Mother’s Day Nod

My courageous mother’s past continues to influence my fervent interest in women’s empowerment. My vision is to amplify my mother’s and all women’s voices, both individually and collectively, helping them (and me) realize our power, understand our greatness, and model that strength to our children and grandchildren.

We all keep secrets, sometimes for good reasons and sometimes because we are ashamed of what happens behind closed doors. Being heard matters; it is how we turn our wounds into wisdom.

My mother has always been a giver, a pattern that most of us as women naturally adopt. Frequently, she gave at great cost to herself. I want her to be heard in my book, and I am proud to use her story as the final chapter.

Like so many mother/daughter relationships, ours was often fraught with misunderstanding. As a teenager, I thought she was weak, so I continually confronted her for not standing up to her second husband, whom I despised. I didn’t respect her choices or support how she cowered to both his daily demands and his emotional abuse. What I viewed as a lack of self-respect agitated me tremendously. I was too emotionally immature at the time to understand the complexity of my mother’s situation. I forgive her now, in hindsight.

Over the years, I began asking her intense questions since I suspected buried secrets. My mother, when she was ready to face her past, provided the profound, gut-wrenching answers that I was searching for in my mid-twenties. Little did I know the silent suffering she endured as a young wife and mother. Over the years, she muddled stories from my youth to protect the image I carried of my father, who passed away from cancer when I was eleven.

She frequently says, “No one knows what goes on inside your home until they sit at your dinner table.” Our interview for this book is the first time she has fully disclosed the conflict that went on with my father over forty years ago. Throughout my life, my mother handled some of the hardest hits that life could throw at her, yet she somehow managed to spring back again and again.

The truth is that Joni, a soundless strength within my mother, has continuously resided. In my thirties, I learned to be gentler with my judgment, recognizing she was doing what she could with what she had and that it was the only way she knew how. She has always given freely of herself, without expectations, and her respect for others is evidenced by her desire to help them achieve their potential. Giving and accepting are my mother’s trademarks of genuine caring and love.

As a mother myself, I now recognize that the job of mothering is very complex and challenging. We try to protect our family however we can, no matter what. Sometimes silence is best; other times, that same silence can be the entry into an uncommunicative prison. My mother has mentioned several times that being a mother comes with second-guessing everything you’re doing (or not doing) and then wondering if what you did will, in some way, scar your child for life.

I love my mother’s gigantic, generous heart and her ability to spark conversation with complete strangers in a matter of minutes, a vital communication skill she has mastered over the last four decades as a hairstylist. Could this natural talent for communication have been better utilized within our family system when I was growing up? I don’t know the true answer to that question, yet perhaps most importantly, my mother is using that talent now.

Sharing our stories can always be a step toward freedom, as can making our own decisions, following our hearts, and speaking our truth. My mother taught me these realities by modeling what to do and what not to do. I am full of pride and tremendously grateful as her daughter. I am also elated to be her most prominent advocate, watching her rebuild not only her life but also her confidence.

I wasn’t what you would call one of the most popular girls in my high school. The “cool” status was for cheerleaders; some- times I was jealous of not being one. But I saw myself as friendly and carefree. I could fit in with all types of people, yet I never liked to draw too much attention to myself. I was a bit self-conscious and not a big drinker. You could find me at band practice with my cornet or in the yearbook and student council meetings after school.

Tom Hogan worked at the local market, the IGA. I remember watching him bag our fruits and vegetables, captivated by his hazel eyes. We went to the same high school, and we would flirt with each other while he loaded groceries into my mom’s ivy-green Ford Mustang. I started going to the baseball games to watch him play shortstop, his wavy light brown hair barely contained under his ball cap.

Tom had a big heart. Everybody loved him. He was charismatic, good-looking, and was the life of the party. He even drank enough Budweiser for both of us! We started going steady in the fall of our junior year. I was thrilled to be going to our Spring Senior Prom together!

