by Nola Garrett
Since Pittsburgh’s Light up Night (the beginning of Christmas shopping season) began in mid-November, from my condo’s windows each evening I can see Point State Park’s stylized versions of huge white-lit snowflakes and blue-lit Christmas trees. I suppose the blue-lit trees are meant to be a secular compromise or maybe a nod to both Hanukkah and Advent’s colors. Mostly, the blue trees remind me of the popular song, “Blue Christmas” sung by Elvis Presley and my Christmas of 1973.
During the summer of 1973, one dark June night my first husband in a drunken rage attempted to strangle me. As I found myself struggling for breath, I nearly gave up until I remembered my two blond toddler sons sleeping in the adjoining bedroom. For the first time in more than a decade, I prayed. Then, I realized that both my husband’s hands were occupied, and I reached down, grabbed his balls, squeezed as hard and long as I could with what I believed would be my last breath. He let go, fell to the floor writhing in pain. Wearing nothing except a nightgown, I ran out of the apartment I had rented six weeks earlier for myself and our two toddler sons. I dashed barefoot across the parking lot to a woman friend’s apartment, pounded on her door ’til she let me in, called the police, and wept in terror because my children were still back there alone with him.
The police arrived within less than 10 minutes, interviewed me, and arranged that as soon as they could get him out of my apartment that I could re-enter and be with my sons. I don’t know how those two small town cops managed to get my husband to leave and to arrest him for assault, but within ten minutes they had him loaded in their squad car, and I spent the rest of that night with my sleeping sons.
The next day at the local magistrate’s office when I appeared for the preliminary hearing, my neck now bruised red and black with the imprints of my husband’s hands, the magistrate attempted to persuade me to return to my husband’s house and to drop the assault charges.
I declined. In fact, the following day in my newly acquired attorney’s office, I signed the documents to divorce my husband and to have the papers served at the magistrate’s office after his final assault hearing simply because I knew my husband would likely be present.
What I didn’t know at that time was how uncommon my actions were that day.
It’s taken me 40 years to understand and accept emotionally and intellectually what I accomplished out of sheer terror and ignorance.
Last Thursday morning, December 12, 2013, as I ate my usual breakfast of toast, grapefruit sections, one hard boiled egg, and instant coffee made with skim milk, I read in the front section of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that “Pittsburgh police officers responding to calls of domestic violence must offer the suspected victims an 11-question survey aimed at predicting the likelihood that they will be killed by their partners.” Here are the questions:
1. Has he/she ever used a weapon against you or threatened you with a weapon?
2. Has he/she threatened to kill you or your children?
3. Do you think he/she might try to kill you?
4. Does he/she have a gun or can he/she get one easily?
5. Has he/she ever tried to choke you?
6. Is he/she violently or constantly jealous or does he/she control most of your daily activities?
7. Have you left him/her or separated after living together or being married?
8. Is he/she unemployed?
9. Has he/she ever tried to kill himself/herself?
10. Do you have a child that he/she knows is not his/hers?
11. Does he/she follow or spy on you or leave you threatening messages?
Concerning my first husband, except for questions 8, 9, and 10, I had to answer yes to the rest. Breakfast last Thursday ceased to be its usual pleasure as I remembered why I had to answer yes to question 11.
After I began the divorce I moved to a second floor apartment to feel safer, but one day that fall I came home to find at my entrance hall door two overflowing boxes of Christmas tree decorations—strings of blue lights and cartons of silver and blue balls—I immediately recognized as the ones my husband had insisted that we buy for our first married Christmas. Though a blue color scheme hadn’t been my concept for an family tree, to save the peace, I didn’t attempt a compromise. Only a few months into that marriage, I already knew my taste didn’t matter. So, I picked up those boxes, carried them to the apartment complex dumpster. Later from my kitchen window, I watched several neighbors happily salvaging those blue decorations.
That fall though I was a tenured Assistant Professor money was tight. Setting up a new household, while paying for child care and legal help is never cheap. And, I had chosen to forego child support to eliminate my husband’s contact and visitation as a way to protect my children and me. A choice I have never regretted. However, when December arrived, of course, I had no Christmas tree decorations, but I did have a three year old and an 18 month old who deserved their own family Christmas.
The television toy ads that year were filled with visions of Weebles, weighted, round-bottomed wood and plastic clothed “people” that just fit the hands and imaginations of my sons. Around October I bought them each a small set of four that they played with constantly, all the while even the 18 month old could chant their TV motto–Weebles wobble, but they don’t fall down! They slept with Weebles. They carried them to the car. They lined them up on the supper table beside their plates. Sometimes they purposely knocked them down, then laughed so hard they fell down. Who says toddlers don’t get irony?
Mid-December, I bought a small metal tree stand, a fresh five foot Scotch pine, two strings of multi-colored lights, one box of fake icicles, a gold-foil star topper, a spool of red, heavy thread, two bags of fresh cranberries, a bag of popping corn, a small box of ornament hooks, and six sets of Weebles. My brother, Jerry, helped me set up the tree in the holder, then carefully rough-housed with my sons which began a dear, deep relationship with them that still lasts 40 years later. By Sunday night with everyone’s help, we had strung the freshly popped popcorn kernels sort of alternating with the cranberries and kind of draped the result amid the lights. I managed to refashion the hooks around the 24 Weebles’s neckless necks, and after everyone threw icicles pretty much all over the pine, we had a real Christmas tree. Later that week, my mother gave us two tiny gold-sprayed clothes- pin mounted bird’s nests containing three even tinier red foil eggs, each guarded by a blue bird. Initially, I made the mistake of placing the nests too high on the tree which I quickly corrected the next morning when I was awakened by the cries of my three year old who had fallen off the chair he had dragged near the tree so he could look into the nests, but instead fell into the tree. Interestingly, neither boy removed the Weebles from the tree or if they did, I don’t remember or didn’t care.
Neither do I remember what Santa brought my sons that Christmas morning. What I do remember is sitting in the same rocking chair I used to sit in while I nursed both my babies, and my drinking a cup of English Breakfast tea while both my little boys played with their new toys, and the first feeling of peace and contentment that I had felt for more than two years. Also, I remember my three year old sadly asking why Santa forgot to give me a present. Next year, 1974, I made sure to buy myself a red leather wallet, wrapped it, and placed it under the tree for “Mom” even though I already had the gift of my two sons.