Dredging the Depths

Of course, I got all the money. Dad disinherited both my brothers because they all hated each other. Now they hate me too even though I do send my younger brother money every month. He wants more so he hates me. There was no way our dad would repair broken fences or rebuild burned bridges in his lifetime, or after. Not in our family. But Dad did get the last laugh by having his ashes mailed to my older brother, Alan. That was my dad – a vindictive and unhappy man even in death. It’s no wonder we turned out as we did. Welcome to my family.

As the only daughter in a typically dysfunctional New York family, it was always up to me, not my brothers, to manage our parents especially in their old age and deaths. In both cases I was the one who traveled literally across the globe to be by their side and to intervene to ease their passing, issues made extremely difficult on technical, financial, and legal, if not emotional, grounds. Mom was easy as she had been ready to face her death for years, begging me to help her end her hateful existence (see The End Game). Dad was a completely different story. He grasped onto his life greedily, or rather his façade of a life well lived. It took years to understand who he really was; not because he was such a great performer (he most certainly was not!), but rather because he was just so awful to be around.

As a child, of course, I always thought our homelife was normal, the way home and family were supposed to be. That alone was extremely problematic. It was only much later in my life that I realized how seriously damaged Dad was – a damage that he inflicted upon us all. But he was my father. We had a good, strong relationship toward the end even though I did not like him and was often horribly embarrassed by him. My brothers both detested him and had almost no interactions with him. I can’t say if these were simply gender differences or the fact that I just grew far more tolerant and caring as I aged than my brothers did. I’m sure gender and empathy have lots to do with it as I also struggle to maintain contact with my brothers, despite our problems. Perhaps it is the socially expected gender roles that guide us more so than even the facts, the events that make up our lives individually and collectively as a family. This account, then, is my attempt at confronting my past, an effort to describe and understand myself and my family as individuals and collectively through the events that pulsate with familiarity, whether or not they are remembered accurately or even actually lived.  

Dad Picks a Wife

Dad made horrible mistakes long before any of us came into his life. He was a penniless, intelligent, but uneducated youth from Flushing, New York who married a European woman met on a blind date in Connecticut. Mom was the daughter of a wealthy industrial magnate who had brought her with him to the US from England on a business trip. Dad was paid to take her out while her father was negotiating his business deals. I think he married her to prove his own worth in that snagging a rich heiress lifted his own stature as an uneducated factory worker.

The best I make of the situation is that Dad was born after his parents had already separated, was unwanted at birth, and was left to be raised by his grandmother. Throughout his life he suffered under the heavy burden of major resentment, a monstrous chip on his shoulder that pushed him to quick anger, and to always need to prove himself greater, smarter, richer, better than anyone any way he can. As a result of his constant criticism and superiority, he was disliked by colleagues, neighbors, and family. The image he projected was all a huge lie, however, in which he trapped himself in multiple layers of backhanded performances intended to achieve admiration, yet utterly lacking in sincerity or self-forgiveness. He chained himself to Mom as his anchor to a fantasy of success, his imagined superiority in a world that should recognize his brilliance. But the chain was rusted, chipped, and broken by the reality of his brutality, his violence, and the ridiculous lies that permeated him. He took all these frustrations out on his wife and kids. Yes, I developed an affection for him based on pity once I learned to recognize his flaws. It took much of my lifetime to realize how damaged and damaging he was, however. Prior to understanding him, I feared him and avoided him and his brutality. We all did in our own ways – some far more successfully than others.

In early photos, Mom resembled an emaciated, insecure Ingrid Bergmann and Dad a young, skinny Sean Connery. They only had a few dates but they still managed to fall in love somehow. Then Mom sailed back home to England with her father. After 4 weeks of long-distance courting, and daily letter writing[1], Dad borrowed money to book passage on a ship to Liverpool and marry Mom in her home town of Manchester. I’m not sure her parents agreed to the marriage, but they didn’t stop it.

