Regret

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BY MICHELE FRISKE

I am 60 now. I guess it’s natural that I reflect on my life, sort through my accomplishments and my regrets. There is one regret that keeps circling around, and though I never meant to cause anyone pain, it is perhaps the cruelest thing I have ever done. It keeps nagging at my conscious, and the worst part of it is, there is nothing I can do to make the situation right. The person I harmed has long ago left this earth, years before I felt the sting of my actions. Still, the memory of it keeps pestering me and I can’t let it go.

It seemed harmless enough. It was my eighth birthday, and I sent my Grandma a thank-you note. She had sent me five dollars, which was a fortune for a kid in 1964. It was my paternal grandmother, who I don’t remember having ever met at that point of my life. But she never forgot my birthday, she always sent a card with five dollars, addressed only to me, and she was never late. We had a lot of kids in our family, so sometimes my mother’s present was a little late, and sometimes it never came at all.

That’s my fault really. I was born at the end of the month, and sometimes we were flat broke by then. The social security check came on the third, and it was a struggle to make it last. We got social security because our father was dead, killed instantly when his truck was hit by a train. I was only five months old when he died. Everyone says I was the lucky one, because I was too young to understand so I didn’t have to mourn him. He was gone, and I never knew what it was to have a father, so I wasn’t missing anything. Still, I wish I would have known him. It would have been nice to have a father.

I had an older brother, Gordon, and two older sisters, Candy and Becky. They cried a lot, even though mother said it was wrong of them to do so. Our daddy was in heaven, and we should be happy God called him home. Some day we would get to go to heaven too, and then we could all be together. I used to wonder why I just couldn’t kill myself then, so we could all be in heaven together, and I wouldn’t have to miss him so badly. But mother said taking your own life was a sin, so I didn’t. I wouldn’t see my dad if I ended up in hell, so I stuck it out.

My brother used to say mean things to my mother when he was angry. He said she wanted our dad to die, so she could find herself a good Mormon to marry. My dad wasn’t a good Mormon, he only joined the church so my mother would stop nagging him. That’s what Gordon says, anyway. But her second husband wasn’t a good Mormon either. He promised to convert after they married, but he never did. She only stayed married to him long enough to make my little brother legitimate, then she divorced him and moved to Utah.

She enrolled in BYU, with the goal of meeting a good Mormon to marry. That way we’d all have a dad and she could get herself into heaven.

Except, she didn’t marry a good Mormon, she married Joe. He was a good guy, and he was a Mormon. But he wasn’t a good Mormon because he smoked. He promised to quit smoking after they were married, but he didn’t. He used to sneak out the back door to grab a smoke, and we had to pretend we didn’t know what he was doing. Everyone in the neighborhood knew he smoked. Sometimes the Bishop would come to visit, and I would hear Joe promise to quit, but he never did, and that made mother very angry. How was she ever going to get to heaven with a husband that smoked?

At first, I was happy to have a dad. Like I said, never having one when all the other kids did made me feel lonely and sad. We tried to be the perfect family. We went to church on Sunday, and my mother made really big Sunday dinners. You’d think they’d be happy, but they weren’t. Maybe he wasn’t ready for an instant family. Maybe, my mother wasn’t that easy to live with. But things were not good between them. They used to get in knock-down-drag-out fights.

I remember the fights being so horrible and lasting so long that my sister, Becky, and I would grab our little brother and sisters and hide at our neighbor’s house. My best friend’s mother was kind woman. She took us in, fed us, and even changed the baby’s diapers, all without asking too many questions or making us feel embarrassed. She was a life-saver, a safe haven in a storm.

Their fights lasted for hours. Eventually, when it was obvious that there was no end in sight, someone would be dispatched get the Bishop. He would step in and play peacemaker, and only then would the fight subside. If he wasn’t available, someone would call the cops and they’d take Joe away. He’d stay gone for a week or two, but mother always took him back. She said she had to try to make her marriage work. By this time, they’d had a few kids together, and the family was getting even bigger. No way could she raise seven kids on her own.

Joe would try, too. He’d quit smoking and take us to church. Once, he even made an effort to get to know each one of us kids individually. I remember he took me fishing, all by myself. It made me feel special. I didn’t catch anything, but that didn’t matter. I never liked trout. They were hard to debone, and I remember choking on a bone more than once.

