where the writers are
Family Secrets

I woke up immediately as soon as the blue Pontiac turned off the paved road, and I heard the crunch of the gravel on the tires. My mind was on the alert. Something was not right. Having made this trip before, I knew there was no need to be on a dirt road—it was all black top from Auburn to Dothan. Uncle Arthur was driving, giving me a ride to my grandmother's house in Dothan, so I could be a bridesmaid in my friend Betsy's wedding. He had offered to give me a ride to Dothan and take me back to college on Sunday.

Uncle Arthur, my father's brother, had always been my favorite uncle. He was short and stout, built like a fire plug my mother said, and he loved dogs, cigars, and Virginia ham. He was the jolly uncle, always trying to get people to laugh and succeeding.

“When I die, just drop me off at the vet down the street. These other doctors in town don't know what they're doing,” was one of his favorite expressions.

When I was young, every weekend my family gathered at my great-grandparents' house in Abbeville—all the siblings and their kids. Uncle Arthur would pull quarters out of all the children’s ears and show us card tricks. With us kids, he was the life of the party. Best of all he always bought us popsicles, peanuts and moon pies, probably because he liked to eat those things too. Since he and Aunt Rachel had no children, he spent lots of time with me and my cousins.

Uncle Arthur and I had always been good friends. He had taught me how to drive my great grandfather's big, blue truck when I was 10, sitting beside me, coaching, while I swerved all over the road, screaming from fear and excitement. I was his biggest fan when he demonstrated the tricks he taught his dog, Bama, such as how to drink water out of a toilet. He gave me cool gifts that I loved, a twelve inch Mr. Peanut action figure (supposedly Dothan, Alabama is the Peanut capital of the world), a two dollar bill (when he worked at a bank), and best of all, a Dogs of the World book and record set. Each page displayed a picture of a different breed of dog that talked (on the record) and engaged in some stereotype-of-the-breed activity, such as a Dalmatian riding on a fire truck and a Boxer fighting in a boxing ring. A dog barked when it was time to turn the page. I wore the records out.

Once Granny and Papa (my great-grandparents) passed on, I didn’t see Uncle Arthur very much. All the cousins became teenagers and wanted to be with their friends, not hang around with their relatives on the front porch in Abbeville, so we usually stayed home when we could get away with it. I saw Uncle Arthur and Aunt Rachel mostly on holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas mainly.

After high school in Prattville, I went to Auburn University and Uncle Arthur lived nearby. He worked during the week at an insurance office in Opelika, Alabama and went home to Abbeville on the weekends to the home he shared with Aunt Rachel, who I adored. Since he lived so close, I was not surprised when he started showing up at the dorm my first semester. He would bring me boxes of goodies--chocolate chip cookies, pound cakes, and tiny pecan pies, in pink bakery boxes tied with string, a step up from popsicles and moon pies. My roommates and I were grateful, until we all gained about ten pounds. He was the same old Uncle Arthur, always laughing and telling jokes about lawyers or doctors. So when he offered to give me a ride to my grandmother’s I was happy to accept. It would be a fun trip.

At first when he picked me up, I talked and talked. It was a relief to talk to someone in my family, someone I trusted. I was bubbling over with my thoughts about college, my dorm mates, classes, and of course, boys. He listened politely, laughed in the right places, and then started listening to the radio. Eventually I fell asleep--until we pulled onto the dirt road. Then after a couple of miles, Uncle Arthur pulled the car to a stop. I looked around and saw no buildings. It was desolate--no cars, no houses, no stores, no people. The only sign of life at all was a small clump of green trees in the distance and a few cows milling around. Something was not right.

Puzzled, I asked, “Why are you stopping here? What’s wrong? Is there a problem with the car?” I could think of no other reason to stop here.

“I thought you might be thirsty, since it’s so hot. Would you like a drink?” Uncle Arthur said. “I'm not talking about coca cola either. Look in the green ice chest at your feet.”

I had noticed the ice chest when I got in, but figured he was bringing fresh tomatoes and butter beans to Aunt Rachel, who liked to can them. Curious, I opened the ice chest and stared in disbelief. I saw bottles of liquor, lots of bottles--- of bourbon, vodka, and gin, a bag of ice and jugs of orange juice, coke, and sprite. It looked like a full bar. My heart started to pump faster and my mouth felt as dry as sandpaper. This was not right. What made this occurrence even more disturbing was that no one in my family drank alcohol, not even for celebrations or holidays, not even a glass of wine. Since coming to college I had been to a few fraternity parties where alcohol flowed like water, so I was familiar with all the contents in the ice chest, but alcohol and Uncle Arthur did not go together in my mind, not at all.

The boundaries of my two worlds (at this point) were becoming confused and blurred-- childhood, fun, Uncle Arthur, safety (world 1) vs. college, boys, parties, drinking alcohol (world 2). These worlds had thankfully been separate for me until now, and that’s how I had wanted them to stay. The world was stable for me this way. I honestly did not know how to respond. I looked at Uncle Arthur, and then I stared at the contents of the ice chest. I looked around desperately. When I turned back to look at Uncle Arthur he had miraculously changed from being my jolly, laughing Uncle Arthur into a fat, sweaty, red-faced, scary man. I instinctively knew I was in danger, and it was serious. He was breathing heavily too, not unusual since he was at least 50 pounds overweight, and starring at me. My fight or flight instinct kicked in.

