Fathers Sway above It All
My father: my savior, my best friend, my confidante. Funder from afar of gymnastics lessons, giver of “kissies” over the phone, called me Princess, called me Peter Pan, photos of infant me sleeping on his chest, love of mine, I love you, dad. I call him with my good news, I call him with my bad. Picture him this way first, eyes squinting to nothing when he smiles. See his Vietnam photo with his hand raised like a wave or maybe saying stop, baby-man in combat, up all night forevermore drinking it away. Understand our lineage: newspaper clip from the early 1900s, Clem Bieker given ten lashes on his bare back for “wife-beating” but the whipping post did him no good. Say it runs in the blood, say it’s a generational disease, and it is, it’s all of that, our curse. Understand my father’s boyhood, hiding under tables while his father beat his mother. See him old now, body stooped, still unable to sleep, half a mind at war, ready for the next bomb to explode. See him hold my son with awe, hands shaking, hear him ask about my daughter, whole voice alight. See him this way first because it’s how I see him, somehow, despite everything.
After my mother left me when I was nine, I was made to give a testimony in front of a judge about our life and answer questions. I answered every single one truthfully. I don’t remember what I said, only that I was honest. That’s what my father told me to be. I was not in trouble. I just had to be honest. “Tell them what she put you through,” he said on our drive there. He had appeared the day before as if my desire itself had conjured him, picked me up and bought me new clothes for the occasion. Clean socks pulled up to my knees, a pale-yellow cotton shirt. Nothing smelled like me anymore, or like my mother’s cigarettes. There he was, my father, with me, there for me, saving me. He had flown to me from his job an ocean away, and it was time for the truth about my mother’s alcoholism. It was time to remove me for real, court approved. He had to make a grand gesture now that she had actually left, his letters with survival instructions at the bottom no longer enough for me to get through the dysfunction: If things get too bad there, remember—9-1-1.
Riding with my father, in the haze of my mother’s new goneness, I wondered, has he changed? Was it all a dream, the things he had done in front of me, the way my mother and I had once ran from him, hid under a semitruck in the parking lot of a state fair watching feet walk by, holding our breath for each set of feet because they could be his, and would he kill her this time? The man next to me crunching cinnamon Altoids could not have done that, or could he? Maybe it was my mother’s fault after all, making him that way. She pushes my buttons, he always liked to say, as if my mother had a special ability to summon the monster inside him. But she did seem to have that special ability. I had seen her say the very things we both knew would set him off many times. The traumatized child’s brain just wants logic, wants predictability. I was no different.
When my mother did not show up to the court hearing, I was given over to my father. I remember my grandmother and the way she looked at him with admiration. She liked to say often that my father had “stepped up.” But he felt it would not serve me to move around so much with his job. He worked long hours shifting to new projects every few years, and who would watch me? He’d have to hire a nanny. He’d have to look at me each day and figure out what to do with me. This scared him. He did not want to be around me so much, for fear of what could happen. I understood the fear clearly. I, too, did not want to be around him for more than a visit. For longer than it would take for the pork chops in canned tomatoes to be eaten; for several visits to Madame Tussauds and Ripley’s Believe It or Not!; to collect double samples at Costco and call it lunch; to buy a half a year’s worth of school clothes and, his obsession, a good winter coat, the puffier the better—he might not be able to conceal himself any longer. During the testimony, I was honest, but I never mentioned my father. It felt easy, good in fact, to leave him out of the story completely.
My mother’s absence in my life has always haunted me more than my father’s abuse, which is why I suppose I wrote a novel about a mother leaving a daughter. The father is off the page, a figment of memory, a floater in the eye. For a long while I have not been interested in fathers. I should say, I have not been interested in examining my own father through writing. Didn’t I sign a pact long ago during that car drive to the court house, perhaps a silent agreement to let it go, let it be, be cool baby? Women are all nuts, he liked to say, and he’d look at me special as if to say, but not you, and I’d laugh along with him, exempt from the women he meant, all those reckless button pushers.
But now, I want to write this out of love. Love, I have learned, does not mean staying hidden. Sometimes love brings it all up, gagging and ugly, to the rock-strewn shore.
