“Put ’em up”

At times my father viewed his sons as opponents or enemies – whether he could have articulated that or not – and he physically challenged them. I don’t mean the kind of friendly rough-and-tumble that fathers and sons sometimes engage in. Rolling around the floor, happily tussling. No, this was something else. From my older sisters I heard stories of things that happened before I was born (which was well into my family’s existence). These stories, however, weren’t relayed in such a way that I can get a good handle on them. I can tell you only of the incidents I witnessed, but know this, there wasn’t anything friendly about them.

As a little girl, I had a large basement area to play in with my siblings. On that floor there was also a rec room of sorts, a single bedroom, the furnace, my father’s workbench, an extra refrigerator (and eventually a stand-up freezer), my mother’s canning, and a laundry area. I was downstairs, which was generally the safest, most relaxed part of the house, but wasn’t the only one around; in a house with so many people, I was never alone. I heard a commotion, raised voices. My father once again, had been tangling with my oldest brother, in the laundry area by the back door. I saw them. They were facing off. My brother was holding a broom. My father was livid. Yes, they’d either been physically fighting or were about to, but the thing that my father really blew up about was that my brother had “picked up a weapon.”

My brother, it must be said, was no delight and only worsened, but at this time was just holding the broom in front of his body. He wasn’t waving it around or trying to smack my father with it. He said he was defending himself. Those two words – weapon and defending – ring in my head still all these years later. In the moment, I was so distraught to witness this. Terrified. What was going on? This was my family. I probably don’t need to tell you that nobody paid any attention to me at all. No one reassured me or talked to me about what I’d seen. (And here I >>>snort<<< to myself. My status was about par with a household pet, if we’d ever had one, that is to say pretty damn insignificant.)

What I knew after that, for certain, was that something was very, very wrong in our house. In my family. That things could go south on a dime. I was a child, but I knew this wasn‘t right. I knew families shouldn‘t be this way. In retrospect, I wonder if that particular incident was actually more memorable and traumatic to me, a little girl, than anyone else.


Years later, after I moved out at 19, I was back at the house. I encountered my younger brother, then a teenager, who now had the aforementioned basement bedroom. He had a friend over. But he told me a story, of how earlier that day, my father had tried to attack him. I don’t remember what it was over. Trust me, that is undoubtedly the very least important part of the story. It could have been anything. Or nothing. My father was old enough to be a grandfather to the two of us. He was retired and everything that hadn’t been quite right about him prior to retirement had blossomed furiously after. My brother, more sensitive than my older brothers, was in tears as he related what happened.

Our father had come at him in the doorway of the bedroom, with fists up, challenging my younger brother to respond in kind. “I’m not going to fight you, Dad,” my brother said. Since he wouldn‘t go at it with my father, the incident evidently defused. But my brother was left emotionally spent. He, lord him help him, respected my father as well as the fact of his advanced age. I talked my brother down for a long time that night. His friend remained, but was largely left off to the side of our conversation. What could he have contributed past the typical “that‘s messed up, man” kind of commentary? If you didn’t live with us, it was mighty hard to get a handle on the sort of things that were everyday occurrences and the overriding twisted atmosphere that permeated the house. I.e., the reasons I personally left so young.

I just thought of something, a parallel that escaped me before sitting down to write this. Yes, I knew my two incidents were book-ended with my oldest and youngest brothers. But here’s the clincher. My older brother, after another incident with my father, moved out of our house. Whether he was kicked out or went on his own, I don’t know. I suspect kicked out. My younger brother, though, not only stayed put after our father wanted to fist fight him, but always loyal, stayed in residence another 15 years until he married. One brother left, one stayed. Then again, my younger brother was my father’s favorite (yes, I know how odd that sounds, given what I’m telling you, but understand that being a “favorite” of either parent wasn’t the kind of typical boon a normal person might expect).


I left something out of the story as I told it, because I didn’t want to distract from the essence of the tale, but I will add now that my father, while not a tall man, was strong and stocky, and had been an amateur boxer in his younger years (his sons were tall and wiry, favoring our mother’s side). Not only that, but in his youth, beating people up had been his forte. When someone new arrived in the rural area his family lived in, he’d fight them for dominance. Decades after my father left the farm, moved to the city, had a good white collar career, and a raft of kids, stories about this, and many others of questionable ilk, were told by him at our dinner table as if they were amusing anecdotes.

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22 thoughts on ““Put ’em up”

  1. John Callaghan

    Oh Colette. I could hardly get through this post it is so sad. I too grew up in family and community with a lot violence. Violence done, perpetrated, and witnessed. This kind of violence can really shape and distort a person. How awful to have to see something so brutal and for your brothers to have to endure. It is strange that your father was capable of these violent outbursts at an advanced age. One of the ways nature has of protecting older men is a decrease in testosterone production. The less testosterone produced the less likely a violent outburst would occur thus protecting an old man with a frail body.
    This must have really impacted you but it seems you turned out okay. At least now :-). Sorry this happened to you.

