, especially the first couple years. The one-bedroom trailer we were living in got even tighter when my aunt and cousin came to live with us for a short time. We drove old cars that broke down and wore cast off clothes that were very obviously second-hand. We were the kind of poor that was impossible to disguise. Everyone who saw us immediately knew. My mom and dad would fight, and my dad would drink, and we would all pray.

Jehovah’s Witnesses’ doctrine doesn’t permit smoking or drugs or lots of other sinful behaviors but drinking is permitted. Water into wine, and all. Drunkenness, was of course, prohibited. But the definition of ‘drunkenness’ was based on some bible characters who got drunk, blacked out and did terrible things. There is a lot of gray area there about what constitutes responsible, “Christian” drinking habits. Drinking was part of our religious culture and I watched my dad struggle with his habit my entire life. There were times when he would quit cold-turkey, but eventually he started again. I never saw him shitfaced, but there were times I knew he’d had too much.  Eventually, after I became an adult, my dad quit for good. But alcohol was a crutch for him throughout my childhood.

After the first couple years in Palacios, we moved to a house in town and both my parents began working full time for the city so we had a steady income, but things continued to unravel between them. “Problems” that I was too young to understand cropped up within our congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses. There were special visits from the organization’s representatives who came from the headquarters in New York. They formally dissolved the congregation after a while and we were directed to start attending another congregation in Bay City, about thirty miles away.  My parents started going to counseling with the elders at the new congregation to work on their marriage, but my mom got more angry and depressed and my dad got more distant.

I was twelve when it finally all fell apart.

In the spring of 1986, a friend from our old congregation in California came to visit us in Palacios. My parents had introduced her and her husband years earlier in Santa Clara, and I had been the flower girl at their wedding. We were thrilled to get to see her again. My mom and I drove to Houston to pick her up and I listened all the way back home as my mom poured out her heart in the car to her old friend. Until that point I hadn’t realized how lonely my mom was. For as socially isolated as I was, without Witness friends my own age, she too was without any confidant. Our friend from California had come for a week, and was staying in my room.  She and my mom had spent hours catching up together and I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen my mom so happy. They’d sit up on my bed talking long after I fell asleep on the floor. I thought perhaps things might start to get better from here on out.

*****

The elders who served as “marriage counselors” were not on her side. How could they be? The ideal marriage for a Jehovah’s Witness family was a submissive wife who took her husband’s lead in all things. This, we were told, was the natural order of things. God made women to submit to men, who in turn submitted to Christ, who in turn interceded on our behalf to God. This was a message I heard at home, from the pulpit, and in the Witness’ literature I read from early childhood.

My mom tried to be submissive for years, but two things got in her way: First, she’s a natural leader. She sees things that need to be done, takes the initiative and helps others participate in the work. That she was constantly being told to submit to a hierarchy of men, many of whom were lacking in skill and knowledge, was never going to be a sustainable lifestyle for her. She tried for as long as she could because she wanted to keep her family together. Second, my dad is not a natural leader. He’s a free-spirited adventurer who dreads the mendacity of a daily grind. He struggled mightily with the roles of father and husband that required him to shoulder all the ‘biblical’ responsibilities of ‘head of the household’, especially since he never had a great example to follow from his own childhood. 

When my parents met they were young and running from their past. Over thirteen years they had made drastic changes in their lives and were better people for it. But the responsibilities of adulthood and parenthood brought into focus how poorly matched they really were from the very beginning. It is entirely possible that my parents would have been ok if, at some point, they’d been able to define their relationship in a way that made sense for them based on their own natural abilities and gifts; but religious hierarchy leaves very little room for personal interpretation. 

*****

On the next to the last day of our friend’s visit I woke up early in my room because I heard voices. My mom had come in to my room before dawn and she and her friend were talking to one another in low tones. I lay still, pretending to sleep, and listened while they laid out the plan to leave my dad and drive back to California. I couldn’t believe my ears.  While I was shocked and disturbed that my mom was planning to leave my dad the whole time the only thing I could think was…we’re going home.

That day I went about my business and pretended I’d heard nothing. We had planned to take a trip to the mall in Victoria, a city about an hour’s drive away. Our friend took me shopping and bought me a cute, hip outfit unlike anything I owned. Classic 80s style stirrup pants with an oversized hot pink sweatshirt and some black beads I could twist in a knot. While I was trying things on my mom came in the dressing room to check on me and I looked up at her and started to cry. She asked me what was wrong, and I told her that I’d been awake that morning, and that I heard her talking about leaving dad and that I understood she was unhappy, but I needed to know when so I could prepare myself.

She paused, looked back at me intently and said, “We left.”

We would not be going back home after the mall. We’d get in the car with my newly purchased outfit, and drive for three days back to Santa Clara.

While I had been preoccupied with a trip to the mall, I’d failed to realize that the car was packed with as many of our belongings as my mom could fit into the trunk of a Ford Escort. Once we finished shopping we got into the car and my mom decided it was time to tell my brother. To this day, I remember watching his face crumble in slow motion from the other side of the back seat, feeling utterly helpless. He let out an agonizing wail and began protesting loudly asking why. I did my best to comfort him as we pulled out of the mall parking lot, but he was inconsolable. After a few minutes, he settled into a shocked sullenness. That day, in 1986, is the last time I’ve ever seen my little brother cry.

It was a strange feeling, knowing that I would never see my room again, or my school. When we called my dad from a hotel that night he asked in a broken voice if I was ok. I told him I was fine and I was excited about going home to California. And I was.


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Current Google satellite map image of the last place I lived in Palacios.

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