One morning when the boys are in school I pick up our mail and find a thick envelope from Naomi. It must be the wedding pictures! It has been a few weeks since Naomi’s wedding. I feel a hopefulness I haven’t felt since the first year Jack and I were married, before I got pregnant with Simon. I did it. I saw my dad and handled it just fine. I sit down in a soft living room chair and flip through the snapshots. I find one of Naomi and me smiling into the camera. The next is of my maternal grandparents sitting on a black leather couch in the lobby of Rockefeller Center, waiting for a taxi to take them back to the hotel after the wedding. My grandpa is in his coat and bowler hat. My grandmother is in an elegant fur poncho that is the exact same silvery gray as her bobbed hair.
Who took the picture, I wonder? My dad was the photographer of the family throughout my childhood. Looking through family photos before my parents’ separation, it is rare to find a picture that wasn’t taken by him, that doesn’t have his particular perspective. Thinking about his old pictures brings me back to the last time I went to the house I grew up in to pack up the belongings of my childhood: the summer of 1998.
Just after Jack’s and my wedding, I cut off all contact with my father. I was the first in the family to break away, and then to breach the silence between my younger sister, my mother, and me on the subject of his abuse.
Soon after, my mother left him. She moved on, got her own place, made friends. Dad stayed in our childhood home. He’s still there, today, as I write this. He can’t function anywhere else.
The summer of 1998 was a year into our marriage, and Jack and I came home to Milwaukee for the first time since our wedding. Mom still had minimal contact with Dad, enough to know that he was away on a rare vacation. I told Mom I wanted to reclaim my childhood belongings. She gave Jack and me the keys.
As we pulled up the drive, the intense scent of lilacs and freshly cut grass seeped in through the open car windows. Everything seemed smaller, more focused, like walking into a photograph. The entryway still had the same wicker basket full of old shoes. I spotted an old brown house-clog of mine, from the pair I used to wear to go out and get the paper. The lace from one of my sister’s old “duck” shoes trailed onto the floor through a hole worn into the bottom of the basket. The shelves had the same things, now worn down, fuzzy around the edges: notebooks, old mail, and the little black Duracell flashlight with the brown band around the edge.
When the family was intact, we pretended. Dad was the handsome, engaging family man. Business man. Intellectual. Balanced. Now, I had moved out nearly a decade before, and Naomi six years after me. Mom had been gone for almost two years.
In the kitchen, the same yellow paint my mom had picked out fading on the walls. The same fussy little pink television and pink remote on the kitchen table, surrounded by the same yellow placemats and the dainty salt and pepper shakers. My skin got cold; I wished I had brought a jacket. I felt like an intruder, sneaking in with the old key.
Jack held my hand as we climbed the stairs to my room. Same brown paint. Same “Women Ain’t Chicks” poster. Notes from high school taped to the desk, the tape yellowed and peeling. I wondered if he ever went in there.
I glanced at my reflection in the full-length mirror. How strange to see my current self. My muscles looked toned, strong. I saw beauty there. My skin was tan, my cheeks too flushed for the room. I imagined the sixteen-year old girl who spent painful hours examining herself: a chubby, insecure girl with her face hidden behind braces, uncontrollable frizzballs of hair, and of course, big round glasses.
Jack and I packed up my old journals, class projects, and clothes. My collection of thrift-store black dresses. Student newspapers I saved from college, political flyers for the “Walkout Against Rape and Sexual Harassment on Campus” I had helped stage, an old “Take Back The Night” T-shirt. My Madeline L’Engle book collection, a curled up copy of “Ramona the Brave.” Underneath the record player, in a dirty blue plastic crate: my old tape collection. We took the posters down from the walls. I was almost ready to clear out.
Piles of photos stuffed my desk drawers. His pictures marked every step of our lives, even when we were sick. He said he found the changes in our expressions interesting. In the family room I had noticed fat packs of baby and toddler, camp and graduation pictures. They burst out of the built-in drawers. I stuffed them into a bag.
When Naomi and I were growing up, the pictures made us look and feel like a normal family. Dad captured our first days of school, first dates, departures for sleep-away camp. The pictures helped us pretend, to ourselves, and to the world. The house helped us pretend too. It was a beautiful four-bedroom house in a wealthy suburb. Family and friends, close friends, thought of us as lucky, interesting, intellectual people. Well-connected members of the Jewish community. We never talked about Dad’s shocking mood swings and the awful things he would say and do. We never talked, even between the sisters, about the fact that our parents slept in different bedrooms. Mom told me Dad was “Vice President” of my maternal grandfather’s liquor company. That he was home more days than not was background noise, ignored. His weekend absences, as we became teenagers, felt like too much of a blessing to examine.
We finished packing up the last of the things from my room. It was time to get the portrait, a sketch Dad had made of me years ago. He had framed it and hung it in our upstairs hallway. Now I was going to use it to say goodbye.
