Scenes from a Mostly Happy Childhood:
Carl was five, in bed. His parents came and got him, took him into the kitchen, leaving his little brother asleep.
Daddy is going to leave, they said.
Carl blinked. Leave?
He’s moving out.
Carl was five. He didn’t understand. He started to cry. He turned away, went back to his bed, climbed in, pulled the covers up over his head.
Daddy didn’t leave.
Jack was six, Carl, eight. They were at the swimming pool. Daddy was irritated that they weren’t learning to swim fast enough. He had shown them the strokes, how to breathe, but they were still afraid of the water.
So he tossed Carl into the deep end. Carl managed to flail his way to the side of the pool, absolutely panicked.
Then he tossed Jack in, and he sank straight to the bottom. Daddy waited, saw that Jack wasn’t coming up, then dived in to fetch him.
For years, Carl was terrified of the water. He compensated by learning how to swim at an expert level; became a lifeguard, Water Safety Instructor, mile-a-day in the pool, could hold his breath for four minutes. Carl taught himself to love the water.
Carl and his brother never talked about what Jack did to get past it.
They had a cocktail party when Carl was nine. His brother was seven. The house was small, so they were sent to their bedroom, told to stay there and be quiet, and keep the door shut.
They boys weren’t quiet. They bounced around, laughed, made noise.
The door to the bedroom opened. Daddy stood there, looking down the hall toward the living room, smiling broadly in the direction of his guests.
He stepped into the bedroom, closed the door, and his face changed from a smile to a snarl. And because Jack’s bed was closer, he caught the hard right slap and return backhand to the face, one-two, bam-bam! knocking him into the wall and asprawl on the bed.
Daddy never said a word. He left the room and shut the door behind him.
Carl couldn’t see his face, but he would have bet his life Daddy was smiling as he returned to the party.
Carl and Jack were playing cowboys. Jack sneaked up behind him and cracked Carl on the skull with the butt of his toy gun, to knock him out like they did on TV.
That didn’t happen.
Carl screamed in pain and outrage and took out after Jack as he ran hollering across the street into their yard.
Daddy was working on the car. He looked up and saw the boys. Yelled something. Stepped between them to block Carl’s path.
Carl was blind with anger, he said, “Get out of the way!” as he lunged for his brother.
Next thing Carl knew, he was looking up at the sky. How had he had come to be on his back on the ground?
Daddy had clouted him upside the head, a slap or fist, Carl never knew which.
Daddy, in a rage, grabbed Mama by the arm and dragged her down the hall to their bedroom. She yelled, Jack and Carl yelled, their little sister Susan cried in her crib.
Daddy pulled off his belt and beat Mama, as the two boys stood there crying and begging him to stop.
Shut up or you’ll get the same!
Their parents were fighting. Mama found out Daddy had gone to bed with a woman he met while he was playing in a band at a local bar. She was going to leave, to leave!
It was a gray late-fall afternoon, probably a Sunday. Carl was eleven. He gathered up his brother and two sisters and took them outside to get away. They stayed out for hours.
It wasn’t the last time they did that.
For Carl, that kind of gray late-fall day became instantly depressing. He knew why, he had tried to offset it, but the older a tape, the harder it was to completely erase.
Carl was thirteen. Daddy slapped Mama. Carl looked for something to hit him with, but before he could, they explained it.
He had caught her with another man, Daddy said.
Mama said, It was just Vern, the girl’s baseball coach. We were having a hamburger after the game.
He had his arm around her!
No, he didn’t! He had his elbow propped on the car seat. We were at Billy’s Drive In! Nothing more than that!
Carl was supposed to listen and choose who was telling the truth. He could not.
Carl was sixteen. His mother was in the hall bathroom, crying.
What is it, Mama?
Daddy is cheating on me again. He said he wasn’t gonna do it any more, but he has a woman at Major’s he’s seeing.
Carl was helpless. What could he say or do?
I’m sorry, Mama.
Daddy died at 87, complications of Alzheimer’s, a fall and broken hip, kidney infection. Something got him unexpectedly. A stroke, heart-attack, pulmonary embolus? Nobody ever said for sure. Did it really matter?
Daddy and Mama never split up. Toward the end, they lived in different parts of the house, because she had finally quit doing what she had done her whole life, keep him the center of the local universe. Right up until he fell, he was dedicated to finding her and demanding her attention. The caregivers had to keep them separate. Turn your back, he was off to find and harangue her. He would yell. She would yell back.
He would demand: You want a divorce?
Yes! I do!
You heard her! You heard her!
She couldn’t stand him, and he wanted her to be afraid him. Both of them told Carl as much.
A friend of Carl’s said that the problems with men and their fathers fell into two categories:
The father left.
Or he stayed.
Maybe if Carl hadn’t cried when he was five, that would have made things different.