Once Upon a Time in the Suburbs

–How one night left an indelible mark.

Once upon a time, there was a mother, a father, and three children.

The eldest child, a girl, was four years ahead of her brother who, by personality, was the epitome of the “middle child” and ten years older than their baby sister, who was a “mistake.” Or so it was said.

Many years later she would prove to be the best mistake the couple ever made.

The family lived in a lovely home in a predominantly Jewish suburb of Chicago. Neither the father, a Jew nor the mother, Italian, and gentile, practiced their respective religions. All holidays were celebrated equally, with lots of delicious food and for the adults, plenty of alcohol to wash it down.

The kids attended school. The father worked as a salesman. And the mother was a homemaker until she accepted a position as an office manager at a renowned Italian eatery in the city.

Although from the outside, the family seemed to be like any other “normal” American family — parents, kids, a dog or two — there was a darkness that loomed over their home and seeped into every crack and crevice. And try though they might to pretend it didn’t exist, the parents, especially, submitted to that darkness and wore it like a shroud.

The parents were not happy people. Either of them. They married very young, the father went off to Korea and the mother gave birth to their first child. Surely they had dreams. So many dreams that died on the vine while they struggled to be responsible adults in a world that was passing them by.

Neither the mother nor the father had ever gone to college. The father, especially, grappled with that his whole life. After all, he was Jewish! He could have been a doctor or a lawyer. Instead, he was a salesman.

The tragedy there was the father never gave himself the credit he deserved for supporting his family, building a home and paying it off and for so many other responsibilities that he shouldered, day after day, year after year.

And so he drank. Every day. And, because he tried to quell his unhappiness with alcohol, so did the mother.

The father got mean when he drank too much, which was most of the time. The mother had a temper, too, and was adept at using words as weapons.

Many nights, the father went out after work and drank into the wee hours. Sometimes with a friend or two and others, by himself.

The oldest daughter would lie awake and wait for him to come swearing and stumbling, into the house. Her dog would cower next to her on the bed, or often under it, waiting for the abuse that always followed his arrival home.

The father would let the dog out in the yard and when she didn’t do her business fast enough to suit him, he would yell and curse and sometimes hit her. And this was a man who loved dogs, and all animals. The dog, yelping, would scramble up the stairs and back under her bed.

It was horrible to hear and the daughter hated him for this. To this day, she can hear the sounds. Still.

And then the arguments would start. Vicious back and forths between the mother and father. Unless both were too tired to keep at one another, the fighting would escalate to frightening proportions.

The baby sister, thankfully, was too young to remember much of this time, but her siblings were privy to things no child should ever have to see or hear.

Alcohol turned the father into a monster. It is doubtful whether or not he even realized who and what he’d become.

There was talk that his own father had abused his mother. And, as the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, he abused his wife.

When their oldest child thought about this years later, she realized that she harbored an early memory of her father slapping her mother, and her mother crying on the bed. No more than five years old at the time — perhaps younger, the tableau was seared into her brain.

One night, over and above all the other booze-fueled brawls, stands out for the two older siblings. The mother and father were angrier than usual. Loud. Shouting. The mother was alternately crying and screaming. The sister and brother cowered in his bedroom, unsure as to what to do. The boy’s bedroom was across the hall from the parents’ room. The sister and brother could see what was going on. And, in the seeing, were forever scarred.

The father had a weapon. That is all that can be said. The sister looked at her brother, just a little boy, his whole body trembling…a baseball bat in his hand.

The rest of that night is fuzzy. The police may or may not have been called by the older sister. She remembers calling them on at least one occasion, but is unsure, perhaps deliberately so, of what transpired and when.

The two sisters no longer speak to their brother, so the older sister can’t ask him to fill in the blanks for what was in essence, a waking nightmare. And the baby sister, again, thankfully, was oblivious. Or so her older sister would prefer to believe. The fact that the older sister and brother are estranged is especially tragic as they both grapple with demons because of that night. The little boy started wetting the bed and grinding his teeth, and the girl…

If they were speaking today, perhaps they could comfort one another. Or at least, derive comfort in knowing they’re not alone with their memories. Someone else has them, too. Someone else is scarred, too. He probably wouldn’t want anyone to know this story. Not a bunch of strangers, certainly. Or, not anyone. That said, he has always been closed-off. But there’s a look in his eyes, the sister recollects, that hints at that scared little boy. The one holding a baseball bat in his trembling hand. On that terrible night.

