My dad was coming in hot, not just from the warm, humid coastal air, but because I interrupted whatever he was working on; that’s all it took to make him angry. Or, was it because I was wasting gasoline by letting the mower run after I had finished? Who knows? Everything made him angry.
The lawnmower I used to cut the grass at our bay house was loud and I had to shout over it to get his attention. I couldn’t turn it off. I had just finished cutting the grass and there was no way to turn it off; it had no off switch.
Being both depression-era cheap and a super-skilled handyman, my dad cobbled things together well-enough to work, though they might lack certain “luxuries,” such as a lawnmower having an off switch.
He approached me almost running, with large impatient steps. How do I turn it off? I shouted again over the aggressive noise of the mower I stood behind. My dad came in close and jerked the handle away from me. He then turned the mower and shoved the whole thing into some high grass a few feet away, killing it immediately.
Geez. I didn’t think of that. Why didn’t I think of that? I was 13 and already accustomed to my dad’s incredible ability to be impatient. But it still came as a shock to me every single time. Okay, I didn’t think of that, but why does my dad have to get so mad? Why can’t he just be a father? If that’s what it means to be a father, then I don’t ever want to be one.
And so it was. In that moment, on that day, standing next to the junky lawnmower with no off switch…. I made my decision. I would never be a father.
No House of Horrors
Since beginning this blog I have visited my childhood home on Creekwood many times. I’ve comfortably tucked myself underneath the baby-grand piano in the formal living room as my father ran through the playlist of songs his fingers had memorized. He never learned to read music, but somehow possessed the ability to “play-by-ear.” He said he picked it up while in the Air Force, stationed in England during WWII. I could never comprehend the concept of playing by ear. You mean you just hear a song and then sit down and play it? Yes, I know it’s a little more than that; nonetheless, this is not a gift he passed along to me.
I don’t think he knew how many times I crawled underneath that piano while he played, and marvelled at the little velvet hammers as they pounced upon the long steel strings inside its belly. It’s a lovely childhood memory. I wish I had more of them.
What’s amazing to me is just how relatively close to center my early upbringing was. There were no alcohol-fueled episodes of physical abuse, no child molestation, no cages, no torture chambers, no material for a future Netflix documentary. The dysfunction in my childhood home was the product of two parents living inside their own blind spots. My dad couldn’t see that his burst of anger went off like stun-grenades at our feet. My mother never figured out why her second marriage (to my dad) looked so similar to her first. I mean, I suppose it was an improvement….. my dad never physically abused her.
Figuring out my dad’s explosive anger had few clues. I once asked my aunt (his sister), why he was like that. She said their mother was a “pushover” and whenever little Bobby didn’t get his way, he would throw a tantrum. It would seem he had great success with this strategy as a boy and kept up the behavior into adulthood. I readily admit this is pop-psy 101-level analysis, but it’s all I’ve got.
I might never have recognized how the angry, controlling nature of my dad was like a toddler’s temper tantrum, were it not for one particular incident. I was 23 when I lucked into purchasing a small house only a few miles north of downtown Austin. The simple 2-1 house built in the 50’s had been hastily painted white with yellow trim. I later re-painted it a color closer to periwinkle. The house didn’t cost much, mostly because it sat directly beneath the flightpath of every plane that landed at the old Austin airport. Believe me, it was a day of quiet celebration when Mueller was relocated to Austin-Bergstrom International and the bone-rattling roar of planes flying over my house stopped for good.
The house didn’t come with a garage, which was so dilapidated the city required it to be torn down before the property could be sold. Building a new detached garage myself was the first major solo handyman project I’d ever taken on. Growing up, I was put to work on many of my Dad’s projects, and paid whatever the going child-labor rate was at that time. But this project was my own. One weekend, my dad drove from Houston to Austin to visit and to give me a little help on constructing the garage, which at that point was about 90% completed. We ended-up in a disagreement about where to add a side door. Yo! This was my garage, my project; I could put the door wherever I wanted. Though, I did have totally valid reasons for wanting to put it along the east wall. My dad simply disagreed for his own set of reasons.
