Pamela Gaye Walker: “Mom’s Verdict”

I feel my face for bruises. My jaw is tender, not broken. I pick myself off the floor and listen to the back door close, then the uneven steps of my pop as he enters the house. Fa foom, fa foom, his post-stroke gait edges him closer to his chair. I can almost see his afternoon ritual: off with his fedora and rumpled suit coat, he drapes the coat over the Duncan Phyfe dining chair, part of a set that makes Mom proud.

Pop wakes daily at 4 a.m. to read his Bible in his Barcalounger, so he’s tired when he gets home from work. Mom will be home soon and hang his outerwear in the closet. My twenty-one-year-old brother, Rip, is probably hiding out with someone from his gang, The Gaylords.

I’d waste breath telling Pop what happened. He’d light a Pall Mall cigarette and encase himself in a circle of smoke, a barrier to my reality. He loved all five of us kids but had concerns of his own. Pop’s stroke paralyzed his left side when he was thirty-seven. This misfortune happened when Reggie was ten, Digby, eight, and Ripley Jr.—who we called Rip— was six. That’s when things started to go off the rails. Tally, my twin, and I were three.

Pop, dashingly handsome and oozing oodles of charm, came home in a wheelchair, learned to walk with a walker, then a cane, and then forever had a limp. He never gained the use of his left hand and never lost his love for the drink. Pop hobbled proudly, dignity intact, and rightfully so. He was an attorney and a U.S. Magistrate—which allowed him to carry a concealed gun under his bad arm. By his fifties he was semi-retired, at the local tavern by midday, then home snoring in his chair, game on the TV, and passed out by four o’clock.

Life stress got the best of Mom. Her sweet veneer dissolved into tears as she complained of sheer exhaustion and threw her hands up.

Everyone, go to your rooms! I can’t handle another minute of you!” she’d snap. We blamed her for the whole chaotic mess.

At nine, I figured out I was highly sensitive, which is great for creative endeavors, but not so easy in life. What the boys considered teasing later translated into bullying. We kids bickered and punched, each sibling beating up on the other inferior in size. Even when my brothers got into fights with hoodlums outside of the house, my dad would urge them, “Fight back! I’m not raising sissies.” When Rip came home one day, nose broken and teeth knocked out by a rival gang member’s brass knuckles, Mom cried out, “Oh, I wish I’d had the time and inclination to help you kids!”

Rip felt superior to females, just as he was taught. I might’ve said something innocent like “I’m cheering in the game tonight! I have time to spit but don’t have time to shine your shoes!” SMACK upside the head. One time he tried to shove my slight body down the steep basement stairs. I grabbed on to some cheap wiring connected to the ceiling and got out alive. Emboldened by not being dead, I took my anger out on my on-again, off-again ally, my twin sister, Tally.

Going upstairs, I trip over the ripped carpet near the top. “Why don’t you fix this?” I hiss out loud in frustration, then hide away in the bedroom that I’d almost, but not quite, abandoned for college. I pat down the pink gingham bedspread, looking for comfort from the old velveteen teddy bear I stole from the bratty kids I used to babysit for. I toss it across the room.

I’ll wait to tell my tale of woe to a mammal of the human kind. I hope with what happened this time, Mom will show compassion for her gender, which is scary for her, because she doesn’t want me to get uppity. If she told me once, she told me a thousand times, I couldn’t say and do things because “You’re a girl!”

From the age of seven, I knew this was wrong.

Why can’t I ride my bike to Ridgedale/go to Tower Hill with my friends/become a doctor? The boys can do it!”

They’re boys, that’s why.”

Get thee to a nunnery!” Oh, I wish she quoted Shakespeare. No. Instead, she tells me to “GO TO CHURCH, Pammy Jeannie. PRAY ABOUT IT.”

Mom and Pop’s second home was the First Methodist Church in downtown South Bend, Indiana. My sister and I donned bonnets for weekly church basement functions. My mother proudly oversaw the new member welcoming committee receptions, potlucks, and birthday parties. In church I could hear my dad on the right-side balcony, singing at the top of his lungs, off-key.

Mom tried to uphold the all-American image straight out of Better Homes and Gardens magazine. In her stocking feet she was 4’11”, tinier than I was. She wore a size 4.5 shoe that was custom-made for her long days teaching. She was very pretty, with thick dark hair and delicate features, and took pride in her looks, though God always came first. She would say, “I love you. But I love God more.” She had a passive-aggressive dislike for circumstances over which she was in constant prayer. Mom was de facto leader because Pop’s stroke reduced his manliness; you cannot argue with God’s plan. As I was learning in my early acting classes, my mother molded herself around the housewife–teacher persona; it was her professional deformation.

