Welcome to Family Histories, a series of guest posts by some of my favorite bloggers in which they explore family . . . and history. The families and the histories are sometimes the writers’ own and sometimes not.
Today I offer a story of my own from the next novel in my series about the dysfunctional Crenshaw family. Those of you who have read my novels already know that Buck and Fred Crenshaw have many flaws. This passage highlights the abuse they suffered as children at the hands of their parents and gives insight into why Buck and Fred behave the way they do as adults:
Buck’s brothers and sisters sat at the supper table. Tonight, with Father away at a medical conference and the gas-lit chandelier casting a soft glow over the fine crystal in the cozy winter dining room, everyone was jolly—including Buck’s mother. The fire in the hearth warmed the faces of the children giving them rosy cheeks as they laughed at a story Fred told about school—a silly story and probably untrue.
Buck sat beside his brother watching his mother laugh while balancing a fork full of lima beans in her plump hand, her jowls shaking in good humor. The younger children’s eyes shined on Fred who, at least for this meal, kept his mother light-hearted after so many tense and silent suppers.
Buck had a nervous stomach. There was a fleeting satisfaction when he interrupted the merry mood with an unseemly belch. Yes, it had been on purpose. Buck had given it all he had though he found crude humor and bodily functions distasteful and shame-filled like the rest of his family. Yet, he’d done it. Wasn’t he always the source of tension? Wasn’t that his role after all? But why? Buck had no clear answers—but an angry compulsion nudged him to end the peace.
Margaret lunged across the table then, upsetting Fred’s plate.
Buck leaned just out of reach. “Sorry, Mama,” he said with a triumphant smile he’d suffer for—but didn’t he suffer anyway?
“Go to your room at once,” Margaret ordered.
“But Mama my stomach ached.”
Margaret raced around the table. The other children quaked as she took Buck by the ear with a painful jerk, leading him toward the cellar door off the kitchen. Buck, like a cat, held to the door frame, intensely afraid of the cellar where once Fred had seen red rat eyes peering at him as he stole a bottle of wine.
Margaret, with one good tug, got the better of him. “You ruined our nice time with your disgusting behavior, and I won’t have it!”
Buck’s hands slid along the smooth wall as he tumbled past Margaret, landing on the damp cellar floor.
Margaret raced down shouting, “You turn everything into a colossal failure—even steps!” She pulled him up to his feet. “Clumsy! How did I ever produce such a clumsy and disgusting boy?”
Buck scratched to get by her, but Margaret blocked him. She thrust him deeper into darkness, and, with arms flailing, Buck fell against a row of expensive bottles. The shelf, not meant for rough use, slipped from its brackets and sent the vintage bottles rolling and crashing to the floor.
Margaret gasped at the destruction of Graham’s collection, not seeing in the dark as the wine poured forth, the gash on Buck’s chin until a glimmer of light on the staircase lit Buck’s bloodied and expensive shirt.
“Oh!” Margaret cried. “What shall we do, Buckie?”
Buck stared at the bottles emptying the last of their precious liquid. Glass glistened on the floor as Lucretia, the house maid, descended the stairs with her lantern.
“Lord save us,” Lucretia said, her voice hollow though used to such scenes. “Ma’am, take the boy into the light before he bleeds to death.”
“He tripped, Lucretia—you believe me don’t you?” Margaret cried.
“You don’t answer to me, Maggie—only to God,” Lucretia replied, the closest time she ever came to acknowledging the abuse she’d witnessed over her many years of service. “Now go upstairs.”
Lucretia herded the other children up to their bedrooms, called the stable boy in to clean the cellar and nursed Buck as he lay upon the kitchen table, applying pressure to stop the blood at his chin.
Margaret hovered and simpered. “What will Graham say? What will he say, Lucretia?”
“Ma’am, Buck needs a doctor for stitches.”
“Yes, tomorrow,” Margaret said. “Graham will fix everything. Buck tripped. Isn’t that so, Buck?”
Lucretia with a look of uneasiness hurried from the room to fetch Buck a shirt.
Margaret came close to Buck’s throbbing face. Tears dripped from her red eyes. “You tripped, Buck, didn’t you?”
Buck said nothing until she gave him a quick, violent shake.
“Yes, Mama. I tripped!”
Lucretia ran in. “Ma’am, we need to tell Doctor Crenshaw the truth! It will set you free.”