So, Mom was transformed from spoiled rich girl in Lithuania to war refugee in England, to spoiled rich girl again (in England), to war bride carried back to New York to live in a one-bedroom apartment in Elmhurst Queens. Here she knew no one and suddenly had to become a homemaker. Mom couldn’t cook, nor was she used to cleaning or any other basics of home life. Dad worked as many shifts in the mail room of the New York Daily News as he could get to try and keep Mom in the kind of life he imagined she was used to. Naturally he failed – because it was not what she wanted. Wealth and elegance were his dreams, not hers. She wanted romance, not neglect; affection, not verbal abuse. She must have been very lonely and very disappointed.

The three Berman kids in 1960 or so.

By the time my two brothers and I come into this picture, Dad had bought us a modest home in Whitestone, New York; one of many streets straight out of a 50s period Hollywood movie where, for blocks all around, the GI loan houses are the identical 3-bedroom 1-bathroom boxes set in small but uniform front and back yards. We enjoyed the idyllic camaraderie of the era. We knew all the neighbors, we played made up games on the streets, we walked to school with other kids from the street, we never locked our doors or worried that the bikes left haphazardly on the front lawn would be stolen. We were safe and secure in the one rule our parents imposed on us: be home when the streetlights come on. Aside from Mah Jongg and her bowling leagues, I can’t tell you how Mom filled her days. It certainly wasn’t slaving over the stove. We grew up on Swanson’s TV dinners, Kraft Mac n Cheese, Skippy peanut butter with Welch’s grape jam on Wonder bread, and canned Spaghetti-Os. Dad was almost never in the picture.

Then, there are the not so pleasant memories.

Our main memories of childhood were of beautiful warm days that should have been full of play and noise and laughter being suddenly destroyed by Dad storming out of his bedroom in his boxer shorts, hair disheveled, in pitiable anguish, pleading with us to be quiet so he could sleep. Dad worked night shifts. We were not allowed to make noise or even play in the house during the days. Between our endless street roaming, absent father, and weak, timid mother, we three grew up pretty much wild throughout the late 50s into the 60s. We all regularly used drugs by the ripe ages of 12 because they were easily available. I was dealing hashish for my older brother in my Junior High School for pocket change. My younger brother claims to have been sexually abused – claims we never believed and still do not know if we should have.

Yet, if our personality or character traits and emotional identities are created by the experiences we had in childhood, an amalgam of our family’s interests and values, the examples of love and security we grew up with, the courtesy and kindness we learned, then it borders on miraculous any of us survived at all. Since, in short, we never learned to be kind or polite, to love or care, to share or to play nicely at home. We learned to shout over others, to survive by lying, cheating or running, to shrink in fear of dad, and to dominate, manipulate or lose.

We never really had close sibling relationships, no sharing or activities together beyond reading comics, playing an occasional board game (Life or Candyland), and later, rock music and drug taking. I’m not sure which of my brothers took my colored pencils while I was playing outside and drew pictures and scribbled on the basement wall my dad had just painted over the weekend, an intentioned act that got me punished. I don’t know who it was and neither of them remembers. All we agree on was that it was easy to get in trouble in our house.

Alan, as the oldest, created all kinds of coded phrases for us kids to use since it was essential to use foul language and not get beaten for it. Of all our codes, I only remember the one I got into trouble for. GT meant “gushy tushy” – since as kids we were obsessed with pooping and ass wiping. One Christmas, which we celebrated with my dad’s Protestant step mother, Aunt Lil, and his dad in their Sunnyside Queens apartment, Alan dictated a note for me to write to Aunt Lil. It contained the words “you are a GT”. With our baby brother on her lap, Alan ordered me to toss the note to Aunt Lil. I did. She read it out loud and asked what GT meant. Toddler CJ happily in the know shouted out Gushy Tushy! Boy did I get a beating for that despite the fact that there was no way my 5 year old self could have written it without help! It just seemed we would all do things that would get someone else in trouble. It was easy in our house because nothing was ever discussed, no truths sought, no justice required. In our house, it was survival of the loudest, the fastest, or the smartest. Alan, as oldest, often won out over us.

