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.