My father, Bob, was a likeable guy. He was funny, charming and intelligent. “Your dad is VERY smart,” Mom used to say. “He has an IQ of 140. Way above average.” I knew my mother didn’t lie. And I could tell my Dad had brains to spare. He was quick with a joke, dabbled in languages, and loved to cook exotic foods normal people didn’t eat. He could put things together and take them apart. Like the old cars he was always working on. For years, a faded brown Austin Healy Bug-Eyed Sprite was broke down in the garage of our house in Carson. Dad would tinker with it whenever he had the time. One day, as I was walking home from kindergarten, I heard a cheerful honk and up zipped Dad in the sports car. “Hop in and let’s go for a spin, Kiddo,” he said. We drove around the neighborhood with the top down. He blasted the radio and sang along. Happy, smiling, radiant Dad. It’s one of the best childhood memories I have of him.
Dad’s sense of humor and great conversational skills made him a natural salesman. He made a career of hawking sophisticated electronics to aerospace companies in the 1960s and 70s, when the U.S.A. was fully committed to the space race. His job took him out of town frequently. He went to Boeing in Seattle, Cape Canaveral in Florida, and lots of other places. Because Mom put him through school and always worked, they were a team. They bought two houses together. And Mom always held down the fort when Dad was traveling.
Whenever he was home, before the divorce, Dad tried to rule our home with an iron fist—or a wooden paddle. The Paddle was for us kids. It hung always on a hook in the kitchen. One inch thick and carved out of good hardwood, it was a constant and terrifying reminder of what would happen if I, or any of my siblings, stepped out of line. Dad would put us over his knee and whack away until our bottoms were red and our faces wet with tears. Sometimes, even if we’d done nothing wrong, he’d suddenly announce, “Free swats!” This was a good time. The unfortunate subject of the joke was put over his lap and the other kids got to spank him or her. For the record, none of us like being on the receiving end of Free Swats. It was an infuriating and humiliating experience. But Dad thought it was hilarious. So it became a “thing” in our house. And better than The Paddle.
Dad’s fists, however, were reserved for Mom. He did not use them all the time. Just on those occasions when she drove him into a white-hot rage with her sloth or her insolence. Once, Dad came home drunk to find the house dirty and the sink piled high with dishes. Filled with the fury of the righteous, he roused Mom and all four of us kids from bed at midnight.
“Get your lazy asses out of bed and clean up this goddamned house,” he yelled.
“It’s a school night. The kids need sleep,” Mom argued.
“I don’t give a rat’s ass. I’m not living in a pig sty.”
“Then clean it yourself asshole,” Mom spat at him.
A couple of slaps to Mom’s face brought the family to order. Tired and scared, my siblings and I reluctantly set about putting away our toys, books and clothes. Mom seethed with her own anger, but didn’t want to make it worse. After some semblance of order was restored to the house, we were allowed to go back to bed. There were many times that my father was fun and full of frivolity. But times like this one made him a monster to me.
I feared for my mother, but I also feared for myself. A shy and insecure child, I’d developed two nasty habits that drove Dad berserk: thumb sucking and bedwetting. Mom desperately wanted me to stop doing these things for several reasons. Thumb sucking was bad for my already crooked teeth. Bedwetting was messy and created a lot of extra work. But mostly, both of my habits pissed off Dad. Despite the danger of his wrath—or perhaps because of it—my habits couldn’t be tamed. Dad bought some nasty smelling red liquid to paint on my thumb. I waited until it was dry and popped the digit back into my mouth. As for wetting the bed (a bed I shared with my poor sister, Teri), it continued until I was seven. I still remember how it went. I’d have to pee in the middle of the night. I’d rise from bed, walk in the dark to the bathroom, sit down on the toilet, and let it flood out of me with sweet relief. But it would all be a dream. I’d wake up in a wet puddle. If Mom was the only one home, I was treated with sympathy and compassion. If Dad was home, I’d get The Paddle. On one wet morning I hid in our bedroom closet, surrounded by hanging clothes. I prayed Dad would not find me. Heard him come into the room. Cursing, angry, calling my name. I trembled and closed my eyes as I heard the closet door slide open. He yanked me out of my false cocoon by one arm and dragged me screaming to the kitchen. I knew I was bad. I knew I deserved that beating. But I could not stop my filthy habits.
Many other paddlings and Dad-Mom fights occurred before they called the marriage quits. At age five, I was so relieved at the prospect of living without Dad. But it took a couple of years before they were separated completely. Several attempted reconciliations failed until, finally, the divorce went through and we were free. My bedwetting and thumb sucking stopped. Mom emerged from a smoldering depression that manifested in sleep, sleep, sleep. Money became scarce and life got very hard. But at least we were safe. And Dad got exactly what he was after. Freedom from the burden of a wife and four kids he never really wanted in the first place. As Mom struggled, Dad refused to pay her child support or alimony. She took him to court. The judge ruled in her favor. Dad ignored it. And so it went for years. Grandma moved in to help and we became a family unit.
Meanwhile, Dad morphed effortlessly into a swinging single guy. He moved into a fancy apartment building with a pool and a rec room. He was popular—always surrounded by hot women and fun-loving friends. Money came easily. Dad drove nice cars, ate good food and continued traveling for work. He had a million jokes in his repertoire, laughed often, and partied whenever he could. But I don’t believe he was truly happy. A happy man does not need to drink daily from morning to night. A happy man does not beat his wife and abandon his children. A happy man does not value money above all other things—thinking that material wealth somehow means one has succeeded in life.
I loved my dad. But I did not like him very much. How could he not help Mom when she worked so hard to keep us afloat? There were times we had nowhere to live. And times we had somewhere to live but no furniture, decent clothes or food. Yet he still did not help. My father, I decided, was greedy. He loved money more than his family. Though we maintained a relationship with Dad for the rest of his life (thanks to Mom’s forgiving nature), I always held much of myself back. I could forgive. But I’d never forget how he’d hurt my mother and neglected us. It was Mom who eventually explained to me why Dad was the way he was.
“When your father was a kid, he was poor and fat. Other kids teased him. When he became a teenager, he started exercising. Then he joined the Air Force. He went in a fat kid and came out a handsome man.”
Seeing Dad in this light, I felt empathy toward him for the first time. I, too, knew how it felt to be chubby, poor and tormented by peers. I knew how it felt to want to be beautiful and loved. That’s all he really wanted … to be popular and rich. His dream seemed to be coming true. Then he got my mother pregnant. They married and—being a good Catholic—she kept having kids. Dad resented her and us for depriving him of the exciting life of sex, wealth and freedom that had been just within his grasp. It all made sense. Being poor and outcast scarred my father at an early age. He never got past it.
Perhaps we’re all broken children deep down. Some of us fill the fissures of our past with gold–like that style of Japanese pottery that takes something broken and makes it stronger and more beautiful with a binding of precious metal. Others sweep the shards under the carpet and carry on. They seek life’s riches outside of themselves and end up paupers in the end. Like my Dad, who would ultimately drink himself to death–broke and alone in a bed of his making.