A Single Threat Of Violence

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Dennis Milam Bensie discusses a relationship of a different time period, but an issue still very present in our culture.

My parents, Clyde and Barbara Milam, were 172 days shy of their fifty-fifth wedding anniversary. They started dating when they were teenagers and parted at death in 2006. Dad passed away first. Mom died eight months later.

They had ups and downs when I was growing up, but I thought my mom and dad’s marriage was boring. They were perfectly happy to stay at home all the time. Their routine was always the same: work, eat, sleep and watch TV. They didn’t talk much. My parents never seemed to argue or fight, at least not in front of me.

Mother, not my father, was my hero. Seeing Dad assault her would have destroyed me. 

I can honestly say that I could have never imagined them separating or getting a divorce.

Except once: my father threatened to hit my mother.

Straighten Up

The incident occurred in 1978 when I was thirteen years old, and it was very upsetting to me. I don’t even remember what my parents had been discussing when he made the threat, but I knew he was serious. I was sitting six feet away from him in the living room when he said in a low voice, “Now Barbara, if you don’t straighten up, I’m gonna have to hit you.” He didn’t curl up his fist or even touch her. He calmly stayed seated in his easy chair and pointed his finger at her like she was his property.

It was anything but boring at the Milam house that evening.

I glared at my dad, bracing for my destiny to change that moment. I was ready to protect my mom. She, not my father, was my hero. Seeing Dad assault her would have destroyed me.

Love, Honor and Obey

A few days after my dad threatened to hit my mom, I saw an episode of I Love Lucy that left me cold. I loved the show and had always thought that the Ricardos had the perfect marriage. However, the show took on a new meaning as I watched Ricky settle one of his disagreements with Lucy by turning her over his knee and spanking her. The show was a comedy, but the spanking seemed very real. I didn’t think the spanking was funny. I remembered that it wasn’t the first spanking I had seen on the show.

Like Ricky Ricardo, my dad was the “man of the house” and thought himself in charge. There was no doubt that my dad didn’t consider his threat towards my mother out of line. My parents were married in 1951, the first year of I Love Lucy. Traditional wedding vows back then mandated that a wife was to obey her husband.

But what if a wife defied her husband? Did that give him permission to hit her?

I’m sure Dad had seen a TV husband strike his TV wife to keep her in line more than once. I felt kind of sick when I realized that my dad had somehow been taught that it was okay to discipline a woman by hitting her. Did my Grandpa Milam ever hit my Grandma Milam?

Oh my God.

Put Him In His Place

My mom wasn’t exactly a feminist, but she wasn’t anyone’s fool. I can still picture her contemplating being hit by her husband, but she wasn’t afraid. I even wondered if she might pick up some heavy thing and hit him back, but that wasn’t her style.

I could feel it: My dad was stuck in the moment, but Mom was wisely thinking of the future.

I’m sure there were many things she could have said to her husband to put him in his place, yet Mom chose to keep quiet and not escalate the situation. Getting struck like Lucy Ricardo would have been the end of their marriage. I have no doubt that she would have packed a suitcase and left that night with me right behind her. Twenty-seven years of marriage down the drain.

Ultimately, Dad didn’t hit Mom. I never looked at I Love Lucy the same way again.

My parents mended fences in private. From what I could tell, things went back to normal the next day. But I’m sure the threat made by my father had not passed as quickly as a half hour sitcom. Knowing my mother, she gave Dad an earful and I bet he apologized profusely. To my knowledge, he never threatened to hit her again. My parents remained married for twenty-seven more years.

I Love Lucy aside

It’s spooky to think that in a moment of disagreement, my dad could have destroyed his family. Life as Mom, Dad and I knew it would have been different. My father would have been labeled an abusive husband for the rest of his life. My mom would have been a single mother.

The lesson I learned from was that you can’t un-ring a bell, so be careful what you say or do to someone you love. It only takes one deal-breaker to break the deal.

I am glad Clyde and Barbara Milam had a “boring marriage”. Yet, I now realize it could not have been too boring. They wouldn’t have stayed together for fifty-five years.

Image Credit: Darren Baldwin

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About Dennis Milam Bensie

Dennis Milam Bensie grew up in Robinson, Illinois where his interest in the arts began in high school participating in various community theatre productions. Bensie’s first book, Shorn: Toys to Men was nominated for the Stonewall Book Award, sponsored by the American Library Association. It was also a pick in the International gay magazine The Advocate as “One of the Best Overlooked Books of 2011″. The author’s short stories have been published by Bay Laurel, Everyday Fiction, and This Zine Will Change Your Life and his essays have been seen in The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. One Gay American is his second book with Coffeetown Press, which was chosen as a finalist in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards and the Indie Excellence Book Awards. He was a presenter at the 2013 Saints and Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans and at the Montana Gay Pride Festival. Dennis lives in Seattle with his three dogs.

Comments

  1. This is both thoughtful and provocative. How rare it is to consider the impact of even the “threat” of violence through the child’s eyes.

  2. Thank you for your comment. I feel conflicted today having shared this story. I never told anyone in the family that this happened. I’ve written a lot about my family in my books, but this goes further. Not sure how they will feel about me airing this piece of my parents dirty laundry.

  3. Thanks for sharing this. As someone who who has experienced partner violence and writes about it now, I really appreciate your thoughts and perspective. Many times I wonder what would have happened had I had a child with my abuser. I can’t imagine raising a child in that chaos. I am glad your father did not hit your mother…for all of your sakes.

  4. Scott Heathcote says:

    I found your account of coming to terms with the cultural acceptance of violence in your childhood an interesting read. It seemed that you had existed outside that culture and were suddenly confronted with it.

    I think this can be used as an analogy for our current acceptance of violence toward men. It is not unusual to see a woman slap a man on TV or in a movie “because he deserved it”. Just as in your account, your father felt he was within his rights to hit your mother if “she deserved it”. Personally, I don’t think either is right.

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