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Michele Tracy Berger: My mother’s gift

December 17, 2013 

Like many people who have lost a loved one, I find ways to remember and celebrate my mother during this time of year. I especially think of the time leading up to the holidays where she made a courageous choice.

When I was 8 my mother walked into my room and said, “We’re leaving your stepfather. You have 10 minutes to take anything you can carry and want to bring along.”

Without hesitation, I grabbed my favorite toy, The Bionic Woman doll, and my newly acquired glasses. She dressed my squalling 2-year old sister and shortly we said a teary good-bye to our cat Tinkerbell, the Brooklyn apartment that had been our home and walked out into the wintery evening with the clothes on our backs.

Although at the time I didn’t know what “escalating behavior” meant, I knew that my stepfather was physically and emotionally abusive and was displaying increasingly unpredictable behavior. My mother had tried, unsuccessfully, to leave him after he had kicked her in the stomach when she was pregnant with my sister.

I don’t how my mother got the best of her fear that day to leave him, as he had perpetuated classic abuser behavior for several years: isolation (she had no friends), poverty (he prevented her from working for years) and low self-esteem (making her feel worthless).

The President Hotel

After a short stint with my mother’s elderly godparents, we found ourselves a few weeks before Christmas on a late afternoon waiting in the Brooklyn Department of Social Services. Homeless.

“What brings you here today, Ms. Brooks?” a caseworker asked.

“I’ve been a battered woman off and on for several years and finally decided we couldn’t stay with this man.” I could hear her trying out the truth to this stranger.

With Melissa on her lap, the caseworker produced a mound of paper and pushed it to my mother.

“I’ve left before, but not like this. I am never going back to him,” my mother said as she filled out the papers.

The case worker nodded and cooed at my sister.

“We’re ready to stay in a shelter.” In the 1970s, shelters for ‘battered women’ were new and an unknown phenomena. I knew my mother didn’t really want to be in a shelter. But, what were our options?

“Oh, no, Ms. Brooks. There’s not a shelter that’s empty that will take you with kids.”

My mother stiffened. “I will not have my kids in foster care,” she said.

“But, I think we can help,” the caseworker said raising a hand. “There’s a new experimental program in Manhattan. At a hotel.”

My ears perked up. A hotel? With silky sheets and a doorman? Where fancy people on television shows stayed? Cool!

“The President Hotel. Near Broadway. In partnership with the city, they have devoted an entire floor to housing battered women and their children. It’s a six-month program. You could stay there until you get on your feet. You’re lucky. There is one spot left. Wanna try it?”

My mother looked at me, nodded, “Yes, we’ll try it.”

Everything sped up. Our caseworker went from one supervisor to the next getting the right forms. She got us subway tokens, emergency food stamps, and a small emergency check that could be cashed the next day, and paperwork to take to the hotel.

We arrived at the slightly run down President Hotel, beyond tired.

One of the managers showed us to the room. As soon as he left, we checked out the room. I was excited by the big bathroom, the two queen-sized beds and large television.

“There’s no fridge, not even a hot plate. How are we supposed to cook?” my mother asked. I shrugged and she shrugged. She decided to worry about this issue later.

Too tired to bathe, we slipped out of our clothes and even though there were two beds, we cuddled like puppies into one. I tucked my Bionic Woman in next to us. We were all home and safe.

I am grateful to the unknown policymakers, caseworkers, women’s advocates and others who designed and ran this program. We lived at the President Hotel for six months and it allowed my mother to get back on her feet. She never lived with my stepfather again.

That year, although my mother could not cook her big holiday meal, nor afford any gifts (and my godparents got none of the right toys despite the list my mother sent), I knew that she had given us the best gift of all, freedom from violence.

Michele Tracy Berger is a professor, creativity coach and writer. Readers may contact her at mtb@creativetickle.com

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