Survivor: Somebody who remains alive despite being exposed to life-threatening danger.
Someone with great powers of endurance.
Someone who overcomes traumatic experiences.
If one out of four women is a survivor of domestic violence and that is just the reported number, what does that say about the women in our world? I can tell you what it means in my world. My mother is a survivor of domestic violence. She divorced my father in the mid-1950s when I was just starting school. I don't know what I really remember or if I have conjured pictures to the stories I have always heard, but I remember some things that I thought I had put away, stored in a dark room in a box that said toxic and not to be opened ever.
I remember living in an apartment building with a long hallway. We lived at the very end of that hallway. My great-grandmother lived with us and cared for me while my mother worked as a dietitian in a mental health institution in Iowa. I remember my father at the door, coming in and slapping my mother and my gutsy grandmother chasing him down that hallway hitting him with a broom. This particular grandmother was my hero before and after that incident when I found in a corn crib a jar of rattlesnake tails that she took from snakes she killed when traveling as a very young women across Colorado and Nebraska in a wagon. She was very old when she died just a few years after this incident and she was a strong, strong woman. The only picture I still have of her shows her carrying buckets of milk, wearing overalls and a slouchy hat. My grandfather had a stroke at a young age and she took over the farm, the chores and "worked like a man" till she was in her 70s. I was always told my great-grandpa and she were soul mates and all my family alive today who knew them said they were very much in love. They said she wanted to die when he passed and then I was born and she gave me all that love and it was amazing.
Anyway, back to my mother who had the privilege of knowing her and sharing her strength as I did. Getting a divorce in the 1950s was no fun for a woman. Unfortunately, my father was well-liked, personable and they had grown up together as friends so who was that girl who said her husband was going to kill her? Mom said she knew right away her life was at stake if she continued to live with my father. He drank beer, I do remember that. He worked hard, but when he wasn't working he drank. My great-grandmother came to live with us even then because he was afraid of her and I was never to be left alone with him I am told. He tried to choke her, threw her out of a car, kidnapped her and otherwise terrorized her for years even after they separated with absolutely nothing being done by anyone in authority. My uncle, my grandfather and grandmother protected her as best they could, but he was very clever and found her, broke in to our house and stalked her till finally she met my stepfather and the harassment stopped. Isn't that amazing? My mother is 81, still working, still telling stories, living in her home with a multitude of young friends who call her all the time, tell her their problems and depend on her to answer all their questions about life. She survived.
I had put this away till the vigil in Carroll in 2010 when a woman in her 70s spoke about her abusive marriage in the 1960s and how it had affected her and her children. It all came back in a flood of emotions. The difference was she stayed for many years and was isolated from family and friends, but she survived as well. How many of us have put away painful memories of past abuse? There is so much more to this story and so many women with their own stories never told and no one around who even remembers. It was just the way it was, but again they survived. Women, tell your stories, honor those strong women and pass this story of survival on to those who need it today. Get rid of the shame and the sorrow and revel in the strength of women both old and young who survive every day.
Connie Harris is executive director of the Domestic/Sexual Assault Outreach Center.