I was not immune from this nastiness. In my case it was targeting CJ since he was littler than me. As a little kid, I was crazy about horses and would gallop around the house on my hands and knees whinnying. From my ground level position, I could do all kinds of things to hurt my little brother. More than once when we had company or my brother was standing at our front screen door talking with his friends, I’d crawl over and yank his pajamas down to his ankles. Poor kid would howl in embarrassment as everyone else would laugh at him. I don’t ever remember being punished for doing this though – or for the time I stuck a sharp pencil in this thigh.

CJ could only abuse whatever pets we had because they were the only creatures smaller than he was. He would race across the living room and take a flying dive onto the dog sleeping by the window. Pulling legs off of spiders and tying red efts onto bottle rockets and shooting them into the air were common events. Our parents pretty much ignored our bad behavior, either because they were drunk, or Dad was gone and Mom just too timid to say anything beyond “wait till your father gets home”. Since we rarely saw Dad, it was an empty threat. When we did finally see him, we’d all get shouted at anyway. It really didn’t matter how good or bad we were. Dad was an equal opportunity screamer. 

We did often enough have early dinners as a family so dad could eat before going to work. Neither of my brothers or I remember any kind of dinner table conversations or family bonding. All we recall was Dad’s anger, his criticisms, and shouting.

It was exceedingly difficult at first to interact in other people’s domestic spheres because I just had no idea about good manners. In our house, there was never a “please pass the…”. No. It was a free-for-all where sometimes Alan would lead the charge with, “Ready pigs, attack!”, and we three would all dive in to grab what we wanted. Mainly, we’d each have our own TV dinner and TV tray set up in the living room in front of the TV. I honestly do not recall civil conversations in our home. When we had company – usually family relations, Dad would try to dominate and impress with his knowledge (often wrong), his wealth (Mom’s), and by ridiculing us and Mom[2].

We simply never did learn to be healthy or polite at home. Mom never taught us to wash our hands after going to the toilet – something I had to learn by watching other peoples’ behavior. I remember once asking a friend, why she’d wash her hands after the toilet. She looked at me in horror saying “do you really want your own pee or shit in your mouth?”

Once when I was in Junior High School, I had a friend named Madeline Winkler who lived in Levittown. Her mom was going to drive me home after spending the afternoon with Maddy and offered to take us for ice cream sundaes at the Milk Maid near our house. Maddy and I sat on one side of the booth, across from her mom. I was chewing on the plastic straw from my ice water glass and flicked it up. A drop of water hit Mrs. Winkler in the face. Being the embarrassingly impolite child that I was (for even playing with the straw, never mind flicking water around), I never apologized (nor did I thank her for treating me to an ice cream). I just laughed, thinking it was hysterical. Mrs. Winkler was furious at my rudeness and immediately took me home. Maddy was forbidden from playing with me anymore.

Leaving Home

All three of us kids left home as soon as we turned 17, clearly, but subconsciously, knowing we had to escape the toxic environment as quickly as possible. At 17 (in 1972), I discovered the thrills of skydiving and then escaped to university in Pennsylvania. Since my parents wouldn’t pay for my education, I had to devise a means of earning money myself while studying full time. As a cute little thing, I would get paid for doing demonstration skydives, and through my pilot connections, I invested in marijuana or cocaine at cost which I sold to fellow students or to friends at music clubs in New York. I recall once in my room at home with the door closed I was cutting up a quarter pound of cocaine into smaller amounts over an old mirror that had belonged to my great grandmother. Dad opened my door and stuck his head in, saw what I was doing and muttered, “Oh, I’d better close the door,” and stepped back closing the door. Dad never said a word to me about it.

Following graduation in 1977 and a skydiving accident that forced me to give it up, I began my world travel – a wanderlust that brought me to England in the late 70s, New Zealand from 1980, Bahrain from 1985 to 1987, Australia from 1996 to 2000 and between them all, Indonesia, where I made my home up to 2021. Basically, some survival instinct led me to get as far as physically possible away from my family. Twelve time zones away is as far as I could get without space travel. Unfortunately for my brothers, they escaped to California where my older brother introduced my younger brother to cocaine and heroin. As weak an individual as he was, CJ quickly developed addictions. Like the life-long junkie he is, he blames Alan, me, our parents, the government, anyone and anything for the many horrible mistakes he has made in his life.

