a memoir ABOUT overcoming witnessing domestic violence
and the murder of my mother BY MY FATHER
I was introduced to adversity at a very early age. Unbeknownst to me, I was born into adversity. I remember witnessing from age four to seven the consistent violent abuse of my mother by the hands of my father when he was around my mother, brother, and me. The abuse happened in various places. Sometimes it was in our small Bronx, New York apartment that my mother and father shared, or on the fifth floor in the hallway outside of Nana’s (my mother’s mother and my maternal grandmother) Harlem, New York, apartment at 38 West 139th Street and Lenox Avenue; or as my father, mother, brother, and I were walking down the stairs after leaving Nana’s apartment. I remember hearing my father argue at my mother and seeing him hit my mother once we reached the last set of stairs before exiting the building.
Both the Bronx and Harlem apartments were walk-ups. I remember the uneasy feelings I experienced when my father, mother, brother, and I had to walk up and down those stairs to enter or exit either of those apartment buildings. I dreaded those stairs, not because of the climb but because I didn’t know what my father was going to do to my mother. I felt unsafe.
My brother, Derek, and I spent most of our time at Nana’s apartment. As a little girl growing up, I didn’t know domestic abuse by its name or had any other kind of knowledge about domestic abuse for that matter. However, even as a little girl, I knew and felt inside of me that my father was doing something horrible to my mother, and I couldn’t wait for him to leave us, because it felt so good when he wasn’t around. During some of those times when he wasn’t around, my mother took Derek and me to the park. I was so happy when I felt the warmth of her hand as she held my hand to cross the street. I loved looking at my mother’s face because she was beautiful to me and had such nice brown flawless skin. When she would turn her back to me in our small Bronx kitchen, getting ready to wash dishes and cook dinner before my father came home, I would play with one of my dolls near the kitchen entrance just to be close to her. I would admire the back of her head because of her pinned-up french roll hairstyle. When my father came home, those uneasy feelings would resurface. My mother would send my brother and me to our room, where we shared bunk beds. From our room I could hear my father arguing at my mother, and she would close the door to our room and tell us to stay in our room, get in our pajamas, play together, and she would tuck us in later. During those times, I would climb up to the top bunk with my brother. We’d put our hands over our ears and eventually fall asleep.
I remember another time when Derek and I were fake sleeping in our room and heard my father yell at my mother that he was “going to take Sharon and Derek.”
My mother said to my father, “Artie, please leave them alone; they’re sleeping.”
There was always something going on with my father when it came to my mother, even though she didn’t do or say anything wrong. His abuse was unpredictable—sometimes. However, it became expected after a while, because when his rants toward my mother ended, the physical abuse usually followed. It seemed like his behavior was a way of life for us—like it was normal for a husband to hit his wife. It was like all of us had been conditioned to accept that notion, but even as a little girl, deep inside of me in my private thoughts, I rejected it, because I knew it wasn’t normal. Even if it was normal, then it wasn’t nice, and I didn’t like it.
My mother loved my father. Perhaps she thought things would get better if she stayed with him. She really hoped that things would change with my father, especially since she had two kids whom she adored with him. But, unfortunately, things didn’t change. Things continued to get worse. As much as my mother loved my father, she also feared him. She feared the uncertainty of what he would do if she left him. She feared that one day he would really take my brother and me away. She also feared being the cause of breaking up her family. Derek and I meant the world to our mother. All she wanted was to be a good wife, loving mother and for my brother and me to have a father, our own father, in our lives. My mother also wanted to study to become a nurse. That was her dream.
My mother, Drucilla Elizabeth Butts, was born March 21, 1938, and my father, Arthur (“Artie”) Alston, was born June 8, 1938. My mom met my father when they were both teenagers. She was in high school. A lot of boys liked my mother, but Artie was her first and only love. As a matter of fact, my mother married my father after graduating from high school. Nana wasn’t happy about that at all because my grandmother knew my mother wanted to study nursing and work in a hospital to help people. Nana also felt that my mother was too young to get married and that she should’ve waited until at least after she started a nursing program. But Nana went along with my mother’s plans because she loved her daughter and wanted her to be happy.
My mother was so young, innocent, naïve, and full of life and dreams, but she fell in love with my father. He was nicely built, tall, with brown skin, thick black eyebrows and nice facial features. He really was handsome. My mother didn’t waste any time starting her family after graduating high school and then getting married. She had me first when she was only nineteen years old in New York City’s Harlem Hospital in March 1957. Then my brother arrived thirteen months later, in April 1958, at the same hospital.
Anyway, when I was little, I recall hearing my grandmother tell my mother several times to leave my father.
Nana told her, “Bouie (that was my mother’s nickname), Artie ain’t no good.”
My father was a controlling, jealous man and a violent abuser. I don’t know why. Frankly, the source of his controlling behavior did not excuse the way he treated my mother behind closed doors and especially in front of his two kids, Derek and me.
There was another time I recall vividly when my father came to my grandmother’s apartment to get my mother, brother, and me to take us home to our Bronx apartment. My brother and I must have been about five and six years old. I remember not wanting to go. My mother wanted all of us to stay overnight at Nana’s place, but my father was not having that. So she got us ready, and we left Nana’s house.
Once again as we were walking down the stairs from Nana’s apartment, Artie was arguing at my mother. About what, I don’t know. It was just a lot of angry noise to me. When those incidents happened, my mother didn’t say much. She remained calm and quiet with her focus on Derek and me. She’d grab our hands to steer us down the stairs as quickly as possible and tried not to do or say anything that would provoke Artie.
Sometimes, though, she did say, “Artie, please—the kids.”
But it didn’t matter to him. He kept right on arguing.
There was another incident in the hallway at Nana’s apartment when Artie came to get my mother, but this time she went out into the hallway to speak to him instead. She left Derek and me inside with Nana. All of a sudden, I heard my mother screaming. Nana heard her too. Nana ran out to the hallway. I was right behind Nana. We looked up and saw my mother holding on to the frail wooden window frames for dear life as my father was trying to push her out of the fifth-floor hallway window. Nana started yelling at Artie, and a neighbor came out and then threatened to call the cops if Artie didn’t take his hands off my mother. He let my mother go and then ran down the stairs and out of the building.
There were times when Derek and I were at Nana’s apartment playing in the living room and Nana was either talking on the phone or had company over, and she told us, “Baby, y’all go on in the back room and play, because Nana is talking. This is grown folks’ conversation. Nana want y’all to stay in a child’s place.”
Even though I was in the back room playing with my doll, I could still hear Nana talk about my father and all the crazy things he had accused my mother of doing and how she wished my mother would just leave him. Not only was my father a violent domestic abuser, he started abusing drugs too. So Nana definitely was not happy about that.
Nana used to say that my father would accuse my mother of dating the bus driver when she greeted the driver while getting on or off the bus when she was just being courteous. Nana said if my mother got off work late, then Artie thought she must be with someone else. I remember Nana saying so many times that if my mother looked too nice, in my father’s mind, she must be looking nice for someone else. If my mother was at Nana’s apartment with Derek and me too long, then she must be meeting a man over there. Those were some of the outrageous accusations that I heard about over many years of my life regarding my father’s controlling and jealous behavior. Of course, none of those crazy accusations were ever true, not one. My mother loved her some Artie. Everyone and anyone who knew my mother and grandmother would throw their hands up in the air, shake their heads, and say the same thing Nana had been saying for years:
“Elizabeth, leave him. Artie is dangerous, Bouie; he’s possessive, controlling, and sneaky; and now he’s using drugs. He ain’t no damn good for you and those kids, Bouie.”
Unfortunately, Nana was right.