Song of the Sybil: sixth lesson

Feminist perspectives part 3

by Ilona Martonfi

Return to Anjou

Page eight bears a customs stamp in a passport: Venezuela January 5, 1990. A plane deposited my estranged husband in Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela. He was on a week’s vacation.

I lived in a battered women’s shelter. Three months now. October 7, 1989, the death threat with a bunch of house keys used as knuckles. October 7, the fuga. The flight after a twenty-four year marriage.

Pale grey wood ashes in the stone fireplace. Droning oil furnace. Empty children’s rooms. By underground train, I rode to Anjou, a suburb of Montréal. Clay tile roof bungalow. Our former family house on Curé-Clermont Avenue. The first Sunday of January, it was about two o’clock. I turned off the alarm system. Unlocked the side door. Switched on the crystal chandelier.

The house where we raised our family. Lived here for eighteen years. Defamiliarized. Uncanny. The empty house. Air smelling of wood smoke. Tan leather loveseat. Oils by our children. I walked upstairs. The king-size brass bed, unmade. Sheets rumpled. Socks and underwear lying in a heap. My side of the closet ghostly metal hangers.

In the walled garden, the solarium. Potted plants dried up. Orangerie glass walls. Handcrafted and painted pine armoire. Bone-white ceramic floors. Ice-covered cerulean swimming pool. The bunker kitchen. Soundless. Hollow. Sump pump.

That is not what Anjou has meant to me.

That last summer, apple trees laden with fruit. My hands flew with knitting needles. Sweater sleeves. Self-help books. Earth-brown. Burgundy. Mustard. Violet. I could look into those mirrors. Be still in myself. Feel my place in that house. I planned my leaving for over a decade. The unending absence.

Full-time working wife and co-owner of real estate rental properties corporation. We bought, sold, and renovated lofts, apartments, and commercial spaces. Drew up leases. Did the books. Placed ads in newspapers. Made bank deposits. He called in: “Are there any messages?” And I gave him the messages. 

Inside the walls of my house, I was not safe. His fists, the black eyes and bruises. He hit me frequently. Kept me away from family and friends. I think about my voice, about how, in trying to tell my husband: “Stop hitting me!” I felt as if in one of those nightmares in which I tried to scream and no sound came out.

“A wife who leaves her husband has her throat cut! Traitors are killed in Sicily!” Magyar wife. I had learned the island dialect. Spoke it with my mother-in-law Giuseppa. His family and friends. Learned how to cook octopus for New Year’s Eve celebrations. I was allergic to fish. “Phosphor is good for the brain,” he mocked.

My story redefined the abnormal, even as I left my batterer. I fled my home to find refuge in a women’s shelter. It was not a conflict. The problem was the abuse. To normalize the abnormal. I used to be afraid to say anything to anyone. No one talked about it.

It’s not often that life gives you such a clear turning point. When you know if you had not taken a particular path, everything would have been different. If in that last year of 1989, I had not decided to leave my husband. If I had not left that day in October. If I had not seen more escalation of violence in our marriage. If it had not been for my husband’s threats: “Puttana, I will kill you!” If I had not gone with him on our last five-week family vacation with our children, to Europe and North Africa, that last summer. I am certain I would be some other person, living some other life.

Even at the time, it felt like falling. Every decision was like a door closing. Do this and you can never go back.

The current crisis in my marriage, a matrimonial life and four children, celebrated September 22, 1965, in a Hungarian Catholic church on Guizot Street, in Montréal, flamed up within the last two years. But the marriage has been in the grips of conjugal violence since 1965. This crisis was the escalation of violence that started just after we returned from another five-week family vacation to Europe and North Africa, mid-August 1987.

He started to go out every night. Coming home after midnight. Night after night. Controlling me with lies: “I’m going to collect the rent from our tenants. After that I’ll go and play a game of scopa with my barber, Mimmo.”

In turn, my caseworker at the battered women’s shelter would argue: “You knew all along he had other women.” It was the threats and the assaults that made me flee my home and seek refuge in a shelter. He first slapped me in our furnished apartment on Chambord Street one month after we married. I was six months pregnant with our first child. Until recently there seemed little chance of ending it.

But, in the last year, something seemed to give. Under pressure, after seeing him with another woman, from a newly determined wife, the batterer was denounced to the Anjou police. “You beat only women!” the officer said.


Tōkei-ji temple in Kamakura

In Kanagawa Prefecture
to the north, Mount Fuji

beyond the temple, a cemetery
when the convent was a nunnery
during feudal Japan
his criticism
as uneducated, ill-bred

and we have been wife and husband for so long

my marriage, the management of his property
absolute authority of Kachoo
(head of the household)

I had to leave my son, Yoriie, behind.

