Because he was the first-born and seven years my senior, my older brother was able to best me again by being first to leave home. He joined the Air Force about three days after his high school graduation. He brought the papers home for my parents to sign, as he wouldn’t turn eighteen until August. I was thrilled he was out the door because I fell heir to his bedroom. It was the entire finished attic of our small bungalow. ‘Upstairs’ was really cool. It was one flight up yet miles away from the crazy house that was the family home below. My mother hated to climb those steps so she rarely did and my father hadn’t been back up there since he put the finishing touches on his DIY project some four years earlier. It was a sanctuary away from the world and the lunacy we’d come to know as Dad and Mom.
Our father was wrestling with severe depression. Just to get through his day-to-day he was heavily medicated. Even with the powerful meds, his anger could break through effortlessly. It was virulent and unrestrained. The chemistry between Dad and Older Brother was frightening to witness. I had no idea about those seven years before I was born, but even as a youngster I puzzled over what went on to make these two so at odds. My father routinely fought with my brother; it was how he related to him. And my parents fought incessantly, which was what they did to keep their marriage alive. As a result, conflict was something I strove to avoid. I just wanted everyone to get along. We never did in that house.
Perhaps it was her own coping mechanism, but my mother knew just how to push my father’s buttons. She could incite him easily with the mere mention of my older brother, especially once he’d become a teenager. He wasn’t a bad kid. Absolutely any tiny thing could make him fodder for Dad. There were times he really whaled on the poor kid. My consoling never made a dent in Older Brother’s pain as I wished it could have. Once my father lashed out, this gave her the cue to start in on her husband and their senseless screaming matches continued. I understood the art of diplomacy before I knew there was a word for it. These cuckoos were not about to pull me into the mix. Now that I was moving upstairs, I would literally be out of the fray.
I will admit, even though there was never any great love between us, I cried on the way home from the airport the night my brother flew to basic training in Texas. Of course I would miss him, mostly for selfish reasons. Would I be given his chores, or worse, now be expected to take his place as whipping boy? My baby brother was sad because he couldn’t wrap his three-year-old brain around the fact that Texas was so far away he wouldn’t be coming home for supper each evening. My father was silent and emotionless. That was the way he was when not angry and raving. No one cried and carried on like my mother. Just as she did with nearly everything, she turned my brother’s departure to be all about her: “Who will drive me to mass on Sundays? What will I do for a baby sitter? How will I ever learn to cook for only four people?”. It was bad enough to think any one of these things was a problem, yet she chose to wail her lament over and over through sobs and crocheted-hankies-full of tears.
She carried on for weeks. She’d make it through most days, but preparing dinner she began to sniffle. By the time we sat down at the table the waterworks opened, and she was red-eyed and blowing her nose in her paper napkin halfway through the meal. My father often sympathetically intervened with “Oh fer’ Cris-sakes stop it!”. That sometimes did work, because it got her on her high horse and momentarily she could forget her pain by shrieking at him. She’d leave the table and he’d continue munching in silence. Mealtime had never been enjoyable, because bringing the family together only meant someone would be roasted.
My fears about our Airman’s departure were mostly correct. Yes, I was given his chores, including the babysitting one. I was a latchkey kid at eleven, without knowing what it was. I would drop off and pick up my baby brother from the lady who took care of him, on those days my mother worked and I was at school. The two of us would be in the house from 3:30 until our parents came home sometime after 5:00. Older Brother had always hated ‘watching us’, but I remember loving both the responsibility and my baby brother who was just the cutest, sweetest little kid. I had a big hand in raising him, since my parents were more concerned about money-keeping us fed and out of the poorhouse. When home with us, they were distracted by each other and their impossible relationship. As my shrink confirmed many decades later, “parenting everybody else left you very little time for a childhood”.
Where the battles of Older Brother with Dad were waged physically, mine were fought verbally. I don’t know if it was my scrawny, overly sensitive demeanor or simply my strong verbal skills and intuitive nature, but my father knew not to fuck with me. There’s no other way to put it. At the dinner table, his meal could only be interrupted by some conflict of his own design. To this day, I believe the only reason I spent the better part of my adolescence and early adulthood as a 98-pound weakling was due to the fact that I gobbled my food quickly in order to leave the table. My digestive system was similarly hurried, skipping the part where the body actually takes in the calories.
One of my father’s favorite quips was “I forgot more than you’ll ever know”. He wallowed in demeaning me whenever he could. The first dozen or so times he dropped that particular pearl of wisdom, often with a mouthful of food, I attempted to correct him:
“You have forgotten more than I’ll ever know”.
“Yeah. Right”, he’d nod in agreement. Each time he thought I had conceded he’d won his ridiculous argument, it only affirmed to me how pathetically uneducated the man was. Sadly, my own mania was to tally every instance he proved it to me.
Older Brother would call twice a month on Sunday afternoons. After my father asked him what the temperature was in Texas and if he was drinking beer, (and by the way-it was a good thing if he said that he was), we’d pass the phone around. My father leered at each of us as the seconds ticked, reminding us that “this is long distance COLLECT, remember”. After three months away, he announced he was coming home on leave before being transferred to another airbase.
Perfection was my mother’s singular hope for this reunion. The family would be together again at last. Hurrah! She planned every meal including breakfasts to include all his favorites. Even though I somewhat missed Older Brother, why would anyone welcome the chaos which would surely ensue in even just a three-day visit, I wondered? And as horrendous as he described marching and standing at attention in the hot Texas sun had been with a barking drill sergeant, it had to be a welcome break from his stint as eldest son versus father in our insane household.
