I couldn’t help but be a nervous pacing wreck, as I heard the list of speakers being called off one by one, knowing at any minute my name would be called next. I told myself to calm down as I gulped down the freshly squeezed lemonade that was given to me by one of the waitresses without me asking. She had to have noticed my state of nervousnes, it wasn’t like I was hiding it either. Her kind gesture was just what I needed. As the bittersweetness danced on my tongue it brought back memories of my Grandmother eating a lil honey with lemon for a pick me up and it was like her spirit was working through the waitress.
I couldn’t believe that I agreed to dig up the painful memories of the past, I had to have been out my sane mind. I was trying to give myself a mental pep talk, reminding myself it all was in effort to save at least one woman’s life from domestic violence, but did I really have to tell my very own story? I enjoyed volunteering, assisting women with their escape from a real life monster, it was my therapy. Speaking to a crowd wasn’t what I had in mind when I signed up to be a volunteer and my emotions had been all over the place when I was asked to speak. The program director said it’s something we all must do as a final release for ourselves. As I dug deep into my mind, heart and soul to unearth the time capsules of horrific files and nightmares of my past, I’m pleasantly reminded of the very day I entered Mrs. T’s. I would find the courage to share my story of survival after taking a trip down memory lane.
I felt the need to freshen up, but the MC told me to stay put, I was on next. Geez. There was antique bronze mirror sitting in the corner from the doorway that lead to patio where the speakers were pouring their lives onto the hearts of the audience. I went to the mirror, noticed that with all the sweating from nervous pacing I wipe off one of my eyebrows, I mentally thanked the thoughtful lady who knew to place this mirror in just the right place brought some joy to my heart. A one eyebrow, sweaty, parched woman would leave the women concerned for me, “she’s a hott mess, poor soul, but she made it to speak” they would whisper amongst themselves crossed my mind. Women can be brutal even under dire circumstances, I told myself as I pulled out a pack of cucumber facial wipes to freshen up my face. I was the only one in the room, so I quickly pulled a few more wipes out of the package, lifted up my blouse and did a quick sweep under my breast. Why do we sweat in the worst places and at the wrong time, but my mocked hoe-bath actually cooled off my body, maybe it was the cucumber. As I placed the lip stick to my top lip, the host entered the room to tell me I was up next. I felt my lips move, but I didn’t hear anything come from my lips, but I told myself, “I wish you would choke up, drop a sweat or tear, you go out there and pay homage to the woman who pushed you into your destiny. Yes, Mrs T, deserved that, she was always so calm, soft spoken, loving and I owe it to her to contribute to her legacy.
I walked out onto the porch with my head held so high, I felt the sun kissed my lips before I spoke. There were rows of white chairs were women of all races and cultures sat with all white attire and a single purple rose pinned on their shoulders, it was beautiful. Once again I was impressed with the genius that planned the event which took place in the front of the house, the speakers sat on the porch, which mimicked a stage, we sat at long tables covered with white linen tablecloths with vases of the same purple roses the ladies had on their chest. The chairs where perfectly lined up under a massive white canopy, on the beautiful short carpet thick green grass that lined up along with the huge old oak and magnolia trees, it was beautiful and the scent of magnolia was pleasant and calming. There were circle and banquet tables topped with shiny silver chafing dishes situated closer to the rose garden off to the side of the front of the house where we would eat at the end of the ceremony. The waitresses and waiters dressed in black and white walked around with huge silver platters of tasty appetizers and crystal stemware held a bubbly concoction of lemonade champagne. A rose garden themed banquet was an excellent idea and I know Mrs.T would be proud, I told myself as I introduced myself to a crowd of standing crowd. I felt honored to be a selected speaker as I looked around at my surroundings, the women in attendance and remembering Mrs. Ts story pushed fear and shame to drown in Lake Ponchatrain.
It was time to finally put an end to my marriage, I told myself after waking up from him choking me to the point of losing conscience. I would wake up to my head on a pillow, laying across my ex husband’s lap as he squirted liquid clothing starch in my face in a cruel attempt to snap me back to consciousness. I wiped what I thought was water off my face as I came to, everything was kinda foggy, faintly making out my surroundings, my eyes followed his hands as he put the bottle down on the nightstand next to the clock. I jumped up from his lap, recollecting all that transpired, I grew worried when I realized 5 hours had passed that I could not account for. It all came to me, he wrapped his hands around my neck as he straddled himself on top of me and would nearly choked the life out of me flooded my mind. “You finally awakened, Sleeping Beauty. My kiss woke you up,” he said with a slyly evil looking grin across his face. I didn’t respond. I made my way to the bathroom to find the vessels in my eyes had been broken, as well as under my eyes was blackened as if he hit me. I let out a deep angry moan as I realized the reflection in the mirror was me. I felt anger so strong well up in me, to the point I felt hot. I wasn’t sure if I was mad at myself, because I was just as guilty for not leaving when he started verbally abusing me.