After the judge awarded my father custody, I settled in at my mother’s parents’ house. My father, back at work an ocean away, began a routine of Sunday-night phone calls. I didn’t want anything more. Each night I looked forward to bedtime when I could go deep into my world of imaginary siblings: my twin sister, Claire, and our older brother (whose sole purpose was to bring around cute older boys and whose name now is not a part of my memory). They understood our parents and our situation. I was not alone when they were there and we could huddle under the covers. We knew in our bones that our mother would eventually return for us and it was consolation enough to drop me into a thin and ragged sleep. We were like children in movies, wise and crafty, so much smarter than the adults.
At my grandparents’ I ate chicken sandwiches on whole wheat bread for lunch and drank cool, clean water from glasses with little stars on them. My grandmother penned a swooping heart on my lunch bags. Home lunch like the rich kids. I didn’t hang out at the liquor store after school each day anymore, watching the little TV in the corner for hours on end while my mother looped her skinny arms around the owner’s neck, sometimes sitting on his lap behind the counter. The owner’s wife would emerge from the back to offer tea-leaf readings while my mother drank big plastic cups full of whatever they could spare that day. She was like their child and I was an accessory of hers that was very, very good at staying quiet.
I wanted sometimes to break away from my grandmother as we headed into Savemart to shop for our wholesome groceries, and let the owners at the liquor store know I was still alive, that my mother had left and was with a strange man in Reno, but we were not dead. They were always worried about her dying. I’d send him heart messages: Don’t worry! I’d mind-transport Claire over to tell him, and later she would report back that everything was fine.
But eventually, as years passed, so much more time than I ever imagined my mother would be away, I didn’t think of the liquor store quite so often. I didn’t think of those three years I was alone with my mother after she had left my father or the times before that, the things I’d seen my father do to her when we lived in Hawaii. Did I remember the time I begged the police to help us and my mother looked them in the eye and said there was nothing wrong in our home, black eye glistening? In a community college English-class journal my mother’s concerned teacher writes in the margin, You need to leave him! Think of what this is doing to Chelsea.
In time, the before-life was reduced to small shocks, little daytime nightmares like it all had never even happened, or if it had, it had happened in some other realm, separate. My grandparents’ house was lovely with blond-wood vaulted ceilings, a huge white-tiled island in the kitchen, a certain smell that even now, the house gone to other people and horrifically remodeled from its beautiful airy state, I wish I could smell once more. The smell of order, the possibility of biscotti baking, natural light twinkling off the glass prisms hanging in the dining room window. A mansion to me then, a palace. My mother had always made me feel like her accomplice, a partner in the show of her life and not a child at all. But now I had escaped. My mother was still out there in the shit but I had become accustomed to my fine nutrition, breathing unsmoked air and wearing matching separates from the local department store my grandmother loved, Gottschalks. Also, I had a deeper meaning now, something neither of my parents had, something that I had tried to push on them for the majority of my youth, mailing Bibles with desperate pleas that they get saved tucked into the pages.
Church was nonnegotiable with my grandparents even though each Sunday morning before service my stomach would cramp and pull me into my knees on the ride there, begging to turn around. We never turned around. I can’t go, I’d wail. Can’t stuck in the mud, my grandmother would say, her outfit pristine, her hair a gorgeous architecture of blonde swoops. I was so unassuming that the youth pastor reintroduced himself to me each week, as if he’d never seen me before in his life. From the bleachers in the kids’ group, I’d sit alone or with one other girl named Ally. If she was not there, the entire thing was ruined. But slowly, in that huge gymnasium with booming music, it began to seem my old life could barely have occurred at all. And here was another way paved in gold. I took to the story of the Lord as if my life depended on it.
If I wanted to ever breathe properly, to ever achieve my goal of salvation, I had to let someone off the hook. I could not manage an expanding anger for both parents at once. And God was here to say that I wasn’t really entitled to be angry at anyone at all, and I should just forgive. And my father was never the person society, or perhaps biology, had taught me to long for in a mother anyhow: protector, mender, teacher, soft and loving warm shoulder, there at bedtime, desireless body housing the solutions to my needs. My father could have any number of desires, but my mother’s desire was in direct conflict to my safety, in conflict to the idea of “mother” I had been taught I deserved. She desired alcohol and terrible men, it seemed. Her desire was not desire, of course, but addiction, but the labels don’t matter in the actual movements of living and growing up. Action, regardless of origin, looks like want.
