Penny, an alumni of FREE ME TO LIVE Shares her Story
One thing I’ve learned about my life is that sometimes it’s not about you.
There were many mouths to be fed in our home. Mom and dad were both working hard to try to make ends meet, but with so much being spent on booze and cigarettes, there were many times when we just didn’t have enough for food. Often the only food that was available was just some sugar bread that dad would bring home from the bakery where he worked. I remember begging to do anything for food when I was only five years old. I can also remember watching for the neighbors to leave and then taking my little sister over to their home to steal food.
Growing up brought many challenges, but yet there were blessings too. One of those challenges was taking care of my little sister so that she could have something to eat, and also protecting her when my parents fought. It was a big responsibility, and I often resented her for being a “pain in the rump” to me. But most of the time I was very thankful that my little sister and I could go through everything together. I used to make her do things that she felt uncomfortable doing, like stealing food or money, and she was often like my little angel on my shoulder reminding me that what I was doing was wrong.
My parents drank quite a bit. My dad would often work 12 hours a day and then drink heavily after work. He then would come home and just tear up the house as he and my mom would fight. While they fought, my little sister and I would be upstairs comforting one another all night long. We would often be on our knees praying, “Jesus, don’t let them fight tonight.” Trying to wake up for school the next morning was often next to impossible.
My mom was very jealous of their marriage. I am told that my mom didn’t really want to marry my dad, but that he promised her mother that he would help her out financially. And so my grandmother gave him permission to marry her. My dad was in the Army and was deployed soon after they were married.
Mom started to get lonely and soon started a relationship with another man. It wasn’t long that she had gotten pregnant by him. When my dad came home he found out that she was pregnant by another man and insisted that she stop seeing him. Dad loved my mom more than anything and was determined to make their marriage work. This lady was his little girl and NO ONE was going to tell him differently.
The next few years were very challenging. Mom gave birth to three boys, one who was mentally challenged. After that mom had three miscarriages. These were all boys too, and mom missed them terribly. It was made even more difficult because mom didn’t really know how to mourn them, and my dad didn’t seem to understand the pain she was going through.
Life around my dad’s family was unbearable for mom. Because of her past mistakes, she was constantly called a whore and a prostitute which made life unbearable for her. Finally, they packed up and moved to Chicago, IL. It was there where my mother gave birth to me and then my younger sister. Eventually, they moved to Bolingbrook, IL where they built a house. Both mom and dad worked, and life felt pretty normal at that time. When I was about six or seven my parents decided to move back to Pennsylvania so that we could have a relationship with their families, and so we adjusted to a different life.
Drinking was still a big part of my parent’s life and they would often destroy everything in the house in their drunken rages. There were times in the dead of winter when we would only have three windows in the house! As violent as he was, dad would never hit mom, but he would run through the house throwing everything in sight. Still, I loved knowing my dad.
Not having met her own father until she was thirty-one years old left mom emotionally scarred, as well as making it very difficult for her to trust men. She was also known to have a pretty bad Italian temper. While dad would never hit mom, mom would often beat him to a bloody pulp.
Some of the memories I have from those years are when my siblings would lock me in the pitch dark bathroom until I said “Mary Worth” three times. They used to love scaring me by telling me that my grandma was buried under the floorboards of the bathroom.
I remember being so scared because of this that I would wake up my younger sister each time I had to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. My parents could hear me beg her to go to the bathroom with me, and I would hear them chuckle from time to time as she would say, “Come on Penny . . . I can see the bathroom from here. Just go !” I would beg her until she finally got up and went with me. I will always be grateful to her for doing that with me until I was fourteen years old. My little sister and I have the best relationship since we are just eleven months apart, and we would go everywhere together. We always looked forward to her birthday because then we would be “twins” for a whole month!
Jesus was very real to me growing up. My mom was Catholic and she had a picture of Christ on the wall of our living room. It was claimed that when you walked past this picture that His eyes would watch you! This picture would kind of freak me out, as it was a picture of Jesus when He was beaten and bloodied, with blood running from the crown of thorns that was pushed down upon His head.
Mom was always telling us that Jesus died for our sins. I remember having a real awareness of my sins, and seeing this picture as I walked through the living room would often make me cry from my sense of guilt over sin. One of the happiest days of my life was when mom gave that picture back to my aunt.
