My Mom Was An Underground Railroad For Abused Women: What She Taught Me About Feminism And Fear

Once, my mom spotted a bruised woman with three children holding a cardboard sign in the Wal-Mart parking lot. It was pouring down rain. I was seven. “Stay in the car,” she said, locking me in.

Jan 2, 2013 at 3:00pm | Leave a comment

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I write about my mother often, not because she’s a role model or mentor or even because she’s my mother, but because she is an interesting person. 

My mother has a completely irrational fear of June bugs, which are flying beetles the size of a nickel. People often claim June bugs are “blind” because they bump into things like tiny, obnoxious drunks, and they’re notorious for getting caught in your hair. 

They’re unpleasant, but I didn’t realize my mother’s terror of them until I was a teenager. 

This was the same woman I’d seen kill a cockroach with her hand. (“You have to,” she explained as my 10-year-old self looked on in horror, “Because they’re fast and they multiply if you let them get away. No time for getting a shoe.”)

This was the same woman who, when I said I was afraid of the dark as a little girl, would take me out on the back porch at night with hot cocoa and explain all the things that were good about the nighttime. 

“I never knew you were afraid of June bugs,” I said to her. 

Her reply was a no-nonsense one: “Of course you didn’t. Fear is dangerous because it transfers. It’ll catch like a cold if you let it.”

______

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My father was “of” our town, but he didn’t marry a local girl. He married my mother, an Italian Catholic beauty who was from “away.” In the West Texas lexicon, that singular word, away, stands in for long paragraphs of explanation involving religion, poverty, and otherness.

So although my mother has lived in the same small, insular space for almost 40 years, she is still decidedly not “of” it.

I’ve always mourned this for her. Church is more than just religion in a small town; it’s also where you draw most of your sense of community. But there were no bake sales, no Wednesday night Women’s Prayer Groups, no Sunday socializing for my mother.

It wasn’t until I became an adult woman that I realized the same “otherness” that had covered my mother like a veil had been, for most of my life, used as a tool to help others. 

I recently published an article about leaving an abusive boyfriend after three years. My mother had already heard the story; she was my first phone call when it happened. 

But after the article had a mini-explosion on the Internet, she called me. 

“I’ve got a question,” she said. “I’ve been thinking and thinking about it and... I’m upset about it and so I need to ask you: What did your Daddy and I ever do when we raised you that made you think it was okay to stay so long with a man like that?”

I rattled off a firm and probably offensive answer about parental megalomania and how not every choice in my life had to be related back to my upbringing.

It wasn’t until hours after I hung up that I understood what she was asking. 

You see, my mother practically ran an underground railroad for women who needed help.

______

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As a child, I didn’t understand most of the midnight phone calls to my mom, or the times women would come over with children in tow, sometimes even in pajamas, and I would be told to go entertain them while Mama ensconced herself in her bedroom with their mother.  

Once, my mom spotted a bruised woman with three children holding a cardboard sign in the Wal-Mart parking lot. It was pouring down rain. I was seven. 

“Stay in the car,” she said, locking me in. She went to talk to the woman. I was so uninterested in what was happening; we were on our way to Wal-Mart to get a new something-or-other for me, and this weird stranger and her crying kids were delaying our mission.

I was even less enthused when Mom got back in the car and said, “We have to make a little trip first,” and then drove, with the woman in her own car behind us, to either a battered women’s shelter or a food cupboard. 

I couldn’t remember which when the memory came to me, so I called Mama and asked her. 

“Oh, heavens,” she said. “Whatever made you think of that? I remember the woman, but not where we took her... There have been so many women.” 

“That’s exactly what I wanted to talk to you about,” I said. “I wanted to talk about the ‘so many’ women.” 

You see, I had a theory that was slowly taking shape in my mind: the fact that my mother was not “of” the community was what made her safe, safe for women who barely even knew her. 

My mother wasn’t going to gossip at a church bazaar. My mother had a 6’7”, burly husband, whose stature came in handy more often than it should have. My parents did well but, unlike many of their flashier oilfield counterparts, lived extremely simply; my mother kept small stashes of cash in the house or in her purse -- $100, $250 -- and would dispense them to women who needed them. 

“Oh,” she said when I explained it. “You’re reading way too much into all that. Some women just needed someone to talk to and I listened. I just listened to people.” 

And then there was silence on the other end of the line, and I could tell she was thinking. 

The next time she spoke, it was to talk for 90 minutes straight about the women she remembered, as they came back to her, dozens of them.

“The first time I ever really saw a situation like that... You were two years old, and I worked with this woman named Cindy. Her husband was a big-shot oil executive, I mean big time, and she was so beautiful. But she always wore these scarves around her neck. Cheap, nylon things -- and it wasn’t in fashion the way it is now, to wear scarves like that. Every day, a scarf. 

“And her husband was an alcoholic, but so clean cut. I didn’t really put two-and-two together until she came to me and said, ‘I need your help. My husband is going out of town soon, and I’ve got to leave while he’s gone or he’ll kill me.’ 

“One morning not too long after that, she called me and said he’d left a day early. ‘Today,’ she said, I’ll never forget it. ‘It’s got to be today. I’ve got to run.’ 