He finally crossed the line of emotional abuse, pushing, restraining me to finally putting his hands around my neck. He actually did do it before, but not in this manner, he cornered me onetime placing one hand around my neck, telling me I will never leave him.
All the fighting before this did not register in my mind as domestic abuse, because he never hit me with his fist and I never had bruises, but all that had changed. I couldn’t stay a moment longer, I waited for him to leave out for work and jumped on the I10 with no plan other than to get away..
I found myself driving to Biloxi beach. I’ve had scary moments, sad moments and wonderful moments at the ocean side. The beach and ocean have always been a part of my life, I return to water for a sense of calm and clarity. As I sat in the sand gazing out into the ocean, watching the wave come in I decided that I needed help, someone to talk to, a professional. I knew I was too intelligent to stay in a toxic marriage and now was the time to get out of it. The beach gave me the answers I needed, I told myself as I headed back toward the city. I would talk to a police officer at gas station in a small town outside of the city. I didn’t think it was best for my gullible oh so forgiving self not to return to the city, because I knew the moment hr found out I was gone and not at any family house he would have his police friends find me. I lucked up, the police was a black woman, she handled all the domestic violence investigations, I would tell her all that I was going through in my marriage. She was one of the first angels I met on my road to being free of my exhusband. She would ask me if I am sure I wanted to be free my abuser, would I go back to him and a few other questions before she made a phone call. She would talk with a huge smile on her facr as if the person on the line was her beloved grandmother, it was awesome to see a hardcore detective soften from something as simple as hearing a voice. After she was done with the conversation she informed me of an opening at a domestic abuse shelter named Mrs.T’s . I would get a personal police escort to a gated community of old plantation homes and would find out why her entire demeanor changed as she spoke on the phone.
As the detective made her way down the long drive way, pulling up to a huge old plantation house turned into a women’s shelter, I would feel slightly nauseated and not for the reasons one would think. I started to worry about the stigma that comes with living in a shelter, but more than anything I was worried about what others would think when they find out my exhusband abused me. I was also, worried about sleeping in a place of pain for my ancestors. A place that was once managed by slaves who prayed to escape from their masters, this very place bothered me a lot. I would learn that my concerns actually led Mrs.T to buy the property, which was now a safe place for abused women and their children to escape from their abusive homes. I stood in awe, looking at the rows of oak trees, while taking in the smell of blooming magnolias in the cool spring air.
The detective waved at someone from a distance at the house as she walked up the long pathway, then turned to look behind her to make sure I was following to come on up with another lady. I wasn’t, I was stuck at the end of the drive as if I was having silent seizure, that I was quickly relieved from as the authoritative voice of the officer called for me. I finally caught up with her and she turned to walk back to her car as she wished me luck and told me to stay strong.
I was greeted on the porch in typical Southern fashion by a tall, lightskinned black chic with a black razor cut bob, that complimented her high cheekbones. Her name was Michelle, a volunteer social worker, she would tell me her story of surviving domestic abuse, her reason for volunteering and how a black woman brought the house for the sole purpose of dedicating it to serve domestic abuse victims. She continue to tell me more about this amazing woman and the purpose of the house as we sat on the porch drinking some of the best lemonade I ever tasted out of tall crystal glasses.
I would learn of the most amazing woman, who survived the horror of domestic abuse in the 50s. Her name was Altia Baptiste, she would be given the nickname Mrs.T, a light skinned beautiful black woman, a second generation missionary, her mother was the first freed slave to get her missionary license in Louisiana. Altia’s mother had a sister that followed in her footsteps as well, followed by generations to come. The missionaries would visit neighborhoods throughout New Orleans assisting those in need.
Mrs.T would marry a self-made wealthy man, who was 17 years her senior. Prior to attaining wealth he worked in the cotton fields until he was 12 years old. He would hop a train to New Orleans after his mother died giving birth to a stillborn baby, leaving him an orphan with no one to care for him. Altia would tell a story of years of abuse by her husbands hands. One story stood out and I would remember it all my life. Mrs.T shared a story of being discharged from the hospital with her new baby and her husband woul punch her in the nose as she held her new baby. She would try to hold her head back in effort to prevent the blood from dropping on her new baby or the baby’s blanket.
