After decades of nightly drinking, I finally got sober. But I was still angry with my father. For romancing me — bringing me into the bathroom to admire how the white shave lather accentuated his heavy dark eyebrows, how his curly body hair blackened and clung to his skin in the shower, how he stood in full command over the toilet to urinate. Reading me love poetry from Shakespeare and Matthew Arnold that warmed and confused my heart. Taking me alone in the car with him on errands that felt like trysts (I thought we were in love) — then jilting me when I reached my teens. For ridiculing my passion for science, my wish to practice religion, my disagreement with him on any subject, from child-rearing to neighborhood politics. For siding with my mother in her frequent harangues over my ingratitude. For spending evenings downtown writing for a morning newspaper, then drinking past midnight at the Sarada Grill.
He slept through my morning struggles to make it to second grade and beyond. Cold with anxiety, I had to pry school clothes from my mother’s last-minute sinkful of suds, last-minute scorch to chilly dampness in the oven, last-minute lick-and-a-promise with the iron. Then, stomach hollow with fear and embarrassment, I had to run the half block to the bus stop. Finally, if I missed the bus, I had to run back home, hurry my father out of sleep to drive me to school, and endure the humiliation of my tardy arrival in the midst of a lesson begun, long since, without me.
My father never noticed that during his bleak evening and morning absences, it was I, from age seven on, not my mother, who sterilized baby formula, prepared meals, did errands, and looked after my brother and sister. All this, while hour by hour, my mother staved off despair, as well as the laundry, with coffee and sweet rolls, with her perpetual need to soap and rinse and dry her arms and hands, with the long naps she took in a vain effort to solace her melancholy—leaving me to protect us while she slept.
In my wrath, in my early sobriety, as my father grew old and ill with heart disease, I imagined myself spending private time in a funeral home beside his open coffin. I pictured a shadowy room with flocked wallpaper, my father’s casket lying on a low gurney, while I sat on a straight wooden chair beside him, seething over his corpse.
Once, I coaxed this vision further. After staring at my father’s body a while, I slipped out an ice pick I had hidden in my sleeve, and plunged it into his chest.
Up shot my father, out of the coffin, his heavy-jowled face and bushy black brows menacing with fury. Seizing me by the shoulders, he yanked me above his head like a rag doll, and flung me, hard enough to kill, against the nearest wall.
Several months earlier, no longer dull with alcohol, I had recalled, as if waking from profound sleep, how my father used to throw my mother against the bedroom wall during their Saturday morning fights.
This was when I was little, in the early 1940’s, a time of blackouts, searchlights, and military uniforms. My parents fought a lot, and my memories of those fights are the same, whether I was five or six, or less or more. We were all little. I was the eldest; my brother, born brain-damaged — slow to walk, slow to learn — was three years younger; and my sister, ravenous from birth, for milk, for adventure, was seven years younger than I. We lived in a small, three-bedroom house on Bainbridge Road in Cleveland Heights. During the war, houses were sparse in our neighborhood; postwar, we lived amidst a building boom.
Saturdays could be joyful. Home at last, my father kept us safe as he reigned over a breakfast table of coffee, cantaloupe, rolls with butter and jam. After his shower, he and I would hurry outdoors where I’d marvel at his strength as he propelled a lawnmower no one else could budge, hefted and hung wood-framed screens and storm windows as tall as himself and twice as wide, spaded and turned the wet black clods for his victory garden. After lunch came my mother’s interminable debate over the shopping list. When at last she finished, my father and I could escape to the relief of the car and the shiny hurly-burly of the supermarket.
But Saturday mornings with fights were different. In my parents’ bedroom, the shades would be up, and morning light brightened the pale yellow wallpaper scattered with tiny white bouquets. My earliest memories of these Saturday morning fights do not include my sister. Either I alone, or my brother and I, sat on the blue bedroom carpet in a far corner, witnessing the terrible adult commotion taking place on the opposite side of the room.
“Jesus Christ!!” my father would shout, his big man-muscles swelling under a white T-shirt. He grabbed my mother’s shoulders and heaved her, hard and sudden, against the wall. This is when I should have burst into tears with shock and horror. Yet try as I may, I can recall no startle, no shudder, no cry of child’s pain.
My mother was fat and solid, her striped cotton housedress taut over her stomach and thighs; yet she floundered as she struck the wall, slipping and sliding, struggling to regain her footing. “You louse!” she shrieked.
Under thick, black hair, without his glasses, my father’s face was dark and fierce. He caught my mother as she toppled toward him and shoved her again, hard. “Christ!”
“You dirty louse!” Her voice rose from shriek to scream, the desperation matching her straggly, unkempt auburn hair, her stark white face, ever bereft of make-up. Her chapped, reddened arms and hands flailed backward. She hit the wall, scrabbled her feet, came upright again. As I tell the story now, scouring my memory, I vaguely sense I hoped she would keep her footing.