I thought, “If I have to, I can outrun him, but where will I run to? There’s nothing around here. I can kick and scream, but there’s no one to hear.”

“No, I'm not thirsty. I don’t want anything to drink. Let's go. I want to go to my grandmother's house. Now!” I replied as harshly as I could, which sounded much weaker than I had intended.

Uncle Arthur slowly turned around and started the car. He made a U-turn and drove the car back onto the black road. Neither of us said anything. I was starting to breathe normally and kept my eyes looking straight ahead. I tried to calm myself: “You’re ok. You’re back on the road. You’re safe. Just pretend like you’re asleep. Try to figure this out. I can’t believe this is happening.”

About half an hour went by, with Uncle Arthur driving, and listening to country music on the radio. “Stand by Your Man,” has never sounded good to me again. I was pretending to sleep, when he reached over, grabbed my breast and squeezed. His touch felt like a hot branding iron on my body. My head shot straight up.

“What do you think you’re doing? Get your hands off me,” I screamed.

I wanted to cry, but I did not have time for that. I had to think about how I was going how to handle this situation. First an offer of alcohol, which was disturbing enough, and now, much, much worse, Uncle Arthur was molesting me!

“I’m sorry. I wasn’t grabbing you. I was just rubbing your shoulder. You seemed so tired,” he said.

“Rubbing my shoulder! You were touching my breast, not my shoulder. Keep your hands off me!” I shouted.

“I’m sorry. I couldn’t help myself. Most women have breasts like oranges, but yours are like grapefruits,” he replied. “Please don’t tell anyone about this. Please don’t tell your aunt or your father. I’m so sorry. It won’t happen again.”

For the rest of the trip, I sat there, silent, for three reasons. One, I was afraid of what he might do if I closed my eyes. Second, I did not know what to say to him. I was embarrassed, as though I had done something wrong. Three, I had to decide what I would do about this. If I told Aunt Rachel and my grandmother, they would tell my father, and that would be the end of seeing not only Uncle Arthur, which was fine with me at this point, but also Aunt Rachel. I didn’t like that idea. It would be an ugly scene. Lots of people would get hurt, my parents, grandparents, Aunt Rachel. And it would be humiliating. I didn’t want to talk about this with anyone. He said he wouldn’t do it again. If only he had not done this! I kept repeating those words to myself, as a child does. But he did. You have to handle this, as an adult would. These thoughts were swirling around in my mind, until we pulled into my grandmother’s driveway.

My grandmother rushed outside to give me a hug and gratefully started talking non-stop. “How was your trip, Sweetie? I’m so glad to see you. Betsy has been calling all afternoon to find out when you would arrive. Thanks so much for bringing her Arthur. That was so kind of you. I made your favorite, honey—fried chicken and mashed potatoes.”

Uncle Arthur looked at me. I looked at my grandmother. I had not said a word since he grabbed me. Minutes passed, which made everyone uneasy.

Finally I lied, “Fine. The trip was fine.”

Uncle Arthur stared at me, mumbled a few words to my grandmother, and then turned around and got back in the car. As he pulled away, he rolled down the window to say that he wouldn’t be able to take me back to school after all on Sunday. Something had come up.

I did not say a word about what happened on this trip to my grandmother or to anyone else for many years, deciding to carry this secret around with me, so as not to cause disruption in my family. And now, forty years later, I think my decision also had something to do with the feelings of shame and embarrassment. I didn’t know how to come to grips with these events, how to reconcile my childhood feelings with these adult happenings.

Did I do the right thing? Should I have spoken up? Should I have told my parents? I’m not sure. Uncle Arthur and I never got back on a friendly footing. We hardly spoke unless we had to. I made a point of never being alone with him again. My sister became his favorite niece, and he left all his worldly possessions to her when he died I remained close to my Aunt Rachel until the day she died. She became like a mother to me, since my own mother was cold and unloving.

When Uncle Arthur died many years later, after a series of strokes that paralyzed the right half of his body, I went to the funeral and stood in the receiving line with my family while everyone in town filed by, talking about what a wonderful man he was. I smiled and said nothing. I had always wondered what the reaction of my family would be if I revealed this incident. Now he was gone. I was older and more circumspect. So, after we left the funeral home, when we were alone, I took that opportunity to tell my sister, Sheila, what had happened all those years ago. She’s two years younger than me, and I had always figured if anyone would understand my feelings about these events, it would be her.

I told the story in full detail and waited. “I’ve never told anyone. I wanted you to know.”

“Why? Why did you tell me?” she asked angrily. I did not expect sympathy or kindness, since my sister and I had never been close, but I did not expect this reaction. Why was I being treated like the guilty one? I was just a kid then, the victim. He was the molester.

“Because I always wondered if maybe he had molested you too.”

“No, he surely did not,“ she responded, in an angry, annoyed tone. And then she turned and walked away from me.

And after all those years of wondering whether I should have kept the secret to myself, my question was answered.



Content copyright 2011-2012. Patricia Thomas. All rights reserved.