If the message in this story helps even one woman leave an abusive relationship, I will feel as if I deserve the gifts God has given me.
Penelope House 24-Hour Crisis Hotline: 251-342-8994
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-7233
Curt had hit JoElla in the past more times than she could count, yet she had never considered leaving him until that day the week before Christmas.
Nothing he’d done before had seemed so terribly bad to her, at least not compared to everything her mama had put up with from JoElla’s daddy before he ran off and left them when JoElla was twelve. Besides, Curt had to put up with a lot too. God knew she wasn’t much to look at, and she was so dumb that she probably wouldn’t have finished high school even if she hadn’t gotten pregnant and had to drop out her senior year. Curt also worked really hard at the shipyard to take care of her and the baby, and that was a lot of pressure on him. So what if he drank too much sometimes and came home in a bad mood? JoElla had learned when to leave him alone so it wouldn’t provoke him.
But this time was different.
The Thursday before Christmas, Curt promised they could go get their tree when he got home from work. Most of the lots had them reduced by then, so JoElla was hoping they could get a fir instead of the usual pine. After she finished her housework, she spent the day stringing popcorn, making garland out of construction paper, and singing carols that delighted eighteen-month-old Cassie.
JoElla loved the way her little girl clapped her chubby hands and bounced whenever she sang. And she thought it was pretty smart for a child that young to recognize music and know what to do when she heard it. Maybe with the right encouragement, Cassie could grow up to play in the school band and maybe even get a music scholarship. JoElla had wanted to be in the band herself once, but it hadn’t worked out.
The first sign of trouble with Curt was when he was an hour late getting home from work. JoElla tried to convince herself that it must be the holiday traffic holding him up. That had to be it. He wouldn’t go to the Crossroads Club on a weeknight, especially when he had promised her they could get the tree when he got home. But when he finally arrived at , JoElla smelled the whiskey on him as soon as he came in the front door. Since getting mad wasn’t an option, she questioned him under the pretense of concern.
“I was worried sick about you, Curt.” She took his lunch pail and hung up his jacket for him. “You said we were gonna go get the tree tonight as soon as you got off, so I was scared to death that you had a wreck in all that Christmas traffic. Where’ve you been?”
He walked past her without so much as a glance and fell heavily into his chair in front of the television. JoElla hurried over to help him take off his heavy work boots.
“Don’t worry ‘bout where I been.” His words were noticeably slurred. “I’m here now, ain’t I? What’s for supper?”
“I’ll heat you up some of that stew I made yesterday,” she said. “I got some biscuits left over from this morning too.”
He grabbed her arm before she could walk away. “Why ain’t it already heated up?”
“I thought maybe we could . . . oh, never mind. I’ll go get it heated up for you now. It won’t take but a minute.”
He didn’t release her arm. “You thought maybe we could what?”
She didn’t want to make him mad, but she knew she couldn’t get away with not answering. “I just thought maybe we could get a hamburger or something at the Burger Hut after we got the tree. You know, make a special night of it.” She looked at him with a querulous smile that died when he shoved her toward the kitchen.
“We can’t afford no damn hamburgers! The shipyard cut our bonuses in half this year without so much as a word of warning. Blamed it on the damn economy!” He kicked one of his work boots viciously across the room then sat down with his head in his hands.
JoElla put a hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry, Curt, but try not to worry. We’ll make it all right. We’ll just get a little pine tree and forget about the fir. I already got some decorations made that we can—”
“Didn’t you hear me, Jo?” He stood and grabbed her by the shoulders, his red-rimmed eyes boring into her along with his fingers. “They cut my bonus in half! We can’t afford no damn tree either.”
“But, Curt, even if you only got half your bonus, it should be enough for a little tree.”
He shook her roughly. “Don’t you get it, you half-wit? I already had that money spent!”
Ordinarily, she would never dare to question him when he was mad, but she was too distraught to check herself now. And the possibility that he might have spent it on her or the baby never entered her mind.
“Spent on what, Curt? It was supposed to be for our Christmas!”
Her head struck the edge of the coffee table when she fell after he hit her, so at least she didn’t have to feel the pain of the other blows until later when she came to.
Curt was gone when she opened her eyes again. He’d put Cassie in her high chair in front of the TV before he left, and JoElla was glad that at least he hadn’t left her free to roam around the apartment without anybody watching her. She told herself that meant he was trying to be a good daddy.
She got up slowly—the only way she was able to get up. Curt must have kicked her a couple of times in the thighs before he was done, but she reckoned that was better than getting kicked in the ribs like he’d done the time that he forgot he’d bet on a football game and thought she had taken money out of his wallet.