Once he knew he wasn’t getting his way, my dad released one final expression of his frustration and anger by quickly throwing something that wasn’t there at the ground with both arms. He didn’t crinkle up and start crying, but something about his quick and jerky movements reminded me of the temper tantrum you might see from a 3 year old. Now when I think back to all the hundreds of times my dad stormed out the back door after fighting with my mom, slamming it loudly behind him, I see a child unaccustomed to not getting his way.
One time he slammed the door as our cat was crossing from outside to in. The final two inches of Towie’s tail was severed in the exchange. I am thankful this incident with the cat occurred prior to my birth. Towie, with the oddly shortened tail, was the cat I grew up with. He was my earliest best friend and the comfort I sorely needed to counterbalance a house too often filled with turmoil and tension.
You Knew Who He Was Talking To
As hard as I try, I simply cannot figure out how my dad ended up so horrendously bad at parenting. He was a smart guy. How did this happen? I have to conclude he must have become the parent his own father was- stern, no nonsense, sit-up straight, no-elbows-on-the-table, and it’s May I, not Can I. In one of the few reflective conversations I ever had with my father, relatively near the end of his life, I asked him what his father used to call him when he was a kid. Was it Bobby, Bob, Robert, Rob, Robby, or some other endearing nickname, like Bobberino? My dad thought for a moment and said he didn’t remember his father calling him anything in particular. “When he looked at you…” my dad mimicked a serious face, like a bird of prey spotting a field mouse, “…you knew who he was talking to.”
My dad almost never talked about his father. That tiny glimpse into my grandfather’s personality was all I had to go on. However, if the apple indeed doesn’t fall far from the tree, I grew up seeing much more of my grandfather than I ever deserved.
Patty Ann and Nancy
One solid clue to my mom’s permanently broken heart came out quite randomly when I once asked her to name the one person in her life (besides her mother) she’s been closest to. She responded with a name I’d never heard her say before in my life- Nancy McFaddin. Super-puzzled, I asked, Who’s Nancy McFaddin? My mom tells me that her and Nancy were best friends from between about 8 and 12 years old. That’s all she said. It took me a couple of years to piece together the bigger picture. Here it is….
At 13 years old, my mom (known then as Patty Ann) left for school one morning… without a clue she would never see her own mother again. When she came home that afternoon, strangers were going in and out of her house. She was told her amazing mother, the closest, dearest, most loving person ever in my mom’s young life, had died suddenly….of a brain aneurysm, she learned later. The strangers helped my mom gather up a few belongings before sending her to live with an aunt. [I told that story previously as part of an excellent earlier post, Smoke ‘em If You Want to Live. It’s relevance here is even greater.]
Patty Ann had her heart crushed at 13 by her mother’s sudden death, putting the axiom things happen for a reason on extremely thin ice. For what possible reason would that have been? It was a random twist of fate with consequences that would echo loudly into the next generation. And, if the abrupt loss of her own mother wasn’t enough for young Patty Ann to bear, she also lost her best friend that same day. As the authorities whisked my mother away to live with her Aunt Lou across town, Patty Ann Nichols never saw Nancy McFaddin again.
Imagine my mother’s state of mind that night. I picture her as a 13 year old girl, spending her first night at the cousins’ house; she probably had to share the bed with one or two. When bedtime came around and the lights went out, I see my mother staring ahead into this strange new darkness, too filled with shock and bewilderment to close her eyes. Her body might have felt numb on the outside while boiling with alarm on the inside. In her head, beneath her red curls, the part of the brain that functions as “protector” delivers a new set of instructions to her entire nervous system. Those instructions tell her subconscious and all its minions, whatever you do, don’t allow Patty Ann to get close to anyone ever again….because that’s dangerous.
This incident from my mother’s past explains why I don’t remember tears coming from her eyes after Tommy, her 19 year old first born son, committed suicide in the garage of our house on Creekwood. I didn’t see any tears either when her second-born son committed suicide 40 years later. And if I had died before her, not a single tear would have been shed for me either. For all her life she remained numb on the outside, numb on the inside.
Patricia Breaux was the best mom she knew how to be and she did a million things right. I also have no doubt she loved me…as much as her heart would allow before needing to hold back enough to keep safe from harm.
If I describe my mother as “disconnected,” now you will understand. And if the true meaning of love has been a mystery to me these first 55 years and remains a mystery for whatever’s left, now you will understand that too.