Mom was a 1950s housewife whose dreams of white picket fences had been thwarted by the reality of Pop’s stroke: the necessity for her to go back to work, and, for them both, to put every extra ounce of energy into his rehab. She had deep regrets, to which we were not privy; it was commonplace then to keep secrets from the kids. “What would the neighbors think!” if they whiffed our innermost demons. Everything was nice to my mom, except…well, my big mouth.

Rip is probably out killing cats, drag racing, or stealing For Sale signs off the front of people’s houses for fun. What a JERK!”

You can’t talk like this and do well. I have one word for you: charm school.”

Charm school was supposed to pare down my spirited assertiveness. This was where thirteen-year-old girls were taught the social graces of being a lady and the proper etiquette that would eventually attract a husband. This demure behavior was the antithesis of what we learned at home to defend ourselves from unwanted things like insults, punches, and flying objects.

The first day of charm school, we covered the art of small talk, diet, dressing smartly, and other niceties. By the second week, after dipping into Pop’s vodka, I danced and sang as I welcomed the girls into the building, performed Chaplinesque pratfalls, feigned twisting my ankle, and limped like Quasimodo on the runway. The upshot was, the other girls were highly entertained, which irked the teacher, who advised Mom to get me to a stage.

When I found one in my late teens, starring in Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles, Mom said, as she dramatized half fainting, “The stage is where floozies sleep with their producers, and get paid to lie.”

This was her list of future things that would make a gal happy:

#1. God: the one and only

#2. Life partner

#3. Good job: nurse, secretary, schoolteacher, housewife

They advised me to think big and take court reporting. To Mom’s credit, I was sent to college, but chose a field which was not on the list—the theatre.

Tally, who married at nineteen, lived in Michigan on a horse farm, wore tight jeans, cowboy boots, and shoveled horse manure, while I was at the University of Notre Dame taking the first offering of a course called Feminist Thinking. The Women’s Liberation Movement was at its height. The costumer in the theatre department taught it to six of us in a cavernous room where she cut patterns to clothe us on stage, my new home away from home.

My freshman year, that fall, I played in Synge’s tragedy Riders to the Sea, where my young lassie, Nora, spoke in a brogue and keened in grief for the dead. New to Method Acting, I learned I could use my disappointment over family circumstances to reproduce mourning on stage. As Nora put it, “We’ll all be gettin’ our death, with cryin’ and lamentin’.”

Immediately following that, I played in Susan Glaspell’s famed Trifles, based on a true story from 1916 of a wife killing her deranged husband before he could kill her and their kids. It’s a powerful show about a woman’s struggle against domestic abuse and the bond women develop in an oppressive society.

That play was a perfect accompaniment to the Feminist Thinking class. We brought in eye-opening, soul-crushing newspaper articles daily about pay inequality, rape, maiming—the disgraceful display of injustice and misogyny in our culture. I could feel the heat rise in my face as I read aloud an account of a child’s or woman’s death at the hands of a man. After class, I’d sit in the 700-seat Washington Hall, a gorgeous “modern Gothic” theatre built on the Notre Dame campus in 1881. It had served as a forum for speakers ranging from Henry James, William Butler Yeats, and William Jennings Bryan to Tennessee Williams, Pete Seeger, and Phil Donahue. I’d hunch down, alone in the dark amongst the storied ghosts of these men, and weep for womenkind.

One Friday, I left the dorm for Mom’s cuisine since college was only twelve miles from home. I’d been coming home for mashed potatoes for months, as though Mom would make up for the scant amount we had growing up. We weren’t growing up in Ireland; there was no potato famine.

In the metal grinder at the end of the counter in our miniscule kitchen, Mom was assertively grinding raw meat to freeze for a later date. I was staring out the window over the sink, onto the patchy green and brown grass in the backyard, under the rusted swing set. Our dog Butterscotch was in mid-pee. I lifted a tchotchke from the sill, a bobblehead doll named “Phyllis Schlafly.”

I’m learning some grim facts about our gender, Mom.”

That’s nice.”

We’re up against a lot, are you even aware?”

That’s nice, honey. Love you.” Sweet, she did love me. Mom hurled her ninety-six pounds upon the potato masher. “But I love God more!” trailing with, “Mashed are for another night.” If only I’d kept my f-ing mouth shut.

