I REMEMBER being alone with my father only a few times. That person, a man, my father, was the tallest human. His hair was black, and darkness covered him in long, smooth suits, which now I recognize as beautifully tailored.
The first memory is in cool, sunny weather. He has taken me to a park: green ground, tree shadows, and leafy smell of earth. This is a time before words. I am stepping carefully along an oversized snake, a curving metal sculpture a few feet off the ground. My father, having set me on it, waits for me to balance my way to the end. But my foot slips and I fall; I find myself pressed against my father’s white shirt, caught. Safe and afraid.
MY MOTHER claims that when I was little, he was “very nice” to me. “You don’t remember,” she says. It’s true.
MY THUMB fit warmly in my mouth, my cheeks pulling in and my tongue moving around against the familiar flesh. This show of comfort outraged my father. “I’ll put it in the thumbscrew,” he said, and made a harsh twisting sound. “I’ll screw it off; then you won’t be able to suck it.”
The “thumbscrew” was a heavy vise mounted on his worktable. Two metal bars came together to grip wood while it was sawed, metal while it was torched, or a six-year-old’s wet hand. “Don’t move,” he ordered, and I stood crying as the cold metal pressed down harder and harder.
No marks. Not even a bruise. “He hurt my thumb,” I said, holding it out for my mother’s healing kiss. “Oh, he’s just joking, darling.” My mother held my head against her side for a minute, stroking my hair, but she had dinner to make. Four o’clock was the first hour I knew, because that was when my mother went to the kitchen to start, every night, a meal that was eaten at seven.
MY FATHER’S sister, my aunt, told me how their mother used to beat them with a wooden spoon — but only when they were really naughty.
HIS SHOES: so heavy and large; such a loud huffing he made cleaning them. In the neat, shadowy utility room, my father rubbed at his shining wingtips with a long, black-greased cloth, his elbow pumping as he buffed the perfect leather. Finishing, he might speak to me, saying, “There, that’s how a pair of shoes should look.” He aligned them on the counter top: rows of shoes, black and gleaming like his hair, his eyes.
Why should a pair of shoes be frightening? When I came into a room, he did not speak or look up.
WHAT MY mother said:
“That’s just how he is. Stop whining.”
“He isn’t like American fathers; he isn’t going to spoil you. This is how men in England are.”
“He’s not as bad as a lot of men, I’ll tell you that.”
“Stop making such a fuss.”
“At least he’s a good provider, and he doesn’t hit me.”
“What do you want? What do you expect?”
“Oh, don’t be silly. He was only joking.”
RULES ABOUT rooms: Do not go into their bedroom, ever. Do not go into the living room except on Christmas. Keep the back door to the garage hooked open in the summer, bolted shut in winter. You may have a blotter and a pen on your desk. Don’t brush your hair in the kitchen. The sliding door to the study must always be closed, even when you are in there. Alphabetize your books. Sleep with your bedroom door ajar, so the air can move through. Keep closet doors shut. Lights out at eight, at nine or ten when you are older. Close the drawers, close the curtains at night, and don’t have lights burning during the day. Don’t waste electricity. Don’t waste hot water. Don’t leave anything on the stairs. No, you may not put the heat on — go outside and run about if you’re cold. Don’t leave things on the kitchen table. Close the piano lid when you have finished your lesson. Never put anything on the dining-room table without a mat under it. Put your bike away in the garage, lined up with this strip of tape. Use coasters on the tables. Don’t swivel about in the kitchen chairs. Rinse out your thermos and put it here until tomorrow. Stand on the bathmat to dry yourself, and when you have finished, drape the mat over the side of the tub. Spread your towel out on the rack; don’t bunch it together. The cat is not allowed upstairs. Close the window. Open the door. If you are going to have hysterics, go to your room.
AT FIVE, when he got home, it was best to be gone. One side of the yard bordered the “jungle” — several acres of trees tangled with gray vines and bright snakes, with pine needles rotting under heaps of Spanish moss. I knew the way to the big oak at the center; I would block off the path with moss-tied sticks and piles of pampas grass.
Also, the dock at the end of the yard was my place. Seeing him there one evening surprised me. He was squatting at the end of the wooden pier, looking down into the black water. As I approached, I heard a yowl. My father was holding a fishing net, and in the net hung my cat, suspended a few inches above the water, terrified. When my father heard my footsteps, he turned, and the cat escaped, bounded onto the pier and away. He straightened, smoothing back his hair and laughing.
