We were sitting at the dinner table when my father came home. The scene before my father: buoyant, joyous, filled with laughter. My brother was cackling. I was in on the joke simply by being his sister. I remember the giggles, like neverending champagne bubbles. Then, my father arrived, and we were tense, giggles splattering into straight faces, stretched tight like a rubber band about to split, and it did, or I should say he did. I don’t remember what my brother had done. Perhaps it was his grades. Perhaps something else or nothing at all. All I knew is I was grateful I wasn’t the target of my father’s anger. He unleashed a firestorm at my brother, doing nothing short of incinerating him. My brother sobbed while I stared at my plate, wondering if the peas would magically turn into carpet to transport us out of there. Then, dinner was over, and we could go back to acting like it didn’t happen.
That’s what happened in my family; the anger boiled up and over, directed at one of us (usually my brother), and then minutes, hours, the next day, it magically evaporated. We would pretend it hadn’t taken place. It took me years to work through the idea that working through conflict was desirable, and all men weren’t scary. Then, it took more time to realize my husband wasn’t my father when my husband was angry. I peeled back layer upon layer, wondering why I glowered when men showed interest. Slowly, that too began to melt away.
I remember when I was about ten years old, I was playing in the pool with my father and the other kids. I don’t remember what he did, but I do remember screaming at him, “I hate you!” I had never said that before, and I’m not even sure I meant it, but in the moment, it was real. Later that night, my father was noticeably absent after dinner. I asked my mom where he was. Outside. Near the pool. He was upset that I had told him I hated him.
I couldn’t believe my father could actually be hurt. He had shown few emotions other than anger and playfulness with little middle ground and a hairpin trigger temper. I sucked up my pride and went outside. I apologized, which felt awkward and sad in my mouth as though the small words could never erase the large words that had been spoken. Years later, I came back to this: men could be hurt and hurt deeply.
When I was in my mid-twenties, I made peace with my father. I learned how much he had wanted us to have the life he never had. He grew up in Nebraska, and his father came out to San Francisco to find work. Finally his father sent for his mother and their four kids. They arrived in the San Francisco train station where his mother was served with divorce papers. His father had hooked up with a San Francisco socialite and abandoned them. That was the role model my father had.
It’s a pretty low bar when your father has abandoned you. In the absence of that, my father tried to fill in the gaps with societal expectations: work hard and provide for your family even if it means commuting an hour in the morning and a hour and a half at night. Work became a proxy for family because family got the emotional dregs of the day generously sprinkled with frustration and fatigue.
I understand he was doing his best, trying to create a life for us where we weren’t living hand to mouth, but the fallout was hard and especially hard on my brother.
In me, my father instilled a powerful work ethic, infallible honesty, and a desire to do better. Along with that, I am incredibly sensitive to criticism. My brother seems to be the one who didn’t escape. The father wound is deep, so deep, I don’t know if it will ever be healed, but I have to believe it is possible. As Jed Diamond writes in “Healing the Father Wound: It’s Never Too Late,” it truly is never too late. It is possible to make amends with a man who lashed out with verbal violence. It is possible to make and find that peace.
I don’t have answers except to say that my father does spend time with my son. Gone is the stress from my childhood days. Here is the man who truly is a better grandfather than father. It’s not that he’s perfect–far from it–but I can see the gentleness in his touch and patience in his manner. My son loves him and wants to spend time with him.
For me, this is the healing of generations. My father brings his best to my son, and my son will learn to bring his best to those around him. I hope my son will learn that creating the best life for those around him is not about working himself down the angry dregs of his grandfather. I hope he will remember our own peaceful dinners when he sat with me and his father and learned how to be in this life.
At the end of the day, I wish there were some way to wrap up my father’s anger in a tidy little package to be set aside, but I know that’s a fallacy. Instead, I take my forgiveness with my brother’s hurt, my own memories of cold squishy peas with effervescent giggles, and try to hold it all. Some days it is easier than others. Other days, I look at my son and the laughter which rises effortlessly into the air. It is the promise of a new generation, one that is learning how to love without creating suffering.
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