Like a little songbird, she began singing, “Are ye able, said the Master, to be crucified with me.”

I tried to impress her another way, quoting a Juliet soliloquy: “Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds, towards Phoebus’ lodging…”

The day I am punched…well, attacked…and make up my mind to leave home for good is a Friday in early December my freshman year. I’m back at the house. Pop is still out at the bar; it’s just Rip and me. I’m in Pop’s Barcalounger when Rip comes in and demands I get up so he can recline to his content.

UP! Make me a Nutter Butter and jam sandwich. AND I’m changing the channel.” He moves toward the TV.

Who do you think I am? Cinderella?” I smirk, ready to use the terms I recently learned in Feminist Thinking class. “You are a misogynist, and this is a patriarchy!”

Rip flips off the TV and scrunches up his face, not believing the impudence. “Do it! Or else!”

Or else what?” I shriek. “You’re not my dad!” I burst out of Pop’s Barcalounger as our dear sixteen-year-old mutt’s ears perk up. She’s attuned to these oppressive shenanigans and circles the floor.

Rip shoves me and I’m down. “You hear what I said!”

Shadows on the wall indicate Pop will be home soon, wanting his chair for a snooze during a televised game. The house is a mess, filled with dirty shoes and dishes, laundry unfolded in a basket, smells of yesterday’s stale oyster stew crusted in a chipped Hadley bowl.

I struggle to my feet and make my way back up into Pop’s chair. “MAKE ME, chauvinist pig!”

Butterscotch is barking. Her paws pad and prance over the plastic runners that trail through the room, even when it’s not rainy or muddy outside. Rip, bursting with indignation, coils his hands into a fist. “I’ll make you, all right.”

I feel a blow to my face before I can lower my head entirely and bury it in my hands. I am stunned. Suddenly, I am a one-person punching bag, protecting myself, head bent toward Butterscotch, now barking wildly before me.

You and your quasi-intellectual, half-baked ideas about women’s lib. GET UP!”

I’m telling Mom! JUST WAIT!” I fall silent and wait for the punches to stop.

Rip and Butterscotch pause at attention. The back door unlocks. Rip decides he is done for now and makes himself invisible. I hear Pop enter. Fa foom, fa foom. I race upstairs and slam the door, not an unusual sound. No doubt Pop has had his beers. He settles down with the TV, the forest-green beanbag ashtray I got him for Christmas on his right side table. He’s blasting a basketball commentary—not a care in the world except, maybe, his useless left hand.

Then I hear Archie Bunker on the TV and Pop guffaws. I can almost see him leaned back, mouth agape, buttons straining over his expansive girth as his belly shakes. I look out the window from my bedroom and see Rip come out from the side of the house. He heads toward the orange convertible Corvette he got thirdhand, carrying on with his day. I curl up in the fetal position, tears pouring down my face.

What tyranny! The messages in this household are always loud and clear: make room for the first-class citizens, the men and boys. Sit down and shut up unless there are dishes to do—and then talk amongst your kind. Silence: our culture’s way of binding the feet or gagging the mouth, especially if you’re a smart and pretty girl. “Boys don’t like smart girls.” That old adage told to me in fourth grade rings in my ears. I vow I will grow up and be more successful, without the help of a guy. Even though I did silence myself in grade school, I will show ’em ALL!

Two hours later, I open my blue-green peepers and lift my head off the spongy pillow to peer out the window onto Ewing Avenue. I have a headache centered over my left eyebrow. No sign of Rip’s car. I stagger to the mirror attached to the cheap vanity set my mom got me in junior high. “Mock on him,” I pout to Stolen Bear.

I check for the emergence of black-and-blue bruises, then open my bedroom door, where Butterscotch is curled and waiting. I smell bacon. Bacon for dinner? I silently creep down the hallway to the top of the stairs, avoiding the annoying carpet rip. Pop is snoring in his chair, the TV still on, too loud: “The Indiana Hoosiers have done it again!”

Mom must be home; who else would be cooking after a full day teaching elementary school, tired and weary on her tiny feet?

I go back into the bathroom, throw water on my face, and try to de-puff my eyes. While looking in the mirror, I can’t help running through a popular Noxzema facial cleanser commercial, as though I am a professional actress in a TV ad. I delicately pause, slowing down over the tender parts of my face. “You notice how tingly the face feels…and so impressively soft, like no other cleanser. Make no mistake, you’ll be forever young, if you follow my instructions to a T.” I try to grin, putting a button on the ad by tossing my golden, waist-length hair over my shoulder. “That’ll be five hundred dollars, please.” I wonder if Noxzema has instructions on how to cover the scars of women who are used like punching bags. I heave a sigh of overall sadness and then a louder one of anger.