Margaret cried into her sleeve. “Buck, I didn’t mean to hurt you. Please forgive me. I beg of you. Please . . .”
Buck waited. He enjoyed her suffering.
“Mama, I’m hungry,” Buck said, though the bottom half of his face swelled.
Margaret’s face lit up. “Ice cream! Chocolate. Your favorite. Lucretia will make it right now.”
Lucretia blanched. “But it’s 9:00!”
“You’ll do it, Lucretia, won’t you? For our little man, Buck. Won’t you?”
Buck watched Lucretia’s conflicted face—the one that assured Buck of late night ice cream with his mother. And so he imagined with a belly full of sugar and cream at 3 am that he’d won. Buck had a secret against his mother—one of many. His childish mind had forgotten all about the wine—he was too young to understand its value.
The next day, Buck’s stomach was sour and his face sore. While the family entertained themselves at checkers, reading and knitting before the fire, Buck lay in bed listening for the sound of his father’s footsteps in the vestibule. Outside the sky remained overcast and threatened snow.
Just before supper the sound of sleigh bells came up the drive. Buck, bandaged around the face, raced to meet his father at the sound of the front door opening.
Graham’s shoulders slumped at the sight of his son as he set his bag on the floor. “Land sakes, Buck. What’s happened now?”
“The wine bottles cut me.”
“Wine bottles can’t do anything without help.”
Margaret flew up behind Buck, her fingers settling deep into his shoulders. “Graham, dear, I’m so sorry to have your evening spoiled so quickly but there’s been an accident, and poor Buck is very sorry.”
Graham sighed in exasperation. “Come to me, Buck.”
Buck stood still.
“Graham, our dear child got into your wine last night and tripped. He smashed up all your Madeira. I didn’t punish him—his pain is enough maybe. He may need stitches . . .”
Graham’s face went crimson. His eyes bulged. The other children, gathered at the parlor door, fled up the stairs to their bedrooms having never seen their father so angry.
“I suppose we can get new wine, dear,” Margaret said, her finger nails digging deeper into Buck’s thin shoulders. “Don’t blame our boy. He’s just so very clumsy.”
When Buck wiggled free from his mother’s grasp, wincing, Graham sensed something. This something always hung heavily though he did his best to busy his mind with medical papers and research. Tonight Graham was tired and impatient after a cold and bumpy ride in the wet fall weather. He turned to Lucretia.
The housemaid hesitated. Her eyes lingered on Buck for a long while. She crossed her strong but gentle arms tightly in front of her, wrestling with her feelings. “Sir. The boy ran down the stairs, and before I knew it the bottles were upset.”
Graham moaned as if some deep volcanic rage had let go within. He tugged the belt from around his ample waist. “Come here at once and pull your trousers down, Buck.”
“No,” Buck said. “Mama pushed me.” His father’s rage was a new and terrifying thing.
“How dare you, Buck!” Graham began. “Your mother takes care of you . . .” he continued but something in his voice gave way to doubt. He looked at Lucretia again almost pleading for an excuse to turn back as Graham was not a violent man.
Lucretia’s dark eyes relayed to Buck a deep sympathy, yet she had to consider her own son she hardly saw while tending the Crenshaw brood. “Buck tripped. He’s a clumsy boy, most times.”
Graham, refocused on his son and grabbed him. “That Madeira is worth more than . . .” He didn’t finish his sentence, but Buck understood what it was worth more than. Graham half-heartedly made to strike his son, but Lucretia cried out.
“Oh, don’t, sir!”
Margaret seeing the tide turn against her followed suit. “Buck drives me mad! He does! Always upsetting something! I’m sorry I’m not the mother I should be!”
Buck slipped from his father’s grasp, but Graham caught him by the loose-fitting shirt he wore. It slipped from Buck’s shoulder exposing ugly bruises on his bony back.
“What’s this?” Graham asked, his voice trembling. A flood of half-formed suspicions and unusual breaks of bone came to mind.
Buck sensed danger—a new danger—seeing how his father looked at his mother—his dear mother. Yes, he loved her. It was he who had upset the supper. It was he who fell against the wine. He quickly pulled his shirt close.
“What’s happening here, Margaret . . . when I’m away?” Graham asked, his voice deadened.
“Lucretia! Why didn’t you tell me about Buck’s back?” Margaret cried, pulling Buck close against her bosom. “Oh, my poor sweet Buckie.”