When I turned 22 I was an art school graduate and ex-skydiver who had lived off her own wits for 6 years now. This is when I first became aware that my folks were seriously not ‘normal’ healthy parents. Visiting the homes of friends, I was very jealous of those who actually had conversations, laughs, and loving support from their parents and siblings. I had never seen such things before – affection and kindness, politeness and happiness at the dinner table rather than fear, competition and shouting matches. I collected adopted parents and siblings everywhere I went to make up for what I lacked.

“Parents have problems too”, I remember telling my brothers one summer that I happened to be in California with my skydiving buddies while my brothers were living in Santa Rosa. “Try to understand their faults and try not to hate them so much”. Easily said, not easily done – especially when CJ, my younger brother, says he has no memory of this meeting, probably he said, due to being on heroin. The only other thing I recall about this meeting with my brothers was Alan trying to grab the cocaine vile I had in my pocket. My shorts were tight enough for the shape of the small vile to be visible.

Forced to give up skydiving and having no skills at all beyond determination and courage, I travelled the world throughout my mid 20s to 30s, a fairly wild, sexually promiscuous, very selfish, extremely adventurous feminist who never for a second questioned her ability or power. Looking back, I am amazed at my strength – which I do attribute in many respects to near death experiences and the confidence building of my years as a skydiver. I faced all challenges with a fearlessness that I wish I still had, as well as a recklessness that I am lucky to have survived. I spent most of this time with next to no money, worked odd jobs around the world (bar-tender, punk rock band tour manager, drug dealer, pimp, sheep-shearer’s roustabout, hotel housemaid, farmhand, waitress, sex worker, English language teacher, harm reduction counselor, among various other jobs), and maintained almost no communication with my family. These pre-internet days were a blessing in so many ways. Of course, I had many romances but the thought of taking any man seriously, having babies, falling in love, trusting another person, or settling down never crossed my mind. I assume this total rejection of attachment or commitment was because of the awful domestic examples I’d had as a child.     

The 1990s: Domestic Violence Dad Style

In my 40s back in the US, and enrolled in a PhD program, I began to realize that my mother was a victim of domestic violence. Dad never hit her (that we knew of) but he spent much of their marriage abandoning her, working several shift jobs to prove he could maintain Mom’s wealthy lifestyle on his own. He must have hated it – and her. His alcoholism throughout those years nearly killed him. Mom didn’t share much of anything with him beyond 3 kids and bowling for most of their 65-year marriage. She was a fairly vacant, uninvolved, lonely housewife, and negligent mother. He was never home but he did insult her constantly when he was for being uneducated, a lousy cook, and simply not a strong person. Humiliating Mom to anyone and everyone must have made him feel more of a man. He milked all he could out of her prestigious family connections by bragging how he scored a ‘princess’, a family of wealth, of fame, and of respect. Old money and accomplishment verses Dad’s constant need to prove he was as good as they were by proudly exclaiming to all that his custom suits cost $1000, his Italian shoes cost whatever, and naturally, he drove a Cadillac. Dad was proud of the fact that he was the only guy to work in the mail room of the Daily News dressed in a suit and tie. The others there must have thought him a real asshole.

To Dad, wealth was for show over anything else – as proof he was wildly successful – despite working a factory job! When he did branch out to create his own businesses, one was an electric light company, Redwood Electric, that went bankrupt, Dad insisted, because his partner stole from the business. The next was a direct mail business, Guild Mailing, which also never brought in profit. Dad was proud of his directorship position and always went to work well dressed. He constantly assured us of the far superior quality of his work over any of his competitors. Yet, it was all Mom’s inheritance that kept him afloat in these pretenses. In later years he told me what a great father he was because of all the material things he gave us. Never once in our childhood did we recall a happy experience with him, affection, a hug, the words I love you, or praise for any simple or great accomplishment. My parents never attended our graduations or praised us for bringing home a good report card. We do remember the absence and, when he was around, the shouting, anger and insults.

