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Chapter 4: In the Beginning


November 2, 1944, was a time of fear, chaos, and confusion for some. For others, it was a time of optimism, faith, and hope. This was the day I was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

I was the youngest of five children, born to first-generation parents of Russian immigrants. We moved from Philadelphia to my father’s hometown of Berwick, Pennsylvania, on the Susquehanna River. Some of my first memories are of the summers. They were hot, muggy, and stifling. As kids, we often went barefoot, jumping from pavement to grass to cool our feet from the hot sidewalks.

In the mornings, we would watch for the iceman to bring blocks of ice for the neighborhood iceboxes. The delivery truck was white and the words “Block – Ice” painted on the sides of it. The iceman used big tongs to lift the block of ice out of the truck and then carry it inside the home to put it into the top of the icebox. We always hoped we could reach in and sneak a few frozen chunks to help cool us from the blazing summer sun.

My father’s parents had been Russian peasants, and their beliefs were rooted in superstition. His first wife was Italian, and his parents always warned him that since he did not marry a Russian woman, God was going to punish him. “God doesn’t come with a stick. He will punish you for not marrying your own kind,” they’d repeated to him many times.

In 1937, my father was serving as a Merchant Marine on a ship in Germany while his wife and their two children stayed with his parents. She helped my grandparents on the farm, but she became sick due to complications with her third pregnancy, and she and the baby died while he was gone. My father told me his hair turned gray within nine days after her death, because he believed that God had punished him for not marrying his own kind. God hadn’t come with a stick, but his wife and baby had died. He believed that was his punishment.

After that, he tried to instill this same fear into all his children. He told us repeatedly to marry our own kind or God would punish us. He was terrified to let us date or develop friendships with the opposite sex, afraid we might not marry our own kind and experience the wrath of God in the same way he had.

I remember him beating Delores and my mother. I was so scared I would hide in the closet and cry. Sometimes he would make me watch when he beat Delores so that I’d know what to expect if I did the things that she did when I became a teenager. He would use a belt and start beating on her between the two beds in our bedroom. The entire time, he would be screaming at her, “God is going to punish you!” There wasn’t anywhere she could go to get out from between the beds to get away from him because he had her pinned there, and she would cry. Sometimes she would put her arms up to try to protect herself from the blows and he would hit them with the belt too. I would cry too for her because he made me watch as he was beating her with the belt. I would scream at him, “Please, please, please stop hitting her!” as I sobbed with tears streaming down my cheeks. I never really understood what it was that she had done that was so terrible that she deserved to be beaten.

 There were many times that he would leave after beating my mother and knocking her out. We would cry, but we couldn’t help her. She would be lying on the floor on her back, not moving and her eyes were closed. The three of us little girls would be crying, “Mommy, open your eyes! Wake up! Wake up!” We were so scared not knowing if she was dead or alive. All we could do was sit on the floor by her. Faith would lift her head and put it in her lap while we waited for her to wake up. And when she did, we would stay with her on the floor until she was able to get up. She would be black and blue and in pain for days while he was gone for weeks, not knowing if she was hospitalized, or even if she’d survived his abuse.

It was difficult to understand this dark side of my father, particularly when I was a child. I only knew that it terrified me. I still loved him even though I feared him. There were times when he was extremely cheerful and fun to be with, which only added to my confusion about the masculine gender.

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