Much of what I remember of my father is steeped in fear. His mythical reputation for losing his temper was handed down to me from my 10 older siblings through epic tales of survival to cautionary tales from my younger siblings on how to carefully navigate that temper.
I resented it. I wanted to be free of the yoke of his glowering persona. I longed to be free of the hard and terrible consequences that came with being a child in his world. So, I started up a small revolution in my heart against him. I knew I was the youngest, the smallest and female in a family of nine boys–with the only other female my sister who was the seeming apple in his eye–and because of this, knew there was little I could do other than to take a stand against the monster who seemed to dictate life in our home.
I couldn’t stop the blows that rained down on my brothers but when it was my turn, I was prepared. I was in trouble for coming late to dinner and it was time for my reckoning. I walked solemnly over to the drawer where the spatulas and serving spoons were kept, that were, up until that moment, loving symbols of my mom’s cooking, and pulled out one of the less dangerous looking utensils and walked over to him. This ritual was part of the torture: You had to pick the weapon you wanted to be hit with.
“Here.” I handed him the spatula, which was metal (for some reason my mom had no wooden spoons in the drawer that day, why Mom, why?) and he took it and began to slap my open palms with it. Hard and with fire behind it. I stood firm like a soldier and stared him straight in the eye without flinching. I was four. I was fierce. I would not be broken.
My dad never hit me again. But what was lost in that moment was never regained. He died only six years later when I was ten. I didn’t mourn him. I didn’t know him. I was glad the reign of fear was over.
Many years later now, I am able to look back with more compassion on my father who was, at the time of my childhood, dying. He was dying and it was a slow, awful death where his heart was slowly failing him, and he was slipping from life while at the same time trying to control it.
I started to peel back the violence from my memory and searched for moments when he was kind to me. It took some time. But I remembered he bought me a small lamp for the dark when I was 5 or 6 because I was so terrified at night I would creep down into my parents bedroom and crawl slowly up into my mom’s bed (in those days they had separate beds) stopping when I heard his gruff complaint at my presence to which my mom always answered, “It’s only Margaret, dear, go back to sleep.”
I remember another time I was dancing in our dining room to some music in my head and he snuck a photo of me. I was really shocked that he’d cared enough to capture the moment but also didn’t know how to act–it was too intimate for such a distant relationship. Or the time he let me keep the kitten I found in a box–begrudingly, with complaints of future fleas and cost, and a Pinteresque pause before yes–then his small gesture to bring the kitten to him as he peered in the box and petted his small head. I can see now he was there, albeit far away, trying to be a father to me, but I was running in the opposite direction and he never had the emotional or physical ability to run after me.
More recently, I found an old letter of his to his older brother in a pile of photos, from a year or so before his death. He acknowledges he’s dying and is clearly sorrowful; at the end of the letter he writes about me, saying “Most of all, I think about little Margaret. That Margaret is really something, full of beans and always surprising me.” That I was in his mind at all came as a complete surprise to me but the tone is even more surprising–one of delight, tinged with deep regret and sorrow, knowing he will never see his daughter grow up, and perhaps having never really been a father to her at all.
Now, a single parent for two decades, I have a much better understanding of what my father must have been feeling and the challenges he faced during that time and wish I could sit with him now and pour us a stiff drink. I think I’d see that he wasn’t a villain. I think I’d see that I’m full of his best qualities: Courage, leadership, tenacity, vision. In fact, I think we’d be close friends.
Here’s to you Frank, wherever you are, bottoms up. See you on the other side.