“Lightswitch”: A Short Story Based on Real Events by Tina Bell

TRIGGER WARNING: please do not read this short story if you are in any way triggered by material surrounding mental illness, poverty, hoarding, childhood trauma, fire or anything of the sort. While I appreciate your voluntary readership, it is not my intent to bring any harm, emotional or otherwise, to you in anyway. Please stop or call a professional if at any point you feel the need to do so. It is okay to not be okay.

DISCLAIMER: This story is nonfiction and written from my memory but we all know that human memory is deeply flawed. Some embellishments and paraphrasing may be present. These are my accounts of real events, from my perspective at varying ages, but there are always multiple sides to every story. Enjoy!

“Light Switch”

I used to sneak into my mom’s room when she was away just to open her closet door and stare at all the sequins, shoulder pads and shiny clothes (now you know where I get my style from). I would watch her get dolled up for church every Sunday. Other women would hold their husbands tighter when she entered the room. Any time she got money, she would spend it all on these oddly expensive German Steiff stuffed teddy bears. She would bag sliced oranges for me to share with my teammates at my soccer game halftimes. She would light up when she was chosen to be the church coffee hour food/beverage leader or the parent field trip chaperone.  

…and then suddenly that light went out. Like a switch. I watched her slowly slip into a shell of the human being she once was. Not leaving her bed for weeks at a time. Dust, mold, clutter, chaos and decay crept in. The house turned into a museum and my mom into a petrified mummy. 

She stopped wearing makeup. She stopped washing her hair. She stopped opening her closet door. She stopped volunteering to chaperone. She stopped. 

In 1st grade, we had storytime in class. Turns were taken, up and down the rows of desks, reading one line per student. Sounds like fun, right? Wrong. This was my living nightmare as a kid with a stutter and dyslexia. I would strategically count how many students were before me to find which line would be mine so I could rehearse it. This worked, for a time, but I did not account for overachievers who would read TWO lines, unprecedentedly. Thus catapulting me into a frantic panic. By the time it was my turn, I was on the verge of tears and had lost my place. The teacher pointed to the line, I stumbled through it and she scolded me to pay attention next time. I went home and told my mom what happened. Instead of scolding me too, she told me to come to her room every night to read aloud to her. Trust me—if you knew how bad my stutter was back then—you would know this could not have been a pleasant experience for my mom. But she always listened with grace and patience until she drifted off to sleep. Her snores were my cue to turn the light switch off and slink back to my own room. I did this for years and my stutter slowly went away. 

So naturally, in 2nd grade we had to pick a hero to write a poem about and I chose my mom. Duh. I wrote that she always smelled of Chanel No. 5 and baby powder while she twirled her hair up in her signature French twist on Sunday mornings. I ran home in excitement to read (aka stutter) it to her. She burst into tears and could only muster “im sorry”s between sobs. Not exactly the reaction I was expecting. She hung that poem on her vanity mirror she no longer visited. She didn’t leave her room for a month after that. I thought I did something wrong. Over time, the sunlight turned the paper yellow and faded the marker to light gray. Eventually, it looked like it had been written in invisible, disappearing ink and recovered from a shipwreck 100 years later. Yet another relic that haunted me. 

In 3rd grade, I was taken aside by my English teacher who noticed I was struggling to read. She told me to report to Room 318, the classroom for intellectually disabled students, the next class reading time. I obliged, even though I knew deep down I was misplaced. The assigned reading in Room 318 was “The Velveteen Rabbit”. 

For a week, I paced back-and-forth in front of my mother’s bedroom door, too afraid to tell her the delicate news. I was terrified I would be responsible for sending her even further into her sarcophagus. I opened the door and yelled “I don’t want to read ‘The Velveteen Rabbit’”. My cries penetrated my mom’s Egyptian burial grounds and I swear she rose like a zombie to my rescue. 

