Education was as important to my father as it was unimportant to my mother. Separated by a twenty year age difference, they were so very different from each other in so many respects, one might begin to believe in the old adage “opposites attract”. But they also had much in common. Each had experienced the harshness that life had to offer, and each had responded by hiding their sensitivities inside fists of iron.
Mom had her troubles. She had lost almost fifty percent of her hearing in giving birth to Debbie. Along with that, she developed kidney problems which followed her the rest of her life. Between his health troubles and hers, even the most easy going family would have suffered stress. But we were not that family. Mom worried about Dad and at the same time struggled to hear even ordinary conversation in relative quiet. She suffered through several unsuccessful surgeries to improve her hearing and multiple surgeries for kidney stones over the years. When Dad had a bad night from the pain of his arthritis, she worried. When he had a heart attack, she was beside herself. We kids were incidental to the drama taking place at home, and we were kept out of the way, for the most part. When we were expected to join them, we were there to add enjoyment to their lives, not to add to the stress.
They were soft with each other, but hard on their children. Harshness was all they had known themselves as children. It was also true that given what they saw as our privileged position in life, they seemed determined to raise us to be well-behaved children who would take nothing for granted. We were expected to come to the dinner table properly dressed, with freshly washed hands and our hair brushed. We were expected to say please and thank you for every request, keeping our elbows off the table and speaking only when we were spoken to. We also had to finish everything on our plates and drink all the milk in the large glasses we’d been given. After all, there were starving children all over the world who would give anything to have what we had on our plates. Thankfully, our pekingese, Pitapat, was always lurking under the table, waiting for whatever we might manage to pass her way when we could manage it. She even ate broccoli.
The milk was a different problem however. In Florida, where the weather is so hot, it seemed that milk would spoil more easily, and there were many times we were told to sit at the dinner table for hours after everyone had gone for the sake of finishing the glass. My father could not detect the flavor of spoiled milk, and would return to the table to check on the progress, meeting protests that the milk was bad with a sampling thereof and the inevitable edict to finish it. “Do it now!”, he’d say angrily, “There’s nothing wrong with it!”. Much weeping and gagging would ensue until he stalked off and the maid Roseanne, or Greg would come in after a while, taste the milk, and in hearty sympathy, secretly empty the glass for us. Mom was too fearful of displeasing Dad to contradict him, and we were too fearful of both to dare do it ourselves.
I was born left handed. Early on, my father had decided that this was not going to be good for me into adulthood. Life as a lefty was inconvenient, in his opinion. At the dinner table, his method of convincing me to use my right hand was to smack the offending hand sharply with the butt of his knife whenever I used it, until I stopped using it entirely. This was done however, not in anger, but as a matter of course. It was only recently, that I realized that when showering, I still use my left hand to wash myself. He was never present at my bath times and this is the oddly amusing result.
This being said, my father’s temper was legendary. Even grownups tiptoed around him, knowing to stay on his good side, as there was hell to pay at other. My older sister always said that he only had to hit you once to make you fear him the rest of your life- and it was true. We all had an immense fear of our father’s anger. Our mother was somewhat less frightening. Her large perfectly manicured hands were painful when they made contact, and she was quick to use them on us. We called her “leather hands” behind her back, but we never feared her in the same way we feared our father.
His anger was different. When it was directed toward other grownups- his stock broker or those who worked for him- his voice boomed throughout the house as he yelled into the phone, calling them on the carpet for one mistake or another, and cutting them to ribbons with his invectives. Still, in those situations, he confined himself to social norms. He didn’t direct his fury at us often. It was only a few times, but as my sister said, even once was enough. His anger seemed to well up from something dark, primordial and boundless like the ocean, and when it swelled, it was a fearsome thing like no other I have ever known. His eyes would go wild and the veins would stand out on his neck. As much as it seemed from the shaking of his entire body that he was fighting to contain himself, with his arms at his sides, his fists clenched, he would stand with his eyes fixed on you. At that point, it was only a matter of time before the rising impulse would completely overtake him- and we knew that it would be best to run, hide and pray to God he didn’t find us before the explosion came. When he was like that, my mother and the others in the house would step out of the way. There was no stopping him.
Once, as a preteen, I was walking across the living room dressed in a pair of shorts and a midi top, which was tied in a knot just under my chest. Between the top and the hip hugger shorts, my belly was laid bare, and he didn’t like the effect. As he passed me, he made a comment that I should “take that off” and put on something more appropriate. To this day, I don’t know what possessed me, but I suppose the teenager was emerging, and I replied under my breath, “Shut up.” I didn’t expect he would hear it, but he did. From behind me, a voice boomed, “What did you say?” I knew before I turned that I had made a terrible mistake, but it was too late. There he stood, in all his glorious fearsomeness, glaring at me and trembling from head to foot. It was a split second before he bounded toward me, raising his fist and swinging it downward at the side of my face. The blow landed and knocked me off my feet. I lay on the powder blue carpet seeing stars, when he said, “Get up!”. I could barely steady myself on my feet, when another blow came and again he told me to stand up. I had a vague awareness at the time that my mother arrived saying, “Not in her face Joe! Not in her face!”, all along calling to him from a safe distance. After that, all I can remember is that at some point, I couldn’t stand up again. He stalked off, leaving me alone on the floor. Everyone was gone. No one came to check on me or help me get up. I don’t know how long I lay there, afraid to move. At some point, he came back out of his bedroom and scooped me up and carried me to a chair. Holding me in his lap, he rocked me, repeating, “I’m sorry Helen, I’m sorry.” It was the first and only time I ever heard my father apologize. After a short lifetime in the house with this man, at the age of thirteen, I suddenly had an inkling of my father’s softer side; ironically at the same moment in which I had experienced his most brutal. It was the moment that changed forever my impression of him, as up until then, he had never held me, never spoken to me tenderly, never begged me for my forgiveness. I had gotten a peek at the human behind the fist, the damaged and fragile person behind the hard exterior- a person like me- with sorrows and fears- and feelings. Such was the ambiance of the household until then for me and all of us- a bed of granite on which we lay our tender young heads.
Debbie was the one who seemed most affected by the stressful nature of our parents behaviors. I recall there came a time when if Dad so much as looked sideways at Debbie during dinner, she either wet her seat or threw up into her plate. It might have seemed excessive to the uninitiated, but the tense atmosphere of the household was extreme, known only to those who lived there.