“Now, Tanya LaRoy’s grandmother lived down the street from us. Her name was Millie, you remember her? I took you down to her house, and I told her, ‘Mil, I’ve got to help a friend and I can’t tell you anything about it but could you please watch Haley?’ 

“And she just nodded. She never said one word about it, even afterward. Women just know, sometimes. 

“So I drove to Cindy’s house, she had this big fancy house outside of town, and she was loading her suitcases and things into the back of her pickup. And I remember I looked into the window onto the passenger seat, and there was her husband’s .45 automatic laying there, and I said, ‘God damn, Cindy,’ because you know, that was scary, but even scarier was when she shot back, ‘If he comes back, I’m going to kill him. Come on, we’ve got to hurry!’

“I was so scared. I was afraid for Cindy, but I was also afraid for me, and afraid for you, at Millie LaRoy’s house. I kept thinking, if this man comes back, can I kill him if I have to? What would happen to Haley if I did?

“But I had to put those thoughts away to help Cindy. You would not believe how fast we loaded that truck -- in record time! Cindy had a plan, a college girlfriend her husband didn’t know anything about, 200 miles away. She was going to stay with her.

“And when I got back home, I went and got you, and then the phone rang. I was so scared it would be Cindy’s husband, but it wasn’t; it was her grown daughter. She was in her 20s in college, and the first words she said to me were ‘Did you get my mom out?’

“And I said, ‘Yes, I got her out,’ and she replied, ‘Oh, thank God. If he finds her, he’ll kill her.’”

I’d never heard this story from my mother before, but what she said next was the kicker for me. 

“You know, it’s funny -- Cindy was the one who tried to sponsor me for that women’s sorority. I didn’t have many friends here, being from away, and I’d helped her with all these fundraising projects. I thought it would be so much fun to have women friends. And she put my name in at her sorority, but of course I’d been married before and divorced, and that was a black mark against me. Those women turned their noses up and said they didn’t want a woman like me. Cindy cried when she told me, she even resigned over it. Over me."

“So, after that I sort of kept my head down, you know? That had killed what little self-esteem I had; I didn’t have much to begin with. That’s when I decided I couldn’t win. Been born on the wrong side of the tracks and that was just that. Of course, looking back on it today, I wouldn’t have fit in with any of those women anyway. That’s when I quit trying to be social. And not long after that, I guess, women just started coming to me.” 

There it was, the crux of what I’d suspected, all tied up in one anecdote. 

There were a lot more that followed.

The time a woman my mother had never met walked into her office out of the clear blue: 

“I remember, she didn’t have a car; she rode her bike in from town. Her face was all busted up and bruised, and she’d decided it was the last time. She’d come from California, but she didn’t have the money to get out of town. She came to me, and I gave her everything in my wallet.” 

The woman who’d gotten married and moved to another town, and when her husband turned out to be a drug addict prone to abuse, she showed up on our front porch with a suitcase:

“I remember I called around -- because she had this job, you know, in her town an hour away, and she didn’t want to lose it. So I called around to see if there was someone in that town she could stay with while she filed her restraining orders and divorce paperwork, and I reached Caleb Kinsley’s mother -- you remember Caleb? -- his mother was really active in church at the time and everyone said she was a ‘good Christian woman,’ you know how they say that. 

And she told me that she couldn’t have that kind thing in their home. Couldn’t get involved in ‘whatever scandal some young woman had gotten herself into.’ And I thought, ‘You hypocrite bitch.’ Yes, Caleb Kinsey’s mother and I split the sheet over that one.” 

And another story. And another. There was always another woman.

______

It takes us a long time, as children, to get outside of ourselves and realize our parents have lives outside the scope of us. Not just lives before us, or lives after we move out, but wholly private lives that run concurrent with our own upbringing. 

As her daughter, it took me nearly 20 years not to pity my mother’s “otherness.” She stopped pitying it herself a long time ago. 

It’s taken me longer, still -- until writing these words, actually -- to develop admiration for the way she turned her seclusion and separation into not just a tool, but a blueprint for that tool; there were other women out there, who also didn’t have anyone to go to, and so she would use her resources to help them. 

When I asked my husband to read over my notes, his response was, “Well. Your construction of ‘otherness’ is utterly overwhelmed by the narrative of how awesome your mom is. Is that intentional?”

I didn’t know if it was intentional -- and then, suddenly, I did know. 

That’s exactly what her life has done: let her personal actions, her very humanity, quietly absorb and subvert any narrative of “other.”

I wasn’t taught the ideas of “sisterhood” and “coalition” and the cognitive dissonance between the two until college, along with a whole host of other academic theory. 

And even then, I soaked it up but it didn’t distill and crystallize until I developed a truly adult relationship with my mother -- who herself says, “I didn’t even know there was a feminist movement; it just marched right past my front door.”

That wasn’t any real matter to her, the fact that she didn’t know the name for what she was doing; she just went right on doing it anyway.

When we talk about feminism, it’s easy to talk about institutional action, but harder to see the individual action still required, the practical applicability in our own lives. We lose sight of the basic materials: Equality. Kindness. Courage. 

In a singular word: humanity. 

“I still think you’re making too big a deal out of this,” says Mama. “I was just being a decent person. Just being human.”

“Exactly,” is my response.

Names have been changed to protect privacy, safety, and identity.