78: Don’t Look Back

78: Don’t Look Back

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Empowered Woman

Don’t Look Back

We all have a story. The difference is: do you use the story to empower yourself? Or do you use your story to keep yourself a victim? The question itself empowers you to change your life.

~Sunny Dawn Johnston

I was in high school, and I was a slave. I was Cinderella. If I described the conditions that I worked under, I’m not sure many people would believe me. It was a modern-day nightmare that ended between 1:00 and 3:00 in the morning and started again when I came home from school the next day. It was an unending cycle with weekends being a special kind of hell.

My dad and stepmother owned a restaurant in a busy resort town. Instead of hiring a dishwasher while I was at school, they let the dishes stack up for me when I got home. I would put down my bag of books and start in on trying to catch up the second I walked through the doors that were kitty-corner to my high school.

Never mind that I was underage; after the dinner rush, I did double time as a waitress and served drinks to the rowdies from out of town who came to fish and visit the pristine lakes. Once they stopped coming in, the cook and I were the only ones still on staff, and we’d finish the dishes and set up things for the morning. I was running on fumes, but I’d always gotten good grades, and I did my homework when I was finished. Sometimes, I didn’t get to sleep at all except when my head hit my desk in class. I dropped a class, stayed on the honor’s list and slept in the nurse’s room on my now free period.

I survived.

One day, it was so busy in the restaurant that the cook asked me to go to the adjoining house to ask my stepmother to help out. It was after the supper rush but still busy, and she hadn’t come into the restaurant since I had come home from school.

I went inside and knew something was wrong; the only sound I heard was water running in the bathtub. The lights were all turned out, and water was seeping out into the hallway. I went into the bathroom and saw my baby half-sister lying face down in the overflowing water!

I had been a Girl Scout before my stepmother and her drinking had broken up my life, and I knew pediatric first aid. I grabbed my sister from the tub and, after a few pumps on her chest, she opened her big blue eyes and looked around her with fright. I shut off the tub and wrapped her in a big towel.

I went into the living room where my stepmother had passed out on the couch. Her daughter would have been dead if I hadn’t come in to ask her to help. Groggily, she raised her head and looked at me with a goofy, drunk grin on her face, “Hey, what’s going on?”

I pushed her daughter into her arms. “You nearly killed your daughter. That’s what’s wrong.”

The little girl tumbled gently from the drunken woman’s arms onto the couch and the blankets that were tangled up there. My stepmother shook her head. She tried to run her fingers through her hair, but they got stuck in the mad nest of hair.

“No, no,” she denied. A wicked gleam came into her eyes. “You. It was you. You nearly killed her.”

She only struck me once, but it was all I needed to pry her fingers off my neck and walk out the front door. I stopped long enough to get my schoolbooks, which I never forgot. My dad came home, too late for me, like he had always been too late for me since I had become a teenager. My books were in the basement of the restaurant where I lived alongside the mice and other vermin that lived in the cellar of the restaurant.

“What’s going on?” he asked. He was a behemoth presence in my life, but he held no power over me anymore. He had not only allowed this to happen, but he had encouraged it. He was as responsible as my stepmother.

“I’m leaving,” I said. He stepped forward, arms raised to grab me, his large body ready to block my path.

They barely fed me, and I was just over five feet tall, but my finger didn’t shake when I raised it and pointed it at him. My voice didn’t falter. “Don’t you lay one hand on me, or you’ll wish you’d never been born.”

The cook watched. He didn’t know what was happening, but he’d always been my friend and ally. “Bob, call the police if he tries to stop me. I’m going to get my books, and then I’m leaving this place, and I won’t ever be coming back.”

I turned to look at my dad. Our eyes were the same shade of blue. His were bloodshot with rage; mine were bright with defiance and joy. Our gazes met and clashed, and our wills collided. He stepped aside.

I don’t remember packing my books. I do remember that I only took what I needed for school. The rest of it could rot in the prison they’d left me in. I was underage. I was a runaway. I was free.

Was I irresponsible? A teenage runaway? The social worker who handled my case thought I was. I read her notes years later. She predicted that I didn’t know the consequences of living in the “real world,” and that I would quickly return home. They didn’t believe me when I told them how many hours I worked with no pay, and with barely any food or sleep.

I wasn’t irresponsible. I finished grade twelve on the honor roll and got a scholarship to go to university, but that’s a whole other story. The social worker didn’t understand the wonder that I experienced each day when I went to work and received a fair hourly wage as a short-order cook. I only worked between four and eight hours, and I got breaks. They fed me for free, and the food was good.

I didn’t have much, but what I had was mine. I fried eggs in a wok and made soup in the same wok because I could only afford one secondhand pot. I put up my first shower curtain, a cheap plastic thing that I had to be careful not to tear with joy after showering for a month without any curtain at all.

I had help. I had friends. The cook, Bob, was a friend to the end. He helped me rent a place and never once tried to take liberties with the little ragamuffin he’d helped out.

If I could have afforded it, I would have framed my emancipation paper when my parents were forced to free me from their ownership. I was free. I saw wonder and beauty in the world again and used my freedom to do good things.

My dad told me years later that he never imagined I’d run away. He said, “You’d always been such a good girl. I just always thought you’d be there.”

He never understood why his “good girl” left. But I never regretted it.

I have never looked look back. Freedom lies ahead, not behind.

~Virginia Stark

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