My father asks me what four times four is, and all I can think is ?eight,? though I know that?s wrong; whether it?s better ? safer ? to be wrong or to say, ?I don?t know,? depends upon his mood. The way my mother smiles at me as she clears my plate is of no help, there?s no telltale tightness in her eyes. He drums the flashcard against the tabletop and sighs. My fingers worry the edges of the iron-on patches ? a rabbit and a duck ? that Mom has fixed to my corduroy jumper. I gamble on ?eight,? but a yawn slips out instead. I haven?t even closed my mouth before he smacks it open again. He backhands me hard enough to blot out the world.
The family at the kitchen table is an indelible image, classic Americana. It sells pancakes and life insurance, and every four years, it peddles politicians. Each election cycle, the steely female narrators of campaign ads ask us to consider which candidate is best for American families, families that might?ve looked like mine until my father?s hand left me deaf and reeling for days.
I grew up in the kind of two-parent, father-makes-the-bacon, mother-fries-it-up home that Mitt Romney waxed ecstatic about when fielding a debate question on gun violence : ?We need moms and dads helping raise kids ? to tell our kids that before they have babies, they ought to think about getting married to someone ? that?s a great idea because if there?s a two-parent family, the prospect of living in poverty goes down dramatically.?
Our house had a parking pad and a fenced-in yard, it was near the best public schools in the county, and a quick drive from a park called ?Honeygo,? a word that forces you to smile when you say it. Inside that house, with Sears family portraits from every Christmas leading up the staircase and my trophies on the mantel, a flattened hand was a mercy. I?d taken fists to the face for spilling my milk. When I clogged the toilet, he whipped me with his belt so hard and so fast that the buckle flew off.
Before that debate even ended, my Facebook friends erupted with barbs and anecdotes about the productive lives they lead as non-spree shooters despite (or because of) being raised by single mothers. I wish I had those stories to tell ? not memories to relive in therapists? offices or scars to explain to my lovers. My mother never had the guts to strike out on her own.
As a girl, she?d been sold a bill of goods about the good life: a man who wore a tie to work and a house in a ZIP code full of supermarkets and malls and people who looked just like her; a daughter who?d earn a degree or two and, for a time, an impressive title ? until, of course, she met her own man in a gray flannel suit. She wasn?t told what to do when the man who owns the roof over her head slams her into a wall.
Every election cycle becomes a dire exegesis of ?family values,? a neurotic fixation on the nuclear family: ?Father Knows Best,? Mommie Dearest? and ?Baby Makes Three? (or Four, or even Five) have become the icons of a bygone era ? a postwar wonderland that boomed with prosperity in the shadow of the mushroom cloud.
It may have been the era of unlocked doors, but it was still the America where my father?s father beat him unconscious and my mother couldn?t have girlfriends sleep over ? not because she feared a father who might come home rip-roaring drunk and ready to fight ? simply because there was no father in the home. Only a mother who worked two jobs to keep her fed and still sewed all her clothes, a mother who told her to never tell anyone that Papa left them, to say, instead, that he?d died in Korea.