Anything fathers do that is not abandonment or abuse is lauded as extraordinary. My husband, wearing my son in an Ergobaby and pushing my daughter in the stroller could stop traffic for miles, people screaming and clapping out their windows at him for being such a wonderful and resourceful man, caring for his children! And when I do the same thing, on a daily basis, and do it in the grocery store, boob in baby’s mouth at the same time, I get no response, or perhaps even: “He’s too big to be in that thing still, isn’t he? Or, “Uh-oh, someone needs a nap,” when my daughter howls for fruit snacks, the comment not directed at my daughter at all but instead at me, the thoughtless mother who didn’t nap my child at the right time. But my husband, holding a screeching animal of a kid, is endearing, astonishing, a man caught in an act of selfless courage.
“Fathers,” Mona Simpson so beautifully writes in her novel My Hollywood, “sway above it all, tall trees.”
My daughter loves workbooks. We do them together. Recently a lesson presented itself about the difference between facts and opinions. Here’s the fact I do not use as an example, but I think it: Growing up my father beat my mother. It is the opposite of opinion. In church or with my grandparents, I tried not to think about it. In church, I was told that God heals the past completely, so I took this to mean “forget it all.” Or else I would be the punished one, the one at fault. But I am coming to understand that we do not, will not, forget. Things rise. Lately they sit on my chest at night, pressing me down. I feel them move into my hands sometimes, a tingly shake. I write these memories into essays, and delete the parts about my father. But now, I want to get it all out. I don’t want to carry it any longer. Can I put it here? I hope.
My mother and I called my father the “ticking time bomb.” After an explosion, a beating, a display of violence, my father would have about two days of remorse and denial before he began to climb toward the red zone again and the bomb would go off. It was so predictable. All she had to do was smile at the waiter. All she had to do was buy herself new Jordache jeans. All she had to do was exactly nothing. My mother and I spoke of my father like we were necessary passengers on his ship, like comrades working side by side. I was her equal, her protector. I held hope we might get away from him. My mother seemed to wax and wane with her seriousness about leaving, something I could not understand as a child and something that infuriated me. Back to that system of logic: If someone hits you, you should leave that person. It felt true to me then, watching her be brutalized regularly. When we finally did leave, when I was six, I thought yes, now real life can begin. But being beaten for years and years and told you are worthless, worthless scum leaves its mark. My mother, without my father around anymore to remind her of these things, sailed into further destruction. Sailed farther away from me.
I’m an adult woman. I’m in my thirties now and my partner does not beat me. He has never laid a hand on me, has never said, Fuck you, or called me a worthless slut, or a bitch. He has never cut my clothes with a pocket knife or wrapped the long strap of my purse around the steering wheel of the car as I drove on the highway. He has never dumped my bag out on the ground in a crowd, he has never hit the back of my head exclusively so that the bruises wouldn’t show under my hair. My husband has never done that. My father did that to my mother. Did he? Could he really have?
I don’t want to be trapped anymore by the story of my father. My good father, my father I love, the story of my father that we painted over the past once my mother was no longer around. I wonder if my hands are big enough to hold the two truths of him—what he has done and what he has done. I do not see a bad person when I look at him. Only sometimes do I see him spitting on her crouched body, throwing a plate against a wall, pushing me out of the way so he could get to her. Sometimes I see both the good and bad side by side, inseparable like two snakes entwined. I know that my father’s goodness does not negate his actions, though when I was a child it seemed it did. On our biannual visits, sitting on a bench in San Francisco, cracking crabs and eating with our hands, laughing and telling jokes, I wondered if I had completely made up the years of abuse. He was able to settle into this idea, too, I’ve always believed. He liked the way I would never mention that time. When he said, as he still to this day says, “I just wanted us to be a family, but your mother didn’t want that,” I would nod. But has he forgotten? See his hand shake while he opens another beer. See him, in a rare moment of lucidity, desperately trying to explain where this part of him comes from. He looks like someone peeking from behind a curtain, but only for a minute. The show must go on. Play any Van Morrison song, mention where we used to live in Hawaii, say the words of the past, and his tears will come up wild and forceful and he will go silent, look away, away. See him sitting alone in his red truck all day long nodding in and out of sleep while the radio plays on. You tell me who can’t forget.
Chelsea Bieker’s debut novel, Godshot, is out this week from Catapult.