Twenty years ago on this date, the last days of my mother’s marriage to my idiot ex-stepfather Maurice Eugene Washington/Judah ben Israel began. This story is as much about faith and miracles as it is about my bizarre life at 616 and in Mount Vernon.
They were arguing in the living room, sounding like they could kill each other with a steak knife. My mother was “sick an’ tired” of my father’s constant abuse, not physical mind you, but just as disabling. One of the things my mother had vowed to do during May and June was to quit smoking. It wasn’t exactly the first time she tried. Only this time she’d been successful, so much so that Maurice had taken to blowing his Benson & Hedges smoke into her face when she sat in the living room watching TV and jonesin’ for some nicotine. It was that, Maurice’s garbage job and his inability to pay any bills or put any food in the house, his obvious signs of cheating, and his eternal threats of physical violence to her and my siblings she went after him about. Maurice just complained that she didn’t “love” him anymore. When my mother said, “I stopped lovin’ your heathen ass a long time ago!” I snickered and fell asleep.
I was somewhere in dreamland when I heard this loud crack hit against the wall of our room. “Oh my God!,” I yelled and jumped out of bed. I ran into the living room to see my mother’s heavy crystal ashtray on the floor, five feet to her right, and my stepfather on the other side of the living room, with a combination of rage and bafflement on his face. The wall itself had multiple fractures and a dent about a foot and a half in diameter.
“Are you okay?,” I asked my mother.
“Yeah, Donald, I’m fine. This between me and him.”
I didn’t move, figuring I either needed to take on Maurice myself or run to the back and actually call the police.
“Get the fuck out of here!,” Maurice yelled, seemingly ready to get up and attack me.
“Go on Donald. I’ll take care of this,” my mother said with a strange combination of calmness and confidence. I’d never heard my mother sound so sure about anything. Despite thoughts of Memorial Day ’82 going through my head—not mention my better judgment—I slowly backed out of the living room and into the hallway. All the while Maurice started to rise up off of the sofa to threaten and possibly attack me.
I went into the back and got into bed, thinking about what I knew I needed to do if he actually attacked my mother again. I waited for what I thought would be the grand finale. Nothing. Nothing else happened. It was like they were both in shock. My stepfather left the living room, rumbled through the hallway and punched open the door to our room before slamming the door to the master bedroom. Darren jumped out of bed and yelled this piercing yelp, like he was being tortured. I was mad at him too at that moment. I closed the door and went to sleep.
By the time I got up the next morning, my stepfather was packing up his clothes in one of my mother’s suitcases. He soon left, as if he were scared. When I asked what had happened the night before, my mother said, “A miracle.” In the heat of their argument, Maurice had picked up the crystal ashtray and thrown it at my mother. She said that it bounced off her right cheek and jaw, plowed into the wall three feet to where she’d been sitting, and then hit the floor to her right. If it had hit her as she said, my mother should’ve been unconscious with multiple facial fractures. But other than a minor scrape on her cheek and a headache, she was fine. The wall behind her wasn’t. My choices were to somehow believe that my stepfather missed her at point-blank range and took out part of the wall. Or to believe that a major miracle had occurred, leaving my mother with almost no physical damage.
Considering how Maurice left, it was much easier to believe that a miracle had occurred. What else would explain the silence, the sudden turn away from my mother and to the master bedroom, the sense of fear that my stepfather had the next day? The only other explanation would’ve been that he was afraid that we’d call the police. I was still willing to, but it wouldn’t have done me any good if my mother didn’t press charges. All I knew was that for the second time in nine years, Maurice had packed his things and left without any indication of where he was going. It turned out that he moved in with one of his women, and within three months, asked for a divorce so that he could get married again. My mother, true to form, said, “If he wants a divorce, he can paid for it his damn self.”
Two decades later, and I still don’t know what to believe. Even if I accept the probability of a miracle here — at least in terms of my mother coming out of a fight unscathed — then I also have to accept something else. That my mother needed another miracle, one from within. The one that allowed her to see herself as having worth. To have taken enough charge over her life to have moved out, moved on, or to have gone to the police over what was happening at 616. To at least have the courage to have dropped the whole Hebrew-Israelite thing at the first sign of trouble, for herself if not for her kids. Of course, that’s not a miracle. It’s a transformation, one that took seven years and sixteen days to accomplish.
For most of us, a divorce can be anywhere from sad to abysmally devastating. Even if necessary, divorcees can take as long as two years to recover from their marriage’s dissolution. For their children, despite their resiliency, it could take even longer. In my mother’s case, the separation and divorce was the beginning of her recovery, and hardly the worst thing that could’ve happened to her. As far as I was concerned, it never was a marriage to begin with. It was an eleven-year odyssey of servitude, sexism and stupidity, and I couldn’t have been happier to see my ex-stepfather walking out of our lives for the last time.