Family Tradition – Mina Johnson

As the summer wind rippled through the grass, making the trees bend and groan, my brother and I ran barefoot across our backyard, brandishing swords fashioned from sticks and duct tape. We circled each other like gladiators in an arena until my brother abandoned all strategy and charged. We dueled ferociously, bruising knuckles and numbing fingers as our sticks clashed together, our battle cries shattering the peaceful evening air. Amidst the chaos, the soft motorized creak of the garage door swept over the backyard. The swords fell to the grass.

“He’s home,” we unnecessarily warned each other.

Every day at 6 PM, Dad would plod through the door like a bull searching for a matador’s cape. Sometimes he would stomp downstairs after shoveling down dinner to play video games. The steady stream of insults directed at some unfortunate clump of pixels was the only indication he was present. Other times, we weren’t so lucky.

Predictably, Dad was furious almost as soon as he opened the door and saw the state of the house. We had built a particularly epic fort that day in the living room, using the couch cushions, blankets, and Legos. He stormed out of the house into the backyard where my brother and I were sitting on the terrace, sick with anticipation. His 6’ 2” frame loomed over us. Grabbing me first, he pulled me roughly by the arm, twisting it as I cried out and tried to pull away. Half dragging, half carrying, he pulled me into the house and threw me against the fort. My forearm landed on a pile of Legos as I tried to catch myself. He rushed outside again and came back towing my brother by his ear.

“Clean the damn house!” Dad roared, spit flying out of a red face.

Dad grew up in Denver, Colorado with three younger sisters. His parents, Nana and Papa, were bitter opposites. Nana was a loud, scatterbrained woman with one or a dozen screws loose. Papa was a lawyer, the picture of a patriarch with the old-fashioned values to match. He towered above a crowd at 6’ 4”, intimidating everyone in his vicinity with his deep, booming voice. More times than not, the voice would be followed by a swift blow to the head. I later asked Nana why she married Papa, and her foolproof logic culminated in him being “tall, dark, and handsome.” Looking at pictures of Nana when she was young, I can imagine that his ingenious reasons for marriage must have been similar.

If their marriage were a car wreck, it would have involved three overturned semis and a gas fire, all swirling in a category six hurricane. Every night, Papa would come home from work and a screaming match would ensue while the kids cowered in their shared room. Papa expected a traditional stay-at-home wife who would cook, sew, tend the house, and raise the children— not to mention, cater to his every need once he came home from work. While Nana loved to care for people, the role of housewife never suited her. Being a mother suited her even less. Often, dinner was beans from a can with toasted white bread. She once made Kool-Aid from the soapy water in a pitcher she had left on the counter. Her kids would later reminisce about the blood-red bubbles spilling out of their mouths like rabid vampires. Oblivious as ever, Nana made her kids drink the concoction, convinced that the young rascals were playing pranks—until they convinced her to take a sip.

For the sake of their children, Nana and Papa managed to hold onto the threads of their marriage for years. All of that changed when baby Mary died.

Mary was the third child and only a year old, a cherub with curly blond hair. Dad was about twelve years old. After everyone else had gone to sleep, he would tip-toe to her crib and poke his hands through the bars so that Mary could hold his fingers while she slept. He watched her chest rise and fall, her chubby foot poking out from under her blankets. Years after her death, he would describe the sweet look of contentment on her face as she subconsciously felt her brother’s love.

One day, while Nana was busy in another room, Mary explored the world by stuffing anything she could find into her mouth. When Nana checked in a little bit later, she found her baby on the floor, blue and unresponsive.

Papa blamed Nana. Nana blamed Papa. Each filed for divorce and fought over the kids. Dad went to live with Papa while his sisters went to live with Nana. Dad yearned for a close relationship with Papa. Papa loved to go cycling, so Dad started cycling. Papa loved football, so Dad cheered on the Broncos. Dad did everything in his power to create a semblance of a healthy father-son relationship. Papa was uninterested. To Papa, Dad was the means by which he would pass along the family name. Whenever something sparked Papa’s fury, he would throw shoes or anything within reach. A more serious offense meant a beating. He wore thick leather belts that would leave dark bruises where it landed.