I Was The Witness
The avocado green clock on the kitchen wall says 7:22. The little hand went past the 7, and the big hand is on those little marks past the 20, looks like two of them. It’s 7:22. Not that hard. For my brother Bill, despite being almost a full 2 years older, it was hard….practically everything was hard. But this is not the story of how my brother was dumb, or even slow. It is the story of my dad’s goddam inability to have an ounce of empathy for his own son and what that lacking did to him. The anguish in my brother’s face when he tried to say what time it was but didn’t quite get it right, was something my day had no patience for.
As I write this blog, my mind is going back in time, back to that lime green and avocado late 60’s kitchen with the formica countertop, back to the breakfast table where we typically ate as a family, back to the memory of us little boys, probably 4 and 6… learning to tell time. Me, with my strawberry blonde crew cut and my brother with the same in light brown. I’m trying. I’m trying so hard to zoom inside my father’s head, to be him as he “teaches” his son to read the face of a clock. I just can’t fathom it. Trying to put myself in my father’s shoes isn’t working. My brother couldn’t read the face of a clock, but my father couldn’t read the face of his own son.
My brother is clearly distressed at not getting it. My father, caught up in his own impatience and frustration, the man who intuitively played the piano by ear, will not stop the emotional abuse until Bill runs from the room crying. I am left as the witness. The feeling within me is smug satisfaction and a touch of confidence to be able to pick up on things so quickly. Honestly, I find my brother’s inability to get it unrelatable, but mostly….I feel grateful for not being the one in the line of fire.
I received my dad’s harsh treatment at other times, but had one clear advantage my brother didn’t; I was an observant learner. Not for the piano, unfortunately. But for other things. My mom told me how as a toddler I would stand in my playpen and quietly watch the room. Not fussing, not playing with my toys, just observing. There is no doubt my brother had equal ability to learn as I did. What he lacked was someone to help him learn in a way that was a fit for him.
There is a perilous and (I think) dubious story my mom once told my brother. I didn’t hear it first hand; he relayed it to me later. She said Bill was a happy baby. But around 18 months old he got sick and had a high fever for a couple of days. After that, he was never quite the same. Even if the story is true, based on everything I know… I highly doubt it was the fever. Those were the days of, Don’t baby him. And, Let him cry himself to sleep. Worst baby-book advice EVER!!! When a child is in pain, comfort them. Let them know they are safe and cared for. Doing the opposite breeds a child (and later an adult), who sees the world through a lens of negativity and mistrust.
Take this premium-add advice from the man who has no children- if your child is in pain, comfort them. Please… comfort them to their core.
When a child is abused it is always unjust. Always, always. It is a universal injustice. By this I mean anyone of any age can see it and feel it. It can even be acknowledged by the abuser, but they first must escape the cell walls of their own abuse in order to see it. My brother Bill was not granted an ounce of empathy from his father for simply being a regular little knuckleheaded boy- no hitting was required for this most insidious form of abuse. The impatience of my father led to Bill being scolded, belittled, and yelled at from a very early age. The injustice made Bill angry inside. Then this anger was given its own target. Me.
On nearly every front, we were the typical white American family. We lived in a predominantly white middle-class neighborhood on the southwest side of Houston. We lived in a 3-bedroom, 2-bath brick house on Creekwood, and enjoyed such luxuries as both a formal living room and a family room. We ate evening dinner together as a family, sometimes went on family bike rides afterwards, and from time to time played some pretty typical family games. We had a pool table that converted to a ping-pong table in the garage and sometimes played badminton or croquet in the backyard.
Being two years apart in age, Bill and I often played games against each other. For whatever magical reasons of fate, I tended to be a little more skilled than my brother at almost everything. I had no understanding at the time about how this must have reinforced the conditioning my brother was receiving in spades from my dad; to feel inferior, stupid.
This could be an unnecessary aside, but I feel compelled to tell you that for all his angry parenting, (aside from 2 or 3 spankings with a belt) my father never physically hit us in a moment of anger. He also never called us names to put us down. These were lines he would not cross. Between being impatient and angry, he was a reasonably tolerable and occasionally charming man. [I have deliberately worked in the phrase “reasonably tolerable” because that was my dad’s favorite way to respond when anyone asked him how he was doing. He was always, “reasonably tolerable.” Sounds as though he was perpetually damning himself with faint praise.]