Dad was a Methodist but really didn’t talk too much about God until I was about ten. At that time my parents were renewing their vows on their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary and we had to meet with a priest for five weeks. He was a very pleasant man, and I remember asking him two questions. The first one was why God let bad things happen to good people. He replied the standard, “It was God’s will”. That did not set too well with me as I was being sexually molested on almost a daily basis at the time. I really wanted to tell people around me about it, but knowing that something really bad would happen when it was found out made me unable to do so. My second question was about the Holy Spirit, represented by a dove, and who He was.
My older sister was eight years older than I, and began dating when she was about sixteen. There was a rehab house down the street from us where men would go after they got out of prison. My sister met one of these men who had just gotten out but did not really know why he had been in prison. Their relationship became serious really fast. Her boyfriend would sometimes go to great lengths to get food for me and my sister.
I remember thinking that he must really care for us. Even though I was often fearful, I was also a very brave child. Her boyfriend was so kind, and we really thought he cared about us. No other adults in our life would take me or my little sister seriously, but this man paid attention to us when everyone else was too busy for us. He would often want us to sit on his lap and wanted us to spend time alone with him. Sometimes he and my sister would make out while we were in the room with them. I was only eight at the time, and this was the first time I had ever really seen anyone kissing.
My parents pleaded with my sister over and over for her to stay away from this man, but she continued to see him. They were very concerned about her because he was ten years older than her, but she had really found favor in his eyes, and it seemed that they were on their way to getting married. Soon they were married, and little did I know it at the time, but my life was about to change a great deal.
One afternoon I was with my older sister and her husband at their house and he was being especially nice to me. He asked me to take a nap with him, and at that moment my life changed forever. That day he touched me in places I was not supposed to be touched. I was terrified and remember being so scared that I did not even want to move. After that, I remember running home crying, not even thinking that I had left my little sister behind. I never wanted to go back there again, but things were happening with my older sister, who was now pregnant and had lots of challenges that she needed help with. I would try to stay away from there as much as possible, but my little sister was often there and I felt like I was her protector.
Everything was so confusing for me at this time. I was not an adult but often felt like I had the responsibilities of an adult. My parents were also still fighting a lot, and I often found myself trying to calm everyone down, making sure no one got hurt.
About a year later I sat down with my mom one afternoon and told her about being molested. I thought that she could help me, but she ended up blaming me for sitting on his lap! From that day on I was so angry at her that I couldn’t even look at her sometimes. But still, I knew that I had to protect my little sister.
My sister’s husband became very abusive toward her.
He would often lift her up by her throat like she was a feather until she passed out. This happened almost daily, and we were all in fear of him. He had been a weightlifter and Mr. Pennsylvania for seven years running and had biceps that were 18 inches around. He loved to terrorize us and would often do so just to watch us run away in fear.
After a while, I remember telling him that I was going to tell my dad what he was doing to us. His response was to say go ahead, and he would kill my dad if we did. I believed that he would, too, because he would beat my sister unconscious on almost a daily basis. He would pick her up by the neck until unconscious, wake her up, and then do it again. He didn’t ever drink or do drugs, but I guess he was mean enough without that stuff! And we knew to fear him.
I was only about eight years old when I remember sitting down and drinking a beer with my little sister for the first time. It was also about this time that we both smoked pot for the first time too.
I remember that I just wanted to shut everything out and be with her. I was scared and life was dangerous, but I thought if my sister’s boyfriend hurt me, that at least he wouldn’t hurt my little sister. At nine years of age I was doing any drug that I could get a hold of at any time. My sisters and brothers were pretty much all hippies during this time, and so everyone around me was doing drugs. Therefore I had easy access to almost any drug I wanted to take.
At age thirteen my sister and her husband moved to the other side of town. With them being further away, I felt a little more freedom now because I only had to go there when they needed a sitter.
I was also getting bigger and stronger, and in the back of my mind I was planning on killing him someday. Back in the seventies, the police didn’t get involved as much in domestic disputes, and so there wasn’t much that my family could do about the abuse that was going on in my sister’s home. They seemed to have the attitude that the family would just have to work it out.
When the police were called to their home, you could be sure the police would probably not do anything. My sister would often be covered with bruises and crying, but they would just tell them to stop fighting and then leave her alone with him.
We decided one day to tell our big sister about our being molested by her husband. We were over at her house cleaning the floors when we suddenly shut the music off that we had been listening to and told her that she needed to listen to both of us or we would not come back anymore. She listened as we told her that her husband had been molesting us.
