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Pictures are strewn all around me.  Broken photo albums lie on the floor at my feet. And, a mountain of black boxes are stacked on the coffee table, holding the recordings of my life and the lives of my children.

There is nothing bittersweet about them.  They are simply bitter.

I take a ridiculous amount of pictures.  Click, click, click–every second is snapped, like a photography shoot.  These pictures haven’t wrongly captured one bad expression. They are a legitimate visual record.

My fat, smiling babies became huggy, loving toddlers and then playful, active children.  There are tender moments between siblings.  Themed birthday parties.  Christmas gifts galore.  Trips.  Dance lessons and music productions they participated in.  Laughter and silliness with extended family and friends.

Throughout those chronicled years they appear healthy, scrubbed, well dressed, content, and happy.

And, then, I married R.

There is no transition.  No downward spiral. It is abrupt.  Sudden.  There is an instant change.

They look dirty.  Their clothes don’t fit right.  Their clavicles stick out, and their faces are gaunt.  They look forlorn.  Their half hearted smiles are forced. The extended family is gone. There are no more lessons or activities. Nearly every picture of a child is photo bombed by R.  He’s the center of every happening.

In the beginning I tried fruitlessly to explain to R this was culture shock for my children.  I begged him to understand their perceived misbehavior (like a 7 year old spilling the vacuum water accidentally). He said they were “spoiled fucking brats!” that needed a man in their lives.

They were children.

They were hungry, sickly, scared, lonely, beaten down,  and beaten children.

Before I married R they’d had a childhood filled with love from many people.  They experienced a multitude of opportunities for growth and enrichment.  They were, somewhat, protected from my family’s craziness.

They had been allowed to simply be children.

He robbed them of their childhood and their joy.

My oldest daughter, my beautiful firstborn child, was the first of my children to rebel in anger.  Like dominoes, one by one, they released the wounds in their own ways, none of them positive.

After weeks of locking herself in her room, not showering and barely eating, I forced my way into her room.  It was past noon and she was still in bed, though wide awake.

“A, I know what’s wrong.”

“What?” She looked genuinely interested as though she herself had no clue why she was so miserable.

“You’re turning 18. Your childhood is gone. There’s no more hope things will get better and you’ll have a happy childhood.  This was it.  It’s over now, and you’re mourning it”

She cried out, “I feel so transparent!  How did you know? ” and burst into sobs.

Both of my oldest two children seem to be trying to recreate the years they lost.  Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles pajamas,  cartoons, fun day trips with friends (more than is typical), extravagant parties and celebrations…….as though they can give themselves now what was denied them then.

R didn’t pay child support this month. August.  School is starting soon, and it’s county fair time. Whenever he does this, it’s an “important” month, knowing it will hurt.  He’ll show us–there will be no fair and no school supplies.  He’ll make us suffer!

However, my oldest daughter bought season passes to the fair and then won a pair of passes, so she gave those to us.  She and her husband bought four preseason armband tickets to give me as an extra thank you for baby sitting.  We were going to the fair and ride the rides, child support or not!

The curriculum rep was traveling through town the day we planned to attend the fair.  He was offering a 15% discount and free shipping on all orders placed at his event.  So, we stopped in and placed our order before heading to the fair. We’ll have school books, child support or not.

When the kids told R they were going to the fair, he was obviously shocked. His response was priceless and proved he had been hoping to rob us of that joy.

He couldn’t though.

We had a BLAST.  Both of the younger children expressed this was the best fair ever and they’ve never had so much fun.  The pictures I took captured their elation. Childhood happiness exuded from every pore.

As they again told me the next morning that they’d had the time of their lives, I concurred.  “It was a lot of fun, wasn’t it?”

J responded, “YOU were a lot of fun!”

It was an echo of something my adult children said not long after R left.  “We feel like we got out mom back.”

Our fair pictures this year show clean, healthy children smiling broadly and genuinely, just like those pictures of my older kids from before I married R.

All of those years I felt trapped, I feared so many things:  he’d take the children from me if I left.  He’d kill me.  Or, the kids…..to punish me.  I couldn’t provide for the kids on my own.

A picture is worth a thousand words.  These words scattered all around me tell the story of how one man nearly destroyed everything I love. They speak of restoration of personalities and joy.  They exclaim how much better off we are without him, no matter how difficult life still is.