MY SISTER told me that someone told her my father had seen his father throw a kitten into a fire.
WHAT I could not touch: the television, the radio, the shower head, his books, anything on his desk, the stereo, the paintings, the grandfather clock, the metronome, the car windows (if he wanted them open, he’d open them), the car’s heating and air conditioning, its vents, my mother’s purse, the cat’s tail, the crystal goblets, car keys, his fountain pens, his tools, the wine racks, the fruit bowl, the Christmas tree, seedlings in the garden, the chandelier, my father.
MY MOTHER was not allowed to touch the thermostat.
HIS STEPS fell like measured blows on the polished floorboards. He moved gracefully, yet every step was forceful. He was a tall man in his good house, which he paid for by being a doctor. I was a girl allowed to live in his home. My friends’ houses were ranch dwellings, but ours had three stories and two sets of stairs. The stairways separated up from down, and me from him: I kept at least one flight between us whenever I could.
Sometimes I climbed through the rails of the metal banister and stood on the thin outside edges of the stairs, on the wrong side, where you weren’t supposed to walk. It made slipping through the house more exciting; I became a spy and an intruder. When my father saw me doing this, he grabbed my wrist and shook me. “You idiot girl!” he bellowed, his lips drawn back. “What are you doing? Do you want to pull this banister down? Don’t ever let me catch you doing that again!”
WHAT WAS not allowed: noise, jeans, lying on the bed to read, sitting on the floor, sneakers, feet on the couch, eating between meals, using the phone, taking baths (only short, lukewarm showers were approved), talking back, tape on the walls, water on the floors, soda, leaving the table early, going into my parents’ room, speaking except when spoken to.
SOMETHING ELSE was forbidden, and this thing had no name. Playing dolls with Suzy, I got a squirmy feeling, like needing to pee, when the boy doll got on top of the girl doll, kissing her and rubbing her breasts. Though his torso was hard plastic, he writhed against her skin as well as his stiff legs and waist would let him.
Sometimes I became the girl doll, or Suzy did, and Mr. Mean Man tied us up and pushed between our legs in a place I hadn’t known existed.
“First he puts this in there.” One of us held up a crayon or a felt-tip marker. “Then this” — a rounded hairbrush. We giggled, the excited feeling beginning again. “Then he puts this!” I shook a fat, wooden maraca, waving it so the seeds inside did a gentle dance. “He puts this in there! This, this!” Laughing, we squirmed, me on the bed and her on the floor.
My father’s footsteps interrupted us. A sharp rap on the door, then his face around it, angry. “What the hell are you doing?”
I jumped off the bed, hot-faced and embarrassed. What could make us squeal and shake the floorboards? “I was, we were — pretending.”
“Well, pretend to stop.”
WHAT WAS allowed: baking with my mother, clearing the table, church and Sunday school, riding my bike, drinks of water, playing badminton after dinner, catching minnows from the dock, boat excursions, writing, sailing or canoeing, drawing, reading sitting up in a chair, one hour a day of supervised television, going to school, playing quietly in my room or outside.
I WAS helping my sister put fresh laundry away in the linen closet just outside my parents’ bedroom. Being in this corner of the house was unusual, almost dangerous. The middle shelf held crisp sheets in one pile, pillowcases in another. Below it were stacks of towels, guest linens, and extra blankets zipped in heavy plastic bags that smelled of mothballs if you patted them. A clove-studded orange, made by my sister, hung from a nail on the inside of the door.
So close to the forbidden room, I remembered a question that had often worried me: “Did Daddy . . . ?” I asked my sister. “Did Daddy ever do something bad?”
Through her gold-framed glasses, Vicky widened her eyes at me. “Bad?” She flipped her hair back and went on folding. “What do you mean?”
“Oh, I don’t know.” My resolve was already fading; examples were hard to come by. “Did he ever kill someone?”
“No.” She paused to consider. “No-o-o. I don’t think so.”
WHAT GIRLS could not do: play drums, get a train set for Christmas, ask about money, cross their legs at the knee, make bets, argue with their fathers, become doctors, become top chefs, understand math, take the canoe out alone, go to the shooting range at camp, use the lawn mower, collect stamps or coins, be good at chess, play rough sports, be smart, challenge the rules.
Sometimes I dared complain. “It’s hot,” I’d say, when I’d been tearing up minuscule weeds for hours in the Georgia sun. “Could I stop now?”
