It was the winter of what I’m going to guess was 1978. We were circling the parking lot of the Oxford Valley Mall, which was nearly full and covered with chunks of slush and ice, darkened by car drippings and exhaust. Silvered snow, blackened snow, compressed by treads and hardened like old gravestones. The passenger seat was empty; I do not remember where my mother was, or if her unusual absence was a factor in my father’s mood.
“Unlock her knees,” he said to me, with a hard turn of the wheel, as we crawled up another aisle of parked cars with no spaces for us.
My sister was two. She wore large, heavy, metal-and-leather orthopedic braces on her legs. She practiced walking with tiny wooden crutches at home, but still used a stroller at the mall, and that was in the truck of our Volkswagen Dasher. The knee joints and the hip joints of my sister’s leg braces locked via a small metal hood that closed over the join itself, often easier to slide into place than back out. Locking her knees was part of the process of getting into the car, like getting our seatbelts on and turning on the radio. Unlocking her knees was part of the process of getting out, but we were not getting out yet, although my father seemed impatient to get there.
I reached as far as my lap belt would allow. I was eight. I tried to slide the little metal hood up, but it was shoved down hard; my father had done the locking. I tried a few times, and when I could not do it, I retracted to my own seat again. My father looked back in open annoyance.
“Unlock her knees,” he said, and he continued to drive through the slippery and unwelcoming parking lot.
We had been near the JC Penney’s. Now we were on the other side of the mall near the Gimbel’s. We were circling back around to where we had started, and a sense that we were not going to be able to get to the mall — where everything was, the only destination outside of our own house, particularly on a bitter Saturday afternoon — was frightening to me. The idea of having to turn around and go home seemed a dreadful failure. We had never failed at going to the mall before.
I took my seatbelt off and slid across the seat towards my sister. I tugged at the lock on the knee closest to me until my fingers, cold even inside the car, began to hurt. I tried the knee further away from me, and was unable to lock that one.
My father turned around and glared, and swung the car up another aisle. I began to hope it took as long as possible to find a parking spot, because I saw now that my father had changed, and everything was dependent on me unlocking those metal joints.
There was nothing unusual about finding myself in this position; unable to do something that my father felt so sure I should that it drove him into a rage. I had understood, inside, for a long time already, that I deserved none of the punishment I got in these circumstances. I also knew there was no one to whom I could express this. These situations would always arise out of mild conditions, but never abated until something terrible had happened.
Seen scooping cantelope out of the rind in a way he thought was an uneconomical and illogical use of a spoon, my father twisted my wrist repeatedly into the shape he thought best. When the shape would not take, he told me, “I hope you have a rotten day, because you’ve ruined mine.” I was four then.
Unable to work out what my father considered to be a very simple subtraction problem in my head, I was left in the car alone while my parents ate dinner in a nearby Italian restaurant. I had been told I was allowed to come in when I had the correct answer to the problem, which caused vapor lock in my brain, and I never got dinner.
Now at eight, the vapor lock when I was asked to think, and the weakness in my arms when I was asked to do something by my father, were part of my every day life. He rendered me helpless, even with things I knew I could do. But I couldn’t undo the locks on my sister’s knees. The locks were larger than my fingers were. I had seen both of my parents struggle with them on their own.
My head was down and I was watching the lividity in my fingers change — red redder white — trying to be as fully engaged, as tunnel-visioned as possible, so he would at least credit me with trying.
I did not see the moment when my father lost his patience entirely, but I saw his long arm snake around the back of what was usually my mother’s seat — the passenger’s seat — and he grabbed both my hair and the hood of my coat, and, holding them, beat my head three times into the metal surrounding my sister’s legs.
He found a parking spot. Things were going better now. He got my sister out of the car and into her stroller, and I stood waiting. But as my dad stood up from buckling my sister into her stroller, and looked at me, I saw his face change to an expression I had never seen before.
“What did you do to your head?” he asked me.
I reached up to touch the pain, and made contact with it far sooner than I expected to. My forehead stuck out further than it should have. It was numbly warm, and the pain spread back to my scalp and into my eye. My father reached down and put his warm fingers on my forehead, ringing the area that stuck out.
“You must have bumped into the baby’s braces,” he said, “when the car stopped so suddenly.”
Really, I thought. At eight, I did not have a lot of experience with feeling morally superior, but I had never felt less afraid of my father before.
I watched him crouch and begin to gather dirty slush with his bare hands, making an ice pack for me.
“Hold this on your head,” he said, handing me a wad of exhaust-grey snow. “It’s got a bump on it. You must have hit the baby’s legs. When the car jerked to a stop.”
I knew I could open my mouth and say, No, that’s not what happened at all. And he knew it too. And seeing him know it was satisfying.
Why were we even at the mall to begin with? There must have been something someone needed, or maybe we were just going to look in the bookstore, something my father and I liked to do together, or to pick up something for my sister; I couldn’t remember. But we went up the large, spiral ramp located in the middle of the mall, past the Piercing Pagoda where my ears had been pierced on my seventh birthday, and to the McDonald’s. My father asked me what I wanted. I told him something.
The filthy snow I was told to hold to my head had melted and streaks ran down the bright yellow of my vinyl down-filled coat sleeve. I sat with my sister at an empty table while my father stood in line. He turned to look at me. He turned back to the line. He turned to look at me again. I understood that he was worried that I would lose consciousness, or that someone else would notice my injury and draw attention to it. I had never seen him worry about anything the way he was worrying about this. I had never seen my father feel shame. I had never seen my father afraid. It was happening all at once.
