When I was growing up, one of my father’s regular pastimes, when he and my mother weren’t arguing, was haranguing and verbally accosting his children at the dinner table. We were all trapped. As my older brothers & sisters moved out, there were less of us at that table which considerably upped the chance of being targeted. I remember literally keeping my head down and focusing on my plate so as to not attract attention. This had limited success; your number always came up. Only having a job was an acceptable excuse for missing dinner. The summer I was 16 and had my first seasonal lifeguarding job I was so happy to work evening shifts.
When someone thinks another person is being unjustly or at least overly accused of wrong-doing, they may compensate with a defense of the accused that is excessive. In their minds they are righting an injustice or at least trying to get the judgment (by others) closer to a middle ground. It also strikes me as very possible there is something in the scenario or in the accused person that they relate to; maybe they too have felt what they thought was unjustly accused in the past and this situation could be seen as an indirect opportunity to right the wrong done to themselves, sort of by proxy. Extreme reactions, even if well-intended, usually have their roots in our own personal experience.
When I was a little girl my family watched the musical Oklahoma on TV. In the film, ranch-hand Jud is depicted as a brooding, disgruntled loner, the quintessential outsider living in a hovel on the grounds. He’s seen doing questionable things, including making a play for the virginal Laurey, almost forcing himself on her. In the movie’s penultimate scene, newly married Laurey and her husband Curly are atop a hay stack, having been marooned there without a ladder by rambunctious wedding guests. Jud, who has apparently gone from disgruntled to psychotic, sets fire to the haystack in an attempt to burn the young couple alive. I was horrified by the scene.
While watching the film, however – at least before this attempted homicide business – my father defended the Jud character! I was shocked by such a strange response; it was as if he was watching a different movie. He felt Jud was maltreated by the others. He wasn’t trying to impart any lesson to his children; rather, as was the norm, he was just reacting and I happened to be there. I already had a strong sense of right and wrong (which, by this example, it’s pretty clear I didn’t entirely get from my parents) and my opinion of the character didn’t change. Now I can articulate that growing up my father felt like an outsider who was judged by others, at least in part for his Italian ethnicity. In his mind I expect he saw himself in Jud and related to the character, the unpolished, marginalized outsider.
In fact, my father specifically continued to believe others harbored prejudice toward him and Italians far into his life. In reality it wasn’t so. Nobody called us “wops” or cared a whit that we were a half-Italian family and moreover, as a Northern Italian (fair skinned, blue-eyed), my father did not resemble the typical swarthy Sicilian stereotype people usually imagine when they think of an Italian man.
Leaving the Italian aspect out of it, by the time I was born and knew my father, he was long-married to a pretty wife, my mother, with several children, had a good, white collar profession and was established in the community and in our family’s church. His life did not resemble Jud’s at all. That he related to and defended this dark, unpleasant character who, so far as I could tell, brought most if not all of his troubles on himself, left me disturbed and baffled. In retrospect I consider it very revealing.
When I was growing up, my father didn’t enjoy going out to dinner as a family. He seemed out of his element, yes, but more than that I think he minded that he couldn’t act like himself the way he did at home. On the home front, he sat at the head of his table, at a dinner my mother prepared that didn’t start until he sat down – no matter how long his children sat waiting – and held forth. The holding forth was bad enough, but one of his preferred meal-time pastimes was verbally attacking his children in turn which, naturally, he couldn’t do in a restaurant.
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.
My oldest brother moved out of the house – after a history of increasing unpleasantness between him and our father – when I was a child in grade school. Our family was rather conservative, religious, and conventional. My brother, who was artistically inclined and never the rough-and-tumble son our bullish, alpha father would have theoretically wanted, was having a go at the hippy life much to my father’s disapproval. I’m sure my mother didn’t think much of his lifestyle either, but this was her favorite child and she saw it as her role to run interference between the two, albeit not very successfully, so he got a pass in quite a few things. Still, my father ruled the roost and rebellion was not well received, especially the counter-culture kind.
My brother left after one last ugly conflict, of the sort where I was awoken one night to hear my father and brother shouting at each other on the front lawn, coming to – or about to come to – blows (not for the first time), while my mother hollered at them to stop, saying “the neighbors would hear.” Laying awake in my trundle bed in the room I shared with my sister, I was so scared.