I never thought of my mother as an abused wife. Most of the time, she’d start the fight. She’d get mad in such a hurry, and then she’d pick up the closest thing to her, and smash him over the head with it. I remember seeing him with blood pouring out of his nose when she cracked him in the face with a skillet.

Of course, he never took it lying down. He’d start hitting back, and he was a lot bigger than her, so she’d get the worse of it. Their fights would go on and on, endlessly it seemed.

I remember one time, after a fight that felt like an eternity, he grabbed her by the throat and choked her until she passed out. He loosened his grip only when he felt her stop breathing, her unconscious body fell to the floor. I remember kneeling over her limp body, sobbing hysterically, and begging her not to die. I couldn’t lose my mother. I was only one parent away from being an orphan, a fragile position that only a person who has already lost a parent can understand. The relief I felt when she coughed and then gasped for breath with overwhelming. She was alive. Then the police arrived to take him away.

We lived in a pretty quiet neighborhood, where nothing much ever happened. The police pulling up to our house was big news. Kids from down the block would ride over on their bikes, just to see my dad dragged out of the house. I’m sure they went home and told their parents. We didn’t exactly fit the standard mold of a fine upstanding Mormon family and it was embarrassing. I didn’t understand then, why were excluded from birthday parties and kid get-togethers outside of church. I thought it was my fault, that I wasn’t pretty enough or likeable.

Anyway, my mother got it into her head that if we only got right with God we could really be a fine, upstanding Mormon family. In order to get right with God, they had to get married in the temple and then our whole blended family could get sealed. Joe would be our father in the eyes of God, and we could be together forever.

Of course, not just anyone can be married in the temple. You have to be in good standing with the church, and we older kids had to be legally adopted by Joe. That was just fine by me. I was eight by this time, and Joe was the only father I had ever known. It wouldn’t have mattered if I objected or not; if you were under 12, you parent gets to make the decision. Becky, Rusty, and I were adopted, and no one ever asked us if we wanted it or not.

It was a different story with Gordon and Candy. They had to appear before the judge and give consent. No way in hell were they doing that. Mother tried to force them. Gordon fought back, physically and emotionally, while Candy meekly stood her ground.

I remember Gordon and Joe coming to blows over the issue; with Joe twisting Gordon’s arm so far behind his back that my mother screamed at him to let go before he broke it. Gordon didn’t care.

“Break my arm,” he screamed though his tears. “I’m not giving up my father’s name. I’m an Olson, and you can’t make me change.”

Mother tried verbally beating him down. “You act like your father was a saint,” she said. “He wasn’t. He was abusive and he hit me.”

“You probably deserved it,” Gordon yelled. “You were mean to him, too.”

The younger kids got adopted, and the older kids didn’t. We became Fauxes and they remained Olsons. We were going to heaven without them, our mother told us. We would all be together, and they would be left outside. It seemed harsh, but those were the rules. You had to be sealed together in the temple if you wanted to see each other in heaven. They chose to be alone. We were happy to be part of a family, and for a while, things were good.

So, when my grandmother sent me a birthday card, I noticed that she addressed it to Michele Olson.

“Doesn’t she know that I changed my name,” I asked mother.

“No,” she replied. “I must have forgotten to tell her. It would be nice if you explained it to her when you send the thank-you? note.”

“Do you think she will be happy for me?”

“Of course,” she said.

I wrote my grandmother a thank-you note, in my eight-year-old handwriting, telling her how happy I was to be adopted, and how Joe was my real dad now, and my last name had changed to Faux. I’m sure I mentioned that we could all be a family when we went to heaven, and told her how happy I was. I’m also sure I mentioned how I spent my birthday money, taking all of my younger siblings to the movies to see Cinderella and how much everyone enjoyed her gift. Mother always made certain the older kids never had more than the younger, and we were all treated the same.

It is only now, with the gift of age and life’s experience, that I can fully realize how hurtful that thank-you card must have been. It was the last birthday card I ever received from her, although it was years before I understood why. My grandmother had lost her son, and now her grandchildren were giving up his name and were moving on with a new father, as if he never existed. I wish I could take it back, but I can’t. It’s a regret that I have to accept. We all live life with regrets. This is my worst.


Michele Friske received her MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia College Chicago.  Her work has been published in Emergence and ProCreation. The former editor of a women’s literary journal, her work frequently focuses on women’s issues. She has completed her first novel, A Short Fall from Grace. The novel is the story of a teenage girl, pregnant and unwed in 1968. Select chapters can be read on her blog at michelefriske.wordpress.com.

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