I reminded her about the times when he had broken a window, broken her favorite ashtray, and broken the bathroom door while trying to get to me. We all stopped what we were doing, and she just wept. I knew then that it was finally going to stop.
Shortly after that we went to pick him up from work. When he got to the car, she said, “Child molester!”. He said, “What?” And again, she said, “Child molester!” He then got into the car and beat her the whole way home. He continued beating her until she got into the house, and told her to take us home. She said that she was leaving him and was taking their two sons with her up to the mountain where our aunt was staying.
She left that weekend, and on Monday morning I received a call from her saying, “Penny, I shot him!” There was such joy in my heart over this news that I ran upstairs and woke my parents, not thinking about anything except that he was dead and now her pain was over. I believe to this day that my mom and dad thought this too. They had a gleam in their face as if to realize that this nightmare was now finally over.
When I pulled up to the house, I saw that he was still alive, sitting there on the porch with a hole in his chest and just a few drops of blood beside him. He had come over to the place where she was staying and beaten her when she came home. She ran upstairs and asked him not to follow her, but he did. She then shot at him and it ricocheted off the ceiling and hit him in the chest. Later, my sister would be found “not guilty” by reason of self-defense, with all the domestic abuse calls being evidence.
After she came out of the house we got into the car to drive over to his house to get the kid’s clothes. Her husband ended up being ok physically, but mentally he knew that he had been caught. As we were leaving, my sister couldn’t control her mouth and he came running at the car yelling not to take his sons anywhere or he would come after her to kill her.
I remember thinking that this was over now, but I was wrong. It had just begun to start again. Although the physical abuse was done, I was still trying to live without being in constant fear. That ended up making me suicidal and I began to drink and do drugs even more than before. My younger sister and I began hanging out with a much older crowd down at the house on the corner. My sister and I were together again and no one was going to hurt us anymore. It was during this time that we began to party quite a bit over the next few years.
At about age sixteen I began dating my now ex-husband. I thought that he had really loved me, and so I moved into his parents’ house with him. We got married when I was seventeen and he was twenty-five. About two years later we ended up getting divorced. I had found out that he had been cheating on me when I was eight months pregnant with our first child. Initially, we decided to get back together, and soon I was pregnant again with my second child. But the marriage would not last.
My older sister was now living in Illinois, after being remarried and having another child, and asked me and my two children to come to Illinois to stay with her. I was scared, but I did it. She told me that her church had a house that they used for missionaries. She said that I would be able to get the house if the 12 missionaries fell off the user list. The next day she called and said that they were no longer on the list and the house was available for me to use. So I moved out to Illinois.
I began working as a waitress but was having trouble with that job, and so my sister encouraged me to come and work at Pizza Hut with her. I remember seeing my current husband Ron the first time I went there. I had forgotten my application when I came in for the interview. He had a big smile and was SOO polite the whole time. He was married at the time though, and so I thought I could talk to him about anything. He would tell me about how his wife drank too much and didn’t watch their daughter. About five months later he separated from his wife and we began to date soon after that.
Since I was staying in the house belonging to the church, I felt like I really had to go to church because they were letting me stay there rent-free. I went a few times and really sensed the Holy Spirit’s presence. I had my children, Jessica and John dedicated at the church too. I was still in the party mode for the most part, but if I would wake up on time I would take the kids.
After Ron and I had been dating about five months, I began to feel sick. Suspecting that I might be pregnant, I took the test and it turned out positive as I expected. I knew that I could not have another child all by myself and so I asked Ron if I should have an abortion. He looked at me angrily and said if I were to do this to one of his children, that we could not be together. We talked about marriage but decided not to at that time since we had both just gotten out of a bad relationship.
So we decided just to live together and work on our family. A year later I would marry my soulmate. Despite our drinking, we had a pretty good family life and loved each other and our children. After we were married for seven years, Ron tried to get custody of his daughter from his first marriage but failed to do so. Not long afterward his ex-wife dropped off their daughter at our doorstep and left for rehab. We now had his, mine and ours!!!
One day my brother Jim invited a preacher to come and visit. I remember Ron cracking open a can of beer and drinking it throughout the visit. Ron asked him why innocent kids get hurt and why am I supposed to love that person. Pastor Jim said that we just need to deal with those things and learn from them because the person who hurts others has to deal with their own wrongs, but they have also taught you not to be like them. That seemed to strike a chord within Ron. Soon after that we went to Valentine’s dinner and then to church a couple of times.