We drove to Hopkins Airport to pick him up. He looked so soldierly in his grey-blue uniform. When he took off his visored hat, his wonderful Ricky Nelson hair was all gone and it made him look slightly pinheaded. He even hugged me. Once we were home, we walked on egg shells for three whole days. My mother had read us all, (including her husband), the riot act long before the plane landed. No fighting with anyone about anything, no matter what might happen. Even my father was expected to pretend to be sweet-as best he could.
I had to give up my room and share the small bedroom downstairs with baby brother. The little guy was the happiest of us all with our military man back home. Why I couldn’t share the upstairs, since it had been mine for the past three months, was a mystery. I was clever enough not to test my mother’s truce, though. And how we could ever be expected to pull this off, given our cast of characters in this madhouse, was beyond me.
But we did. It was already Sunday afternoon. We all went to mass together that morning, something that before only happened on Easter and Christmas. Sunday dinner was our big meal around 1:00 p.m. It was Mother’s Menu Extraordinaire: broiled T-Bone steaks (smothered in butter and onions), baked potatoes, buttered broccoli (Older Brother’s favorite veggie), tossed salad and raspberry Jello with fruit cocktail and Reddi Wip. After dinner we would be off to the airport for his return flight.
Before we’d even finished “Bless us O Lord”, our mother began her final scene where the tears began their flow. I looked up at my father’s face, directly across from me at the small kitchen table, checking his temperament level. There was certainly tension in his face, but even he was not about to risk this expensive meal with a fight this late in the game. So far so good; I only hoped she didn’t push the envelope one tear drop further. Once we began eating and commenting on her delicious meal, things relaxed. We three boys started joking and it was actually pleasant, all of us around that table.
We were sort of crammed together, not used to five people anymore and with all the food it was a real balancing act. We were using the ‘good Melmac’ plastic dishes which were ultra-sixties style, sleek and space age in design. The gravy boat resembled our ’59 Chevy BelAir on stilts. It was top-heavy, now filled with the extra onions and butter from the broiler pan. Reaching for something, I effortlessly knocked it over and in an instant the mottled grey formica tabletop was oozing in all directions a buttery mass. We each mopped what came our way with our napkins, but this spill was way beyond our dinner-sized Scottkins. As my mother grabbed for a dish towel, my father lost control.
“Oh fer’ Cris-sakes, look what the hell you did!” he bellowed, letting out three days worth of anger in one long breath.
“It was an accident”, I squeaked back at him, fearing I’d ruined my mother’s perfect day.
“He didn’t mean to do it”, she countered, upset but ultra-low-key, especially for her.
“It was just careless (he pauses to chew). And stupid (bigger pause). Like you a-l-w-a-y-s are”. My father had escalated the incident in seconds. Older brother began to smirk as he helped clean. He was the only one smiling.
Having pretty much eradicated my mess, Mother announced “We’re fine now”, hoping we all would take her cue. “Just go on eating”.
“Careless” he muttered into his plate, wanting the last word. “And stupid”, he delivered a second time, only now shouting it into my face.
“It was an accident”, I shrieked back. When he played the stupid card nothing made me angrier. I was emboldened and yelled at him, “But you never make mistakes because you’re perfect. We should paint you gold and put you on a pedestal!” I spat the final word right back at him. Silence fell all around the table. It was so quiet you could have heard butter drip, had there been any left on the tabletop.
Without a word or any fanfare, my father stood up from his chair. As though well-choreographed and rehearsed, he lifted his partially eaten T-Bone steak from his plate with his hand, raised it high overhead and smashed it hard onto my unsuspecting head. Chunks of meat, gristle and bone shards flew in all directions around my mother’s tiny kitchen. It hit the wall, the frilly curtains and floor around me. Remnants of buttery onions stuck in my hair.
It hadn’t hurt, but it was the ultimate humiliation, perpetrated by a certified madman that stung with a vengeance. While he was still standing, in awe of his sense of accomplishment, I jumped to my feet and ran out of the kitchen and into the bathroom, the only place in the house with a door that locked. Once secure, I sat on the edge of the tub, sobbing and panting in fear of what had just gone down. What the hell do I do now, I asked myself, trapped behind my locked door with nowhere to go.
I waited for a minute. I was listening for my cue, hoping my next move would be dictated for me. I heard nothing. I could detect my mother and father mumbling at the table, then heavy footsteps in the hall and my father’s voice, low and controlled, “Open the door now”. I was frozen. I neither spoke nor made a move. Again he commanded, “Open this goddamn door and get back to the table and finish your steak”.
“You can finish it. I don’t have an appetite any more”. I was falsely brave, knowing once I unlocked that door I would have to face him, my mother, my brothers and the broiled beef debris. What more could he do to hurt me after this shameful episode? I had been mortified and I could not imagine either of our lifetimes being long enough to ever be able to forgive him. There was no excuse for what he had just done to me.
“If you don’t unlock this door, I’m gonna’ hafta’ go downstairs and get a wrench to take it off its goddamn hinges and then I’m really gonna be pissed. Understand? Open this door NOW!”. I knew when I’d locked it, it would come to this moment, so I had no choice but to do his bidding. He was still standing on the other side of the door when I opened it. As I came out into the hallway, he motioned me to go ahead of him. As I did, he smacked the back of my head with his paw.
Returning to the table, we finished our food without a word being uttered for several minutes. Older Brother broke the ice by chuckling, “Thank God it’s finally back to normal around here. These last few days were like Twilight Zone, where I came back to some other family’s house”. My mother forced a laugh for his joke, still attempting to save her perfect day. My father and I remained mute. I think he actually did finish my steak, because the taste had been spoiled for me. When the Reddi Wip whooshed out of the nozzle, my appetite came back, but I was twenty-five years old before I ever allowed myself to forgive my father for that day.