I really only remember one fight my parents ever had. It was enough. It was a doozie. It was a traveling fight, starting in their bedroom, moving to the kitchen, spilling out the back door and across the paddock to the workshop where my father hung many of his tools along the walls in the narrow rooms. They weren’t hanging for long. My mother saw to that. Don’t want to listen to me? Maybe you’ll listen to this! And they came crashing down. Back across the paddock, back into the house – this time through the front door, back into the kitchen. You want to make a mess of my space? I’ll make a mess of yours! and the next thing I knew a dinner plate took flight and slammed against the panty wall and exploded.
Like I said, it was a doozie.
A few years ago I became somewhat of a regular at a Greek restaurant near my home. The food is mediocre but the entertainment – which includes a belly dancer and the restaurant owner who could double as Johnny Cash’s grandfather walking around pouring Ouzo down your throat – is enough to keep you coming back again and again. I love going there. I love listening to the music, watching the dancer, joining in. Every now and again the owner is overcome with such joy and alcohol that he begins smashing plates on the floor. In a joyful frenzy he tosses one after the other at the feet of the busboys dancing in a line around the dance floor. The intent is pure but the sound for a moment makes me seize up. and I blame that, like most things, on my parents. The sound of those many breaking plates in the Greek restaurant are nothing compared to my memory of the sound of that single plate smashing into the wall. A cymbal crash, a sonic boom. So loud. The kitchen was small, enclosed and the crash echoed. That sound of shattering was frightful. And I think it startled them both. It surely startled me standing alone in the living room. The shouting stopped. I watched my father turn on his heel and storm to the bedroom. I expected him to slam the door. But he didn’t. Instead he came out with his keys.
Oh God. I stood completely still. For a hundred years I stood completely still. I was made of wood, concrete, marble. A statue. Let dust cover me and weeds grow up through the floorboards and root me to the floor. I would not move one inch toward him or toward her. If I just stand here I’ll be forgotten, unremembered, ignored. And I won’t have to do what I’m about to be asked to do.
At the door he turned. Are you coming?
And there it was. The Decision.
It was never said, Do you side with me or your rake-throwing mother? But that’s the question I felt being asked. It was an impossible situation. If I went with him, my mother would feel abandoned. If I stayed, my father would feel betrayed. And although I’d never been faced with this choice before, I knew somehow that’s what I was being asked to do. I was being asked to pick.
My parents had an amazing relationship. Up until this point I’d barely seen them argue. I’d seen them disagree, but I’d always seen them figure it out too. Our home was bursting with laughter and teasing and all the things that made my house the one that all my friends wanted to come to after church even though there was just as much stall cleaning as there was story telling and banjo playing. I always felt secure in my home. Even though I grew up knowing my father had a terminal illness it never worried me, not really. I never really thought about it. Girls at school – talking about their own dysfunctional families - once asked me who I would go with if my parents got a divorce and I answered. I picked one of my two parents. I made a choice. But I didn’t mean it. I only answered because that’s what everyone was doing – choosing a side, but I knew deep down I’d never really have to. It was just a game. And now, here I was. Actually being asked to make a choice – a momentary choice, but a choice nonetheless.
Mom’s pride and joy
Or Daddy’s little girl
I, of course, went with my father. Not because I liked him more, understood him better or sided with him in the argument – hells bells I don’t know now nor did I know then what the fight was about – but because he was less forgiving than my mother. He was faster to anger and slower to remorse. This is the truth. And I supposed deep down I knew it would be easier to get back in mom’s good graces than back into Dad’s. Besides, I had the silly notion if I went with my father, I could negotiate a truce between the two of them. And I tried. I laid out all the reasons why he should apologize as we tore down the gravel driveway. I counted off reasons on my fingers why this was no big deal. I told him to remember how much he loved my mom and I told him that it couldn’t be so bad. It’s not so bad, right? I said. And I remember him driving. Facing forward. He never looked my way. It was like riding next to a stone.
I pressed on. Determined. I explained why mom was probably so upset and I asked him to see it from her side and, believe it or not, I told him about a time at school when I was mad at a friend and how we worked it out. Eventually, after a very long silence, he spoke, This isn’t something you could possibly understand, he said. And I turned to look out the window. I was hurt by his comment. He acted like I didn’t know anything. Like I wasn’t paying attention. As if. I let two or three fields go by before I spun back around and shouted, I’m not dumb you know, I’m not dumb, maybe YOU’RE the one who doesn’t understand! He said nothing. He’d returned to rock.
It’s an impossible situation to put a child into.
We ran some meaningless errand taking the long way to town and the longer way back. We didn’t speak another word to each other. When we got home I bolted from the car and ran inside as fast as I could. My mother was sitting at the kitchen table. Before I could get one word out about anything my father came up behind me and quietly asked my mom if he could speak to her in the bedroom. Together they went in.
And closed the door.
Up to this point, this story is nothing remarkable. Truly. I think everyone can recall at least one horrendous fight between their parents. At least one – maybe the remarkable thing is that I can recall ONLY one. Parents aren’t perfect. I’ve just recently realized they are human and we, as parents, are not given a handbook of any kind or initiation into sainthood upon the arrival of our children. Although I’ve said it before and will say it again, any woman who can push an 8 pound anything out her hooha deserves sainthood. At least. The remarkable part of this story comes in what took place after that bedroom door opened back up.
They apologized. Not too each other – although I’m sure they’d done that already – they apologized to me and to my sister. Sat us right down on the couch and apologized. Apologized for the fight, for arguing in front of us, for making us worry. My mother apologized for raising her voice and my father apologized for yelling at our mother and breaking her dishes – and he then told us that the first dish he pulled out of the cupboard was a old plastic plate we had and we all laughed thinking of what a fizzle it would have been for him to fling that plastic excuse for a plate across the room only to have it clatter wimpily to the floor.
And then we all got back to being a family.
Sometime later when we were alone and working side-by-side in the barn my father said, I want you to know I appreciated what you had to say to me in the car. It was good, he said. It was good stuff Jen Ben. And it was then my turn to be as silent as stone. I didn’t want to break the spell. Good golly molly, tell me that every moment of every day and it still won’t be enough. Give me that kind of positive feedback and I'll shut up forever. It was awesome. Of course I knew then as I know now that I wasn’t responsible for the resolution of my parents’ argument. I knew more likely than not my father was just trying to affirm me, validate me, make sure he and I were okay – that I wasn’t injured by what he said, by his telling me I couldn’t possibly know what I was talking about. But there was a tiny grain of a thought in my brain that maybe something I said HAD helped. Maybe my talking and presenting my ideas to my dad DID change things. Maybe I WAS in a tiny, tiny way responsible. Maybe it mattered. It was weird to think something I said could actually change the way adults behave. And thrilling. And it was the first time I can remember thinking,
Maybe I have something to say.