My father threw more of his body into the effort. “Jesus Christ, Almighty!” Every time she ricocheted toward him, he slammed her back at the wall. Once, twice, again and again. I seem to have watched as if I had nothing to do with these people, as if it didn’t matter. Yet it must have mattered, because I used to think he was punishing her for some very bad thing she had done, and somehow that made it acceptable, legitimate.
All at once, even as she stumbled and tottered, he snatched up his glasses, yanked the bedroom door open, and was gone.
(Did I think, as my father disappeared, Oh no. Don’t leave me here alone on a Saturday. This is the day when you’re home and I’m safe. This is the day when you take me with you into the yard, when we drive to buy groceries together. Or did my anguish remain unvoiced and unfelt?)
I would run downstairs, hear the car engine starting up in the garage behind our house, hear the tires crunching down the gravel driveway. I rushed to the living room window, watched my father backing into the street, turning, roaring away from our dead-end block of Bainbridge Road.
I thought he drove into the country, into the rolling Ohio foothills of the Alleghenies—a favorite Sunday destination of his and mine—I imagined him passing the day parked by the side of a farm. He could roll down the windows of our decaying black Terraplane, feel the mild breeze on his face, gaze at the straw-colored wheat in the golden sunshine of a summer afternoon.
After I was sober, and saw how alcohol had been my single solution to every problem, I realized my father was not in the country. He must have driven downtown to a bar, to spend the fragrant summer day enveloped in the beery reek of a dark, tinkling tavern. In spite of being a newspaper reporter, my father wasn’t comfortable socializing. But after a few shots of Old Overholt, he could have relied on jolly belligerency as a way to displace his anger: You can bet the powers at City Hall don’t give a damn about the little guy. Now that the Depression is over, those bigwig judges lunching and preening at the Old Colonnade never give a thought to the good old hard-scrabble lawyers they used to practice with during hard times. Nobody can hold a candle to F.D.R.
The worst Saturday morning fight my parents ever had took place in the basement when I was around seven years old, my brother, four. Somehow my brother and I knew not to watch this fight. Instead we sat on the two steps a quarter turn before the long flight of stairs into the basement, so that we couldn’t see, but we could hear the violence below. The screaming and yelling and crashing were fearsome, twice or three times the usual volume. And I recall being specifically aware, above the scuffing and shrieking and thudding, that the walls my father must be shoving my mother against were constructed, not of plaster covered with wallpaper, but of cinder block. The floor was not carpeted wood, but cement, strewn with abandoned furniture that scraped and banged with each blow. Half a dozen clotheslines hung from wall to wall, festooned with pants-stretchers and wire hangers that rattled and clanged amidst the human racket. Several times during that fight — my mother’s screams were so sudden and explosive — I went hollow, as I dared to think my father was not just throwing her around, but hitting her, overstepping a line I had always counted on him not to transgress. I kept my arm around my brother’s shoulders as he bravely shouted, “Don’t hurt my mother! Don’t hurt my mother!”
For the first and only time, after that worst fight, after my father had driven off, my mother gathered my brother and me into her arms on the living room couch to comfort us.
Except for that, she used to exclaim now and then how much she enjoyed being married to my father, loving him and fighting with him.
Incredulous, I once replied, “Fighting with him?”
From beneath that straggly, bobby-pinned auburn hair, she grinned and nodded, and there was delight in her voice as she asserted, “Yes!”
I was speechless, still too young and still too unaware to ask what on earth she could mean.
My mother used to like my company during her bath. As if naked, she could demonstrate to me — as she had been unable to do with her own mother, for whom marriage and pregnancy had been repugnant — that she was clean and worthy. My mother’s flesh was always plump and smooth and white. As far as I could see, my father never left a mark on her.
But I read recently that we fall in love with people who make us feel good about ourselves. Maybe I wasn’t so far off when I thought my father was punishing my mother. Maybe she felt good that she was getting exactly what she deserved. And maybe she felt good about the making up that was going to occur later—in the kitchen, in the upstairs hall, behind a half-open bedroom door—the tenderness and heartfelt kisses, the sweet murmuring.
Damnation and redemption, over and over. Just as she had entered the world damned — unwanted and unloved — at the start, just as she had first been redeemed when she met my father.
As for me, it’s still nearly impossible to root out much emotion, except that tears well up when I recall my stalwart little brother’s impotent pleas during that single basement fight. It was only long after each conflagration, after my father had dashed off in rage and been gone for several hours, that I would feel afraid. Afraid he might never come back. Afraid I was going to be left in charge.
About Julie: Julie has published in Sou’wester, Spout, and Taproot Literary Review, and the Journal of the Washington Academy of Science. She created a symposium on science writing, which was held at the NSTA National Conference in March, 2010. She blogs at “The Pursuit of Wonder,” writing about biology, cosmology, and education from a spiritual point of view. Julie is active in a number of national scientific and education associations. She taught A.P. Biology, Honors Chemistry and Physics for twenty years at a suburban Chicago high school. Julie holds a B.A. is from The University of Chicago and an M.S. from the University of Illinois at Chicago.