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'Don't stare at yourself in the mirror too long or you'll see the devil!'
The warning was delivered with an admonishing tone, which suggested none of the playfulness it had the first few times of my life. Then again, I guess mom thought that I hadn't learned my lesson, as I still took to admiring myself on the sly in the bathroom mirror. I didn't know I was being spied on but I had left the door slightly ajar as combing my hair was not an activity that required complete privacy, or so I had thought. But there's no privacy with a snooping mom.
Anyway, this dirge is the introduction to my story, one involving moms and their daughters. The kid's me – Janet, now a mother myself. But I'm going back a bit to my six year old self, who one night was forced to grow up before she was ready. It seems my mind shot from six to sixty overnight, though my body would take a bit more time.
Like most kids, I believed in Santa, the Easter Bunny and a nondescript assortment of benevolent fairies, some of which I'd concocted for special occasions. For example, there was the 'Sleep Fairy', who came at night to grant slumber to restless kids, very useful when the Tooth Fairy was expected. Perhaps they would pass each other along the way. Then again, the Sleep Fairy was off duty on Christmas Eve. Perhaps they all worked together, or were at least acquaintances. I'd often wondered.
But there were catches. For example, I'd have to be good all year to get presents from Santa, so I'd run myself ragged to be on my best behavior for 355 days of the year, and all in preparation for just one day. But that was the reality of the situation: Santa is good only to good children. Then there were a few comparatively less serious penalties, such as eat your greens or there'll be no dessert, do your homework or you can't play outside and wash your ears (penalty unknown for disobeying this directive, however).
But there were even more serious fears in my childhood. Worse than being given fruit for dessert. Worse than receiving clothes for Christmas presents. Even worse than not receiving Christmas presents at all. There was something so hideous that even the name was enough to frighten a child. He was a monster who even at his nicest was a hundred times worse than a Santa with an empty sack for Janet Berisha. The boogeyman.
It was the kids in kindergarten who first told me about him. Of course I ran home and asked mom for verification. She denied his existence but somehow I expected no less of her. But it just wasn't enough. I didn't sleep that night, even with the lights on. Or the next. The third night mercifully granted me some sleep but I awoke with a jolt after only an hour – it was about 9:35pm when my eyes opened. Even awaking with the bright ceiling light for comfort didn't work. All the better to see the boogeyman with. My screams brought my mom to my room, though hearing her thumping feet as she ran up the stairs brought more visions of a galumphing monster. My mom ran into my room and wrapped herself around me, no questions asked, creating a human ball of love. Instinctively, I allowed myself to momentarily glance at my bedroom closet.
After I had been calmed enough to catch my breath and the sobbing had ceased, I explained to my mom about the nightmare that I had just had. The one about the boogeyman. But for one so already well known to legions of children, there was no consensual agreement as to what he actually looked like. They couldn't even say whether 'he' was maybe a 'she', though 'boogeywoman' didn't quite have the same ring to it. It actually caused mirth, not fear. Predictably, my school friends would offer conflicting stories about the boogeyman's appearance. Some insisted that he was only a foot high or so, but his jagged teeth, piercing yellow eyes and the snout of a pig made up for his lack of height. Unsurprisingly, there was a completely opposite report on file: the boogeyman was in fact a real man in every sense – average height and in every other way 'average', dressed in a long trench coat and wearing a trilby hat. Oh, yeah, and he walked with a cane.
Personally, I always thought that the boogeyman looked different to every child, as if there were a personal boogeyman for every little boy and girl. One thing that all the schoolyard kids agreed on though was his habitat: the closets in kids' bedrooms. No closet, then under the bed would suffice. None of us questioned where the boogeyman lurked for kids born in poverty, however, like the kind I used to see on TV charity shows. These kids lived destitute in the Appalachians and very often had only a mattress to sleep on, usually next to another sibling. Bedroom closets were also absent. I suppose it was one of those things that was best left unquestioned, similar to the one about how Santa got down the chimney in houses that did not possess such. Oh well.
Anyway, getting back to that night when the boogeyman had destroyed my sleep, I took to describing him to my mom. My boogeyman was very tall and thin, though for a six year old child, all grown ups looked tall, and the boogeyman was certainly not a child, nor had he ever been. My boogeyman had long straw colored hair, which hung down like a damp mop, and a face full of scratches, as if a cat had gotten the better of him. His eyes had black circles around them, his nose was pointed and fangs substituted for teeth. He wore a long black cloak and wore a trilby – my friend Jenny was right about that hat.
My mom set about verbally comforting me, with assurances that it was just a dream and there really was no boogeyman. The more I asked questions along the lines of 'what if', the more my mom's patience seemed to grow. I slept with her that night and I loved her more then than I had for a long time. Since dad left us a year earlier, mom had become even more affectionate toward me. But that also meant sometimes being extra strict about where I went and what I did. She was afraid to let me go, though at six years old I wasn't ready to leave home just yet. I still think she was happier to have me next to her that night than I was to have her next to me. But the following night I felt safe enough to go back to my bed, but only with the lights on again. A few days later, I started using a night light again until I was finally weaned off artificial illumination completely and felt safe enough to sleep in the dark all over again.
