The End of Family

The last time I saw my father was in Austin, Texas. I was 25. My brother and I flew down to see our parents with high hopes for their happiness. They said they loved the city, that they loved the pace of it, that they were happier there than in their Seattle suburb.

My brother and I were at that age where we believed adult cruelty was the result of stress and unhappiness. Fix the misery, and you fixed the behavior.

But it wasn’t true.

All I had to do was walk through their door to know it wasn’t true. Their Austin house was even icier than the last, the walls now white instead of blue. Tables empty but for a lamp, curio cabinets half-filled with crystal rabbits and deer as if they’d been turned to ice. A spotlight gleamed in an empty wall niche. Two bar stools stood in their kitchen. Metal wires curled from the center of their backs like vines, and when I sat in one, metal poked my ribs and shoulder blades. Everything was cold and uncomfortable and silent, and the house smelled of nothing at all. Nothing at all had changed but the exterior.

My brother and I spent five days there. My parents talked with my brother about his college graduation in a few months, his classes, his plans, his friends. They hardly spoke to me.

We visited my father’s favorite deli on Brazos Street. We toured the State Capitol where I saw that Texas still celebrates its short-lived history as an independent country. We ate Texas barbecue at a picnic table outside the shack that sold us ribs and licked sauce off our fingers. Through it all, I was supposed to be silent and agreeable and placating.

At sundown, we watched bats swoop out from under the Congress Avenue Bridge. And then we went back to my parents’ cold house, and I lay down in the twin bed that used to be mine. I remembered just how not-safe my life had once been. How deadened it had left me. And I again knew just why I had once planned to kill myself.

“I’ve never seen you this miserable,” my brother said.

I shrugged. I didn’t know what to say. It was true.

Later in the week, we toured the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston and drove on to Galveston, where I was unsettled by the blatancy of Southern racism. All the servers in the restaurant were black. All the customers were white. Socioeconomic class continues, as it does in most American cities, to segregate. After the 1900 hurricane, many thousands of black residents in the city lost their lives in a flood, only for the survivors to be terrorized by white lynch mobs in the aftermath.

I do not live in a utopia. I have heard people of color who relocated from the South to Seattle say it’s no better up here; it’s just more subtle. White people in my home state just want to be “nice” about their racism.

Still, Texas felt different. Threat hung in the air like thunderclouds. We white people generally don’t have to think about these things, but traveling through Washington state with Top had taught me there were towns where you’d be glared at, blocked on sidewalks, refused service at restaurants. In Texas, it felt worse. I was beginning to understand that being female wasn’t the only experience of constant danger. Race, too, meant that you faced a threat of physical violence if you stepped out of line. Freedom of movement still does not exist for so many.

Texas, with its long history of white violence, felt like exactly the kind of place my father belonged.

*             *             *

On my last night there, I knew I needed to get away. If only for the night. I had to see another side of Texas.

At five that evening, I announced that I’d call a taxi after dinner and spend the evening checking out the music scene. Everyone was welcome to join me. “I’ve been telling you guys I wanted to go. I’ve just heard so many wonderful things about the art scene here, and now it’s my last night. So I’m going.”

“We’ll see,” my father said and bent over his computer.

Dinner passed as usual, the three of them talking while I ate in silence. After we cleared the plates, I asked for the telephone book.

“We’re not going out tonight,” he said. He hustled my mother into their bedroom. It wasn’t even eight o’clock. “We’re going to bed early.”

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll be quiet when I come back in. And, like I said, I’m calling a taxi, so I can go downtown.”

“I’m not letting you drive my car.”

“I didn’t ask you to.” I stared at him. My mother peered around the doorframe, and I realized it had been years since she’d last seen anybody defy my father. She was picking at the sore on her elbow. She started chewing her lip.

“You won’t be calling anybody,” he said, bracing an arm against the doorframe as if to stop my mother from leaving as well. “And that’s the end of it.”

“Look,” I said. I was too confident this was a misunderstanding. I was 25. Surely, things were different? “I told you. I have my own money. And I don’t want to put you out, so that’s why I’m calling a taxi.”

“I said that’s the end of it. And if I say that’s the end of it, that’s the end of it. When you live under my roof, you—”

“Excuse me.” I cocked my head. “But I don’t live under your roof.”

“You do this week.” He abandoned his post at the bedroom door and strode across the room, the staccato swing of his arms signalling fury. He activated a keypad on the wall near the front door. “You see this?”

“Sure,” I said. “The access-control keypad.” I walked over. I still didn’t understand that nothing at all had changed. I really believed he was going to help me leave. “Will I need a code to get back in?”

He didn’t acknowledge my question.

His jaw quivered with rage. He tapped something into the keypad. “I’ve just activated the alarm,” he said. “So much as open the door, and it will call the police.”

My brother and I stared at him, dumbfounded. “But it’s only 7:45,” I stammered.

“I don’t care what time it is. We’re going to bed.” he said. “And so are you.”

“At 7:45?”

My mother and I locked eyes for a moment, and I saw that she was conflicted. Even she felt he’d gone too far.

“Deborah,” he said in a stern tone as he turned to see her looking at me. She broke my gaze and retreated inside, and he closed the bedroom door behind them.

*             *             *

My brother and I watched South Park reruns until after 11 that night, blasting every “Jesus fucking Christ” and “shit” at full volume towards their door. I had come to Austin to see what kind of relationship might be possible with my parents, now that I was an adult.

I ended the trip under house arrest. Forbidden from so much as opening the front door, unless I wanted to be arrested for breaking and entering.

Question answered.

I don’t remember them driving us to the airport the next day, though they must have. I don’t remember boarding the plane or returning to my Lake City apartment.

I just remember returning to work. In the stacks, I found a book titled Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life. It posited a radical solution. One that had never occurred to me.

I could set boundaries with my parents, like I had tried to in Austin.

Then, if they violated that boundary, I could walk away.

I didn’t have to remain locked in a lifelong power struggle with my father. My life was my own, however fiercely he believed otherwise.

I checked out that book and stashed it in my bag. I read it cover to cover in two days.

I was done being held hostage.

I was done being sacrificed to the god of my father’s ego.

My life belonged to me. And they were going to honor that, or we were done.

 

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8 thoughts on “The End of Family

  1. Thank you for sharing your visit with your parents.

    I have read a number of postings and stories similar to yours, some even reporting that after graduation from school never seeing or talking with their parents again and I wonder…. am I an aberration?
    My children have for decades lived at opposite sides of the country (Texas, Alaska and Pennsylvania) from me but we maintain contact and having visits filled with love and hugs which were our norm.
    From my earliest memories of life I was taught that no matter what happens a families love was unconditional.

    1. That sounds beautiful, Pete. I do wish I had grown up in a family more like yours, where I could have felt safe and loved. But I hope your family is not an aberration! My husband also comes from a wonderfully loving and open family down in Arizona. I just think that isn’t a very compelling story (i.e., “We loved each other so much. The end.”). So people don’t write about it as much.

      The truth is it’s hard to estimate the prevalence of child abuse; it’s not something children report, so statistics generally rely on the reports of relatives, neighbors, or others. Which means it is more widespread than we think. All I can say for sure is that by modeling love for your own children, you have helped all the generations of your family, and hopefully the people they come into contact with. When I was at my youngest and most vulnerable, I found hope in neighbors and teachers and relatives more like you and your family. It gave me a reason to leave abuse behind, rather than just accepting it as normal.

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