Letters to Colin

Have I ever really told you my story? Grab a coffee; it’s a long one.

My very oldest memory is from when I was two years old. I’ve since figured out that it was probably in December of 1991. My parents were getting divorced. We lived in a condo in Turners Falls and I still remember where we had the kitchen table, the bookshelf, the couch. The kitchen, the second bathroom. This night I was playing next to the bookshelf that stood against the wall between the dining room and the living room. My parents were at the kitchen table across from each other and the light was dim. My mother stood up, I think she was crying. My father stayed seated. She walked towards me and I remember that I must have been very small, because as she came to me I remember only seeing to her thigh. In my memories she was wearing shorts, which doesn’t make sense if this was happening in December. Maybe it was just an earlier fight. They are dysfunctional people. Likely, they were fighting all the time.

I don’t have really any memories of my dad after that. I’ve tried and tried for years to come up with something. Sometimes I think I remember playing with him in the big raked-up pile of leaves in the fall, but as I’ve grown older I’ve become more aware that that memory is fabricated from a certain set of photographs I’ve gotten my hands on. The pictures didn’t wake anything up; they just put an idea in my head. I can remember one other time I saw him as a small child and it was after he moved out. He came by to visit me and read me a bedtime story. I was being difficult, as kids always are at bedtime, and I remember him scolding me with my full name: “June Marie Billiel!” This has stuck with me all my life and I’m not sure if it’s because it’s the first time I understood that that was my full name, which is sort of strangely profound in itself, or if it is the first time the tone in which my name was being said was harsh enough to stick with me. Maybe both.

I’m pretty sure that my mom used to tell me that my dad never ever came to visit me after he moved out. She’s close to right, if my memory is to be trusted. But I remember this one time pretty clearly. But who knows, maybe he was just there to pick something up or to fight with my mom or to sign a divorce paper. I guess I always just assumed he was there to visit me, even though I don’t have any real reason for thinking that.

Next I remember going to the courthouse in Greenfield. I think that was the official end to the marriage.

Somewhere along the line my mom met this guy named Eric. My grandmother told me that I used to call him Dad. We drove down to Florida with him and a cooler full of sandwiches and lived there for almost a year, I think. I have no idea what he did for work or how my mother met him or anything like that. I remember very little about him, really. I vaguely remember his face and I remember that he used to take me fishing out in back of the condo we lived in. Sometimes we had to run back inside the house because there was an alligator that would come by and hang out on the beach from time to time. I’m pretty sure we never caught anything. One time I was holding a cracker in my hand and a duck came over and bit my finger. Another time we walked along the beach and I found a coconut and took it home and painted it. I kept that damn thing for years, even after we had moved back to Mass and even after I moved to my grandparent’s house. Now that I have to be careful about acquiring too many things it seems insane to me that my family let me keep packing it and bringing it everywhere.

We were in Florida for hurricane season too. Eric and my mom duct taped up the windows and the sliding glass door but somehow my mom still thought that she should bring me to preschool the next day. Of course my school was closed, and I still have the image of her running up to the building while I sat in the car so that she could read the sign on the door. Seems stupid to me now, and dangerous too. Who knows what she was thinking.

Anyway, things were fine with Eric as far as I knew as a four year old, which is admittedly not very far. One day he and my mom got in a fight. He threw her through the screen door and I was standing right in the room. She got back up and came inside and told me to call the police. As she got back up Eric shoved her into this little desk my grandfather had built for me. I asked my mom what the number to the police was because I didn’t know about 911 yet and Eric came over and ripped the phone straight out of the wall. Next I remember my mom checking out the huge gash she had up her legs from being thrown into my desk, but it was days later. Did the neighbors call the cops? Was Eric arrested? Why else would we have still been in that house? I don’t know. I don’t even remember sound from that time. I remember only that I was supposed to call the police and I imagine that my mom yelled it at me. But I’m sure there should have been screams and that Eric would have been shouting too but I can’t recall a damn thing. Was I afraid? I don’t even know what I felt, although I’m sure it’s in my head somewhere.

We left after that, although I don’t know how quickly it happened. When we got back it was winter. My grandparents owned the place we had lived in Turners and apparently it was just the same as we had left it. I don’t remember having to move any furniture back, although that could just be a flaw in my memory. I do remember that as soon as we got back we had to shovel all the snow off of the deck and I had this little red shovel that in retrospect was probably useless, but I helped my mom all the same.

Eric showed up again around my 4th birthday. I was sitting at the kitchen table eating dinner or cake or something and my mom had gone upstairs when he peered through the window and waved at me. I ran over to let him in and then I have no idea what happened. I never saw him again though, as far as I can remember.