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      Thank you, John (I almost said Sweetie but remembered how you feel about that word!). I had the impression your childhood was distinctly more violent than my own – typically the house was more emotionally volatile than physically – but then maybe guys generally are more likely to be subjected to physical ordeals? The weird thing is, I suspect my brothers would defend my father and say I was making too much of it (I HOPE they wouldn’t say “it didn’t happen” but I’m not dead certain on that). And yet, (lasting) damage was clearly done, as you suggest.

      True enough, my father never exactly had the “nice, old guy” phase and he stayed strong long. (Later, of his advanced years and assumed frailty, my sister would say he’d likely be the kind, if irate, to grab hold of someone’s arm and hang on with a vice-like grip, refusing to let go. Even if it never actually happened, I believed she was right!)

      I am ok – these things happened long ago. And I can write about them only because I am ok. The blog gives me a place to reflect and put some of this out there with compassionate eyes like yours to read it.

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      1. John Callaghan

        Hahaha. If you called me Sweetie I wouldn’t mind. I know it is coming from a nice place. I always find it amazing at how memories can be so different between the people who’ve gone through the same incident. It sounds like either of us could have turned out very differently than we did considering where we came from. I agree with you that writing helps. I remember reading an ancient Greek story about a woman who was raped. To keep her quiet, the rapist cut out her tongue. So over time she created these elaborate tapestries that told the tale of the rape and the rapist was found out. But the woman gained almost as much satisfaction from being able to tell the story. It took a lot of the power of trauma away. So even back then the Greeks knew the importance of telling our stories. Geez, I’m writing a whole book here. Thanks again Colette for sharing these stories.

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        1. writerinsoul Post author

          You can write me a book any time, Sweetie!

          That’s a great story. The tapestry. Some stories must be told. And if you’re a writer, they must be written. Here’s my take: I didn’t go through all that – all that I did – for it to just evaporate and end up meaning nothing. “Everybody dies. The End.” Writing helps process the details and create meaning. You hope that it makes sense, whatever it is, to other people, when it’s done.

          People DO remember things differently, and yet there are those families (a lot of them I expect) that take the position that 1) that didn’t happen and 2) Don’t tell anybody. Don’t break rank. This is both very manipulative and powerful. But as told Angie in comments recently, when she was considering her own stories and whether to share them because it affects/involves others, this is mine to tell.

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      It was a mess. I think my brothers were highly conflicted, yet each ultimately “stood by” their father. Ultimately, I was the unpopular kid pointing out the “emperor’s new clothes” did not exist.

      I really honor people who raise their children well. It delights me. Good for you. –Colette

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      Thank you very much Nimi. That is generous praise. I won’t ever let go, I don’t think, but I’m not emotionally captive to the past either. It’s more like a place I occasionally visit, if that makes sense.

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  2. vanbytheriver

    This must have been a tough one for you, Colette, but so important to write it out. Your dad’s boxing background had to come into play, that’s a “sport” and a mentality of physical violence that I will never understand. We live what we learn, until we do better. Maybe his own father was physical with him ? It was curious to me that my own father would slap his sons around a bit, but never laid a hand on the girls. It must have sent you so many confused messages about the essence of what is “family”. I’m just so sorry. Hugs to you. Van

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      Thanks – it was but one piece in a strange pie, Van. Indeed, my father came from a physically violent family (naturally, nobody ever used those descriptive words back in the day) and clearly made no promise to himself not to perpetuate the cycle. I believe, actually, that many people never do better, even when they know better.

      The messages were confusing initially but I was quite young when I knew/decided it was all very wrong.

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  3. markbialczak

    The smartest thing you could have done, I think, Colette, was keeping your distance from your father and let your brothers take the brunt, as you did. The way you consoled your younger of the two brothers was very well done, too. Bravo for young you doing the best she could in a dire emotional family pot of boiling feelings.

    I can see how writing these moments now can help you sort through things, still. My family situation growing up was not great, either, and everytime I write a post about my relationship with my father and mother back then, I feel more cards being shuffled into a better place now. I was the other end of the stick, the oldest and the only boy trying to protect sisters eight and 10 years younger than me when my father went off his tracks. I left to go away to college and never moved back home except for short college breaks thereafter. I was relieved when my parents got divorced when I was away, thinking my sisters were better for it and feeling less guilty for my decision to GET AWAY. Talking to my sisters after both of my parents has passed, they each had different versions of that time when we were all under the same roof than I did.

    So I am with you regarding: Write it out, write it out. Keep dealing with how it affected you then and why it still shapes you in different ways now.

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      Sadly, there really was no smart way to be in such a household. I like the posts you’ve done on your family that I’ve seen and especially that you seem to not whitewash it (I’m thinking specifically of comments where some readers might have wanted to offer a better spin or interpretation).

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        1. writerinsoul Post author

          ‘Cause peope like happy stories? But seriously, I have long found people resistant to stories like these where the teller doesn’t have a silver lining or “spin” to offer.

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  4. Andrew Davis

    I agree with the other comments. I particularly like how dark and honest this story is. You can see its truth in the details. I still think of my family stories and hesitate. I’ll get there. Thank you for sharing.

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      Thank you and I absolutely understand the hesitation. For me, I feel like I don’t care any more you know? About being too open or judged or somehow betraying people, family or not, who did crappy things. I earned the right. I can’t have gone through all I did for nothing. Writing makes it something. Your support is always appreciated.

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