One event stands out however as a mark of what is perhaps my own lack of understanding him. Somewhere in the early 80s I was staying with them for a short period having just returned from several years living in the UK and Indonesia. Dad insisted I come with him to a B’nai Brith meeting because some guy was speaking about the Arab conflict in the Mid-East. Dad had been mugged recently in the city and had his mouth wired shut to allow his broken jaw to heal. Still, he wasn’t going to be silent at this meeting. When asked if there were any motions or comments from the assemblage, Dad stood up and, despite the wiring, stated how he wanted the B’nai Brith to take a stand against the violence going on in Cambodia. He insisted that, as a people well accustomed to being victimized, the Jewish organization should strongly reject the current violence going on there. Dad was booed and in no uncertain terms told the Cambodian genocide was not a Jewish issue, nor was it of any significance to Judaism. Dad renounced his membership in protest and I, for once, was proud of him.

Mom n dad with Kiley

CJ had married a California woman no one liked, had a daughter with her as result of a drunken rape, and could not support them. Dad decided he should bring CJ back to New York to work in Guild – the son who would carry on his legacy. The plan was to give them the family home in Whitestone and my folks bought a small 2 bedroom apartment in Clearview. CJ’s marriage was a train wreck and his crack cocaine habit sure didn’t help. Between CJ’s depression, drug addiction, violent marriage and the 2 year old Kiley being rushed to hospital with a highly suspicious fractured skull and subdural hematoma, social services made the crazy mistake of taking the child away from her parents (good move) and giving my parents custody (what the heck were they thinking??)! All this occurred at the same time I had decided to come back to New York and live with my parents while doing a Masters’ Degree in Education that would enable me to get better teaching jobs overseas.

For the next half year, Kiley lived with us, while CJ and his wife Dot fought out their divorce and custody rights. Naturally, the only winners were the lawyers. CJ became a single father for the next few years – until Dot eventually won custody. I stayed eight months and left immediately upon getting my degree for a teaching job at Bahrain University. Finally, I would get a job that was legal, legitimate, and highly paid.

The 2000s : Big Moves

Dad retired at 64 thoroughly convinced he would die of a heart attack in his 65th year as his parents both did. He stayed home, parked himself on the sofa every day, and read thrillers, waiting for the inevitable. He turned his Guild Mailing Service over to CJ. Within months it was bankrupt. CJ insists that was because the financial injections from Mom’s inheritance had stopped backing up what had always been a failed business. Dad insisted it was CJ’s failure as a businessman that did it. Dad never said a word (did he even notice?) about CJ’s drug addiction. CJ and his new wife, Cathy, moved to upstate New York and left the Whitestone house in such a state that it had to be torn down and rebuilt. After a few years of waiting for his heart attack and with the business ruined, Dad accepted his fate, sold both Queens homes and moved out of New York to Sun City in Las Vegas. That’s when things became far worse for Mom.

The Bermans united for the first time in decades for dad’s 80th birthday.

Las Vegas 4 June 2006

In my 50s I started to work at recreating my relationship with my parents. Mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s which only seemed to provide Dad with more excuses to insult her for not using her brain. He was growing more and more frustrated with her as she became more unable to function. Twice in 2009 I flew from Jogjakarta, Indonesia, to their home in Vegas. The first trip was to help convince them to move into an independent living facility as the daily needs of living in a house would only become harder to meet. We were successful, and my parents chose one that would be able to care for my mother as her memory and ability to take care of herself faded. They would move from Las Vegas to a small apartment in a facility for the aged in Florida, near where Mom’s brother lived each winter. The second was when Dad begged for my help in packing up and moving. It is not easy helping a senile old lady to pick through all her belongings and select what to bring, and what to toss. Neither of my brothers would, or could, do it so I never thought twice about booking the flight despite not having enough money in my account to cover the airfare.

