I wanted desperately for my hand to be as big as my father’s. Strong. Competent. His commanding grasp holding my little four-year-old hand. We’re on the commuter train from Long Island to Manhattan, to his office. It is a special day. To board the train together, hold his hand and spend the day. All I wanted in the world was for my hand to be that big, that powerful.
Crack! My father’s hand against my cheek. He awakens me from sleep. I’m lying on the 1970’s deep gold-coloured carpet in my bedroom, having a sleepover. My two best friends are asleep in the bunkbed. We are about 13 years old and all startle awake to his sharp voice. I don’t remember what he said. Or what I could possibly have done to provoke such violence. But I certainly remember how ashamed I felt. Humiliated and hurt in front of my friends.
He was a complicated man.
I knew, growing up, that he was usually quite proud of me. For my accomplishments in sports and music, for being successful academically and then politically as a student leader in university. We had good strategic conversations in my early 20’s and his advice to me was steeped in wisdom borne of his own political and union activity as a younger man. He instilled in me a drive to make the world a better place, to “make a contribution”.
Living my own life away from the family from the age of 18, I developed some distance from the bad memories, the scary rages that punctuated my childhood. Like when at age 8, I would bolt from the dinner table, race up the stairs in leaps and bounds to climb the ladder to my top bunk, diving for the corner of the bed by the wall where he could not reach to swat me.
Today we might say that he had poor impulse control. In reality, given the family mental health constellation — my own included — I think it would be more accurate to say he suffered from what was then called manic depression. His moods dominated the family and I grew up believing the dark times were my fault.
My mother once sought professional counsel to ask what she was doing wrong. But I think she also loved his fire. I have in mind that she found him exciting when courting, maybe even a little dangerous, and thus even more interesting. He was definitely a passionate man. Her own father had been more sedate, a conservative lawyer with solid social standing. My father, artistic and political, represented the promise of a more exhilarating life.
What she did not perhaps expect — or deal with adequately — was the effect of his rages on us children. I can only speak for myself and in my adult life, after a series of relationship (mis)adventures, I seek intimacy with men who are constant, more measured emotionally than my father. I shy away from anger that is expressed toward me and am learning how to channel my own productively. I only ever experienced the ‘over the top’ variety while growing up.
And yet, some of my greatest strengths derive from this man. He had a profound appreciation for intellectual pursuits. Something he didn’t have an opportunity to follow because of his decision to leave university and fight fascism in the Second World War. Four of his five children have earned PhD’s or the equivalent. And the fifth is an erudite poet. We all recognize that some of our love of learning and drive are linked to him.
Later, moving away from home, separating definitively from the chaos of the family dinner table, where plates occasionally sailed across the room, allowed me to steer my own body image into a more positive zone. I learned that I did not have to carry his pain. But even now, it’s an effort daily to balance my self-esteem and body weight; it occupies a psychological space way beyond its genuine importance.
My father’s legacy continues.
Notwithstanding the deep scars, he was a loving father. A romantic, he would regale an imaginary audience with Rogers and Hammerstein tunes while I accompanied him on the piano. He passed on his love of music whether classical, blues or jazz.
Once in my late 20’s when I was considering having a child on my own, it was the cause of some consternation in the household. My father took me to lunch and told me that “any baby of yours will bounce on my knee.” His constancy in that situation gave me peace of mind.
My father’s hands were caring but they were also a weapon to be feared. For years I walked on eggshells, hoping not to inflame his anger. I believe counselling and medication could have blunted his rages. Maybe seeking treatment would have allowed him to harness his own passion and energy into something more positive than the damaging emotional unpredictability I experienced.
I believe the fact that the illness and emotional abuse was unnamed contributed to the challenging family portrait. If only someone had said to me, with patience and consistency when my father acted out, “Miriam, it’s not your fault, you’ve done nothing wrong,” the essence of my very being would have developed differently.
In one sense my father was just a guy trying to raise his family the best way he knew how. Is it fair for me to judge him with my 2020 lens? I have read that the pathway to healing from trauma can involve forgiveness. Am I truly ready to move into that space or is that letting him off the hook too easily?
The hands that cradled me were not always gentle and that partially explains some of the fault lines in my own psyche. So be it. Today I choose to live well, manage my own mental health challenges, and try not to repeat his mistakes. Of course, I am fully capable of making my own.