The older sister suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and anxiety and knows enough about the first, to understand that it can often be the result of childhood trauma. She tries not to dwell on it. After all, what is there to do?

But it is always there. Lurking. Waiting for a weak moment when she allows her mind to just…drift. She also has to be ever-vigilant of her own drinking. The fallout from the gene pool, after all.

Over the years, as they aged, the mother and father mellowed. They still drank and fought and spewed vitriol at one another, but without the fervor of earlier years. They loved each other. And they hated each other.

And there was forgiveness, of a sort. Even though no one talked of that night.

The older sister grew up to be a writer and penned a screenplay about her relationship with her parents when all three were diagnosed with cancer. Stage 4 lung cancer for the mother and father, and breast cancer for her. She even wrote about that night.

She survived. They did not.

A writer always wonders, “Should I tell this story? Who will I hurt and is it worth it?”

There is no right answer. Only the knowledge that sometimes, in the telling, lies the healing. If only for a little while.


Sherry McGuinn
Sherry McGuinn
Sherry McGuinn is a long-time, Chicago area, advertising/marketing writer, blogger and, for the last fifteen years, screenwriter. A big-time dreamer and proud of it, Sherry has had two short films produced, one in L.A., the other in New York. Both won several awards and screened at festivals but she is still "fighting the good fight," in order to become a full-time, working screenwriter. A passionate straight-shooter who never rests on her laurels, Sherry writes about damn near everything because how do you encapsulate…life? Unflinching in her determination to “just tell the truth,” Sherry strives to educate, engage and inspire others to follow their dreams. A lifelong animal lover and advocate, Sherry resides in a Chicago suburb with her husband and their three fabulous felines.

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  1. What a powerful story Sherry. I too grew up with an alcoholic father and an abusive mother so it was very close to home. I wonder if you have read the book “The Body Keeps The Score” by Bessel Van der Kolk. It describes a lot of the science behind the cancer they all faced. And as you mentioned in your tale, even if the baby doesn’t remember, I’m sure her body recalls the toxic stress from that night. Thank you for sharing this one.

    • Thank you so much, JoAnna. I’m finding that many people share similar memories. I can’t even begin to speculate on what that means, at the end of the day. No, I haven’t read the book but I will certainly look into it, now. With all the recent talk about inflammation and the fact that stress is a major catalyst, I’m not surprised at our “triple diagnosis.” Again, thank you.

  2. Sherry — Like a superb orchestral piece, your writing gradually takes us to a crescendo – that night – and a point where I was almost afraid to continue reading for what might come next. Yours was an upbringing that no one should have to endure, and it forces me to reexamine my own. That said, your childhood experiences couldn’t snuff out your ability to dream nor your ability to persevere. Thank you for a very moving share.

    • Jeff, your comment moves me to my soul. I hardly know what to say, other than, “thank you so much.” There were good times, too, but often, I find myself dwelling on the not-so-good. Or, the horrific. I suppose it’s fortunate that I’m a writer, otherwise, who knows what bottling up memories like these could lead to? I deeply appreciate your reading and commenting.

  3. Sherry, I’m not sure where to begin, but I’ll start by saying I admire the courage you demonstrate not only by sharing this heart-wrenching story, but also the strength and resilience that shines through despite the trauma you went through. I cannot imagine what it must have been like to endure the pain you did. However, from it, a beautiful, compassionate, and uplifting voice was born: Yours.

    There are times when I sit down to write and wonder whether I should share my stories also. Some I have, while others hover. You sharing your story reminds me of the Manifesto of the Brave and Brokenhearted by Brene Brown. While each line of it is melodically powerful, the ending thoughts are my favorite:

    Showing up is our power.
    Story is our way home. Truth is our song.
    We are the brave and brokenhearted.
    We are rising strong.

    You, Sherry, are rising strong, and I am so grateful to have the opportunity to read your truth.

  4. Sherry, I’m so full of emotion after reading this “story.” This experience and, perhaps far too many like it, has left scars that will remain for years. I think that so many can relate to that scared little kid inside who still deals with pain, trauma, hurt, grief, etc. Thank you for having the courage to share this and for your ability to connect with others who may be searching for the words you’ve so artfully found. Your writing is a treasure here.