Cassie had what looked like a soggy Ritz cracker clutched in one of her hands and was mesmerized by Sponge Bob on the television, so she didn’t cry to be held when JoElla got up. Good thing, because JoElla would have been afraid to carry her while her legs were so shaky. She went into the bathroom and reluctantly looked in the mirror to see how bad she looked this time. There was a gash on her forehead at her hairline where her head had struck the table, but it didn’t look like it had bled much. Her top lip was cut and starting to swell, but it didn’t look too bad either. It seemed her legs had gotten the worst of it, and that would be easy to hide, so she actually felt relieved. She washed her face and went back to check on Cassie.
“C’mere, baby girl,” she said as she removed the high chair tray and lifted Cassie into her arms. “Sponge Bob went bye-bye, and we need to get you some real food for supper.”
Cassie put a chubby index finger on her mama’s lip and said, “Boo-boo.”
JoElla’s eyes had been dry until then. She never cried anymore when Curt hit her, because she’d learned a long time ago that it only made him angrier and made her feel worse later from having swollen eyes along with any other injuries. But when her little girl leaned over to kiss her busted lip, JoElla’s eyes filled with tears. She tried to wipe them away before Cassie saw them.
“Yep, Mama got a boo-boo. Silly Mama.” She tickled her daughter and got a giggle as usual, but she wondered how much longer she would be able to distract her so easily. Cassie would soon be old enough to understand how her mama got hurt.
JoElla pushed the thought from her mind the way she always did. She busied herself fixing Cassie a grilled cheese sandwich and some tomato soup, trying also not to think about where Curt might have gone and what kind of mood he’d be in when he came back.
After Cassie finished her supper, JoElla carried her into the bathroom to put her in the tub. She heard Curt’s key in the front door just before she turned on the water.
“Get in here, Jo!” he yelled. “I got something to show you!”
She hurried into the living room with Cassie in her arms. In one hand, Curt held a scrawny Christmas tree nailed onto two crossed boards. In the other he held a half-empty bottle of Wild Turkey.
“Look what I bought for you,” he said, his speech so slurred now that JoElla had trouble understanding him. “Spent good money we don’t have on it too, so you damn well better ‘preciate it!” He thrust the pathetic-looking thing at JoElla, and she hurried to take it.
“Thanks, Curt. It’ll be real pretty after I get it decorated.” She set it down in front of the window and turned to take Cassie back down the hall.
“Well, what’re you waiting for?” he demanded, falling into his chair. “Go on and get it decorated. You was so hell-bent on getting it.”
JoElla stopped but didn’t turn around. “I need to get the baby bathed and put to bed first.”
“Fine,” he said, and she could hear him taking a swig from the bottle. “Just hurry up and get back in here.”
“I will, Curt.”
She winced as she walked down the hall, because she could tell from his tone what was coming. While he finished the bottle of whiskey, he’d start thinking about what he’d done earlier and get mad at himself. He’d start crying and telling her he was sorry, then he’d want to put his hands on her. She sure didn’t want him to, but if she didn’t let him, he’d hit her some more.
She tried to take extra long to get Cassie into bed, hoping Curt would pass out before she finished, but he was still working on the bottle when she went back to the living room. He was staring at the Christmas tree and turned to look at JoElla, and she could see the tears in his heavy-lidded, bloodshot eyes.
“You think I like not being able to provide for my family, Jo? You think I wanna spend my whole life crawling around in ship hulls?”
“I know you work hard, Curt.”
“I was gonna use that bonus money to go in with Dougie on buying an oyster boat we saw for sale over in Moss Point. Guy who owns it says he’s too old to work it anymore, but two able-bodied men like us could make a killing on oystering.”He paused to take another drink from the bottle. “I used the rent money last month to give Dougie part of my half. That bonus money was gonna catch us up.”
“Oh, Curt . . .” JoElla caught herself before she said anything critical, even though she was terrified at the trouble they were in now. “Maybe it’ll be okay. I can look for a job as soon as Christmas is over.”
He ran a hand through his hair and squeezed his eyes shut. “I’m so damn stupid. What made me think I could ever be anything different than my old man—just a grunt living from paycheck to paycheck.”
Despite everything, it broke JoElla’s heart to see him like that. She walked over and put a hand on his arm. “Don’t say that, Curt. You done real good by me and Cassie.”
“You’re even stupider than me if you think that.” He looked up at her, and she could see the change in his expression. Too late, she realized that he’d suckered her again. Before she could move away, he pulled her down onto his lap.
She knew better than to try to get up, but she said, “I need to get the tree decorated.”
“You can do that later.” He took a drink from the bottle then put it to her lips, but she shook her head and turned away.
“You know I can’t drink that, Curt. It makes me sick.”
He laughed and took another drink before setting the bottle on the floor. “Makes me sick sometimes too, but I don’t let that stop me.”
He turned her face back around and kissed her. When she winced, he touched the cut on her lip with his finger.
“Why do you make me hit you, Jo? You know I never mean to hurt you. Don’t you?”
She didn’t know it by any means, but she said, “Yeah, Curt. I know.”
