My father was a son-of-a-bitch. I tried to tell him so several times. I’d hoped to cut him deeply with those words. My goal was pay back. Not for myself but for my younger brother, Ronnie. I finally gave up the idea. Not because he was getting old, but because he would have found the label somehow appealing. He liked to think of himself as a formidable tough guy. That’s what he thought an S.O.B. was. My definition of the term was less powerful. It had more to do with false bravado and a bully’s tantrums.
When I was a child, our father’s rages terrified the entire family. Collectively we’d try to appease the beast at any cost. We’d stumble over each other in an attempt to get him his shot of whiskey and a salted can of beer when he growled, “Gimme a beer,” to no one in particular. But it was my job to intervene those times he cycloned through the house in search of a misplaced newspaper or cowering tool. I was his favorite, cute and coy. I used my Shirley Temple smile and wide brown eyes to soothe him. “You sit down, Daddy. I’ll find it for you.”
Usually we could see those storms as they began to build, and we could remove the offending catalyst or run for cover. Sometimes, however, he’d deceive us. He would appear calm, and, since he seldom spoke, we had only his overt behavior to use as a temperature gauge.
One summer evening the family was seated around the long walnut dining table that filled most of our kitchen. As usual we all sat patiently waiting for our father to take his seat at the head of the table. We were silent. Hungry flies buzzed and bumped against the screened back door. Far off sounds of children playing seeped into the quiet room through opened windows. Dishes piled high with oniony meatloaf, steaming baked potatoes, and sliced tomatoes the size of grapefruit clustered around a platter pyramided with corn-on-the-cob. The heat of the waiting dinner rose in the room and mingled with the humid Minnesota summer air. It appeared the food was meant only for our father since it was all jammed conveniently close to his plate. The rest of the table seemed bare and starved. Five children sat waiting with growling bellies and apprehension. It was tough to stay out of his way at the dinner table. We were all within easy reach.
When our father took his place he seemed his usual taciturn self. Five sets of wary eyes watched him proceed to serve himself from the various dishes. At one point he stretched to reach a small plate of neatly stacked bread and almost toppled the pile. An audible sigh of relief chorused from us when the stack righted itself. A minor accident like spilled bread could cause fists and curses to fly. None of us was safe from the stomach tightening curses, but only one of us ever had to worry about when to duck. Our father reserved his blows for Ronnie Junior alone.
Ronnie was a homely kid, tall for the age of ten, buck-toothed and awkward. He had large, warm, trusting brown eyes, unless our father was near. Then his eyes took on a squint and he seemed to wither and become even clumsier. Ronnie had a habit of pulling his head sharply toward his right shoulder and crossing his hands in front of his face whenever our father called his name.
When Dad wasn’t around Ronnie was boisterous and irritatingly eager. He’d bounce around with excitement, like a puppy, all enthusiasm and curiosity. Maybe it was this combination of liveliness and awkwardness that drew our father’s displeasure. Whenever Ronnie crossed his path, Dad would shudder slightly, clench his fists, and curl back his lips as if he tasted something bitter.
The dinner ordeal was almost over. Plates were empty except for well-gnawed corn cobs and a few hunks of onion hidden under napkins. We were all starting to relax a bit. Our bellies were full and Dad hadn’t uttered a word yet. A sudden burst of noise from outside gave us all a start. Butch, a friend of Ronnie’s, stormed up our driveway on his bike. A playing card clothes-pinned to the spokes of his tire gave off a staccato rat-a-tat-tat as he barreled toward our back porch. The dust he’d stirred up sifted through the screens and tickled our noses.
“Ronnie!” he hollered in the fashion of the day, “Can Ronnie come out and play?”
In his puppy dog eagerness to join his friend, Ronnie forgot his manners, gulped down the end of his milk, and turned ready to bolt for the door. He didn’t get far. Dad’s fist was faster than Ronnie. The back of a meaty hand caught him full in the face before he could leave his chair. Ronnie and the chair fell flat on their backs, fused together by the blow. The rest of us held our breath, afraid to run for cover. Moving prey is always more inviting. An unnatural gurgling drifted up from under the table as Ronnie slowly pulled himself off the floor, steadying himself with the edge of the table.
“May I be excused?” he choked through milky blood that bubbled from his nose and mouth.
Our father seemed somewhat spent, his venom drained. He held his usual curses and only nodded his reply. Ronnie cleaned his face with a swipe of his napkin and rebounded out the door. He seemed relieved that Dad had finally hit him. The suspense of waiting for the inevitable blow must have been more painful than the backhand.
I remember the heavy, sick feeling that started in my stomach then moved out like a cancer to fill my whole body. Hot, stinging tears filled my eyes and throat. I tried to swallow, but hate crawled up my throat. I jumped out of my chair with lips pressed tightly together. “Son-of-a-bitch!” my mind screamed. I glared at our father, silently challenging him to strike me for not asking to be excused. But he was shrunken down and shriveled up and wouldn‘t meet my eyes.
Many years later, our father would choose to die alone, leaving me to wonder if he was unable to tuck this memory and others like it deep away in elderly forgetfulness. I’m not surprised that he would be too ashamed to face his children, but he wasn’t too ashamed to expect that my oldest sister would look after him. She was the only one around when he died, and he repaid her with salacious stories of women he’d known and an alcoholic’s vomit and excrement encrusted toilet to clean. His last words were insults to his children, “Ungrateful bastards!” Only part of his epithet was true. We were ungrateful. The later descriptor was a wish I am sure each of his nine children held close to their hearts and minds.
During their teens, my five brothers had each established their independence from our father in a familiar scenario. A disagreement would lead to pushes or a wrestling match. Flailing fists would invariably miss their marks, but not their intent. The four girls all left as early as possible in less dramatic fashion, an early marriage or unplanned pregnancy.
I finally had my say years later during a spur-of-the-moment phone call I felt compelled to make. With the sounds of my young sons playing outside the kitchen window, I paced back and forth as I chastised my father for his failings as a parent. I didn’t buy his excuse: He’d had a lousy father, he whined.
“So did I,” I reminded him, “And, I am a good mother in spite of it.”