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.