In the summer of 1973, the whole course of my life changed. Who knew I would unexpectedly conceive the first time I had sex, parked in the sugar beet field on a muggy summer night in Tom’s two-door Plymouth? I was a wreck. Mom accompanied me to our family doctor, and he confirmed my pregnancy with a urine test. The thought of telling my father scared me to death. When I finally did, he refused to talk to me for two months.

I was only seventeen. I was never taught either at home or in school about sex, let alone the need to wear protection or use contraceptives! It was a different time in the ’70s. I had to learn all the “physical and emotional stuff” independently. After the shock subsided, there was never a thought of abortion or adoption. Tom’s family was Catholic, and mine was Lutheran. I’m unsure if I would have considered either option even if religion was not a definitive factor. In our small town, if you got pregnant, you got married and dealt with it.

My hopes of going to college and becoming a nurse or a dental hygienist instantly came to a halt. Instead, I attended MJ Murphy Cosmetology School. The smell of perm solution fumes made me feel sick to my stomach daily; maybe it was just morning sickness. I’ll never know.

We were married on December 7, 1973. To appease Tom’s father and his family, the wedding was held at his Catholic Church. I wore an off-white empire waist wedding dress to hide my five-month bump, carrying an intensely fragrant Stephanotis flower bouquet. Two hundred people came to the reception. I felt excited and optimistic as our real-life version of playing house together began.

Fortunately, my father’s disappointment waned. He liked Tom and helped us purchase a $7,000, fully furnished, white-trimmed trailer home. We could barely afford our utility bills, but to Tom and me, this prefabricated, two-bedroom structure felt like a residence for royalty! For dinner, we ate boiled boloney and fried eggs on our gold butterfly Corelle dishes. From time to time, Tom would go hunting or fishing and bring back squirrels, pheasants, rabbits, or bluegills for me to prepare for dinner.

My new husband was working his way up the ranks at the IGA, but he still found plenty of time for partying. At that time, it was easy for me to make the excuse that he was young, but I was, too! Six months later, I found my first job at Jarvis Hair Salon in Saginaw. The goal was to save up money for the arrival of our child, and we desperately needed my additional income.

Our baby girl, Shannon, arrived in April 1974.

We could have saved more money, but Tom’s drinking never diminished. I had reasonable expectations of him as a father. I wanted him to stop drinking every night and stay home with his family. Then, together, we would navigate through the uncertainty of being parents.

When he refused, my high hopes of living happily ever after with my newlywed husband and newborn child started to seem in jeopardy. Here I was, a teenager, alone, desperately trying my best to take care of the house, our finances, and a newborn without a parenting manual. Tom’s routine was consistent: He would drink at the bar without stopping until he either passed out or never came home, or he would come home just before passing out.

Each month, his behavior became more intolerable. Since I never knew where he was, it worried me sick. I spent countless hours pacing the floors in darkness with Shannon crying softly in my arms, asking myself, why am I doing this? Even as a teenage mother, I knew I had to be responsible for my actions and be there for my daughter.

I was reluctant to accept what was happening and was hopeful Tom would stop his childish behavior. My pride took precedence over my wisdom. My fear of failure and embarrassment petrified me. I didn’t reach out to anyone since I thought people would not believe me. I protected Tom’s reputation at all costs, at my expense. I felt so alone, though, never telling anyone about the situation I found myself in, stuffing my feelings deeper and deeper.

At a certain point during the first year of our marriage, Tom started to get explosive toward me when he came home drunk. My fun-loving husband turned combative the moment I asked him, “Where have you been?” I never knew what the “alcohol” was going to say or do. Sometimes, I would have a mouthful of chewed-up tuna fish sandwich spit at me, or I might need to dodge a full glass of milk that would end up shattered against the kitchen wall. Retreating to my hands and knees, I would start to clean up the mess while begging him to go to bed. Yet anything I said or did aggravated his teenage angst.