Mom was a shopaholic. Probably because it was an escape from the claustrophobic environs of the home and Dad.  She had a huge wardrobe full of things she had not worn in decades. We actually had fun trying it all on – laughing at the fashion changes over the decades and her rather radical changes in body size as her weight fluctuated and, later, as her height decreased. We went through and organized the family photos and news clippings of our lives into neat albums, and shared stories about those I didn’t recognize. Dad never took part in any of this.

In Florida, at the new home, my parents immediately settled into their usual patterns – Dad at the computer all day and Mom at the tv, bored and itching to do things. Dad is talkative and easily meets people (until they get to know him better), whereas Mom is shy and reserved. My job was to take her to activities – anything as long as she met people and could feel at home in this new environment. It didn’t work as planned.

Hidden Truths

Within a few weeks of moving to Florida, Mom fell, broke several bones and needed surgery. Following her surgery and rehab, she had deteriorated mentally and had to move into the Alzheimer’s memory care unit. Dad diligently visited her in the Alzheimer’s ward, three times a day. I don’t believe he did this for her at all, but rather for his own benefit. His public displays of loyalty and support for Mom earned him a reputation as a super kind, loving husband, a man who obviously cared deeply for his wife and would do anything for her. This was baffling to us who knew him before, until we realized this behavior allowed him to reconstruct his husband role in a way that allowed for adulation and praise, a respect he has always craved. A helpless Mom was an easy one to deal with. He could sit with her, hold her hand while he read a book he invariably brought along. No need for idle chit chat, no annoying demands on his time. It was a role he could completely control and, through it, earn for himself a fine reputation in the new home.

It wasn’t until I hit my 60s that I began to realize how seriously damaged my brothers were from Dad’s behavior. My older brother insists he has needed to see therapists because Dad never once said he loved him or showed any interest in him. My younger brother maintained serious drug addictions. This may not be Dad’s fault directly, but the fact that Dad never engaged with any of us aside from yelling or insulting us, nor did he take notice of our lives to offer guidance or discipline, did not make for a healthy, happy, or even safe environment. I once admitted to my younger brother that for years I just thought he was nuts, schizophrenic, a junkie, who had claimed the abuse as a way to avoid responsibility for way too many mistakes in his life. I wasn’t wrong on some of these points but if I had believed him on others maybe we could have helped change the course of his miserable life. I’d tried on several occasions to help but they always turned into disasters. Naturally I blamed him. Why does it take a lifetime to realize that just maybe I was at fault too? I still think he’s nuts but then again, I’m sure he thinks the same of me. I was just a lot luckier in my life choices than he was.

Dad’s Own Backstory

After Mom died, Dad opened up – a bit. Dad told me that he never had much of a childhood either and that he didn’t know how to be a parent to us. His parents split up just after he was conceived and he was raised by his grandmother. By the age of 14 he proudly told us that he had had to earn his own keep. His life stories were all shaped by the image he longed to project: his strong sense of dignity, his independence, his super-human aptitude, and his proud rejection of any handouts. But they were all pure fiction. He claimed to have refused the many offers for support because he could achieve anything he wanted on his own. He turned down his aunt’s recognition of his obvious superior intelligence with an offer to pay for a university education. He spoke often about the military police training he attended in Texas, while his military records found after his death showed this to be untrue. He rejected the offers of officer’s training in the military based on his well-earned respect. And he rejected all the fabulous job offers he got from mom’s industrialist father because with his brilliance, he didn’t need any help. None of these offers or stories were real.

He was clearly intelligent, but uneducated. Dad didn’t know how to think critically or deeply. Later in life, he chose conservative media as his bibles on any topic, with O’Reilly, Limbaugh, and FOX News his go-to sources. He was a Trump fan who thoroughly believed that feminism, globalization, socialism, and Black Lives Matter were all part of a plan to undermine well-deserved white male privilege. He just didn’t get it and was absolutely certain he knew better than everyone else. Dad was an embarrassment most of the time, with most people, but not with me. I knew how to appease him and I did so out of pity. To my face he’d pretend to write me off as a radical nut-job. He never tired of telling me that my accomplishments were all thanks to him, his intellectual genes and his support – never just my own doing. To everyone else I was his pride and joy. I provided clear evidence of his excellent parenting abilities (just as Mom allowed him to publicly prove what a great husband he was), a skill he continuously tapped for all it was worth.

