MAY 22, 2012 1:00PM


Rate: 17 Flag


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.” 

Your tags:


Enter the amount, and click "Tip" to submit!
Recipient's email address:
Personal message (optional):

Your email address:


Type your comment below:
I offered a version of this post as my first at OS almost a year ago. Since bullying is an open call and Fathers' Day approaches, it seems time to cough it up once again. I say "cough it up" because writing the first version decades ago was like spewing forth an obstacle blocking my throat. Once I put this story on paper, the rest of my childhood began to reveal its dark side. The knowledge was a double-edged sword. It brought back some painful moments, but I began to understand myself and my siblings, and I found my voice. Hello.
This is brilliant and done w such controlled feeling. Rated.
In all the years I raised my step-son I only spanked him one time, one swat on his four-year-old bottom... he proved to be a trial in his adolescence, a high school dropout and bouts with alcohol just like his Dad, but now that he's thirty-two with a three-year-old boy of his own, he's the best father anyone could ever hope for.
It was a fine post a year ago and just as fine a second time round. Then again, good writing usually is.
"Moving prey is always more inviting." truer words :/
good for you for calling him and speaking your piece (peace?).
Once again,the old horror looks around the corner.
What a dreadful experience!
Is Ronnie the one that has Alzheimers now?
I wonder...

Jon: Controlled feeling...yes, after the fact, it's easier to control the feelings. Thank you.

jmac: I hear you. The only time my boys were spanked was that swat on the butt when a motorist stopped to let me know they'd been throwing rocks at cars driving by. They grew up to be pretty spectacular, loving men. Megwich :-)

Brad: Thank you for the reread. I've revised many of these personal stories into a novel. Now I am revising the novel. I'll let everyone know if/when the novel is available.

Julie: Peace...yes. I might steal that pun and use it in my revision. Well said, and thank you.

Heidi: Tom, my oldest brother has Alzheimers. Ronnie grew into a wonderful father and grandfather. He looks like a good looking Geraldo Rivera or Tony Orlando and still has black hair at 60. And thank you for reading.

Now, I need to catch up on reading others.

You just made every other one of us who had drunken, abusive fathers cringe in fear and empathy.

I'd like to say "good job", but I can't.
Good parents are the greatest blessing of childhood. Bad parents... I am so glad you and your siblings survived. I you don't mind I will agree with you... your father was a lousy son of a bitch. R Duke
I missed this (and you) a year ago. Thank you for turning me on to your life, even if it's just a slice. Sometimes, it's good to write about these things. Sometimes I think I ought to send Kerry a check for being my therapist!
Duke said if for me.

My childhood was peaceful compared to yours.
Glad we are here to talk about it. Father's Day is another one of
those St. Hallmark days. We are obliged to remember, even if we don't care to.
“So did I,” I reminded him, “And, I am a good mother in spite of it.” That is the winning sρirit and your story is a lesson that insρided what you have lived you turned out to be the just oρροssite..A beautiful,loving being!!!Rated with many wishes,Beauty!!!
Amy: Thanks. What amazes me is that all eight of my siblings, even Ronnie, were smart enough to know our father was NOT a good role model and became good parents in spite of it all.

Duke: Appreciate your comments. One thing our father did for us--he made us tough. A Texan aught to appreciate that ;-)

Scanner: Megwich (Ojibwe for 'thank you'). Writing this stuff down has been therapeutic. I started telling these stories strategically to some of my students years ago...and found it sometimes helped them too.

Ande: It does help to talk about it. The more I remembered of my childhood, the more I understood myself.
Stathi: Your words are much appreciated. I wish every child could have loving, supportive parents like my daughter and her partner are with my beautiful granddaughter. Every child certainly deserves good parents.
Hi. It's a terribly sad story but gripping nonetheless and very well-written. The sense of place and time is very strong and the pacing is good--together with a number of your other stories, I think you would have a lovely novel indeed.
Most of the rest of us don't know how lucky we are. Was it explained elsewhere why Ronnie was the target of such maliciousness?
Many compliments to your skilled pen: '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.'
I understand this more than I want to admit.
But glad to see this written, whether reposted or not. TY for your courage.
MWG: We both have a good novel in us, I suspect. It was easier than I thought to turn these memoirs into character building moments of the protagonist in a novel. Unfortunately, I fudged the ending just to "complete" it. It rang untrue, so I am back at it. Thanks for the words of encouragement.

JP: Your words, coming from a poet, are highly valued. There is a back story to Ronnie being victimized, but I only know bits and pieces. Your question is timely. I need to develop that motivation as I transform memoir to novel. I think my father identified himself with Ronnie, Jr. What I assume was my father's self-loathing was acted out on the son named for him.

Mission: Thanks for reading and commenting. Some of my best writing comes from dark or painful memories, so at least some good has come out of it all.
I'm glad you wrote it and got it out. It would have eaten you up otherwise. Now you can let it go, and as you said, continue with the voice that is yours. Hope your world is filled with beauty as your name suggests.

What you describe could almost be my family dinners at times. And I think if I called my dad a "son of a bitch" he'd beam with pride just like you imagined for your dad.

I hadn't seen your name come up until yesterday in the comments section of my blog: Why I Don't Wish My Dad, "Happy Father's Day."

Everything seems to spin back in on itself in similarity when I read this piece. Unlike you (and most people I have met and spoken with at length) I remember it all. I always did. And even so, I did my best to love my dad, support him and be with him.

For what? I can't answer that other than to say that I always felt that there was a spark, maybe only an ember, of good in him that maybe, just maybe, I could tease out of him and fan into a flame that might last. It was not to be.

Even so, to this day, I still hope. Not for me, mind you, because that train's long out of the station. For anyone else he meets and entangles into his life, though, I hope that the spark is not gone -- for their sake.

Yes, parents can be bullies. Sometimes they are the worst, because there is so very little a child can do about it.

I loved what you said, when your father excused his behavior by saying, "I had a lousy father." Like you, so did I -- and I didn't become one, not in spite of it, but because of it.

You can learn how to be a good person by being around a bad person as well, if not better, than being around only good people.
I hadn't seen this. It reveals a lot. My mother's father and my wife's father were abusive. (no accident) One died a derelict, the other locked in a room by his "caregiver."

Of her three sisters, however, my mother was the only one to forgive her father with the words: "he had a father too and suffered" and my mother had by far the most successful and productive life of her siblings. My wife never forgave her father fully, but she tried. He was a bastard until the end.

The suffering that results from such abuse extends throughout the marriage of the victims and for generations to come. (I know from experience) Hopefully, with more women able to take control of their lives and limit the children they have by males unable to handle the stress fewer will suffer, and a greater acceptance of programs for alcohol abuse and therapy will help--we can hope--at least for those who take advantage of them.
what are u doing now beauty. did you finish the novel?