I sneak halfway down the stairs and peer over the landing. Downstairs, Pop is out of his chair and in the kitchen. Mom is in the half bath near the back door. I can smell the bacon burning and hear Mom begging Pop in the background to shut off the electric stove.

I don’t know how to turn off the damn stove!” he bellows back. He rarely curses. He angrily salutes, like a soldier to his captain, in fast motion, as if he’s on speed.

As if she thought you knew how to…” I mumble, flipping off the burner. Projecting, I use my stage voice to say, “Pop, forks. On the table?” I’m testing.

Where the… Forks?!” he grouses. I hear Rip enter the front door.

We all sit in silence, eating the food much faster than what would have been approved at charm school. Occasionally I look up and glare at Rip, who meets me eye to eye and glowers back with a superior grin.

Hey, Pop, you see that game? I thought maybe we could get tickets…”

Pop grins, proud of his boy talking man-to-man official business. Silence. Pop tosses a scrap of meat to Butterscotch. He and Rip chuckle.

I gauge tension levels before I say a word about my day. But I am seething again. My stomach churns. Finally, I break the unusual stillness.

Rip punched me in the face today.”

In a voice that seems backed by the law, my pop sharply says, “I had a trial today at work.” He knows the difference between criminals and non. I think on this.

You’re not going to say, ‘The law is the law,’ are ya, Pop?” This is a line from the play Trifles.

He swallows hard. “The law IS the law. Pass the salt.”

Rip carves a layer of Imperial margarine from the stick like he’s skinning the back of roadkill.

What comes out of my mouth sidles up to hysteria. “I’m not his maid! He wanted me to feed him, clean up! HE HIT ME IN THE FACE!”

Pop takes out a small notepad from his shirt pocket. He’s probably unarmed.

Rip makes himself taller in his chair. The ringing, tinkling sounds of an ice-cream truck announce its presence as it slowly glides past the picture window.

Mom’s teary eyes bear down on me, as her fears rise. The money she spent sending me to charm school, all for naught. I know she’s thinking I’ll never find a husband.

Butterscotch is asleep on a crumpled blanket in the corner between the closet and the spinet. Or maybe she expired from a heart attack. She answers the dead question by opening her eyes. She is instinctively guarding, sniffing the air for turbulence. She goes back to sleep, maybe hoping to die, like me. Cars continue to race past the front window, going with ease to their next bake sale, or the cake walk in a church basement, somewhere on Main Street, in the vicinity of Robertson’s Department Store, where we used to shop if we were going with the new.

Mom chokes on a pea, eyeing the men, and then looks as if she’s seeing through things. I blow my nose. “Not at the dinner table,” she chides. Mom puts on a brave demi-smile and wags her broken pinky.

Rip holds back a laugh as he taps his chewed-to-the-quick fingernails on the tabletop. Pop swallows a mega-bite before uttering, “Pass the burnt bacon and peas.”

MOM! He hit me.”

Mom looks out as if she’s seeing the long view and fumbles with her wadded, tearstained napkin.

Pop compliments her as he yawns. “You should have heard my bride sing in the church choir.”

Mom blankly folds her hands into each other as if she’d been sitting at the Duncan Phyfe since the beginning of time. She runs her hands along the grain and whispers, “Walnut,” like she’s saying “Rosebud” at the end of Citizen Kane. I can almost see the sinking feeling in her heart.


With consternation, she narrows her eyes. Her face tightens. Without further hesitation, she slowly finds my hand under the table and gives a faint squeeze of solidarity, then releases. She deliberately, expertly, holds in her pain with a fluttery nano-glance at the opposition.

Pop is oblivious. Done judging for the day, he lights a cigarette.

Mom angles herself back toward me. “I’m sorry, Pammy Jean.”

Her final words crack, striking me like a missile between the eyes.

You have a big mouth.”

Then, as if delivering an edict from God, she adds, “You deserve it.”




Pamela Gaye Walker is an actor, writer, and director for theater and film. Her acting has received a Joseph Jefferson Award nomination, and she taught acting at Pixar Animation Studios and Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago. Pam adapted and directed the film Trifles, which was screened at numerous film festivals. She also hosts artistic retreats in Lake Tahoe, Berkeley, CA, and NYC. Pam is president of Flown the Coop and Ghost Ranch Productions.