Back against the wall, she built a new life

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / May 9, 2010

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Say yes, her parents told her. They knew his family from the old country. Besides, her mother said, nobody else is going to marry you.

“I was only 17,’’ she recalled. “But you did what your parents wished in those days. There was no way out.’’

Six months into the marriage, and the abuse that came with it, she wanted to leave. But it was the 1950s. He’d come after her. Her mother would never forgive her.

“Back then, no Lebanese woman would leave her husband,’’ she recalled. “I didn’t want to put my parents in a position where they’d be ostracized. How stupid, to stay because you don’t want to embarrass your family.’’

She stayed. Through six children. Through years of factory night shifts, for wages she handed over at week’s end. Through his incessant demands that she save money by conjuring meals from scraps. Through the beatings.

“I always had a bruise somewhere,’’ she said. “Always a black eye. At work I had to lie and say, ‘Oh, I got up last night and walked into a door.’ ’’

As her five girls and one boy grew older, she worried about them more. He beat them too. And he was trying to marry off the eldest, just 16.

“He used to say women were made to marry men and have children. Even back then, I knew there had to be more to life than just being a slave. I loved my kids more than life itself, and I saw they were going to end up the way I did.’’

One Sunday in 1971, after yet another pummeling, she and the older girls filled boxes and hid them under beds. A man who owned the local furniture store offered her a truck. A realtor she knew waived the security deposit and first week’s rent on an apartment. Funny and magnetic, she had an army of adoring friends, all desperate to help. A few days later, after her husband left for work, they descended, speeding her and the children away.

A fifth-grade education didn’t give a woman a lot of options. But she had to make it work.

She squeezed the kids, including twin infants, into two bedrooms. She snatched a few hours’ sleep on the couch between jobs flipping burgers and making sandwiches. The older kids cared for the younger ones.

At first, some relatives refused to speak to her, crossing streets to avoid her. What she had done was so shocking, even her husband wanted nothing to do with her, though he agreed to limited visits with the younger children.

She raised her kids alone, with support from friends (“Make sure you mention my friends’’). She bought a house. She managed miraculous meals, parochial school educations, and her own sweet version of “You Are My Sunshine.’’

Life grew easier. The skinny, dark-eyed, terrified woman became a healthy, vivacious, not-to-be-messed-with matriarch.

She is used to people asking how she survived it all.

“If you’re up against the wall, and you can’t break it down, you go round it,’’ she said.

But she did more than go round. Wall after wall yielded to her awesome will as she gave her children a joyful, loving home, and futures they owned.

She is 73 now, with time for gardening, daily Mass, boredom. Her children are grown, and happy. Sometimes, she wonders what her life would have been if she’d had their opportunities.

She cries when she thinks about how long she stayed with him. But then she remembers: If she had left sooner, she wouldn’t have her kids.

“And you’re the best thing that ever happened to me in my whole life,’’ my mother said.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at

UPDATE: Yvonne Abraham’s mother is retired and living in Sydney. - July 15, 2010

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