A Table Made From Pain

The place setting for Bryan Keller. In March 1993, domestic violence took him away. He was 6-months-old.

When you go to a convention, any convention, there is always a marketplace or exhibit space where you can buy things, get books signed, listen to speakers, be regaled by sponsors, and otherwise connect with fellow participants.

The Pennsylvania Conference for Women, where I spent most of my Friday, is no exception. The conference, which celebrated it’s 10th anniversary this year, is a place where women can connect with each other, learn and be empowered. In addition to workshops on everything from starting your own business to work/life balance, participants were treated to speeches from Judge Glenda Hatchett (yes, THAT Judge Hatchett), and former Secretaries of State Madeline Albright and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

(Clinton’s got her presidential candidate haircut and pantsuits workin’…I’m just sayin’…)

Between Hatchett, Albright and Clinton, I got a chance to go into the exhibit space for the conference. I walked past a lot of booths designed to get me to buy stuff, got to meet Judge Hatchett, and told the folks at Independence Blue Cross that their advertisement “Live Fearless” was grammatically incorrect, something that’s been bugging my fellow journalists and copy editors for a minute.

(By the way folks, it’s a national ad. The local representatives say they can’t correct it. So it goes out as “Live Fearless” despite the fact that it bugs us. I tried.)

After walking past various book signings, the booths of sponsors like QVC, and some of the nicest jewelry I can’t afford, I started to walk past what I thought was a display table for a china manufacturer.

Upon closer inspection however, I saw that it was more than just plates. 

There were pictures. Pictures of women. Pictures of children. Pictures of families in happier times. Trinkets and stuffed animals. It made me kind of curious.

As we approach the Holiday Season, we start to think about holiday dinners and whom we’re looking forward to seeing at the table as the turkey and cranberry sauce are passed around.

But we also think about who isn’t there. While we don’t mean to, we think about the empty places at our table. We think about the people we loved who used to fill those seats. The smiles we only see in pictures now. The loss. 

That’s what this exhibit, “An Empty Place At The Table” represents. It represents the memories of those who were lost. The women. The children. The futures.

All lost to Domestic Violence.

“Empty Place” was created in 1993 by the Women’s Resource Center. The Center, which is based in Scranton, Pa., serves about 2,000 people in Susquehanna and Lackawanna Counties who are trying to get out of domestic violence situations every year, according to Carol Shoener, the Center’s economic advocacy director. It was a response to a two-week period in which three people lost their lives to domestic violence, she said.

“These place settings represent real people,” she said. “The families came to us and created the place settings. Some of the people represented we worked with personally before their death.”

The place settings focus more on how the person they represented lived, rather than how they died, something that gives the families connected to them a chance to heal, Shoener said.

Alicia Ann Smith loved the great outdoors and was planning to join the Army…


In some cases, it gives those who would otherwise go unremembered and unmourned a respect they may have otherwise not received. The person represented by this place setting was a Jane Doe…


But if you’re a longtime reader of The Mad (political) Scientist, you know that I gravitate to the stories of children who have been failed by those whose job it is to protect them. The picture at the beginning of this blog is the place setting of a 6-month-old child who was lost to domestic violence.

Unfortunately, his wasn’t the only place setting dedicated to a child. Sheena Marie Jones was 7, liked Mickey Mouse, and was a Royal Reader…


And then there was this picture…

“Three years ago in July, these boys were killed when their Mother’s partner set the house on fire,” Shoener said. She and her other son survived, but she was injured in the fire and spent a great deal of time in the hospital. She was able to create these place settings just this week. This is the first time they’ve been displayed.”

Before I walked completely away from the table, I walked around it again so that I could check out all of the place settings. 

One of them looked, well, familiar. It was the set of plates with octagonal bowls that I bought at the Wal-Mart in Horseheads, N.Y. I used them for my place at 4051/2 N. 4th St. in Elmira.

It was the set of plates on which I used to serve dinner for the man I was seeing when I lived there.

I met him at work. He seemed very nice. He sent me flowers, something no one had done for me in a while. I thought it had the potential to be something special.

But as time went on, I started to find out some stuff that bothered me a little.

He was a little possessive. No, I take that back. He was a lot possessive. In fact, when I made the decision to move back to New Jersey after my father died, he told me that my Mom didn’t need me at home as much as he needed me there.

That was a red flag. A big one.

But there had been smaller ones that in retrospect I shouldn’t have brushed off.

There was the “you need to stop hanging around your friends because you should be with me all the time” thing.

The rape charge that my friend the Police Reporter discovered when doing one of those “I’m looking out for you because this guy kinda gives me the creeps” background checks.

The threats that this friend got when he discovered that I had this information and from where I’d gotten it…something that led to my friend buying a pump shotgun.

The harassing phone calls. The night he showed up uninvited at my Mom’s house in Jersey….a variety of things.

But what made me decide that this was a manifestation of a problem I didn’t want to get any deeper was I went back to New York to visit him for the last time. We went on a day trip and I had a really good time.

When we got back to his house that night, I made dinner. I didn’t have something I needed to finish the meal, so I borrowed it from a neighbor. It’s what neighbors tend to do for each other if you get along at all.

His reaction to that scared me. He didn’t hit me, but because I feared he would, I grabbed a knife. 

When I’ve gotta do that, it’s over. I don’t even think I waited to get back to Jersey to break it off. I did it from a phone booth on the Pennsylvania Turnpike…near Scranton if I’m not mistaken.

While I had a support system that gave the the strength to get out of a bad situation (and an older brother that could have made the solution permanent without leaving a trace), not everyone does. If your abuser is your sole source of financial support and you’re so beaten down emotionally that you lack the strength to leave, getting out can seem impossible.

And in some cases, even if you leave you’re not safe. The thing that has always made me scratch my head when it comes to Orders of Protection is that the only way that they can be enforced is if they’re violated.

That. Does. Not. Make. Sense. Especially since you have to survive a violation to report it, and not everyone does….

If you’re being abused, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233. If you’d like more information on the exhibit “An Empty Place At The Table”, contact the Women’s Resource Center at 570-346-4460.

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