A few weeks after this incident I had my first slumber party. There was me and five of my friends, all camped out downstairs in the living room. I felt brave enough to share my nightmare about the boogeyman and in doing so, was reassured by three of my friends that he wasn't real after all. The other two friends were adamant that he was. No matter. I had decided that real or not, he wouldn't be coming for me again. Mom would be there to protect me. Yes, she was a snoop and fussy and all the rest of it but secretly, I liked it. I could always count on her, and didn't feel it was uncool to share this sentiment with my friends that night. Besides, my friends knew about my dad leaving me and mom all alone, so they knew that a family operating on just one parent needed some extra pre-adolescent consideration.
As a child, I never knew exactly what had caused my dad to leave his wife and daughter. True, I knew him and mom had been fighting like two caged tigers for the few months leading up to his final departure. At eight I was finally told by mom that dad had been seeing another woman before he left, this being the source of the fights, and mom was sure dad and his lady friend were now living together somewhere far away. It must have been far away because I didn't see my dad again until much later in life. He had simply vanished as far as my six year old self knew. Apart from my mother telling me about dad's girlfriend, she said precious little about the man nor ventured any information about his motives for leaving us. As I said – I understood an unhappy marriage, even at six years old, but I just couldn't understand how a man could use that as an excuse to leave his family behind, even with a new girlfriend to replace mom, because who would replace him? In any event, I soon learned that asking mom questions even remotely related to dad or his departure was forbidden. It was on a school night when mom and I were eating at the dinner table, which suddenly seemed all too big for just a woman and her daughter, that I learned this painful lesson. It was six months or so after dad had left us.
As I raised my macaroni to my mouth, feigning interest as I was not hungry, I could no longer hold back. My dad had left us. Mom was an adult, she would cope better. But I was a child. Mine was a world of ghosts, horrid schoolteachers and monsters under the bed – I needed two parents to help me cope. But dad didn't care. He upped and left. What had mommy done to cause him to leave?
'Why did daddy leave us mommy?'
The question was that simple. It had been delivered with all the maturity a six year old could muster, free from the tears that were threatening to release themselves from my eyes. For the past six months following dad's departure, after having generally bottled all my emotions and feelings inside following my mother's lead, I needed answers. So did mommy, I soon learned that day.
The response to my question had been an outburst from my mother, the likes of which I never saw again until I was leaving home to attend university on a full scholarship. By that time, I had to get away from her, but that's another story. My mother rose up from the table, clutching her dinner plate. In an instant it had been thrown to the floor, scattering bits of food and china in a wide arc beneath her feet.
'I don't know!'
This was my mother's answer, followed by intense sobbing as she crumpled to the floor. Instinctively, I ran to her side and we held each other tight. I sensed all at once that we were each other's world. My mom was all I had. And I was all she had. She would have to be daddy and mommy, all in one. And somehow, a six year old daughter would have to fill in for daddy, though I had no idea how. After a good ten minutes of crying and clutching each other, we rose to move to the living room. There we tried to make sense of dad leaving. My mother spat out some of the worst words I had ever heard when she talked about him that day, though she didn't raise her voice. The kind of words that adults can use I guess, because they are adults, but kids can't do the same. If I used words like 'bastard' I would pay the penalty of a mouth washed out with soap. At least that was what my mom had always said she would do.
In the end though, there was no satisfactory answer to my original question. And the line sometimes mommies and daddies can't live together anymore, which began mom's diatribe against dad, suddenly seemed patronizing to a six year old girl who had matured somewhat in the past ten minutes with the sight of a grown woman who herself had reverted back to childhood with her loud wails and smashed dinner plate. Only kids were supposed to do that sort of thing. Another sign that adults are just play-acting, hiding the impetuous child within, came with my mom's explanation as to why she still wore her diamond wedding ring. If daddy wasn't coming back, why keep it? I asked her if the ring was worn as a sign of hope that he would return – or was the ring a substitute for dad. My mom answered with forced gentleness that it was simply too expensive to throw away and she was afraid it would be lost if she left it lying around the house. I knew not to probe further. Besides, it was all too obvious that mom was too proud to admit that she still loved dad and therefore, the ring would never leave her finger, unless one day she managed to actually stop loving him. Her explanation regarding the question about the ring though reminded me of school kids, like me, who boldly state that they don't care about a rival student's good report card or new shoes when in fact they do. Mom was no different. She wanted to flush that damn ring down the toilet along with memories of dad. But she couldn't. The conversation ended with mom begging me to stay with her forever. How and why could I ever leave you mommy, I asked, especially since dad didn't love or want me; mom really was all I had.
I realized there and then that adults have their own monsters to contend with too, though they don't talk about them. Who comforts adults then when they have bad dreams?
Well, that could be a fitting end to my story. It's a story that's been told before anyway. It's about kids, moms and monsters. But the boogeyman is real. I saw him about three months after I first dreamt him. The nightmare had been a warning. The next time was the real thing.