Dad has never talked much about his father’s abuse. Most of the information I have comes through Mom.

Dad was a straggly kid in high school, no doubt due to the lack of nutrients mixed with the insatiable metabolism of a teenage boy. His teenage years also brought a sense of disillusionment. Papa became someone to avoid rather than impress. Cycling became Dad’s means of escape, and he developed a hunch in his back due to the many hours spent bent over the handlebars. He had to come to terms with the fact that his Papa only wanted a relationship with the idea of an heir rather than the son himself. For his own protection, Dad had to get away. Eventually, he graduated, got married, and went to college, far from Papa’s reach.

When I was born, Dad would have wrapped the whole world in bubble wrap if he could. Nothing could come within a ten-foot radius of his baby girl without his say so. I was their first child. Mom had graduated the year before with a degree in English Education. Dad was finishing up a Master’s degree in Business. Despite this uncertainty, they were united in their desire for their baby to have a better childhood than they did.

I was a tiny baby, born a couple of weeks early. Dad was terrified to hold me. He watched Mom rock the bundle of blankets and tentatively stroked my arms and legs, as if afraid that the gentle contact would break my skin. Eventually, Mom coaxed him into holding me for the first time. After that, he refused to put me down. Mom had to jokingly remind him that I was her daughter, too. When I started to cry for milk, she warned that unless he was going to whip out a boob, she needed to have her baby back. Dad begrudgingly handed me back to Mom.

“Go to your room!” Dad roared, two plastic lightsabers in hand.

Twelve years had passed. I was going through spats of teenage rebellion, and while I don’t remember what I said or did to cause Dad’s rage, it was probably stupid. As a child, all I could do was ball up and cry when Dad lost his temper. However, becoming a teenager meant resisting in ways only reasonable to those with a not-yet-fully-developed frontal lobe and a seriously mistaken invincibility complex.

With all my pent-up anger, I stood in the center of the living room while my younger siblings pressed themselves further into the corners.

“I’m not going to my room,” I stated, my voice growing quiet as Dad bellowed and tossed the lightsabers to the side.

He pushed me back, and I stumbled towards the stairs. When I reached the top, he repeated his demand. “Go to your room.”

“No.”

Dad grabbed the lightsabers off the floor. My siblings were crying as Dad swung. The plastic cracked against my back as I flinched to protect myself. The second lightsaber hit the back of my legs, causing me to drop. Blinded by tears, I tried to crawl away but slipped and fell down several stairs. It was enough to get out of range. I ran the rest of the way to my room.

This continued for years until it became a sort of sick routine. I would mouth off to my Dad, get my butt kicked, go to my room, repeat.

In one altercation, he slapped my face. “You are acting like a bitch,” he hissed.

This was unusual for Dad. Not the slap, but the swearing. Despite the numerous fights, he rarely swore more than the “biblical” swear words (damn and hell). Presumably, this was how he distinguished himself from his father.

I snapped.

“You are the worst dad anyone could ever have. I wish you would die!”

My fist shot through the air, aiming for his face. It never made contact. He pushed my chest, sending me hurtling back. My head cracked against the metal bunkbed and my vision went blurry. I stayed down.

“Don’t leave your room,” Dad barked before slamming the door shut.

Hours later, I stood before Dad like a prisoner on trial. I confessed my crimes, both the ones that I knew I had done and the ones that he thought I committed. Of course, he never extended an apology. After I finished, he gruffly asked how my head was. Without waiting for a response, he told me that in order to make things right, I had to weed along the entire length of fence in the backyard.

The next day I started my punishment. The weeds were thick and tangled, and the sun scorched the back of my neck. Dad had told me not to use water to soften the ground, but with the sun quickly drying up any trace of moisture, I figured that I could use the hose and have the water evaporate before he got home.

