This post will be out of place. It will not be in content consonant with the tone of the articles or essays that either tend to grab my attention and therefore end up being reblogged, here, or that I myself admittedly very rarely write. It will be personal and forthright and extempore. I don’t know where I will begin, though I already have, or where I will end up . . .
So here, sit down, make yourself comfortable. Let me pour you a cup of coffee or offer you the smoke of your choice, and listen (or not) to what I may have to say, as the person that I truly am, as the child that I once was, to recollections that in their general outlines, if not in their detail, I know are not mine alone, but those of all too many who grew up and still grow up in circumstances similar to what mine were . . .
My life, like yours, has been both a disappointment and a satisfaction. Like most, I’ve lived through difficulties. My childhood, when I recall it from the standpoint of the matter of fact, no-nonsense adult that I think I’ve become, was certainly a difficult time.
I and my three sisters were witnesses to more than a few scenes of brutal domestic violence and to drunken brawls between young men that I imagine had been deeply frustrated in their own lives and aspirations.
The bloody fist fights and broken furniture and, yes, even threatened murders, left us as children, and later as adolescents and young adults, thoroughly traumatized. As children and youths, some of us even now as adults, did not then, and even now do not, really recognize or understand the trauma. A child suffers enduring injury but does not know it; and later, as an adult, the person remembers while not being able to remember, at least not exactly.
Only in retrospect, at a great distance in time, with a mind seasoned by experience, a hard-won education, and years of strenuous reflection undertaken under the guidance of psychoanalytic therapy, did the injuries of both class and upbringing become quite obvious to me.
As for my sisters, the two who remain living, I do not know how they now see and gauge the tribulations of their childhood and youth. I do not often see them nor do we communicate much, no doubt because we remind one another too much of what we would all rather remained forgotten, not to mention that we live in a society that makes of the working class “family” a thing that is truly more fiction than reality.
Certainly, the second to oldest of my three sisters never managed to truly come to terms with any of it. On the surface she was always all laughter and joie de vivre. Because she had a more kind and motherly disposition toward me, her little brother, the youngest of four, she was the one I felt closest to. Then one fine September evening, in her mid-to-late-thirties, herself then living in an abusive relationship that doubtlessly recapitulated much that she had already lived through as a child, she decided that she had enough, and emulated my mother’s father’s suicide by sitting in her car and letting it idle on to the end in the enclosed space of a tiny garage. They kept her on life support for several days, to get all of the proper legal permissions and then harvest what organs they could.
I was deeply saddened, but I was not surprised. In fact, from a conversation that I had with her only a week or so before, I had sensed in what she said, and more so in how she said it, that things were quickly coming to a head for her. I tried to talk her down from the ledge, so to speak, but it was not to be. There was also the complicating fact that two thousand miles of distance separated us, so I could not really be of much immediate assistance to her. She lives in my memory now, at this moment, as I write this, an unforgotten sorrow that might have been otherwise under circumstances only slightly different than they had been.
She had an only son. Not yet a teen but almost at the time. He was also roundly neglected by circumstances, first, by parents who had been too immature and emotionally conflicted to undertake the responsibility of raising a child, and, second, by a society that constrains people to be far too taken up with the business of earning a living to really nurture and protect their children. Now that he is in his thirties, neither I nor anyone I know seems to know what has become of him. The last I heard about him, he had been crippled in an accident. He had been working as a window washer in Calgary, and the highrise window washing rig he was in collapsed. Apparently, he was, at the time that I was receiving word of him, then in receipt of a permanent disability and deeply into drugs.
At about the time that he had just turned nineteen, hearing that he lived more or less abandoned by family and the world, I got in touch with him and enjoined him to come and live with me, my wife and our two children. For the better part of a year he stayed on, and I had even managed to get him into therapy with a competent psychiatrist that I knew personally, and his only other responsibility, as part of the deal for living under our roof, was to attend a remedial education program into which we had him enrol. But after flying home for a short Christmas vacation with dad, who was deeply prejudiced against the idea of anyone needing to have his ‘head examined’ by a shrink, he returned only to abandon his sessions. Then the drug use became even more frequent than it had been, as well as the alcohol binges. I made a decision: if he wasn’t willing to at least try to help himself, there was nothing I could do for him. Besides, my own children were my priority and utmost responsibility. So one dreary winter morning I told him to get his things together, and I drove him to the airport, bought him a one way ticket back to British Columbia and wished him well. My wife got a letter from him once, thanking us for having wanted to help. So it goes sometimes: the hurt lives on, a gift and legacy from one generation to the next.
My father was not really a monster although he committed acts that were in themselves monstrous and unforgivable and that left wounds that would never heal. When he was drunk – a thing that happened frequently enough in the early years of my childhood, say, until about my eighth or ninth birthday, after which the drinking seemed simply to have entirely ceased – he was completely transformed into the opposite of what he actually was when sober.
