The smells of popcorn, cotton candy and stale hot dogs assault my nostrils – or at least the memory of it. I’m here to witness the closing of Sheldon Amusement Park, and to put to rest the demons that haunted me for years.
I watch as the crew tear down the sign “Tunnel of Love.” The small gondola-shaped boats have already been removed. I close my eyes and remember my first ride in one of those gondolas. Tears threaten to spill down my cheeks.
All my sensory perceptions heighten, but mostly sound – the sounds of giggling, young lovers kissing, the lapping of water against the gondola. The most significant sound I remember is my mother’s sobs.
“Your daddy proposed to me in this Tunnel of Love, Becky,” Mom choked out.
I was only five. I didn’t understand war or that the daddy I barely knew had been killed in Viet Nam. I didn’t understand Mom’s sobs, or why we visited the Tunnel of Love several times a year.
That first ride was traumatic for me. It was dark and I squeezed my eyes closed until light pierced through the tiny slits. I sighed, relieved that I had survived the short ride. Because of Mom’s anguished sobs, I thought some horrible fate awaited me in that tunnel.
Daddy’s death left Mom reaching for alcohol to deal with the loss. My childhood was riddled with the uncertainty of Mom’s emotional highs and lows. I associated the Tunnel of Love with the misery of Mom’s unhappiness. I came to hate it, and dreaded every time Mom said, “Come on, Becky. We’re going to Sheldon Amusement Park.”
I always closed my eyes until the light signaled the end of the ride. As I got older, I begged Mom to let me stay home. She’d yank my arm and snarl, “It’s in memory of your daddy, you little brat. Stop your whining about going, do you understand?”
I was ten when Mom took up with Darrell, the guy taking the tickets for the Tunnel of Love. He was scary looking with his greasy hair, tattoos, missing teeth, and body odor. I convinced myself that maybe Darrell was a good thing because Mom seemed happy for once.
I was wrong. Darrell wasn’t a good thing. He moved in with us and two weeks later, he began sneaking into my room at night. It was the most horrible time in my life.
“I don’t like Darrell, Mom. Make him leave.” Tears were pouring down my cheeks. I wanted to tell Mom about the awful things Darrell did, but I was so ashamed.
Shock froze my limbs when Mom’s hand cracked across my cheek. “You selfish, rotten girl. For the first time since your daddy was killed, I’m happy. Why can’t you be happy for me?”
If I thought things couldn’t get worse, I was wrong. Darrell asked Mom if he could take me to work with him on Saturdays. I held my breath, hoping she’d say no. Instead she grinned like Darrell had just offered her the moon. “Well, how sweet! Becky’s never had a daddy to do things with her.”
I hated standing next to Darrell while he took tickets for the ride. When he wasn’t looking, I’d throw rocks at the Tunnel of Love sign. I hated the Tunnel of Love. I hated Darrell. But mostly I hated my mom and my life.
Darrell left when I was twelve. I thought I’d be happy with him gone, but I wasn’t. Mom blamed me for him leaving. “You never liked him, Becky, and he knew it. You didn’t even try to like him.”
I shudder as crews work to dismantle the tunnel. I try to dismiss the memories from my mind. My husband, Ed, pulls me close to him and whispers, “It’s okay to cry, Becky.” But I don’t.
Last week Ed took me through the Tunnel of Love. I realized for the first time that it was never completely dark in the tunnel for I could always see the light at the end. I met Ed my senior year of high school. He was my light. He told me that Jesus loved me unconditionally.
It took several years of counseling to reach the point where I could forgive my mom. Alcohol finally took her life, but not before she found Jesus like I did. Ed, my pastor, and counselor are the only ones I ever told about Darrell.
There’s always light. We just have to look.
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