    • Melissa, dear, when I read comments like yours I get choked up. Like so many of us, I grapple with whether or not I should be writing these stories. But you graciously make me feel that I’ve done the right thing. I never want to dishonor my parents, whom I loved and still do, but I can’t undo what happened. So, there it is. Thank you so much. This means a great deal.

  5. Sherry, in reading this story it opened the windows of time for me in many ways which I had closed. If I did not know better I would think you knew me as a child growing up, almost to a tee. In our world of pain and horrible memories as children, we are lucky and blessed as you are to make it into adulthood, perhaps not as whole as some are even luckier to never know such drama. I am not sure of your faith base and I am always careful that when I mention mine, (Devout Catholic) that I make sure they know that all I speak of in this area is my own opionion and thoughts and beliefs. For me I know that if it was not for God, having a hold on me in some way, I never would have made it. Even now after retiring from Law Enforcement and seeing the things that as a child I experienced personally, God was there and today I find my peace in the Saints, the Martyrs, Holy Scripture and Holy Mass. That works for me, and since I don’t know you, I find that when I read posts of those on this website, I take them by name into prayer and look to reading more of what comes to paper over time. I will remember to name you in prayer. Thank you. One thing I have learned is that it takes strength and courage to write about one’s life as you have done. God Bless.

    • Lynn, your comment touched me deeply. Thank you. I’ll be as honest as you’ve been to me: I don’t know what I believe. All I know is, I’m still searching. I try to believe in myself, but that’s really not enough, is it? I don’t know and that is my sincere answer. But I will happily take your prayers and offer up my own, for you. This means a lot to me. Thank you, again.

    • It is not unusual for many to say they don’t know what they believe, but I will say that for you to be as honest and clear as you seem to be, that in itself (in my opinion is closure and healing in many ways), I will ask God to open some path in your heart that will lead you to a place where you will know for certain a peacefulness and love that can only (in my opinion) come from HIM. He had to be there as He was for me to bring you through all the hurt, and pain. I know for sure there is always hope, no matter what. Look forward to reading future posts.

  6. A terrible, upsetting experience, a trauma that often conditions a whole life.
    I actually read somewhere that among the useful solutions to put into practice to help forget those negative or sad memories is to write. Writing has a deeply therapeutic power; thanks to it, you can bring out all the negative things that we have in your mind.
    However, I believe that enormous courage is needed to tell such a dramatic experience and, if this really can help, I am the first to be happy that you can find this relief.

  7. To say the least, you are a survivor Sherry. I applaud your willingness and courage to share, not to mention the style in which you do so. Surely putting pen to paper (fingers to keyboard) brings healing in the telling. Thanks for sharing.

  8. From Darlene: Brava Sherry, for your courage to write this story! As a Keeper of the Secrets, I have heard many of these stories over the year. You have taken your gifts as a writer to share what appears is not always as is. You did it with a human and loving touch! Thank you for this!💖

    • It must be difficult hearing these stories on a regular basis, Darlene. Thank you for being the kind soul that you are.

  9. Sherry – This is an amazingly powerful and honest story of the children who have to endure the pain that can happen behind locked doors. For your parents, the trigger was alcohol. For my parents, the trigger was a lack of trust that came about because they started their relationship by cheating on their spouses and each got divorced so they could be together. Their arguments could last for days as they recounted every perceived slight endured after they married. My older sister got married and used it to separate herself from the family – my older brother’s first marriage failed and he became a door mat for his second wife so he would not be a two time loser, my little brother had 4 marriages ruined by alcohol. And me – I joined the Marine Corps and learned that I could overcome my past by helping my Marines discover their skills and talents so they could be the best version of themselves – I felt like I was the normal one – the one who did not let my parents steal my joy. But, I still lie awake most nights – unable to sleep – just like the young boy who hid under the blankets just hoping the fight would stop. I felt your pain, fear, and dismay – but I am so proud you had the courage to write your story. I pray it brings healing – I know it lifted my blanket and let in a little light.

    • Oh, Len, that had to be terribly hard. I wonder how our parents would feel if they knew how they inadvertently scarred their children by their behavior. I feel sorry for them AND us. Thank you for a typically thoughtful comment and your kind words. They’ve uplifted me on a cold, gray morning!

  10. This is an emotional story. Just for the record not all Jews are doctors, lawyers, etc. We do not take a dim view of any profession unless it is something like prostitution or pornography. As a religious Jew, I found that part of your overall excellent article to be a stereotype.

