When I was a very little girl, smaller than my daughter is now, we lived in a house made of stucco and mud. Inside that tiny house (an apartment, really, with two stories) we had a very, very small kitchen. To me, it seemed so big - I could never reach the ice box, or the high shelves where our parents kept the chocolate syrup - but to them it was a cruel joke played on poor people who could ask for nothing better.
Two grown adults couldn't fit side-by-side in our kitchen. It was like a galley kitchen on a Barbie Dream Yacht. It had avocado green linoleum countertops and an avocado green rotary phone to match. Over the sink was a florescent light bulb, one of those long ones you pulled a little chain to turn on, like under the hood of an oven a million years ago, when I was a child.
My father worked the swing shift at the steel factor a mile or two up the road from our house (if I am not mistaken, it is one of the few functional steel mills left on the eastern seaboard) (and the reason everyone from Claymont, DE is going to die of some very horrible lung disease someday). Some nights, he would get home at what felt like 3,729 am to a little girl not old enough to gauge time after the sun went down. I would hear his key in open the door, the dog greet him, his boots and coat come off, and all the while I'd be creaking my way down the old, wooden stairs of our home, trying to catch of glimpse of Ed before Dad noticed me in pigtails and nightgowns, peeking my poofy eyes through the spindles of the banister.
He'd call me down and we'd go into that tiny huge kitchen together, just the two of us, and he'd plop me up on the cold, green linoleum. He always let me pull the chain on the light over the sink, and we'd listen in silence as it hummed itself awake, then bolted into the moment with a crackle.
I would watch him wash his hands under flickering blue lights and scalding hot water, scrubbing 8, 10, 12 hours of black soot off his skin and his nails with Lava soap. It took what felt like forever, but was probably only minutes, for him to scrub away layer after layer of steel plate or bearing or block or whatever they made all day in the place that pumped the black smoke into the air. He scrubbed and rinsed and we talked about our days. Sometimes he would tell me silly stories, and sometimes he would let me wash my new-person hands with that Lava soap.
I remember how it stung, but I wanted to be tough and brave like my daddy, so I washed with it anyway. When we were all done, he'd pat my hands dry, rub them with lotion, make me a little chocolate milk with the secret stash of Hershey's syrup way up high in the cabinet I never reached, and then tuck me into bed.
This is my single greatest memory of my entire existence.
This is also the same man who regularly laid my brother and I out naked over the edge our our bed and beat us with leather and metal until the skin tore away from our flesh.
And this is why I can't be too hard on myself when I sit here, having infrequent and faint feeling like I miss parts of my husband, like his stupid jokes or the way he shaves his face, even though when the phone rang on Saturday and it was the number of the rehab center I had the same feeling just above my stomach and below my heart where the terror of the sound of my father walking through the door at not-3,729-am lived.
I learned to compartmentalize. I learned that was able, if I wanted it badly enough, to love someone so much for what was good in them while at that very same moment, being absolutely terrified of every single way they were probably going to kill a part of me the next day.
And this is how I ended up with an alcoholic, though neither of my parents ever really drank. I actually hate drunk people, and hate being drunk myself, and yet I worked in bars for 16 years and married an alcoholic because I learned before I was old enough to read a standard clock that what you love and cherish with all of your being is also what is guaranteed to hurt you in ways you could never fathom, no matter what you do to stop it.