Two years prior, Mom gave me one of my favorite gifts from a trip she and Dad took to Hawaii. It was a beige and white cotton caftan dress. I was wearing it one night while ironing in the living room when Tom came home in a drunken stupor and ripped it off me. I vividly remember sitting there on the navy-blue tweed carpet, holding my shredded dress in my hands, weeping. I cried softly as I cleaned up another one of his spontaneous food-throwing fits. He finally staggered to the bedroom, where he promptly passed out.

For years, I continually feared him walking through the front door, dreading what would happen next. After so many nights of his nastiness, I decided that I would no longer wait up. My new plan was to pretend I was asleep. This idea was short-lived. My strategy failed when he pointed a shotgun to my left temple as I lay in bed one night and sternly demanded, “You always have to say something to me when I walk in the door,” as he pushed the unsympathetic steel barrel against my skin.

My body trembled. My brain seized. I tried to remain calm, but his shaky right hand made me feel extremely nervous that I was going to die. I prayed to God this firearm was not loaded. My drunken, emotionless husband should not be the one to decide to end my life. And especially not with my little girl peacefully sleeping on her favorite Raggedy Ann and Andy doll sheets and cuddling her faded pink blankie in the next room.

I was aware of Tom’s incapacity to listen when he was intoxicated, but I also knew that anything could set him off. So, I asked him calmly, “Do you want to do this? If you pull the trigger, you must live with that decision.” He eventually put the gun down and went to bed. I ran to my little girl’s room and held her as close as I could, all the while asking God, “Why me?”

What could I do now? Where could I go? Back to my parents’ house? They already thought being pregnant at seventeen was an embarrassment to them. There were no services or shelters available in our small town. I could have called the police and exposed Tom’s behavior, but nobody would have believed me, especially our friends and family. He never acted this crazy in front of them. Everyone liked and loved Tom Hogan.

I am not sure why I stayed after that traumatic night, but I did. I would like to confess that things settled down a bit, but as I look back, I see that my decision was mostly fear-based. Our second daughter, Shelby, was born two years after that incident. I did not want seven-year-old Shannon to be an only child, and it felt like it was now or never to conceive again.

Around this time, we moved out of the trailer into a house with a yard. Tom enjoyed having a garage where he kept all his “toys.” Our new home was close to the IGA so that he could walk to work. He seemed excited about our new place, and I loved watching him playfully interact with the girls. He was a doting dad.

Still, over time, I lost whatever assertiveness and confidence I had left in me. I continued to repress my thoughts and feelings, becoming more desensitized. Tom was physically abusive to me. I didn’t want to admit to anyone what was happening in my life, and, as a result, I became a victim of my circumstances. I talked myself in circles because I was ashamed. Was I “right” to feel the way I did? Was I supposed to suffer? Everything I thought was wrong about my relationship then started to feel “right.” At least I knew what it looked like; everything was familiar and predictable, making it comfortable. I always thought about leaving Tom, but my pride and fear trapped me.

I became adept at making excuses for my bumps and bruises to friends and family. I remember one particular time that tactic was a bit more complicated. Tom had punched me in the mouth, causing my teeth to cut through my lip.

This happened during the middle of the night, and Shannon walked in as I was hunched over a blood-filled bathtub. I told her, “Go back to bed. Mommy slipped on some ice.” I lied to my friend Carleen with the same story while we shared a green olive pizza for lunch the next day.

Tom never laid a finger on the girls, only me. He was a good dad and loved his daughters. And I know he loved me, too. But when he drank, he became a different person. Alcohol fueled an angry fire inside of him. The more he drank, the nastier he would get. Like a fire, his actions were difficult to anticipate and could quickly get out of control when left unattended. That scared me.

In my mind, I thought maybe it was my fault, that I was the cause of his abusive behavior. I know now that is the furthest thing from the truth, but I was young, naive, and foolish. Something I regret never saying to Tom was, “You need help.” His dad also had alcoholism; like Tom, he never knew when to stop. Drinking was an accepted behavior in their family. It was also what many people did socially in our isolated community.

