NORTH RICHLAND HILLS -- A small potted tree sits in one corner of her apartment.
Geraldine Zillions decorated its bare branches with lights, miniature pumpkins, fabric autumn leaves and holiday greeting cards, dozens of them, dangling like ornaments.
She calls it her Thanksgiving tree.
"My therapy tree," Zillions said.
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As memories washed over her, the 52-year-old woman smiled at her artwork.
"It's my healing."
Her story of shame, survival and a dream of achieving financial self-sufficiency began in Century, Fla., where Zillions said she was sexually molested as a child by those within the circle of her own family -- several uncles and cousins.
The abuse went on for years, she said.
Keep quiet, she was told. Never, ever tell.
If she did, one uncle warned, a "headless woman" would appear in the darkness and harm her. Terrorized by nightmares, the imaginative child sometimes awakened to find the white curtains fluttering like capering ghosts as the evening breeze wafted through her open bedroom window.
Zillions studied an elementary school photo of an unsmiling 7-year-old.
"I grew up sad inside," she said. "I didn't tell anyone until I was in my late 20s. That's a long time to carry a weight like that."
At age 15 she quit school and gave birth -- the first of three boys -- at the Salvation Army Home and Hospital in Birmingham, Ala.
She became, in her words, a slave to the father of her children, a jealous truck driver who verbally and physically abused her. Her common-law husband backhanded her self-esteem. He punched out her front teeth. He grabbed her throat. He dragged her out of a grocery store by her hair.
She left him, by her count, 20 times or more. But she always went back.
"When you get beat down, you're going to believe what you've always been told," she said.
And what she was told, as repetitive as a tape loop, was this: "You'll never amount to anything." "If you leave, no one -- nobody -- is going to help you."
She dreaded Fridays -- his payday.
He regularly came home drunk and took out his anger on her.
"What did I do wrong?" she would ask him, feeling that somehow she deserved punishment. "I never had counseling. No one told me, 'Geraldine, this is not your fault.' I was like a little child."
In 1997, she became pregnant for the last time. Zillions described how her spouse chased her, how he took aim and threw his size-111/2 sneakers as she fled down a flight of stairs, how she stumbled and fell and lost those sweet babies -- triplets.
"Two girls," she said, "and a boy."
Four years ago, Zillions finally took a courageous step.
"I had all I could take," she said. "I decided 'I don't want no more of this.'"
She left her spouse and moved to the Fort Worth area, where she is trying to build a new life on $674 a month, her Social Security disability benefit. She went to several shelters for counseling. Earlier this year, Zillions attended a "Day to Shine" event, sponsored by a shelter and open to battered or single women and their children in Dallas-Fort Worth.
Zillions brought one of her quilts to White's Chapel United Methodist Church in Southlake.
"Her things are fantastic," said Brenda Owens, a church member. "Her quilts are hand-stitched. She makes jewelry, too. She is very gifted."
Zillions also paints furniture she rescues from trash bins. A clothing designer, she fashions jackets and "junk" jeans, embellishing the secondhand apparel with buttons, lace, ribbon and other items.
Having legally changed her last name ("Zillions -- that's how much I'd like to make"), she hopes to find a mentor, an adviser, someone with business experience who could help her profit from her talents. Her goal is to own a shop one day.
"I don't want to be on the government [assistance] for the rest of my life," Zillions said. "I want to be productive. If someone will just give me a chance, an opportunity."
For now, she works on her Thanksgiving quilt and counts her blessings -- three grown sons, her creativity, her optimistic spirit, the promise of new beginnings.
In her previous life, Zillions was not allowed to see a doctor and was told to stay inside, out of sight, the doors locked, the blinds closed, the drapes drawn.
Her Thanksgiving tree sits by an open upstairs window.
"Now," she said, smiling, "I have my sunshine."
David Casstevens, 817-390-7436