We ate our lunch, me without fear of repercussion for any small infraction I might commit. I chewed my ice, I made noise with my straw, I chewed with my mouth open. I took an accordion-crumpled straw paper and with eyedropper accuracy dropped a tiny bit of Pepsi onto it so that it would magically unfurl, like a snake. This delighted my sister. My father said nothing, did nothing.
Then we were in the sporting goods store and my head hurt terribly. This is why we had come to the mall. Running shoes for my father. The adrenaline I’d been flying on was draining away and the pain in my head was dulling me, making me tired. When we left the mall, the sun had begun to set, and the cold was biting. I slid on the slush, without falling, and my hands were too slow and stupid to zipper my coat up.
My father locked my sister’s knees for the ride home. I had no idea what difference it made, locked or unlocked, or who had told them to follow this protocol, or who had told them any of the rules that come with a baby who wears large metal braces, and uses tiny crutches, and has surgeries and physical therapy appointments. Most of the injuries I had experienced at my father’s hand had come after the birth of my sister, and yet, I was sure that it would have happened this way if she’d never been born, or been born without her disability. My father had come before either of us, and there was clearly no stopping what he was, nor was there a way to go back and undo what had made him like this.
When we returned home the sun was already mostly down and the smell of chicken filled the house. My mother was there. I do not know that she had ever been anywhere else. We had had the car. There was nowhere she could have gone.
I have no memory of hearing my dad explain what had happened to my head. I could have followed, avid to listen to the lie, watching his face to see if I was ready to correct and expose him, but I didn’t. I knew he’d lie to her. I knew that having him have to hold onto his secret would exhaust him – make him older – than telling the truth would. So I let him wear himself down that little bit more.
My mother looked at my head. It was now too late to put clean ice on it. The bruise on my head rose no further, but darkened by the next day to a deep, bloody black, and I was crowned.
In subsequent days, people saw me; friends, neighbors, teachers. There were those who exclaimed in surprise, and there were those who didn’t. The latter were the ones I began to watch carefully, because I saw now that they had long suspected something I was only just realizing. In a week, the bruise was turning green and yellow and no longer looked dangerous, just dirty and ugly, and seemed now more a reflection on me than it did on my father. I began to wish it would just go away. In a few weeks, it did.
My greatest fear in life when I became a parent, was that I would not be able to stop myself from turning into a parent like my father was. I worried that it could come upon me as unintentionally as it had him. He had not created a ritual dance and offering to turn himself into what he was. He did not beg for it from a genie. It had just happened to him, and so it could just happen to me.
But my mistake was in presuming that every subsequent minute wherein my father was not beating my head into the metal of my sister’s leg braces was one in which he was sorry for ever having done it at all.
It would be almost eleven thousand and five hundred days before I came to terms with that mistake and officially removed my father from my life. It would be almost nine years before he died. He was not sorry for the things he had done to me. He was never even going to admit that he had done them. And by the time I realized that, I had more to worry about than whether or not I would ever receive an apology. I had a baby daughter.
My father refused to ever see our baby. After a few months of our regular pleading for him to do so, we realized that we were doing the wrong thing in asking him to, and he was doing the right thing in staying away. My father beat me until I was seventeen or eighteen, but it stopped then. He was weird and he was difficult, but he kept his hands off me.
The depths of what my father was capable of would be roused by the sight of my infant. I was sure of it. And I knew he knew it. He did not trust himself to be near her, and he stayed away from us on purpose.
That period of refusal on his part gave me time to think. When I pictured my baby daughter’s childhood ahead, and all the moments similar to my own that it might bring, we made the decision to excise my father completely. It is without a doubt one of the best parenting decisions I ever made. I do not know how I would live from day to day with the guilt of having Claudia or Béla ever having been witness to or target of one of my father’s bizarre, grandiose, punitive rages — or the days when he would show up (for a trip to a museum or a birthday dinner) and be completely expressionless and silent the entire time — or to listen to his bizarre fantasy plans of the house he was going to design and build someday, which were about as realistic as a five-year-old’s marker drawing of their own dream house.
I did not want to ever make excuses to my own children about why their grandfather did the things that he did or reassure them that it had nothing to do with them. That would be more than any adult in my family had ever done for me, but still, it’s not enough.
Ben and I knew something was really, really wrong when my father refused to call or e-mail us when Claudia arrived. We have no idea how he presented it to other people, but obviously, they believed him. Ben has more to say on the last conversation he had with my father, 24 hours before we got the call that we had a daughter. The years between that and the dementia diagnosis gave us the sense that things were continuing to slide downward. We spared our children so much pain and confusion. I am so grateful. I am so grateful that he is gone.
My father died on September 22, 2016 at the age of 71. I did not see him, nor did I wish to, and nor do I think he suffered unduly. He died the death he deserved. He forged it link by link, like Jacob Marley’s chain.
My dad had told me a long time ago, while we were hanging out on a Saturday, that if he were to die on that very day, he would regret only two things; not clearing out the attic, and never having beaten the shit out of someone significantly younger than himself. He said this with total candor and not a bit of irony, guilt, or self-awareness.
I believe they’ve gotten someone else to clean out most of the attic, but what’s left in it is mine.