It was one of those moments when time slows and details become more pronounced, a rather macabre tableaux vivant, burned indelibly in my mind. My father, outside, trying to break the door down; my mother inside with the shotgun; me standing helplessly to the side. Nearly sixty years later, the image presents itself from time to time, triggered, perhaps by something on the news, in a movie, or from an overheard conversation. Time has not diminished the clarity of the image.
When she pulled the trigger, I saw him, through the window on the door, jerk his head backward and disappear from sight.
What they were fighting about, I have no idea. It doesn’t matter. It never mattered. Their fights were about power and control. My father wanted to control my mother and she wasn’t having it. In fact, she refused to “have it” for more than thirty-six years.
I hated him for his vicious treatment of my mother, and, while I admired her refusal to be bullied, I hated her for not leaving him, for allowing her children to be raised in a house where violence was the norm. Later in life, I understood. Where could a woman go in the 1930s, 40s, 50s, or even the 60s?
Her refusal to yield to him, her willingness to strike back, to throw dishes or skillets, anything she could get her hands on, meant there were no holds barred. He was taller and stronger, but when he slapped her around or knocked her down, she always got up and got back into his face.
But this time, she had the advantage. I don’t remember how she got him out the door, but they had been fighting—pushing, shoving, slapping, kicking, cursing—nothing out of the ordinary. But somehow, she got him through the door and locked it. He cursed and kicked and rattled the knob trying to get back in. I don’t remember her going for the shotgun, but there it was in her hands, pointed at the door and him on the other side.
Did she let loose with both barrels? No. I think one, since the blast only blew a hole about the size of a dinner plate in the wall. In the sudden silence afterward, we heard my father’s pickup when he started it and raced out the lane. I could only assume he wasn’t hurt.
Calmly, my mother put the shotgun away and then examined the hole in the kitchen wall. She went outside. A couple of the tar paper shingles were bulged out, but had, on the whole, taken the impact reasonably well.
“Go see if you can find extra shingles in the shed. I’ll take care of the inside.”
While I found two shingles and replaced the damaged ones, she cleaned up the hole on the inside, stuffed newspapers into the opening and covered it over with paper tape. Having recently painted the kitchen, she had paint left over, so she painted it and hung a calendar in the space. We were reasonably successful at hiding the evidence, although a forensics team would not be fooled.
A short time later, a family friend drove in the lane. I looked out the window and said, “It’s Joe.”
Joe was a bachelor who often came to shoot the bull (metaphorically speaking) with my father. He was likeable and funny, and he managed to get along well with both of my parents. He mounted the back porch and knocked.
“Hey, Joe,” I said as I opened the door and stepped back for him to come in.
Mom turned from the sink and smiled hello.
Without saying a word, he came in and turned around to examine the door and the area around it.
He looked over his shoulder and grinned. “I knew he was lying.”
“Who?” If there was a picture in the dictionary to illustrate the word, “calm,” my mother would be in it.
“Your old man. He came tearing in to the barbershop swearing and shouting. Said you had tried to kill him. Said you shot at him. Said you were crazy and he was going to have you committed.”
“If I’d shot at him, I wouldn’t have missed. Want some iced tea?” She reached into the cupboard and got a glass.
He stayed long enough to drink his iced tea and share a bit of barbershop gossip about things other than crazy women shooting at their husbands and then went on his way.
As he drove out the lane, Mom said. “He’ll make sure everybody thinks the old man is the crazy one.” She chuckled and went back to the dishes.
*Inspired by Mary Karr’s account, in The Art of Memoir, of her mother’s response to a question about a bullet hole in the wall. Her answer? “He moved.”