Sober, he was a genuinely loving and caring person, proud and dignified, self-confident, non-judgmental, very much egalitarian in his behavior, deferential, and above all always, but always de bonne humeur. Drunk, though he did not instigate confrontations with his peers, he was quick to take offence, and once offended, he struck with his fists without warning, viciously and with effect. As a child, witnessing such scenes of sudden unrestrained violence, caught in the midst of it, you know only uncontrollable panic and fear, as if the entire world is about to be annihilated, smashed and broken beyond redemption. And in a way, it was exactly that, emotionally speaking.
However, my father never with intent physically or emotionally abused his children. I can remember one spanking and only one that I myself received, and yes, in my retrospective estimation, it was perhaps a bit overdone. He lashed me with a belt that left welts on my back and legs that lasted for days.
On the evening previous to that lashing — I think I was about nine or ten — I’d gone out fishing for mud pout, and as anyone who fishes them knows, the biting doesn’t start until at least nightfall and sometimes well into the night. My parents had no idea where I was. And when I returned some time past midnight, the two of them were still up and sick with worry. I was admonished not to do that again, at least not without letting them know.
On the following evening, as was quite usual, no one was at home but me and I was terrifically bored – my mother had some years previously bought a flower shop, while my dad worked as a shift-boss at one of the local mines; her days at work started at around seven in the morning and never ended until around nine in the evening; my father’s day would start at around four-thirty in the morning, and since he would go directly from his job at the mine to the flower shop to do his part, it would end when my mother’s did. So it was that in my intense boredom I came to fancy that the fishing would be as good as it had been on the previous evening, that it might be even better, that it would probably never again be as good as it was probably going to be on this particular evening. I couldn’t help myself. I got my fishing rod and headed out into the evening suffused by a sweet anticipation.
It wasn’t until I was walking back home and could see on the stretch of the trail that permitted it, the kitchen lights blazing up ahead, that I realized I’d caused another upset for my parents, that I might be in trouble.
When I entered, I held up my string of decently sized mud pouts, hoping to deflect or soften whatever might be coming my way with my prized catch. My father stared fixedly at me and sternly asked, “what did we tell you last night?” I didn’t get a chance to answer. In the next moment, I was dangling upside down, as he held me in one hand by an ankle, arm outstretched, while whipping me with his leather belt with the other. I don’t know how many lashes I took, but I do remember screaming out in pain, but probably more out of fear, for all that I was worth.
My farther regretted what he did because the following evening, he came home early from work, so as to go fishing for mud pouts with me. That ‘spanking’ was the first and last to which I can remember being subjected.
I want to say that my father was not a control freak, not that I can recall. He let me do pretty much whatever I wanted to, never restricting my comings or goings, or my choice of friends. Not that he would have had to be heavy-handed with supervision or rigid in setting limits, anyway, since I was not a kid apt to go looking for trouble or committing the slightest mischief. And then, I didn’t see much of him, anyway. He was always at work, it seems, and when he wasn’t, he’d be out and about town, doing whatever it was that he was doing, and to me, it was an unknown about which I lacked the least interest.
My sisters, when asked, flatly deny that he was ever abusive with them, too, in words or in deeds, although perhaps he had been a bit stricter with them in terms of what they did in their free time and with whom. But again, it wasn’t really in his nature to be an enforcer of strict rules, and even if he had been tyrannical in this respect, he would never have been around to ensure that his prescriptions would be strictly adhered to.
The domestic abuse for which he was responsible and that deeply affected each of us as children was pointedly directed toward my mother.
My sisters, being older than I, and because my father eventually grew out of his binge drinking, witnessed and remember more than I do and were therefore subjected to more stress. I’ve heard them recount scenes in which my father badly beat my mother, sometimes having gone so far as having punched her in the face. And I assure you, this man had paws for hands, was in his prime powerfully built, and was an accomplished street fighter. Indeed, people in town, when I got older, men who had known my father in his more volatile years, told me that they knew of no one who then dared to or could stand up to him when his mien had become sour and threatening. This is not a fancy of mine. It is the plain and simple fact of the matter as recounted to me. So what my sisters witnessed when he flew off the handle and took it out on my mother was nothing less than absolutely terrifying.
Indeed, of a time that I myself do not remember, being far too young, my older sister recounts that my father had once been put on trial for attempted murder. This is something I would have to actually verify by consulting court records, but my sister assures me of its truth and I have no reason to doubt her except for the fact that she may be misremembering the details of what were the reasons for the court event. If it wasn’t that he had been accused of attempted murder, be it in the second degree, it had certainly been at a minimum for grievous bodily harm. What isn’t in question is that he was indeed tried as a result of having committed an assault.
I bring this event up merely to underscore two points, one about my father, the other about some of the things my sisters and I, but mostly my sisters, were made to witness: he really had been capable of the most extreme violence; and as children we were more than once exposed to it as horrified witnesses. And as pertains to the charge for which he was put on trial, that assault and battery also took place in our home. Only in this case, as the court was to find, my father had been justified in his extreme act of aggression.
Apparently, in the middle of a party that my parents were throwing, one of the male guests slipped upstairs into the room two of my sisters shared, and was there caught by another guest in the middle of sexually assaulting one of my sisters.
I do not know which one of my sisters was assaulted. My oldest sister has never volunteered to divulge the information and neither have my other two sisters. But I do have a hunch.