Let’s state some facts: Dad refused to help pay for my college education: “the boys never went to college, so why the heck should I pay for a girl to go?!” I paid my own way through college, three masters degrees, and PhD studies. His dreams of education were realized through me. His dreams of travel, realized only through me. His dreams of success, recognition, publications, all realized through mine. Dad adored me and I knew it – even though he would never say it to my face. Dad disliked my brothers because they didn’t provide that perfect dream life he longed for, and they knew it too.

Survivor’s Guilt

As I sat at his bedside holding his hand as he struggled in that hazy twilight between life and death, I was torn between “I don’t particularly like you pops” and “I have such pity for your life so poorly spent”. These last 10 years I flew ‘home’ to Florida twice yearly at great expense to help Dad deal with Mom as he increasingly blamed her for her condition. I believe Mom did not have Alzheimer’s. It was her way of dealing with the trauma of a mainly miserable, abusive marriage. As a mature adult I still feel guilty over not doing anything to help her. I chose the safety of pure selfishness, escape, and spent years trying to undo the damage growing up in a violent household had caused. I had to learn to be polite, caring, trusting, to not rely upon the anger and verbal violence Dad taught us was normal communication. I hear it in my brothers and cringe. I hear it on occasion coming out of my mouth and catch myself before being, o jeez, like my father. Most likely a result of being my dad’s daughter I knew as a young child, that I would never marry and absolutely never have children. I pursued education and travel as my ticket out of his influence. I do not regret these lessons and feel I have thrived in other ways as a human being because of my unconventional attitudes toward being a woman, having a family, and life. I do thank my dad for his awful examples that fed my enlightenment.

Dad couldn’t be fixed, but why didn’t we help Mom escape him? I suppose it is not up to the children of an abusive marriage to help, especially when we too were struggling with our own growth and sanity. Yet, despite all the hurt and disappointment, I continually returned to them to help Dad manage Mom as she slowly receded into her own private world. My brothers did the opposite. They avoided our parents, especially as Mom grew worse. What they didn’t see then, was how Dad managed to recreate himself at Mom’s expense. Settling into the new retirement center was made easy because of the way Dad let everyone know what a great husband he was. All the other residents would exclaim how lucky I was to have such a loving, concerned father. Smiling with pride, I always agreed externally while flabbergasted internally at his great deception. I played along. Why not? No one needs to know what he was really like. What could possibly be gained by pushing too hard against his fantasy and destroying it? Such facades crumble to dust on their own when exposed to fresh air. I certainly didn’t need to expose him for what he really was.

Despite my history of escaping from his insults and yelling, recognizing Dad’s own failings helped me to manage him better, to speak openly and honestly, and to cut through his attempts at rebuilding the solid walls he used for self-protection. My brothers were both trapped in his aggression and outward rejection of any intimacy or kindness. They were never allowed any of the loving kindness Dad showed me as his only daughter, the only child he ever hugged, kissed, or asked for help. Maybe it is just ‘a gender thing’, but I was happy to play along with Dad’s charade and make sure the other residents at the home also saw what a dedicated, loving, man he was. Dad loved my visits to the home and my popularity amongst the old folks there. I knew he saw it as an extension, and supporting evidence, of his successes as a father and husband and I was more than happy to play along. But, after Mom finally died, violence began to seep through the cracks in Dad’s camouflage. His impatience with what he saw as everyone else’s stupidity and his short temper meant he would start yelling at people in meetings and in the dining room. The old folks certainly had no time for Dad’s bitterness and toward the end he had his daily meals alone as no self-respecting person would subject themselves to his insults.