Next my mom became a junkie.

There was this guy named Russ. I don’t know where he came from, but my mom always pegged him as the one who introduced her to heroin. I’m not sure when or where or how it started, but I learned later that my mom has always had a thing for painkillers, although I don’t actually think she’s entirely aware that she abuses them. Anyway, she used to tell me that even the first time she shot up she had a high tolerance, and I suspect her previous opiate misuse was to blame.

Our lives quickly descended into madness. I can’t even really piece together everything that happened in a real timeline, but I know that for a couple of years our lives consisted of driving to Holyoke late at night and sometimes crashing on random people’s floors. We bought groceries with bad checks I wasn’t allowed to answer the phone anymore because there were always bill collectors and maybe even cops calling. I don’t know if the police part is true, but as a little girl that’s what I thought was happening.

There were always people in our house and sometimes I’d come downstairs in the morning and my mom and a bunch of people would just be passed out on the living room floor. One morning I came down and the news was playing while Russ and my mother dozed in front of the tv. I woke my mother up and asked her if I could change the channel. After she said yes I changed the channel to cartoons and Russ abruptly woke up. He snapped that he had been watching the tv and smacked me across the face. Hard. Truthfully, I don’t remember his hand connecting to my cheek, but I can say with complete certainty that that’s what happened. I have a memory that immediately proceeded this: my mother running with me up the stairs trying to get away from him. There was yelling and when we got to the top of the stairs and Russ was still behind us so my mom turned around and pushed him down the stairs. My mother is a small woman, especially on an opiate binge, and Russ was not a small guy. I think this was the kind of adrenaline-fueled Mama strength you hear about. Mom locked us in the bathroom and although I don’t know how we got out or we got Russ away, I can remember her sitting on the toilet, just peeing and crying.

The next time I saw Russ his arm was in a sling and he told me he was sorry for what happened. But just because Russ was gone doesn’t mean the smack was.

Everything else is a bit foggy. I have mostly glimpses: my mom shutting her bedroom door in my face with a syringe in her hand; driving hours and hours back and forth from New Hampshire to buy cartons of cigarettes and back down to Holyoke to sell them for enough profit to get a fix. We had something like 100 tag sales to help with this new found expense too. A few lovely pieces handmade by my grandfather were lost this way.

I had some shitty kids to play with nearby. There were two kids whose dad sometimes went to jail who lived next door to me. The girl was a little too old to really care about me, but the son, Matt would often play power rangers with me in the woods behind our houses. There was a little frog pond across the street too. There was this super old tiny graveyard and then down behind it was the pond. Sometimes I would catch frogs and then bring them home and put them in my kiddie pool. One time I came home and couldn’t find the frog that had been happily swimming around when I left. I asked Matt if he had seen my frog and he led me to two cinder blocks. He lifted the top one up and showed me the remains of my frog that he had crushed. To this day, this makes me feel sick to talk about. I’m still not sure if this was just classic destructive boy behavior or if this kid was a little sick, but if I listen to my gut I have to say it’s the latter. Maybe it’s that I’m older and jaded now, but when I look back i just think the whole cul de sac was poisoned.

I also made friends with an elderly lady at the end of the row named Margarite. After I lived with my grandparents sometimes we would go to the condo and do work on the house. I went to visit her each time and then one day someone told me she didn’t live there anymore. I don’t think anybody explained to me that she, or really that anyone, died. But somehow I am sure I knew. Maybe I could smell it. Maybe it was just the air. Too still.

There was also a lady right next door who I befriended. Her name was Gina and my mother hated her. I learned later that she was a social worker. Go figure. She was a good one though.

One weekend I went to my grandparents’ house while my mom went off to party. I’m told that she asked when she should come pick me up and they told her that I was going to be living with them from then on. I don’t know how I felt about this. I have a vague idea that I asked my grandmother a few times when mom was coming back and she kept telling me I would be with them, “a few more days.” Then I was meeting the principal at BSE and he gave me a stuffed panda bear to hold overnight before my first day in kindergarten at my new school.

I don’t believe the whole transition could have been as painless as I remember it, but who knows. During dinner one of the first nights there I confessed to my grandparents about some of the goings-on with my mother in the previous week. I guess they must have been quizzing me, but I only really remember talking to my mom on the corded kitchen phone after dinner and telling her, “I told Gram and Gramp about Wednesday,” and apologizing. She told me it was okay. I guess she must have known it was a lost cause at that point.

That’s enough for tonight.

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