Over the course of the 2 year marriage she would attempt to hide the abuse from her family, believing she knew he was a good man, but life had been cruel to him. He was a child slave, loss his mother at a young age and had basically raised himself, she knew this had to be the reason he was so angry with God. He refused to pray or go to church and she was raised in the church as well as worked with her mother as a missionary, which enraged him more. She would continue to lift him up in prayer, believing it would change him, turn him into not only a believer, but heal him of his violent alcoholic ways. She sacrificed her love of helping others, teaching Sunday school in effort to hide the abuse and make her husband happy.
One day her daddy popped at their house unannounced after church to see his daughter, it had been over a month and he missed her and his granddaughter. Her husband started drinking early that Sunday morning and was drunk, berligetent and full of rage, all but said no to her father as he asked for entry. He stood there in the screendoor with bloodshot drunken eyesa and foul smelling breath and without a word he shut the door in her daddy’s face. He could be heard yelling at Mrs.T, chastising her, because her Daddy came without being invited. Now, this was the 50s and father’s were to be respected and feared, especially by the man he gave his hand in marriage to marry his daughter, but maybe the age difference. The men were actually the same age, give or take a few years. Her husband threw bottles at her and their baby as she retreated to the kitchen screaming out for her Daddy. He heard her, because he retrieved his shotgun from his truck, kicked down the door with little force, her husband sat in his chair in shock that her Daddy. He was 5’7 with a slender muscular frame compared to her husband who stood at 6’4 and muscular as well, life on the plantation and working on the railroad contributed to there solid strong build.
Mrs. Ts Daddy stood in the door way aiming the gun at her husband and called for her to come out of the kitchen. She appeared immediately, with her babygirl in tow and ran to her father’s side, giving him a huge hug & kiss. Her Daddy came to free her from her hell she told herself. Her Daddy laid his eyes on her beautiful face, one of her eyes was swollen, slightly opened as if it was healing. He noticed her pregnant belly had grown big as watermelon, as she walked with a wobbled while holding her baby girl on her hip while limping on a swollen ankle. He told himself saw enough, ordered her to gather their things, get to the truck and wait for him to come out. “Altia you are not to come back in here, we have to have a man to man talk. Do you understand ne, sugar?” She said, yes and excited the house, but not before her husband jumped up and demanded that she stayed, “Altia is my wife now, I have the say, this is my house and you have no right to come in my house waving your rifle like you the sheriff!” He was yelling so loud it felt as if the window panes shook. Altia’s Daddy was quickly reacted to his body movement, as he moved the shotgun did as well, before finally being pointed and shoved directly between her husband’s eyes. He calmly asked, “Did you hurt my daughter, Did you damage my daughter’s beautiful face?” His eyes filled with the pain from his heart, he couldn’t bare it, thinking he failed to keep his daughter safe, he let the tears fall as he kept the shotgun to her husband head. Her husband’s stood there with a cocky evil look in his eyes, which seem to be spanning the room in search of something…and without giving him a moment to say anything or move towards his gun, he shot him.
In an instant he stopped crying, as he picked up the shell from the gun, he stepped on the broken door, walked out and drove off with his daughter and granddaughter. Seeing his daughter’s face again made him cry again, as the tears flowed from his eyes, he asked her why she did not tell him or her mother. He would stop at the nearest police station to report what he had done, Altia gave a statement and her father was never charged for killing her husband.
Altia would go back to her missionary work, sharing her story with other ladies. She would find out that many more were living with domestic abusers and she was committed to helping as many women as she could. She was able to take lessons from her very own experience to construct a way to get into the homes to monitor the abuse and develop an exit plan. She initially used the home she shared with her husband to use as a shelter for victims. Some years later she would receive help to open up a larger center and she found the house. It was divine timing she would say, the plantation house was up for auction, she sold her and with the help of donations she secured the land and the house. People from all over New Orleans donated their time to rehab the house as well as donated all the furniture and appliances.
By the time she finished the story, I finally freed my voice from the being a prisoner of shameful silence with a life sentence. I felt as if the prison bars of my soul broke open and disappeared into thin air. My tears fell from my eyes cooling off my hot flushed skin as I told Michelle my story.