It was a Thursday night. I went past mom's room. She was still at work, teaching one of her night classes. As I made my way to the bathroom, the sound downstairs of the TV and of Liz Johnson emitting a short dry cough signaled that I was safe. Liz was a mom surrogate, a neighbor who gladly babysat for me, as mom did for her son, a brat named Tim.
I went into the bathroom. Having finished my business in there about a minute later, I groggily made my way back to my room. Nothing was out of the ordinary. I settled down in my bed and rolled onto my right side, excited about the sleep that would be coming for me soon thereafter, for sleep no longer frightened me, or the dark. I waited. After a minute I was still awake. Nothing. But nothing can be scary. The absence of even a distant police car in hot pursuit or drunken revelers on the street can be discomforting. Such noises signal that you are not alone, that there is life out there. But this was a quiet night, inside and outside the house. Even the familiar sounds of the TV downstairs could not be heard now that I was alone in my bedroom with the door closed. Nothing again. I even started to wonder if Liz had gone home. My heart began its dance, one which was making its way to my stomach, where it would nestle, causing a sense of fear, and not ceasing until pure dread had made its way into my whole being.
The sound arrived but this sound was not welcome. I knew what police sirens and drunken adults using bad words sounded like. I also knew the sound of my bedroom closet opening but only when I was the instigator of such a noise. I chided my young self, believing that it was just 'one of those things that go bump – or squeak – in the night'. But I knew it was pointless. Thankfully, my boogeyman didn't allow me to suffer in suspense for too long. He pushed the closet door open and stood there inside. He was just as I thought, just like in my dream. That at least offered a degree of comfort. No surprises. The hat, hair, scratches and trench coat were all in place.
He called my name in a deep whispered voice.
I couldn't scream, though I opened my mouth as if to call Liz. I could only imagine how safe it was downstairs where she was. If she came upstairs now, my boogeyman would disappear. Boogeymen are afraid of adults. Adults are like kryptonite to boogeymen. My boogeyman continued to stand there, watching, waiting. I had one chance. If I could open my bedroom door, I could run downstairs to Liz. The boogeyman couldn't follow me then. As I dared to slide my right leg to the edge of the bed in preparation for flight, my eyes located another feature of my boogeyman. This was something I hadn't noticed in the dream. But for me, it was more horrific than the scratches and fangs combined. This feature signaled to me that things would never be the same. My whole understanding of the world collapsed that very moment. I spent about 30 seconds mulling this over, while my boogeyman waited patiently, once again calling out my name. It was time.
I shot out of bed, screaming out loud to raise the alarm. As I ran down the stairs I could see that my boogeyman had not dared to follow me, though I knew that he would escape from my room the moment he was sure I was out of sight, and leave the house unnoticed, despite his ghastly appearance. I spent the next twenty minutes in the arms of Liz, crying in a way I hadn't done since my dad had left us. This was a cry of betrayal, of abandonment. And predictably, I made the plea that all six year old girls do in times of distress:
'I want my mommy!'
After ten minutes of Liz reassuring me that mommy would be back soon, she had decided to go upstairs to sort this boogeyman out. I hadn't wanted her to and screamed again so loud at the mere thought of her going upstairs that she finally gave in. I think she was silently relieved because I could tell that she was scared too. My feelings on the matter were not what she probably thought though. I wasn't afraid of being left alone while Liz investigated (as if she would leave me alone anyway). Nor was I afraid of coming face to face with the boogeyman again. No, I was afraid of something much worse. Time was needed, so we huddled together, listening. I knew more than I was telling. I estimate that by the time I entered the living room screaming, my boogeyman was at the top of the landing, preparing himself to creep down the stairs, to make his eventual exit out the back door. My screams, which started in the bedroom and gave way to hysterical sobs, lasted long enough to ensure that the already stealthy movement of my boogeyman would not have been heard anyway. At least not by Liz.
Mom returned later that night, no sooner or later than usual for a teaching night. After hearing what had happened, she squeezed me tight. It was the kind of hug that I had received from her when I got lost in the shopping mall at age four, as well as the more recent protective hugs awarded after nightmares involving my boogeyman and that of my mother's, in her case a husband who had abandoned her.
'Mommy's here. I'll never leave you, ever. I promise – the boogeyman will never get you. And he'll never return. I promise. I'll always protect you!'
Such was my mother's monument to me. And she meant it. She never let me out of her sight. She protected me from every evil, whether real or imagined. She protected me from what she thought were evil fathers, if not the entire male population, as well as evil boogeymen. Indeed, she kept her promise. I didn't see my father again until I finally managed to track him down twelve years later. And I never saw my boogeyman again.
Back in the present day, I have managed to keep my husband, unlike mom. My kids believe in Santa, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy. Unfortunately, I couldn't stop the other school kids from passing on the story of the boogeyman though. All I can do is try to convince my kids he's not real. Unlike my boogeyman. He was real. And he scared me in order to protect me from the evils of life. But that one feature of his that I told you about, the one that scared me more than any other – it was something that told me my boogeyman really was a woman. Boogeymen don't wear diamond wedding rings.
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