Anyway and needless to say, when the alarm was raised about what was happening to my sister, my father lost it completely and got hold of the child rapist. And once again my sisters were caught in the middle of another storm that affected them beyond the limits of terror.
As for myself, I witnessed all-out brawls, in our house, on a couple of occasions. Both times, there had been anywhere between half-a-dozen to a dozen individuals. Men that my father had invited home from work. Things got broken. Faces got smashed. People knocked unconscious. My father appeared to me like he was hell-bent on murder and well on his way to achieving his objective. In a state of terror, I cowered under a table or a chair, waiting for an opportunity to make the door and to exit the house, to get as far away from the mayhem as I possibly could. On both occasions, instinct propelled me to the storage shed out back, where I took refuge, certain that people were being massacred.
Then there is this memory: I’m probably not older than five or six. It’s the middle of the night. I’m being swept up into someone’s arms. I’m not certain who it is in my recollection, but it is one of my sisters. Whatever is happening, panic is what is driving the motions of the entire scene. As I’m being carried out of my room, I see my father at what I know is the bathroom door, and he is either pushing at it or flailing at it. I remember making eye contact with him, which we held for a moment. The scene is in my recollection otherwise imprecise and somewhat chaotic.
Next in the sequence, clear as day, is that I’m being carried through deep snow by someone who is scantily dressed and struggling to make headway, and I, too, am in my pajamas, and we are moving in the direction of the neighbour’s house, which isn’t that far away. Then whoever has carried me, frantically knocks at the door. Someone opens the door and lets us in. I also remember that I was at that neighbour’s house for some time afterwards. Maybe a day. Maybe longer. I do recall that it felt like an eternity and that I could not wait to be back home.
So this, according to my sisters, is roughly what had taken place: there was a row between my parents. My father started to beat my mother. She managed in the course of being assaulted to take refuge into the bathroom. My father got his hunting knife, returned and called to my mother behind the door and told her he was going to rip through the door with the knife and that when he got through, he was going to knife her to death. This is all according to the way that incident was clarified to me by my sisters, who evidently witnessed the scene pretty much from the start, up until my father began knifing the bathroom door, whereupon they all exited the house, but not before one of them remembered to fetch me out of my bed. So what I saw as I was being carried out of my bedroom, was my father beginning his business with the bathroom door.
How the confrontation was resolved, I don’t know. My mother was not knifed to death as my father had promised he would do. The police or neighbors must have intervened, but my father, I don’t think, was ever charged with anything relating to this matter, and my mother never left my father, despite all of what he put her through. It was really fucked up, and I could go on and on, as for many years and in my childhood the domestic situation was punctuated with such incidents.
Of course, there wasn’t really any option for mother. It was the 1960s. She had four kids and she was in an economic trap, thoroughly dependent upon my father for both her and her children’s economic welfare. No doubt, breaking this dependence had been the primary motivation for her buying the flower shop, which was eventually made possible for her by a loan made to her by her father. And as if by coincidence, coincident with the purchase of the flower shop, my father’s moments of insanity simply ceased. Of course, there is no mystery to this. Suddenly, whatever financial pressures he had until then been under began to be alleviated by the additional income now being generated by the business. It made a world of difference. Everything changed, for him and for the rest of us.
I also believe that despite everything, my mother really loved my father, as we all did. As I already hinted, he wasn’t only a monster. When not unhinged — most of the time he was not — he was without artifice genuinely gentle and loving, capable of much laughter and mirth. But he was afflicted, at least for a time and as a younger man, with a terrible temper. And though I know he would never have intentionally harmed his children, he actually ended up doing more harm than he ever regrettably knew, but probably no less than was done to him by his own childhood circumstances. Life had been hard and it had left its marks, and we bore part of the brunt of that.
So now we live, those of us still living, in the aftermath of such childhood incidents. They don’t explain everything about us, but do explain some things, I think, in the way that many factors always combine to pressure and mold a personality into this or that manner.
One of my sisters is dead. I was myself often on the verge of committing suicide from adolescence on through to my early thirties; I was also mistaken by a psychiatrist to be suffering from schizophrenia in my early twenties, not because I was, but because at the time that she made the diagnosis, as someone recently suggested to me, I was that disorganized emotionally and cognitively. That period of disorganization in my life is well behind me, now, and on the whole I am probably better adjusted than most. I couldn’t have reached this point in my life without a great deal of help from a handful of individuals, but primarily on account of the support I received from my wife, who I met in high school and with whom I’ve been living for more than 38 years. As for my two surviving sisters, things remain tough emotionally.
You do not have to directly either psychologically or physically abuse a child to traumatise him or her. Merely witnessing such things is enough to break a child’s mind, and the break is not necessarily immediately evident. The depth and breadth of it manifests in time and later, as the pressures to mature begin to intensify, in the years of adolescence and early adulthood, and even later. I myself was lucky, I think. Many are not.
So there you have it, a brief and partial snapshot of one aspect of my childhood. If I decide to follow this up with anything else, maybe I’ll follow up with some personal reminiscences of what it was like outside the home, in the neighborhood and at school, places with which all of us are also familiar, having experiences that more or less overlap.