Despite his preparation for death, the cremation packages he had bought 18 years prior, his atheism, and our frequent discussions about death, he was terrified in the end. During my previous visit in January, a few days before I was about to return to Indonesia, I asked him how he was. I could see full well his growing frailty, his returned anger and frustration with the world around him. He said he was tired and ready to face his end. I said only half-jokingly:

Yo Dad, hurry up.. if this is it, either do it now or tell me if I need to change my ticket!

He replied gently, “Go home, babe.”

I was back in Indonesia for less than a week when the old folks’ home manager called to tell me that Dad was in the hospital. I called him to ask how he was and if I needed to come back. My 93-year-old dad was not entirely coherent, so I booked my flight. I was his health surrogate and I have kicked myself for not being there at this time. Despite a do not resuscitate directive, Dad was resuscitated when he should have died simply in his sleep. This was my fault.

When I arrived back in Florida early Tuesday morning, following my usual 40 something hour series of 4 flights, I drove straight over to the hospital. Dad was somewhat coherent but showed no interest what so ever in my reappearance. I must admit it was disappointing. “Jeez, Dad. I just flew half way round the planet and you don’t even give me a smile?” He was clearly agitated, in pain (resuscitation resulted in cracked ribs), and very scared.

Mom literally died in my arms. I held her to keep her aides physically away to give her the peace she needed and utterly craved to die. She longed for death and embraced it calmly, lovingly even. Dad on the other hand, refused to let go. The day before he died, he was coherent and only wanted to discuss politics, his girlfriends (yes, my 93-year-old dad had two girlfriends), and his mailing lists. He worried about his perceived responsibility to the several dozen people who received his daily emails on topics as weird and varied as the “Muddle East”, his daily jokes, and his accumulated pictorials of anything he happened to come across online.

I never cried at Mom’s passing, but I did for Dad. Even at the end he couldn’t look back and realize what a fool he was. He couldn’t apologize for his many mistakes, his violence, his utter lack of expressed compassion or feeling for his own kids, or his cruelty to his wife. He remained stalwart in preserving his image as the always in control, intellectually superior, good guy. I cried out of sympathy for such a wasted, poor life; a life lived through a wretched fantasy of success in which Dad continuously pushed away his own family while building his defensive, yet transparent, walls of brilliant superiority to anyone else who would listen. 

For Dad there never was a moment of truth, an honesty that would allow him to face the consequences of his faults to himself and all those close to him. Dad evaded truths. He negotiated around them with endless lies presented in an increasingly brutal intensity, concealing himself from everyone that should have been dear to him. What foolishness he maintained to protect himself from his own malevolent disappointments, while inflicting it upon his wife and sons. I do remove myself from his venom because I alone recognized it and was allowed to see what was hidden – but only within reason. Dad needed me as a navigation point on a rough sea, his one point of refuge within his bitter existence. I was the fortunate one, the only one to successfully reject his violence whenever he spouted it. I fought back, albeit gently and without guile, and embraced for myself only the strength and independence that he revered in me. But this too required so much time and distance in my own development to permit me the space to reflect upon our childhood and the violence that infected us all. After a half century, I finally recognized which were lies and which were not, what he needed and what was best discarded. I chose to help him maintain the lies to allow a pathetic old man his final years in dignity. I hope I did the right thing for him. I only wish I had done better by Mom and my brothers, and all those others who came into my life in the early years and were never appreciated as they deserved to be.    

Started: Hollywood, FL 2018

Finished: DeLand, FL 2022   

[1] When I found these letters while moving my folks to Florida, I didn’t have the heart to throw them away. Eventually, I sent them to an artist I’d met on Facebook because we had similar sounding names. The New Orleans artist Linda Berman used Dad’s letters to make a gorgeous art piece that hangs in my Florida home.

[2] Many years later, I spoke about this with Mom’s brother and his wife, who verified and agreed with my recollections and impressions.

2 thoughts on “Dredging the Depths

  1. Laine, I thank you for this frank and still loving memoir. —- Patricia who shared some great years with you in academia


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