Shortly after that, we went out one night to party for Ron’s birthday. On the way home, we both fell asleep and the car hit a utility pole a block from our house. The police and ambulance came and Ron had a big gash on the side of his head and was bleeding everywhere. I was scrunched into the passenger’s seat where both of my knees had hit the dash so hard that the color of the dash was still in my pants.
I had broken my wrist but was screaming and swearing at them to take care of Ron first. They stitched Ron up and then arrested him for driving with a suspended license. The only person we knew we could call at that point was Ron’s mom because she never drank. I knew she was going to lay into me, but she did it because she loved us.
Afterwards I was lying in bed – drunk, broken and all alone. I had heard that you when you are done with the way you’ve been going, that you should get down on your knees and pray. That’s what I did that night, and can remember crying to Jesus that I could not do anything, but if you will take me Lord, then I am yours. Then I fell asleep.
The next day Ron and I decided to go to church. Great things were beginning to happen to us. The Lord made me aware that I was going to quit smoking. This I did, but the biggest thing was that I was able to walk across the hall after all these years to go to the bathroom by myself. Ron and I were now in love more than ever before.
I was baptized with my four children and now Tony who was now with us almost full time now. He was “adopted” by our family as a gift from the Lord, so now its like we have five children.
A few years later God began working in my heart about how I was angry at everyone for what had been done to me. I was going to church, and even going through counseling at the local women’s center, when God provided a class for my life. At first I didn’t want to take this class but I had a friend who continued to encourage me to, saying that it would help me to put things into place.
Reluctantly I went and began to sort out that God wanted me to heal from the fact that I was still so angry with my mom from many years ago. The course lasted for fifteen weeks and challenged me to go and talk with her and ask why she wouldn’t help me when I was younger.
I finally called her. It had been a long time coming. I asked her what she had been thinking at the time and why she did not save me. She talked about how Dad had beat on my brothers and that she simply did not know what to do. She also confessed that when she was a small girl that her dad had sold her to some of his friends. She didn’t think she could do anything about me. She said she knew that I could handle what was happening and then apologized to me. Although I didn’t like her answer, I needed to hear her say that, and my anger seemed to disappear and we both became very close that day.
We knew that God had healed both of us.
At the end of the class Free me to live by Ken Freeman I took a trip to Colorado to see my mom, dad, sister, brother, and nephew. I had scheduled a visit at my nephew’s house, and when I got there I heard a dreaded voice coming from the basement that I had not heard in years. Yes – it was HIM . . my ex-brother-in-law.
I can remember my flesh crawling, but my God was giving me such peace. Before the visit was over I knew the Holy Spirit was telling me to forgive him. I remember quite well arguing with the Spirit saying that I hated him and how can I forgive him? But I looked over at him and said, “I forgive you”. He looked at me with a blank face and said, “For what?”
I can remember such peace in my soul at that time. Again, I am reminded that this is not I wanted to hear from the Lord but I realized at that moment that I had only been hurting myself all that time I was holding on to my anger toward him, but he did not care at all. Two years later my ex brother-in-law’s other son was getting married and I knew that he would be there. But the Lord prompted me to pray for him.
My nephew knew of all the pain that his father had caused our family. But still he asked if I would go with him to pray for his dad’s salvation. As we were sitting in the pew, I heard an old man hobbling down the aisle. This was not the same man that I remembered. He had since had several strokes. He came and sat down in the pew in front of me with another one of his sons. I remember the Holy Spirit telling me to lay my hands on him and he’ll be saved. I did, and as Pastor George did the wedding, I waited but he was not saved.
At the reception, I remember all of the hurt and all of the hate just went away and the family just welcomed him back. He even told me he had not felt this kind of love in years! The next morning I knew he was going to church, and so I prayed before he got there. I continued to pray all during the sermon too, and now it was time for the invitation. As I was sitting in the pew, I heard my ex-brother-in-law say that he wanted to know Jesus. That day in that small church you could hear almost my whole family weeping and sobbing.
Some even screamed. It got quiet when I saw him go to the front of the church where he and his son got saved.
I praise you, God, that you were with me and never left me! I praise you for teaching me not about the things of this world, but the things of the Spirit. I realize now if I couldn’t forgive him, why should God forgive me?
Yes, my life has been very hard and I have been hurt very deeply by some very bad people. But I am reminded of the words of Joseph when he said, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result.”
Like I said, one thing I’ve learned about my life is that sometimes it’s not about you.