Through the Croquet Wicket and Into the Swimming Pool
At 5 years old to my brother’s 7, we sometimes played croquet in the backyard. It always seemed I was a step ahead of him. His temper flared whenever he would miss a shot and his wooden ball would not go through the wicket he intended. However, something more was revealed by the rubber-tipped mallets and colorfully painted wooden balls. There’s a play in croquet where if your ball strikes your opponent’s, you get the chance to knock it away in any direction you want. I distinctly remember that whenever Bill got the opportunity to drive his saintly little brother’s ball to kingdom come, he would relish it and knock me away with all the fury he was physically capable of unloading.
I was so young, and yet to this very day I can easily recall the anger bred into my brother’s nature by circumstance. Even at 5, I was becoming scared of him already. If I touched his croquet ball with mine and had equal opportunity to slam it to the far reaches of the yard, I would not give it my all. Seeing Bill get even more frustrated and angry wasn’t the game I wanted to play. I knew it would only be turned back upon me later. I was intimidated.
Years later, Bill and I, along with several other kids around our 12-14 year age range, were splashing around one evening in an above-ground swimming pool at the house of a friend to my mother. We were jumping in and out of the pool, throwing nerf footballs around, playing Marco Polo, the usual kids stuff. Even after dark we continued playing. A mercury-vapor outdoor lamp provided plenty-enough light for us to keep swimming into the night.
At some point I was in the pool horsing around with Bill and he pushed me underwater. There would be no story here if he had pushed me under and then let me freely bounce back up. But this is not what happened. With his greater size and strength, he pushed me down but then held me there, keeping my head underwater. My butt was at the pool’s bottom and I wasn’t able to get my legs underneath me to push upwards against the pressure of his body weight. I cannot say how long he held me down or how near I was to literally sucking water into my lungs, but I can tell you I was nearing panic mode. I had experienced my brother’s dark side since the days we used to play croquet in the backyard. From back then to this moment years later in the swimming pool, I had endured my brother’s wicked bullying. But never before did I feel my life was being threatened.
When he finally let up and I thrust into the air, I was choking and coughing out water. My sinuses were burning from the chlorine that had entered. Why did you do that?! I yelled towards him. WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?! I demanded. My brother backed his body away from me towards the other side of the pool and never said a word. His eyes looked left and then swung right, never towards me. Not a single word.
The Sultan of Darkness
On my world travels in 2014 I visited a real-life Sultan’s palace in Yogyakarta on the island of Java, Indonesia. Sections of the palace were open to the public for tours. One grand hall we walked through contained much older paintings, then black ‘n white portraits, and then more modern-era color photographs of the line of Sultans that had ruled the region for generations.
Not a single Sultan throughout the ages was depicted with even the slightest hint of a smile. I asked the guide why that was. She explained that, as rulers of their people, the Sultan had to maintain an air of seriousness. A smile could be interpreted as a sign of weakness or vulnerability.
Find any photograph of my brother Bill from about 10 years old and on, and you will not find a smile. My brother was not a Sultan in Indonesia. His motivations for not showing the world a happy face were not to demonstrate his confident power but rather his feelings of powerlessness. A smile could be interpreted as a sign of strength or invincibility….or worse yet, happiness. Bill possessed none of the above.
The light within a person shines outwardly through their smile. My poor brother Bill had no light to shine.
No Escape Without Scars
The various stories I bring to you in this blog intertwine and overlap, just as they are within my psyche. You have learned that I once had two brothers, and that now both are gone by their own hand. If the thought, How did Gary turn out so “normal?” …ever crossed your mind, it may not cross your mind a second time after reading this blog. You see, the suicides you have read about [t] [b] are not the story. The toxic conditions within that seemingly ordinary brick house on Creekwood were a breeding ground for suicide. That’s the story. So how did I escape?
Perhaps through the luck-of-the-draw I escaped any predisposition towards suicide myself. However, my own wounds from the breeding ground are now the scars I wear behind my eyes. I am discomfortable in relationships. I am alone in this world without a single family member alive. I don’t know what love is. I am not sad, not depressed (which has to be a good thing, right?), but I am surely missing out on something. The person I could have been is still in there somewhere, and I’m running short on time to find him.
Psychedelic-assisted freaky-ass voodoo somatic therapy is up next. Don’t move a muscle.