    • Thank you, Joel. No. Of course, I know that. For the record, that’s the stereotype that my father subscribed to. I’m talking about a man who was born in the early 30s, whose father was a cab driver and a gambler and whose idea of success, as a Jewish man, was to be a doctor or a lawyer. Certainly, you’re aware of the many jokes aimed at Jewish mothers wanting their sons to be doctors. Yes, it’s a cliche. Regardless. Perhaps the subtext was not strong enough. Again, thanks for reading and commenting.

    • Sherry, undoubtedly you are aware of the rash of anti-Semitic attacks against Jews especially here in New York City. In light of that, I am very intolerant of these types of comments, jokes, etc. that paint us in a negative light. These jokes about Jewish mothers are not even close to being funny. They are stereotypes! For the record my mother wanted me to be a writer. Thank you for sharing your article.

    • Joel, I’m trying to keep this friendly as I deeply respect this platform, but now I’m deeply insulted. What your comments have to do with my story is beyond me. This will be my last reply to you. Perhaps it would be best if you cease reading me and I will respond in kind. Have a good night.

  11. Sherry, thank you so much for sharing this powerful, frightening, real, raw, honest story as I have my own having grown up inside much darkness in my parents household that felt really confusing because alcohol wasn’t in the mix-only unpredictable madness. And on the outside my parents were seen as pillars in our community. What my dad and us siblings endured because of my mother’s undiagnosed darkness sometimes feels unspeakable. Yet, like you, I have found freedom in writing. What doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger with a huge capacity for compassion for others.

    You have found your voice, your ability to express, to be healing/transforming, and to live. I celebrate who you’ve chosen to become in your life as a testament to the very best in your parents while they struggled with their own demons at great cost to themselves and to the lives of their children.

    Alcoholism remains a horrific disease. Addiction of all sorts alongside mental/emotional illness take their toll on way too many innocent lives.

    May we continue to find breakthroughs in healing trauma and addictions and live free and clear as best we can. In the meantime, how important to share our stories for they lift the veil, tell the truth, and free us from any lingering shrouded shame (that at least I know I have carried about my dark past!).

    I appreciate you so much and celebrate your courage and beautiful writing that had me engaged right from the opening sentence until the very end. Beautifully, painfully expressed from the truth of your heart and soul.

    • You move me to tears, Laura. In a good way. M not surprised to hear that you endured your own childhood trauma. I am glad that you, too, harnessed that pain in a way that can potentially help others. We’re definitely simpatico. Thank you so much for reading and commenting,

  12. Sometimes we sit and a blank slate stares back at us, and our fingers move and a story forms and for a time, we are just a conduit, as the stories within us sometimes bubble up and need to be told, and they find a way. We have that inner voice, which is sometimes a powerful force, and it edits us, and we backspace our way out of a story. But that doesn’t mean that the story didn’t happen, it just means at that point, we decide not to tell it then.

    I had a writing teacher tell me that there are writers who write because they want to, others who write because they have to. I am the kind who likes having written, but am not so much in love with the root canal that writing can be sometimes. We will always ask ourselves – is this story worth telling, and then, is it worth sharing? And what I find is that with all the platforms and audiences and ways that stories get shared and retold and pondered upon, there is always that audience, maybe it’s just one person, who needs to hear that story. Maybe that one person isn’t an audience, it’s just you who needs to write it and get it out there. It’s sitting in your craw somewhere and no matter what, you can’t get to that next thing until this thing has had its air date.

    I can’t imagine the inner dialogues that took place over sharing this one, but I do know that where there is courage and honesty and a story like this, it will hit home for very many. Thank you for sharing this, none of it could have been easy.

    • Tom, you are dead-on, here. Yes. It took a while before I was able to “give voice” to these memories, that are always in the back of mind mind, which is where I’d prefer they’d stay. Of course, they often emerge, waiting to trip me up. This is my way of fighting back, I guess. Thanks so much for your lovely comment.

  13. Wow. Sherry, I found myself holding my breath the entire time I was reading. You painted such a visceral and painful picture. I’m so sorry you experienced such horror. You’ve channeled your pain into a gift with your writing.

    • I grappled with whether or not I should write this for quite a while. I determined that I had to. Thank you, Kim!