He started to unbutton her blouse, so JoElla closed her eyes and bit her lip, despite how badly it hurt.
Later, while Curt snored beside her in the bed, JoElla lay awake trying to get up the courage to ask him for the only thing she really wanted for Christmas—an electronic music maker for toddlers that she’d seen at the toy store. She knew Cassie would love it, and she truly believed her little girl had musical talent that just needed to be encouraged.
Curt would say they couldn’t afford it of course, but JoElla hoped that if she told him she could go door-to-door in their apartment complex to see if anyone would hire her to clean for them, she could make enough money to buy the toy for Cassie and help them pay the rent too.
He stirred in his sleep, so JoElla took advantage of it and said, “Curt, you hungry? I can go fix you some of that stew now if you want.” She never understood how he could eat after drinking, but he always did.
He stretched and yawned. “Yeah, gimme a couple of biscuits too, and put some apple butter on ‘em.”
“Okay, sure thing.” She threw on her robe and hurried to the kitchen, thanking her lucky stars that they weren’t out of apple butter. She’d wait until he was eating before she asked him about getting the toy so that he’d be in the best mood possible.
He came in the kitchen a few minutes later and shielded his eyes from the overhead light. “Can’t you turn on something that ain’t so blinding?”
“Sorry, Curt. I’ll turn on the light over the stove. Here’s your plate all ready for you. You want milk with it?”
“Yeah, that’s fine.” He sat on one of the stools at the small bar next to the stove. After taking a couple of bites, he said, “This ain’t bad at all, Jo. Thanks.”
Her hopes soared at his good humor. “I’m glad you like it. And I got a piece of apple pie saved for you too, if you want dessert.”
He nodded without looking up from his food. “You ever know me not to want dessert? ‘Specially pie.”
She smiled and went to get it for him. When she set the pie on the bar, she said, “Curt, I wanted to tell you that it’s okay about the money. I already got you something for Christmas that I been saving for since August, and I didn’t want nothing for me anyway. But there is something I wanted to get for Cassie.”
He looked up and started to shake his head, but she hurried to go on before he could say anything.
“Just hear me out, Curt. I think I figured out a way we can do it.”
He sighed and went back to eating. “How?”
JoElla took a courage-boosting breath. “Well, I was thinking that I could go around to the other apartments in the complex and ask if they want any cleaning done. You know, to get ready for Christmas.”
He looked up at her again. “People ain’t gonna have money to spend on nothing like that.”
“Some of them will. The ones having parties and stuff. And they’re gonna want their apartments cleaned before people come over.”
He thought about it and looked interested. “How much you think you could make?”
“I figure I could clean two a day and still be able to get our housework done, so I think I could make at least a couple of hundred dollars. It’d be plenty enough to buy Cassie’s toy and help make up the money for the rent too.”
He shrugged and continued eating. “I guess it’d be okay. We gotta get the rent money somehow.”
“And I can buy Cassie’s toy?” JoElla held her breath after the question.
“What kinda toy is it?”
“It’s a music maker for toddlers. The box said it would help with their fine motor skills and . . .” She paused to think. “Oh, and their hand-eye coordination.”
He scoffed as he sopped up the last of the stew with his biscuit. “What the hell does she need any of that for? Just get her a toy broom and a mop so she can start learning to be like her mama.”
His words hit JoElla in the gut harder than if he had kicked her. The funny thing was that all the times he really had kicked her hadn’t made her mad nor opened her eyes the way it did for him to talk about their daughter with such disregard, as if she were nothing special at all instead of the precious treasure that she was.
And the worst thing was that he was right about Cassie, but not about what kind of work she was destined to do. Growing up in this house with Curt for a father and seeing her mama get hit over and over and keep taking it, JoElla knew that Cassie had no chance of ever being anything different. The image of the way Cassie already cowered whenever Curt was yelling about something, even though it wasn’t directed at her—not yet anyway—made JoElla finally see just what she was teaching her daughter to become, the same way JoElla had learned it from watching her own mother.
And that was when she knew she had to leave.
She muttered something to Curt that maybe he was right and busied herself cleaning up the kitchen, but her mind was busy with something a lot more important. She had to figure out the best way to get both of them out of there and away from Curt’s abuse, and JoElla finally saw it as exactly that. She couldn’t go on making excuses for him just because he worked hard. She had to get Cassie away from him and break the cycle of abuse, because if she never did anything else for the rest of her life, she was determined to make sure that Cassie learned not to ever let a man hit her.
It was the best Christmas gift she could ever give to herself or her little girl.
The following night, JoElla and Cassie sat with a group of women and children around a huge Christmas tree at Penelope House in Mobile, a shelter for victims of domestic violence. Like JoElla, many of the women had bruises, black eyes or busted lips, but there was something else they all shared as well.
In this season of light, a glimmer of hope shone in all their eyes.