Graham pressed his wife in the way he did surgery—with no sign of emotion. “Tell me about these bruises, Margaret. What is this about?”
Margaret’s body shook against her son, and Buck became one with her terror. What would come next became too much for Buck to wait for and so he jumped in to stop that terrible waiting when the world turned black with anticipated pain.
“I’m clumsy, Father. Terribly clumsy and awkward—the bottles in the cellar—all my fault. Forgive Mama at once, and you can thrash me—but please not so awfully hard.”
“The bruises, Buck . . .” Graham began, anger turning to something far worse—a softening—that softening that let this all happen again and again.
“The bed fell on me. Fred and I were playing, and I hid beneath the bed, and it fell on my back when Fred jumped on the mattress. We should have told you, but it doesn’t hurt. Not at all.”
Margaret pulled the hankie from her sleeve to wipe her eyes—so like Buck’s violet eyes. “Oh Graham, I never imagined we’d have a child so addicted to trouble—just like my brother Oliver. I thought I’d escaped all that went on between Oliver and my father.”
“Your father is a beast . . .” Graham choked up. “Maggie, it’s not your fault. Buck is clumsy—like I was and with a weak constitution.”
Buck wasn’t sure what constitution was until he looked it up later but the words followed him—weak and clumsy. These words set his whole family off kilter. “Father, may I go to my room?”
Graham turned to his wife. Lucretia slipped from the room to the kitchen to finish preparing Buck’s favorite meal Beef Wellington.
“Margaret, I know this traveling I’ve been doing is difficult for you . . . what do you want me to do about Buck?”
Margaret sniffled and blew her nose. “Two lashes, nothing more. I couldn’t bear it. Buck needs to learn that disrupting supper is not allowed.”
“Supper?” Graham asked. The belt limp in his hands.
Margaret stumbled over her words but regained her composure. “The gash on Buck’s chin has already taught him a lesson, but he needs to know who’s in charge.”
Graham preferred not to take charge. He hesitated, thinking of Buck’s back and grateful that Lucretia hadn’t called in another doctor to examine his son. Graham caught sight of Fred hiding in the shadows of the hallway closet. “Frederick Crenshaw come here at once.”
Fred looked as though he might bolt up to his room but sighed and dragged himself in at an excruciatingly slow pace. With hands in pockets he came before his father, the handsomest member of the Crenshaw clan. At this young age Fred still yearned for his father’s elusive approval.
“Fred, has something happened over supper?” Graham asked.
Fred glanced first at his mother and then let his eyes fall upon his brother.
“Fred . . .” Graham asked with a touch of impatience.
Fred’s eyes were big as he met his father’s gaze. This was before the passenger pigeons flew with Fred’s optimism to their deaths. The boy never wandered far from his twin. Last evening Fred saw from the top of the cellar steps his mother and Buck like ghosts playing out a ghastly theatrical in the cellar. Until Lucretia shooed him to his room Fred had stood transfixed at the begging of his brother and the power of his mother—the two he loved most in life always so at odds.
“You’ll make it worse for Buck. Now get to your room, Fred!” Lucretia had whispered, pushing him along when he resisted.
Just before Fred climbed the back stairs the night before from the kitchen to the bedrooms above, he heard the sickening crash of his brother’s body against the fragile collection of spirits and caught sight, before Lucretia pushed him away again, of the glistening shards of glass on the floor and the dark liquid on the front of his brother’s shirt.
Fred and Thankful spent the night perched on the top step listening. Was Buck alive? Was he at home? They heard pots being moved to the stove and muffled voices and wondered if Buck himself was being cooked. Their minds raced. The two most imaginative children of the clan who with different parents may have been artists or storytellers lived perched in the shadows of their substantial home where real stories were forbidden. Light talk meant survival. The big ideas of Thankful and Fred were snuffed out in a mix of worry and anger, false light and deep darkness.
The forlorn look of Buck—his fingers twitching, his sad violet eyes always unsettled—pained Fred more than any other thing. It colored his days and disrupted his nights. How many times did Fred seek to step between his brother and mother? How many times had Buck at the last moment turned and took the blame? And so Fred had always gone along. Margaret would beg Fred, and Fred learned his allegiance would be rewarded with an extravagant favoritism and a lesser punishment for Buck. Keeping Buck safe and keeping Buck weak and keeping Buck quiet made good sense.