She marched to the school and I watched as my mom progressively became more and more animated while demanding my teacher remove me from Room 318. Crimson color rose to her cheeks as she spoke. My teacher turned to me and asked: “what happens in ‘The Velveteen Rabbit’”. I had only read the first and the last paragraphs, which was enough to respond with “a boy unknowingly brings his toy rabbit to life by loving it”. My teacher ate her words and granted my release. As my mother and I turned to leave, my teacher grabbed my arm, crouched down and asked: “did you read ‘The Velveteen Rabbit’”. Shit. She knew. I hesitated and replied, “I just said I did”. My teacher smirked and said: “you’re a very smart girl. I’m sorry for not realizing just how clever you were earlier”. I walked away smirking;  thinking I got away with a lie. My mother went home, flipped the light switch back off, crawled back into bed and regressed back to being one of her stuffed bears she loved to collect. I have still never read “The Velveteen Rabbit” to this day. 

My mom had this party trick she would break out on birthdays or rare candle-lit dinners. She would run her finger through the flame of the candles. I couldn’t believe my eyes. In sheer disbelief, I would tell her to do it again. So she would. My eyes lit up more and more with each subsequent request. She would end her trick by putting the flame out with her thumb and index finger. So cool. For the longest time, I thought it was pure magic; there could be no other logical explanation for it. My mom was a magician…or even cooler, a witch. One day, I had a friend over for dinner—which was rare because of the embarrassing hoarder clutter everywhere—and after bragging to my friend about my mom’s talent, I asked my mom to do her candle magic trick. My mother barked back a short “what do you want from me”. I reluctantly repeated the request, hoping she just didn’t hear me or was preoccupied. She looked confused and said: “I have no idea what you are talking about”. She turned off the light in the kitchen, stomped past my friend and I in the dining room and retired to her bedroom. I apologized to my friend for being mistaken and asked if she wanted me to make her boxed mac-n-cheese. She politely declined and called her mom to pick her up. I thought I dodged a bullet because I was bluffing; I had NO idea how to cook. I went to bed hungry that night. 

I’m sure you’re asking yourself where my father was in all this. My father wasn’t around. Don’t be sad—that was actually a blessing. To say he is a bad man would be an insult to bad men. He paid for our cell phones and demanded we call him at least once a week, lest he would turn off our service. Seems a fair exchange, but he would talk derogatorily about my mother the majority of the conversation in our weekly calls. That takes a toll on a young, impressionable girl. I knew she wasn’t perfect.  But she was still my hero. At some point in every superhero movie—the hero falters; they quit, they get battered, they feel helpless. If I learned anything from those movies, I knew this was the point when she needed backup. So I stood my ground against the formidable 500-pound man that is my father and defended her. Afterall, she was at least physically present—which was more than I could say for him. So I stopped calling. I told my mom why. She cried and then something surprising happened. The light was ignited again. We went to Sprint and bought our own cell phones under my moms name. We did not give my father our numbers. We were free. I no longer had to endure the weekly verbal and emotional abuse. 

Then the lights went out. This time, literally. My father turned off our electricity in retaliation. Because nothing says fair justice like turning off a life source in exchange for some good ol’ fashion abuse and personal validation. We had no heat, no hot water, no lights, no stove. I took cold showers, I stayed at friend’s houses to shower, I took the bus to the library to finish school assignments. My mom’s first act of defiance against my father’s clutches was met with swift, all-consuming punishment. My mother was able to adapt to this lifestyle quite quickly from years of experience digging her own dark hole for one. I eventually swallowed my pride and caved, for my little sister’s sake. I was 14 and my sister was 11. I called my father from a blocked number. No niceties were exchanged. The lights came back on. 

I wish I could end this story by saying my mom finally found her light switch and turned it on for good. But that would be a lie. No amount of money I sent home in college to keep the lights on could buy my mom the light switch she needed to find her way out of the black hole of her own design. I look back on her fleeting moments of heroism and shiny bouts of motherhood with nostalgic melancholy. Every time I visit or speak with my mother, I backslide into being that confused little girl again; still fumbling in the dark to find the light switch. I catch myself to this day unconsciously talking about my mother in the past tense because she’s like a ghost in so many ways; just another relic collecting dust, like her teddy bears or my poem of the woman she once was. She was a good mom when she found her spark, but she stopped lighting the fuse long ago and all we have left are haunted stories to tell by candlelight. 

A Short Story By: Tina Bell

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