It wasn’t hanging on the wall where I remembered. I went into my dad’s “study” – really the master suite of the house, and glanced around. Newspapers sat piled halfway to the ceiling. There was a wall of CD’s, his music collection having swelled grotesquely. More piles of family photos sat next to books on the walls. My throat felt tight, I couldn’t get enough air.
Memories of sitting next to him, he in the grey nubbly easy chair, me on the threadbare ottoman chatting late into the night about religion, philosophy and politics jumbled up with memories of sneaking into his closet amongst the sandalwood scented T-shirts to look at his porn magazines. Women tied up, their legs spread, with men standing over them holding whips and chains. I remembered discovering them for the first time. Seeing an Asian woman tied to a tree. A red scarf covered her eyes. It was ugly. But she was sexy. Sex was sexy. Was the scary man in the background sexy? I filed that away, my hormones intoxicating. Did I touch myself in there then? I don’t remember if I went back to my room first.
The good and the ugly snuggled up together. Sexy, alluring, he’d shower attention on me. Backed up against that moment, right next to it, his rage soaked me in equal measure. From early on, I figured out to barricade myself in my bedroom with the little white wooden chair from my desk. It fit perfectly under the door handle. I’d cover my ears to soften the sounds of his curses, his blows on the door. He never broke in, never physically or sexually abused me. But when he was mad, he’d call me “cocksucker” or “douche bag,” and threaten to “knock my lights out.”
Once, on a father-daughter trip visiting colleges, he flipped through the channels on the motel room television. He clicked on the Playboy Channel. A woman sat, legs spread, her vagina exposed through the crotch of a pair of cut-off jeans. She was touching herself and smiling.
“Dad, turn it OFF!”
“You know Rebecca, some women like their sexuality.”
I went to Mom’s room, the next largest bedroom. Mom never talked about her marriage, what it was like between her and my dad. But when we were alone, she would tell us our feelings were okay and justified, would even sit with us late into the night and analyze him to death. Yet the concept of leaving never came up.
She must have felt so alone in her room. Most of their arguments took place in there, at night, with the doors closed. I’d sleep with my pillows over my head. Still do. A vestige, a leftover comfort.
Her carpet was still there, with its intricate pattern of squares, each framing a different flower. The bed had a bare mattress and her clothes were gone.
I found the portrait in her closet, stacked with other old paintings.
It was exactly as I remembered. A rough, charcoal sketch on thick paper ripped from a sketch pad. My face in profile. Blunt, cropped, uneven wavy hair–a curl or two out of place and Alfalfa-like. Androgynous. Just a few pencil lines on a page. Her face was thin, with that monkey-like awkwardness of pre-adolescence. All the baby cuteness was gone, with the curves and developed bone structure of early womanhood not yet there. Her expression was pensive, uncertain. The girl he loved before I left and ruined everything. Me. Nine years old. Rebecca as seen by Dad.
On the bottom right hand corner it said “Rebecca 1979.” The older I had grown, the more I hated looking at her. I didn’t look like that. I wasn’t a boy. I thought she was ugly. I remember telling my parents I hated it, but still it stayed on that wall in the upstairs hallway. When did he decide to move it?
I sat down on the bed and removed its raised plastic frame. I lifted the paper out. My hair fell over the page and I pushed it away. A woman looking at her skinny, boy-like childhood image. It felt clichéd.
I took it downstairs, and outside to the stone patio. I lit a match and looked around. I set an edge of the paper on fire, and as my hand moved I glanced at the other side.
I never expected this: the other side was not blank–it was a self-portrait of my father, also done in charcoal. The face was rough, with a bizarre bulging eye on one side. Looking at it as a whole, I recognized his classically handsome, square face and wave of dark hair. Closing in, I saw it was made up of a worm-like mélange of wavy lines, scribbles and curves. At the bottom it was labeled “Me, 1979.”
My mouth tasted old, like plaque. Here it was, what I was looking for, what I needed. I was the other side. His self-hatred invading me. The flames moved across the page. The smoke smelled clean. I plucked an unburned edge and moved the page to the other side and watched the image of me burn.
The months after that visit to Milwaukee were when Jack and I conceived Simon. Something about connecting with the real kid-me gave me the strength, the belief in life, that it took to put another life into the world. To believe in and celebrate the future. To mother. Simon’s accident and the depression that came after had just put me in a tail-spin, and for a while I thought I was that scared little girl who internalized her father’s rage.
Remembering the portrait, I flip through the photos of Naomi’s wedding again and shift on the chair. I find one of me in animated conversation with Jack. I look in the background and there is my dad, sitting alone at a table nearby. He looks a little lost. I realize that my anxiety about the possibility of him disrupting my sister’s wedding had to do with fearing my father of old: his rage and anger. That was really a fantasy compared to my real fear: that he would seem so bereft that I’d be compelled to connect with him, take care of him. And that didn’t happen either. I managed to see him and at the same time realize that he isn’t my responsibility. But the fact that I feel sorry for him, that is an absolution that I can handle. The picture with Dad in the background is sad, really, but it’s an image I’ll keep. It symbolizes my life now. Yes, my dad will always be there, but his place in my life is of my making. I’m telling the story now.