My father’s anger—though I did not sense it—was escalating behind the wheel, as we drove home from Wednesday night prayer meeting. Like our mishmash Rambler station wagon, green and white, with pushbutton transmission, and truncated, chrome-peaked rear fins, he could not quite decide what his life was or what he wanted it to be—unsure if his life looked as it should or even if it was headed in the right direction. By design he was moving forward. By result he was losing ground.
In his early 40s, my father saw time and circumstance collapsing. His ambitions, life choices, kids and responsibilities had encircled him. The windows of opportunity that had seemed so numerous and wide open in his youth were ever fewer and smaller.
I know now what I couldn’t have possibly known then. He lived in fear that life’s windows would close before he could claw his way through. He was terrified of failing to achieve the great American grail: to make your children’s lives better than your own
Normally our whole family attended prayer meeting, but for reasons I cannot recall, we were alone that evening. I sat quietly strapped in the front seat, oblivious to my father’s fear and frustration. Lost in my 11-year-old world, I chewed absently-mindedly at my fingernails. Perhaps in that moment, my father looked over and his entire life’s struggle crystallized into the single image of a boy, his painfully average and unpromising eldest son, with no more to offer the world than nails gnawed to the nub.
His forearm flashed instantly. With the snap of his wrist the back of his hand cracked against the corner of my mouth as I worked to get that last little bit of nail.
My father was a disciplinarian, but never abusive physically, verbally, or emotionally. The punishment he meted out to his children was typical of the post-WWII era—you misbehaved, the belt came off.
It took a minute to realize what had happened.
I dropped the offending hand to my side and stuffed the fingers under my thigh. There was no blood. There were no tears, either. I don’t even recall pain, only a numbing shock that my father had struck me in the face. It was something he had never done before and never did again.
I didn’t look at him. He just kept driving. It was a warning from one generation to the next: be ready, kid. Life has knuckles.