Mom came out to check on me around noon, dressed in capris and a floral print T-shirt. She crouched beside me, pulling at the weeds as I complained, telling her how unfair it was that I was punished when Dad did more wrong than I had. Mom listened, carefully formulating her response. She was the only sane one in that house. When I was manifesting teenage stupidity, she told me so. When Dad was out of line, she told me that as well. As she uprooted the thistle and bindweed, she started to cry.

“Every parenting book I’ve read says that I should never criticize my spouse with my kids. I just…I just can’t let you think that I agree with this. It isn’t okay,” she sobbed.

Dad never knew about the secret conversations with Mom

When I was fifteen, I decided that I was done. My legs were bruised from where I had hit myself in frustration. My arm and knee were sore from where he had pushed me into a doorframe. Anger was the only emotion driving my body. Whenever it faded, I would go back to pain.

Empty.

Worthless.

Sitting in church, I looked down the pew at Dad. He was dressed neatly in a suit and tie, smiling politely at the person making small talk with him. No one would believe me if I told them that Dad hit me. In public, he was a shy and gentle giant. He led the boy scouts, hugged his children, and taught lessons in Sunday school. To an outsider, he wasn’t the abuser type. People at church would even come up to me and say just how lucky I was to have such loving parents. It was all fake, but I didn’t have the heart to tell them. Why would they believe me? I needed outside help. My eyes fell on the bishop, an understanding older man who might be willing to listen if I had someone to back me up. I had to get Mom to talk to him with me.

The next day, I brought my plan to Mom while Dad was at work. I told her that I was going to set up an appointment with the bishop to talk about what was going on at home. To my surprise, she didn’t protest or point out how direct confrontation could make everything worse. I could get the beating of my life if he found out. Instead, she cried and told me that she should have made an appointment years ago. She felt guilty. If she said anything, she betrayed her husband. If she didn’t, she allowed her kids to go through hell.

The bishop’s office was small, just big enough to fit a wooden desk and a couple of chairs around the edges. Mom fidgeted nervously in her chair while I sat straight-backed, not making eye contact. I don’t know who started talking first: words came spilling out. I told the bishop about the man that Dad changed into at home. Mom shared the shambles of their marriage, her loneliness and hurt. This surprised me. Mom and Dad never fought in front of us kids. It honestly never crossed my naïve mind that she wanted a loving relationship with Dad. I had been born into the family without a choice in the matter, but she had loved Dad since high school. She knew where he came from and loved him even more.

Her eyes were fierce as she claimed, “If he doesn’t change, I’m afraid this is the beginning of the end of our marriage.”

Those words burned a hole through my memory. I don’t want Mom and Dad to divorce. I loved Dad. We didn’t like each other, but he was my dad. Nothing would ever change that. Anger had blinded me to any redeeming qualities of a man that I had branded a monster. Yes, he had a quick temper. Yes, he had done things that by law could have meant losing rights to his children. But stopping there didn’t do him justice. He worked hard to provide for the family, commuting up to three hours every day. On the weekends, he occasionally took us kids on trips and adventures. He took us on bike rides, played at the park, and let us roam in Home Depot to give Mom a break. It was easier to focus on the bad. It freed me from guilt and allowed my outbursts toward him to feel justified. But I was letting my emotions blind me as much as he was. We were no different except in size. If I could have caused him physical harm, I would have.

The bishop was quiet as he allowed both of us to empty our souls, hands in his lap and eyebrows raised slightly. He was the picture of tranquility. I remembered that before he retired, he had been a counselor. Obviously, his training was coming through. He focused first on Mom, addressing her feelings of helplessness, telling her that she was not alone.

Then turning to me, he said, “I think you need to practice being a kid.”

I gave him a look, half surprised and half angry. What is that supposed to mean?

He continued, “I’ve noticed how you act with your brothers and sisters at church. You are more like a parent than a kid.”

My brow furrowed in confusion. Why are you telling me what to do? We aren’t here to discuss my actions! I wanted to scream. Did he not understand?