He moved into the city and lived in a group house with his girlfriend and roommates. After a little time had passed and enough smoke had cleared, our family, that is, my parents and their three youngest children of which I was one, went to visit. We put on our church clothes for this little foray. Father in suit, mother and girls in dresses, little brother combed and cleaned up, the whole bit. And drove to a sketchy neighborhood downtown where the big old rental house was located. My life was a sheltered affair; I found the whole thing shocking, from the fact of my brother leaving us to his new arrangements. Group house? What is that? When my brother pointed out his room that he shared with his girlfriend, I took note of the solitary mattress on the floor. Mattress on the floor? Just one?! What was this?? I didn’t know about sex, not at that point. I just knew something was up.
We sat, in our good Sunday clothes, in the dark, high-ceiling living room and made small talk with my brother. It was uncomfortable. There definitely wasn’t anything for children to do there. From the outside, we must have been quite the sight. I remember a long-haired roommate passing by and giving a nod. Otherwise, whoever was in the house at the time, steered clear. Who could blame them?
Other details are lost to me now, but I was most impressed with the Chore Wheel I saw tacked to the kitchen wall. It had all the housemates’ names written around the outer edge, and a smaller circle with various chores written on it, inside, and it manually turned so that once a week, a new chore would line up by someone’s name. How ingenious! This I could appreciate.
It was the only time we ever went there.
I remember the first time I saw a copy of Playboy magazine.
After she married, my older sister, trying to be a hip woman of the world, gave our father a subscription to the men’s magazine for Christmas one year. This was odd for several reasons. Ours was a conservative, religious household. Our father was no ladies’ man and gave no evidence (beyond becoming animated about the yesteryear film star Mitzi Gaynor) of being all that interested in such things, at least not at that point in his life. He was not even lusty toward his wife, our mother (no bear hugs, kissing, or vocal hubba-hubbas, let alone swats on the ass were ever on display). My mother would surely not have approved of either the magazine or the gift but I now expect she must’ve looked the other way, and not objected audibly since it was her favorite daughter doing the gifting. That’s my best explanation anyway.
After we expressed interest, it was decided that my sister, two years older, and I, could see an issue of the magazine. We were probably 11 and 13 at the time. However, our father went through it first and then handed over a heavily redacted magazine. There were thick black lines drawn through much of the copy. Of course, then I was most curious about what had been hidden from us, although now, I expect I’d have been disappointed with the verboten content. This because our father had odd ways of thinking in general, and related to children, especially girl children, poorly. He grew up surrounded mostly by rough-and-tumble brothers, didn’t understand us, had no interest in trying, and was old enough to be a grandfather to his youngest children, of which I was one. Lord only knows how he decided what wasn’t fit for our viewing.
I have to tell you, though, even in its weird condition, the magazine was a happy surprise, in that I’m still a bit shocked that we were allowed to see it at all. I don’t remember much of what I thought about the visible content. I’m sure I didn’t relate to the women shown or the overall sensibility, but no doubt was glad to learn what it was. Curiosity has driven me all my life and this subject was no different. My sister and I looked at the magazine together, alone, and then returned it. There was no conversation with any adult as to what we’d seen, or if we had questions. This was typical of how things were done in our household, and I’d have expected no different.
On the sidewalk I pass by a man I do not know walking with his young son. The little boy looks at me solemnly. Just after I go by, he asks his father,
“Is she pretty, Daddy?”
Oh my. I love this question! I’m amused (but don’t show it) and now I’m all ears. I imagine the boy thinks he is getting a handle on what he’s supposed to find pretty, but needs a little reassurance. Fascinating stuff; how clearly the little boy’s question reflects that we must learn how our culture – wherever we live – defines beauty. And with me still in earshot, how is the now flustered father going to answer this query? What can he safely say? For instance, he can’t say, “Well no, son. We like a woman with a little more meat on her bones… like your mother“ or a vague, “I don’t know.” Of course the father knows he isn’t supposed to be noticing, let alone talking about the relative attractiveness of strange women, even if his son doesn’t know that (yet).
So how does he answer? Quietly to his boy, “Yes.”
Not one to be bashful, I have to get in on the fun. Remembering to tidy up my language and smiling broadly so as to not embarrass or frighten either of the two, I call back over my shoulder with my own tongue-in-cheek reply, “Darn right she is!”