Until last night the children heard more than they ever saw of the abuse. Yes, they’d witnessed many small beatings, endless berating and humiliations but never had they seen blood. Buck’s ability to take a throttling and still appear at supper to be physically well, awed the other children, and bruises and welts were easily hidden. Blood frightened the siblings with its messiness—and didn’t Margaret demand cleanliness of them all?
In fact, the children had convinced themselves that Buck did half-deserve what he got. Yet two days previous to the supper beating Fred had seen something new.
Fred looked one last time at his frightened brother and this time went against script. No longer could Fred stomach the fear and maddening behaviors all around him. “Father, Buck and I wanted to go hunting the other day.”
Graham shook his head. What did this have to do with anything? “Fred, I told you both I didn’t want you taking the guns on your own. You’re too young.”
“Yes, Father, but we wanted to anyway. We were going to run away, and we climbed out the window,” Fred said. He glanced at Margaret. His mouth was dry. He licked his lips. “Mama caught us in the barn.”
“Freddie, please!” Margaret begged.
“Mama took Buck’s gun and beat him with it in the stables,” Fred said, his voice quaking. “It gave the horses a fright, and I saw it all from the loft where I’d run to hide.”
“That’s a lie!” Margaret screamed. “I took the gun away from Buck, Graham. I did. I didn’t want them hurting themselves! Yes, I took it, but I never beat Buck. He ran against the gun and cried out—that’s certain but I never . . .”
Graham took hold of Buck again solemnly unbuttoning the boy’s shirt—it hung now from his trousers. Old and new marks mingled.
Margaret cried. Fred cried—no wonder Buck hadn’t wanted to wrestle anymore. Graham wiped his eyes. He recognized the signs. They ran in Margaret’s family. Yet despite the doctor’s many aggravations with Margaret he loved her.
There must be another explanation.
Buck read the room—his one talent. The truth hurt him, but so did this exposure. He slipped back into his shirt. In his young mind, in his young heart the only way to get away from all the feelings was to lie.
“Fred is lying, Father,” Buck said. “Mama loves me and does her best. I ran into the gun.”
Graham shook his head. “But, Buck, the other marks.”
“Fred and I wrestle—isn’t that right, Fred?”
Fred’s open, friendly face closed never to open again. “No! Mama hits you too hard! And we’re all afraid she’ll kill Buck one day!” Fred cried, years of pent-up emotion exploding in great sobs.
“LUCRETIA! Call down the children!” Graham ordered.
They came down in single file, reluctantly lining up before their father. Each one lied.
Fred stood alone.
“Now apologize to your mother, Fred,” Graham said.
“No. I won’t.”
Graham waited. He wanted Fred to be wrong and hadn’t Fred made up stories before? “Fred, this is your last chance to tell the truth. Do you understand?”
Everyone waited breathlessly.
Fred ran at his mother. “You hurt Buck! You don’t love him somehow!”
Graham pulled Fred off Margaret.
“That’s not true!” Buck cried, embracing his mother. “Mama loves me! I’m to blame!”
Margaret sobbed into Buck’s tousled and sandy hair. “Oh, dear boy!”
Graham held Fred by the arm. “Never tell these horrible lies again! How dare you make your mother a monster!” He struck Fred three times with his belt but broke down and sent all the children to their rooms. Buck listened just out of sight.
Margaret threw herself upon her husband. “Graham, you believe me, don’t you? All I’ve ever wanted was a house full of safe and happy children!”
Graham shrugged her off and collapsed into a chair. “Margaret . . . those marks . . . I don’t know what to believe. Fred seemed to be telling the truth this time. I just don’t know.”
Margaret fell at his feet. “No! Fred’s become a better liar. How many times have I begged you not to leave me alone with the children for so long? They’re vicious and brutal and lie like the devil. They need a father’s discipline. Fred—you know I love him best but today you see how Buck has poisoned him. His eyes were so like my brother Oliver’s—it sent shivers!”
Graham having made himself an outsider had no idea how the family ran.
“Graham, please. I need your help,” Margaret cried. “I beg you to believe me. I’d never hurt a fly!”
Later when the house was blanketed in hush and warmth Graham stared into the dying embers of the fire in the parlor. A sound in the hall startled him.
“Lucretia?” Graham stood. “Where are you off to this hour?”
Gripping her bag with white knuckles, Lucretia glanced up the stairs and then toward the door. “Sir, I didn’t want to do this, but I’ve left you a note—in the kitchen.”
“Lucretia, please tell me what’s the matter—sit with me a moment by the fire.”