From one point of view, he was right. By stepping into a parental role, I had unintentionally lifted the weight of parenting from Dad’s shoulders, allowing him to play video games instead of interacting with his children. I was an enabler. However, in a much more real sense, the bishop’s words tore through my fragile sense of self-worth. It seemed that in his mind, this was a marital problem where the kids were an unfortunate casualty. As he considered the solution, I was not an asset, but another obstacle for him to fix. I am worthless.

The bishop requested that he set up another meeting with just Mom and Dad. I never heard how Dad responded to this news, although I’m sure it was negative. Somehow, Mom convinced him to go, and for the next few months, my parents regularly met every Tuesday night.

Although I didn’t know the content of the meetings, I could see the result. Dad was more subdued at home, the calmest version of him that I had ever seen. Instead of staying up late playing video games, he would help Mom get the kids ready for bed and would lead the family in prayer and reading Scripture. I didn’t believe him. He was acting a charade so he wouldn’t get in trouble. We still fought, but as time went on, the arguments were verbal, never straying into physical confrontation.

He began to take Mom out on dates, and she started transforming, taking up hobbies and making new friends. She joined a running group that trained for marathons. Eventually, she qualified for the Boston Marathon, beating several people who were both younger and hadn’t pushed seven children out of their bodies. She bloomed in her renewed relationship.

As happy as I was for Mom, I couldn’t bring myself to try to get close to Dad. I watched his progress from a distance. With the freedom granted by a driver’s license, I barely spent time at home, preferring to hang out at my boyfriend’s house where I was physically and emotionally safe. I became part of a new family, leaving my old one to sort itself out. It was never a permanent solution, but I didn’t care.

“He’s changed,” Mom frequently insisted. She wanted me to stay at home more.

I would shrug. “Good. He can be a better father to the little ones.”

It wasn’t until I moved out of the house that we could start to reconcile the years of conflict. At that point, He was as much a stranger to me as I was to him. After all, the last time we had a proper father/daughter relationship was when I was a baby. All we knew was the other’s anger.

 

We were sitting outside at a restaurant in the heart of Denver. Cars lazily cruised by, blasting music from cheap speakers. Dad sat across from me dressed up in a work shirt and tie. He had offered to take me out during his lunch break and, as a broke college student, I wasn’t one to refuse.

“How’s school?” he asked.

“Good.”

“How’s work?”

“Good.”

The conversation paused. The waitress swooped in with two burgers. She gave Dad my medium cooked masterpiece and me Dad’s burnt offering, then rushed away to the next table.

I laughed. “She expected the older person to know how to order a burger,” I teased.

“Mom only likes well-done!” Dad protested, “It’s a habit now.”

Silence.

 

No one intends to become the abuser in someone else’s story, but good intentions are rarely enough. Now that I have distance, I can sympathize with what Dad went through. His life was hell. Although he intended to distance himself from Papa, the mental impact of his childhood caused irreversible damage. I do not blame him for what he became. However, forgiveness does not fill the hole inside of me, nor does it alleviate the confusion of knowing that he loves me but hit me anyway. As an adult, there is nothing that I can do about the past or about what Dad used to be. All that is in my control is what I become.

It terrifies me to think that I could become like Dad. I cringe every time someone points out our identical awkward laugh, or the way my eye shape matches his. Yet deep inside, I still feel a pull to be like him. He’s my abuser, my dad, and I love him: but that contradiction wears me down. There are nights that I curl up into the fetal position, reliving the terror and pain. It will never leave. The pain, the emptiness, has seeped into my being until they are indistinguishable from my true self. So I’ll accept it, I’ll own it. It can eat me up from the inside, but I will not pass it along.

When people ask me if I want children, I smile externally. “Yes, of course! Maybe in a couple of years.”

Internally, I’m conflicted. Do I even want children if it’s possible for me to become to them what my dad was to me? Dad was not strong enough to prevent passing down his pain. Why would I be any different? I can promise, beg myself to be stronger, but what if I’m not?

All I know is that the tradition must end with me.