Recently I have been listening to Gretchen Peters’ recording of “Independence Day”, the song she wrote that was a huge hit for country music star Martina McBride in 1995.
Well she seemed all right by dawn’s early light
Though she looked a little worried and weak.
She tried to pretend he wasn’t drinkin’ again
But daddy left the proof on her cheek.
And I was only eight years old that summer
And I always seemed to be in the way
So I took myself down to the fair in town
On Independence Day.
“Independence Day” tells the story of a fractured family from an 8 year-old girl’s point of view. Her father was a mean drunk who beat her mother when he was liquored up, which naturally left a small girl feeling her home was not a safe haven.
Well, word gets around in a small, small town
They said he was a dangerous man
But mama was proud and she stood her ground
She knew she was on the losin’ end.
Some folks whispered, some folks talked
But everybody looked the other way
And when time ran out there was no one about
On Independence Day.
Her father had a reputation, but whatever happened to his wife behind closed doors was not seen as anyone else’s business. So on the Fourth of July, while her daughter enjoyed that year’s county fair, the mother in this song decided it was their Independence Day and burned down their house with her husband in it.
Well, she lit up the sky that fourth of July
By the time that the firemen came
They just put out the flames
And took down some names
Sent me to the county home.
Now I ain’t sayin’ it’s right or it’s wrong
But maybe it’s the only way.
Talk about your revolution
It’s Independence Day.
Thirty-five years ago–around this time of year–it was independence day for me and my 2-year-old son Justin. Although my ex-husband never hit me (that I can remember), he was emotionally abusive. He did not want me to have friends or be around my family, was incapable of loving anyone except himself, and was a serial and highly effective liar with an effective short-term knack for pretending to be a warm and caring person.
When I met him I was a deeply naive 18-year-old who had never been with a man. I had dated a few boys in high school, but my most serious “love” was a long-distance relationship with a Kentucky preacher’s son that ended in a Dear Jane letter.
For a year I attended the University of Tennessee as a commuter student on two scholarships and a government education grant for kids whose families could not afford to attend college. It was a lonely existence, and my scholarships were for only one year. So after my freshman year, I dropped out of college and got a job at CIT Financial Services where I did credit checks on people who were requesting loans.
From the distance of years down the road, I cannot fathom why I felt that to get on with my life–and move out of parent’s home–I needed to be married. Perhaps it was the pittance I earned, or the way I was raised. In any event, Gary, one of the bill collectors at work, wanted to take me out. After a few dates, I told him I did not want to date him anymore. A few days later he told me he was so upset about our break up that he drove his orange Camaro at over a hundred miles an hour and got a speeding ticket.
Ding, ding, ding! “Danger, Will Robinson!” This reference proves when I grew up, since it is a phrase the robot in the TV show Lost In Space said to the family’s youngest child in the Robinson family. This 1960s robot would wave his arms and lights would flash on his head as he warned Will of impending doom. For my generation, this became a catchphrase for danger. And certainly at this point in my relationship with Gary, my psychic alarm should have rang loud and clear. However–even though I was book savvy, graduated seventh in my class at South High School, and should have known better–I came to the conclusion Gary really cared for me and agreed to continue dating him. As we became more serious, his father Max warned me that Gary had a “temper”. I had grown up with a father who would occasionally erupt when he was angry or frustrated so I thought I knew what Max meant.
After three months of dating, we were married in my home church and went on our weekend honeymoon in Gatlinburg, Tennessee–where my parents had gone for their honeymoon 20 years before.
What I did not know about Gary, men in general, and seriously messed up people could have filled an encyclopedia. But I began my “schooling” the day after our wedding when I woke up to a man I did not know. He was demanding, unreasonable, and totally unpredictable. He blamed me for everything that went askance in his life from his inability to get a parking place to whether the waitress served our food on time. I lived on the edge, fearing what public scene he would cause next. Whatever I did was never enough as I shoveled daily into the gaping hole of his rage.
I can’t remember much of the five years we were married. My memory has deleted most of the files for those years. I remember only a few moments: when I couldn’t get the hang of the clutch on a straight-shift car right away, and he told me to get out of the car and walk home. He wasn’t kidding, and I did.
Or when he picked me up for lunch and could not find a parking place at the McDonald’s near where I worked. He angrily drove to another McDonald’s a few miles away, ordered me food he knew I did not want to eat, then told me that if I did not finish it all, he would not take me back to work. To my mortification, one of the girls I knew from high school was in the dining area that day seated nearby as I tried to choke down the food and not cry.
Or when we visited his parents in Cookeville at Thanksgiving one year and I gathered dried plants to make a dried-flower arrangement. Gary became angry about something that weekend and refused to allow me to take the arrangement home.
Or when he flew into a rage when my version of his mother’s spaghetti sauce recipe did not taste like hers. Or the time I lost one of his socks at the laundry room of her apartment complex, and he would not speak to me for days.
And there was that time he started beating up one of the homosexual guys who lived downstairs from our duplex. They both jumped him in return. I ran terrified to call the police, and of course the youg men filed a complaint against Gary since he was the instigator. The charges never came to anything, but I was scared to death that Gary would end up being arrested. Not that his behavior didn’t warrant it.
After one of his tirades, I called my parents to come get me, but he said sternly that if I left I couldn’t come back. Why I would want to come back is hard to imagine, but for some reason his admonishment scared me and I stayed.
And I got pregnant. After our gorgeous son Justin was born in 1980, everything was magnified. When our rambunctious son wasn’t quiet at Gary’s favorite Italian restaurant, I was punished. He drove the nice car, and I drove our son around in his infant carseat in a piece-of-shit Vega–a car so poorly built that Automotive News said in a 2011 article, “The Chevrolet Vega, one of the most maligned cars ever made, is a case study of how to get just about everything wrong.”
Gary bought the Vega for $300 after it was repossessed by the finance company where he worked. I poured transmission fluid into the Vega and prayed it would make it up Knoxville’s steep hills. Needless to say it had zero traction in snow or rain.
Part of the reason I stayed with him was my fear for what he might do to me if I left. I was also a practical person. Many days at work I added up my bills and calculated how much money I would need to earn so I could support my son and myself on my secretary’s salary. The final push that got me out the door was a Florida vacation we took with two other couples. I saw up close how the other women were treated by their mates, and decided I could no longer continue the hell which was every year of our marriage–and I certainly did not want my son to continue growing up in a home with that behavior.
I know what it feels like to just want to breathe. To be free. To set down the burden of that life.
When Justin was 2-1/2 years old, I left his father. I’d like to say it was smooth sailing from there, but it wasn’t. Gary threatened suicide, then broke into my apartment and took everything he wanted. I got a protection order against him, but it didn’t stop him. After the divorce was final, he followed me on dates, shut off the electricity 0f the little house I rented, and continued to stalk and threaten me years later–even after I remarried and moved from Tennessee to Texas.
But there is a memory I treasure from my first bit of fresh air in the fall I left Gary, some 35 years ago. I was sweeping my tiny apartment, door open to the sunny autumn day, with the smell of cornbread baking in the oven. You see, Gary hated cornbread, so for five years I was forbidden to make it.
My independence day, in September 1982, was filled with the sweet smell of cornbread. I made it myself–and I ate it–and freedom never tasted so good.
Let freedom ring, let the white dove sing
Let the whole world know that today
Is a day of reckoning.
Let the weak be strong, let the right be wrong
Roll the stone away, let the guilty pay
It’s Independence Day.Roll the stone away
It’s Independence Day.Roll the stone away.
Songwriter: Gretchen PetersIndependence Day lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC
//Anna ~ 8/31/2017