Tokei-ji in Kamakura
ginkgo trees, plum trees
irises bloom, red peonies

I did initiate divorce

three years in the convent
my marriage was annulled.


No Brakes

The brake pedal went all the way to the floor. I was alone in the car. A smooth stretch of city street. Hochelaga-Maisonneuve borough: houses built close to the road. Row houses with spiral metal staircases. Sidewalks, alleys, and church steps.

As I approached a stoplight at about twenty miles per hour, I pressed on the brakes: a woman in grey linen dress. High heel shoes. Full-time working mother of four. Three daughters and one son. We bought, sold, leased. Hired architects, construction workers. Negotiated mortgages. Ground floor real estate office on rue Ste-Catherine est. Renovated, gutted three-story warehouse lofts. Fully rented. Artists. Musicians.

Used furniture stores. A thrift shop. Greek pizza place. Drug dealers. Sex workers. It took ten minutes. Distance about two kilometers. After work, I headed northeast toward rue Valois. Turned left at boulevard Pie IX. The day, the brakes failed. Lapis lazuli blue sky smeared apricot. At the foot of the mountain. By the St. Lawrence River: sand dunes, wetlands, wild orchids. Montréal. 1989. Eight kilometers from Anjou, a tree-lined suburb. Where I planted two apple trees. Raspberries. Wild roses. Solarium, sauna. Cerulean pool. His Magyar wife. “Zozza!” Dirty! Sicilian street slang. “Stupid!” he said.

I turned right on rue Hochelaga. I usually took Viau to Sherbrooke. Past the Botanical Gardens. Past the Olympic Stadium. Dandelion meadows. Buttercups growing in concrete field. I would fuel up at a gas station on 1955 rue Viau. Auto body and repair garage. Brake service: Le Garage Sylvain Joubert. Where we serviced three company vehicles. But that day, I didn’t need gasoline.

I didn’t think of using the emergency brakes. Automatic transmission. Downshifting, I used the engine for braking. I turned off the ignition. I didn’t pull over to the curb. Didn’t restart the motor. I don’t recall using hazard flashers. Prior brake noises.

The summer before I fled to a women’s shelter, I read self-help books. I demanded: “Don’t hit me anymore!” Told him: “I want to take courses.” He slapped me: “Now call your police!” A twenty-four year marriage. He first beat me in our Chambord Street apartment: I was six months pregnant. We were insured: he was president, one million dollar life insurance the banks required. I was co-owner, manager, secretary treasurer, one million life insurance. “Change your will, beneficiary our children. You will not become a rich widow!” His threats: “If I get a heart attack, I will buy a rifle and kill you!”

My habit was to call him, when the car broke down. The day, the brakes failed, he picked me up in his Olds. “It’s your Mother’s Day gift. ” A man wooing: long-stemmed red roses, diamonds, overseas family trips. One year earlier, he took me to a showroom in Pointe-aux-Trembles: “Choose the car you like.” Tried to talk me into buying a black limo! When I spotted the Oldsmobile 98: four-door sedan. White. Light blue interior. Cruise control. Anti-theft alarm. Thirty-two thousand dollars, cash.

Cold. Numb. The weather. My sleuthing habits: I checked pockets, credit card statements, traced parking tickets. The first time I saw him with another woman. Late March snowmelt. Dim street lamps on downtown rue Saint-André: a short man, wire-rimmed glasses, balding. “Shorty, I will divorce you!” I said. Our daughter dozing in the back seat of my Pontiac. My duenna, chaperone. “Don’t leave the house without one of our children, or I will give it to you!” his voice echoed in the orangerie winter garden.

That day, was the first time I called the police to our house. Made a first report for domestic violence. My husband was right on my rear bumper all the way from his mistress’ rue Saint-André apartment to our bungalow on Curé-Clermont Avenue. As I entered the house, he gave me a blow to the nape of the neck. I just turned around and looked at him without a word. Walked to the red rotary phone and dialed 911.

The day, the brakes failed, a taxi driver pulled alongside my car: “Are you alright?” I rolled down the window: “I have no brakes.” “Pull over to the right-hand lane.” “I will not touch this car,” I repeated. “I will not!” The cabbie got into the driver’s seat and changed lanes. Parked. No brakes. Towed by the garage. Auto repair shop across from Biscuits Viau factory.

“Clean cut,” my husband said, laughing loudly. “Clean cut,” he laughed again: “I wouldn’t do that! I would kill you with my own hands.”

Easel, gesso, charcoals and oils by our children. Eldest daughter’s wedding the previous October. A piano stood in the living room. Stained glass lamps. I always baked the birthday cakes from scratch.


← BACK          -          NEXT →

Song of the Sybil: sixth lesson by Ilona Martonfi is Blasted Tree original creative nonfiction.

Feature Image by Kyle Flemmer