“No, it’s part of your punishment.”
PUNISHMENTS: MANY spankings. Writing out a hundred times, “I will not speak impertinently to my parents.” No dessert, no dinner. Sudden slaps, being shaken. No playing with Suzy. My clothes or shoes being thrown away.
Jokes: Sneaking up behind me and shoving half a lime in my mouth. Turning the hot water off at the source while I was taking a shower. Tapping on the windowpanes with a rake, late at night.
WHEN A man slaps a child across the face, back and forth, front and back of his hand, at dinner, it is cold and pain together. His fingertips stung. It was a smart gesture, performed deftly, like smacking a tennis ball over a net. My father was good at all sports.
MY AUNT said that when he was little, my father referred to his brothers and sisters as “the children.”
WHAT WAS required: silence, always answering the phone, “Dr. Harris’s residence,” taking good messages, washing my face before school and my hands before dinner, taking guests’ coats at parties, sitting up properly with feet flat and knees together, heavy orthopedic shoes, perfect schoolwork, picking up scraps in the yard, sweeping the carport, weeding flower beds all weekend, setting the table, being silent, being polite, being silent.
WHAT I tell myself: I had a Persian cat I loved and a mother who loved me. We lived on a beautiful river. There were trips to Europe at impressionable ages.
ON SUNDAYS we did things. I have since learned that not all families do things on Sundays, but we sailed and swam and walked, at the beach or the springs or the botanical gardens. Most often, we went out in the boat — a blue-and-white wooden craft with a little galley and a triangular room to sleep in, although we never did.
To get the boat into the water, my father stood up to his waist in the brown river and shouted. “Out of the way!” he roared, and I jumped aside, onto the dock. My mother sat in the driver’s seat, her car dwarfed by the white boat on the trailer. She backed the trailer down the ramp, until the rear wheels were immersed. “Forward!” my father ordered, and the whole thing went up a foot or so. “Turn the wheel to the right. More. No, too much! Go back, slowly!” The boat jerked towards the water. “God damn it!” My father marched up to the car window to browbeat my mother and reset the steering wheel.
“I WILL not speak impertinently to my parents.”
“I will not speak impertinently to . . . ”
“I will not speak impertinently . . . ”
“I will not speak . . . ”
“I will not . . . ”
“I . . . ”
“ . . . ”
FROM THE helm, my father called brisk orders:
“Stow that line!”
“Make it shipshape!”
“Get the chart!”
He steered furiously up river, facing into the wind with his mouth slightly open, jaw set. He looked almost happy. The first rule of boating, he said, was that smaller boats gave way to bigger.
We were headed for some boring park or garden, but I was permitted to sit on the front of the boat, away from my father, away from everyone. I dangled my legs through the railing, watching the foaming brown water. Engine noise covered any sounds I made, so I sang and talked to myself. The wind pulled my hair straight back, and froth from the bow wave cooled the sunburn on my arms. A steady splashing noise came up and up, over the white edge of the boat, and I leaned into the future.
ONE CHRISTMAS, we got a cairn terrier — a smart, shaggy little dog, sturdily built and energetic. In Scotland, they were bred for digging through piles of rocks; in our neighborhood he ran from house to house, visiting.
Very late one night, the phone rang. I heard my mother asking my father to go and get the dog, which had ended up in someone’s yard a few blocks away. They argued, and there was a loud banging as my father dressed and left the house. Frightened and half asleep, I crept downstairs. I was still there, waiting, when I heard my father’s car. I hid in an alcove.
The outer door banged open, and I heard him enter the vestibule between the carport and the den. He was shouting, “Bad dog! You stupid, wretched creature!” The leash clanked and crashed onto the floor, over and over. Whimpers from the dog, then yowling, my father shouting louder, and the dog’s cries interrupted by blows. Some, misaimed, hit the woodwork and made the panels creak. The shouts deteriorated to a sharp, cruel series of curses. I heard the chain, the thuds, and the dog’s desperate, scrabbling nails as it cowered and tried to get away. This went on for my entire childhood.
When the man, sweating, had finished, he moved smoothly upstairs, back to bed and his interrupted sleep. I crept out from my hiding place and found the shivering, whimpering dog crumpled in a corner. His breath came in short, asthmatic gasps. I held him on my lap, trying to talk and stroke him back to life. “You’re going to be all right,” I said. “Please, please, you’re going to be all right.”
This story originally appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review.