“I insist—please.” Graham led her to Margaret’s chair and waited.
“Sir, Mrs. Crenshaw is like a sister to me—I hope you don’t mind me saying—but, well, she struggles—it’s a mighty struggle with the children being so—full of energy.”
“She hurts them?” Graham asked, leaning in.
“Sir, I just wanted to say . . . I’ve grown very fond of your little ones—Buck especially—and feel . . . I feel tortured inside by . . .”
“Yes, Lucretia, go on.”
“Mrs. Crenshaw—she doesn’t mean to do it, but it’s as if she becomes someone else altogether and Buck with his clumsy ways and—I’ll say it—his ambition to withstand all Mrs. Crenshaw heaps upon him . . .” She cried then. “It’s none of my business, sir, but as a Christian I can no longer be party to what goes on. I fear for Buck’s life, too! I’m terribly sorry!” Lucretia made to get up, but Graham prevented her.
“Lucretia, Mrs. Crenshaw is with child.”
Lucretia shook her head.
“This is a family matter, you understand,” Graham continued, “and I consider you a family member. Maggie struggles, but what are my children to do without a mother?—and an auntie? What am I to do? If any of this ever got out the scandal would ruin us all. We need to help the children and Maggie, don’t we?”
“But, sir, I’ve done my best. I’ve given my best years, and the fear of finding Buck one day—who I love as my own—to find him dead one day . . .”
“Now, now,” Graham interrupted. “Bruises—they are troubling to see, but dear Lucretia, Maggie’s not a killer. She’s tender-hearted beneath it all—but her temper sometimes—I understand at times it gets the best of her, but if you desert us now—consider Buck.”
Lucretia stood to go.
“Wait! Lucretia, what if . . . what if we arranged—with Maggie’s consent of course—what if we kept you on more as an advisor.”
“I could tell Mrs. Crenshaw that you would take charge of the older children—see to their needs. To give Mrs. Crenshaw a much-needed chance to recover her equanimity.”
“Sir, I don’t see how I could protect Buck and the others,” Lucretia said, edging toward the door.
“I would double your pay—no—triple it and give you all day Sunday off. You would have final authority over the children.”
“Sir! Mrs. Crenshaw wouldn’t like that!”
“Lucretia, I’ve known in my heart for a while now that something wasn’t quite right. I didn’t want to admit it. Maggie’s a good girl in a lot of ways,” Graham said with trembling voice. “But unless she agrees to this arrangement I’ll have to take the children away from her completely and divorce her.” Graham waited a moment for the information to settle in. “You may not consider me a good father, but I love my children very much, and I’m prepared to take drastic measures if need be.”
What did drastic measures mean to a boy of nine? Buck understood only the part about being taken away from his mother. He silently vowed to be a better child—to be the best child and the least offensive.
There were no more beatings to speak of. Buck studied Fred’s every move in an effort to emulate his well-loved brother, but in the end settled for being mostly unseen. And the small humiliations he was prepared to take as the price for a home.
If Buck never felt quite himself, and slowly it became harder to find that self, at least he could survive. Having heard his father—that absent, passive voice of his faraway father—threaten drastic measures cut the last cord of stability in Buck’s unstable world. All sense of love, intimacy and value however strangely woven together could now be unraveled by his father. Buck only now realized his father’s soft outer covering masked an authority to do drastic things.
Fred had taken the lash which was far more unsettling than the daily threats and acts of his mother. Unlike his mother who after a good sound thrashing begged for forgiveness and bribed with treats and affection, his father did not apologize, did not show the usual regret that signaled an end to torment. Graham’s actions and words left an uncertainty in the suffocating air of the Crenshaw house which Buck grew to despise and test.
What were the drastic measures? When would they come?
Lucretia, whom Buck had great affection for, stayed and took her pay, and when she tried to act as mother from then forward Buck repelled her. He told Lucretia she had yellow teeth every time she smiled and pulled from the only physical affection he got until she no longer offered it. No more talks in the kitchen about school or stories before bed. He was too old for it all anyhow.
Lucretia watched Buck from afar like everyone else, and it was good for a time.
“Rich and colorful page turners. Morris has a fine sense of time and place and brings her memorable characters to life. She also tells a captivating story. You won’t find it easy to put her book down, and her characters will stay with you when you do. We can only hope she keeps writing and gives us more episodes in this fascinating chronicle.”