It may be wrong to think, but at times, I wished him dead. I was angry and tired, and I just wanted Tom to stop drinking and stop hurting me. From the beginning, I was frustrated that he did not care enough to come home and be with his family. I desperately tried to remind him of his responsibilities, which only aggravated his temper. When we exchanged vows, this was not the life I had envisioned.

There was a kind and loving side to Tom, but alcohol slithered in and stole that away. I wanted my Tom back, the one with the captivating hazel eyes who brought me home damaged cans of corn and green beans from work. Since we were always short on money, anything helped. Those little gifts meant a lot.

Shannon was nine, and Shelby had turned two when Tom started having severe headaches coupled with stiffness in his neck. The headaches were odd to me since he never used to get them, even after his drinking binges. He visited a chiropractor and took vitamins, but the symptoms didn’t improve. After developing a severe cough and seeing a physician, he was finally diagnosed with a rare form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Maybe I was being young and foolish again, but I never thought about him dying or being by myself raising two girls. I only hoped that this would be the tipping point so he would finally stop drinking.

He did.

Tom endured almost two years of both chemotherapy and radiation treatments. He was sober the whole time due in part to the severity of his sickness. I felt like God had finally answered my prayers. This was the first time I saw my husband daily in our relationship. I knew where he was at all times. I drove him to his chemotherapy and radiation visits. We often stopped and got Jamocha milkshakes from Arby’s, which helped ease his queasiness.

Our time together began to feel like a true marriage despite his being very ill. He would play baseball with Shelby in the backyard and take Shannon up north to drive the quads he bought with his brother and nephew. We would golf together, and I would fry one of his favorite foods, either venison or fresh perch. It felt like we were renewing our relationship and starting over again. He was turning back into the Tom Hogan I fell in love with a decade earlier.

He continued to work at the grocery store when he could and started attending a non-denominational Bible study with an old high school friend, Tony. After reading the entire Bible several times, Tom appeared calmer, kinder, and more caring towards me despite the cancerous tumor resting between his lungs on his spinal cord. This inoperable malignant growth eventually made its way into his bones, taking over his entire body.

I was sitting next to my thirty-year-old husband when he peacefully closed his eyes and passed away on August 30, 1985. A non-dramatic, eerie silence filled the room. When Tom took his final breath, part of me died with him. I was now numb and emotionally empty. We had experienced many tumultuous years of marriage. But, suddenly, my whole life felt like a bigger mess.

I had no time to feel scared or sorry for myself. I knew I had to be strong for Shannon and Shelby, now ages eleven and four. There were a multitude of bills to pay and affairs to settle. I did what I needed to do…get through each day. As long as I had my girls to raise, giving up would never be an option for me.

Thanks to my older daughter, this secret is no longer buried. I had never revisited these events until she forced me to look back and tell her about my life. At times, it has been painful, even humiliating, but our conversations were also therapeutic. Unearthing these memories allows me to heal that part of me finally. In truth, to this day, I still struggle with remaining silent, not saying what I really think. I know deep in my heart this suppression is wrong, but it is a hard habit to break after a lifetime of restraint.

Now, at sixty-two, I am finally taking steps toward expressing my own voice again to find a place of overall health and happiness. I am restoring my self-confidence while battling type 1 diabetes. I try to visit my four grandchildren in California as much as possible while keeping my cosmetology clients happy. My older regulars are adamant about styling their hair on schedule—some weekly, others every six weeks. I have been married to my third husband for twenty years, and he makes me happy. He even enjoys doing the dishes and laundry.

Slowly but surely, I finally understand that I deserve to be happy. My daughter continues to prod, poke, and pull me to a different level of awareness. At times, I wish she would just leave me alone! Yet, in reality, her strength has risen from my past weakness. That resiliency is a gift any mother would gladly suffer to give her children.

Leave a Reply