What Was It Like Growing Up Without a Father?

Someone on Quoro.com (an excellent site for great posts) asked that question.

Here’s the response I posted.

When I was 8 years old, I woke up one day to discover my father was not home. I learned only that he had checked into a Tuberculosis Sanitarium.  I can’t recall any reaction other than confusion. That would change over time to something darker.

I’d been born early in 1933, at the depth of the depression, but I was unaware of what the world around us was suffering because my father was, as I now know from many sources, a handsome, athletic, talented and smart, self-educated engineer (a high school dropout at 14) at a time when employers cared less about your diplomas but more about your character and skills.

So, while a shocking number of people stood in souplines and lived in shacks made of tar-paper,  we had a nice apartment on the edge of the best neighborhood in the city, a shiny Ford and even a baby grand piano.

My mother was a beautiful woman, smart and clever, in her late 20s. Like my father, she had come from a family of 8 children.

Only later in life did I realize that those families each had been – and produced – smart, handsome, practical, successful and emotionally stunted people who never (as in never) in all my memories, once said aloud to each other, “I love you.”

So, proudly rejecting all offers of help from those two families, my mother, my brother (18 months younger) and I moved into an urban housing project. Mother went to work. The war had started and she had no trouble getting a job as a supervisor in a factory that was one of the major suppliers of communications equipment.

We never, to my recollection, ever had a baby-sitter, even once. My sister, born only weeks before Dad was diagnosed, was sent to live with my mother’s aunt, and so became a stranger, even until today.

But still, six days a week, Mom left at 6:00am and was gone until 4:30pm. My brother and I would get our own breakfast and take  ourselves to school.

We were taught to cook. Dinner had to be ready to serve, the table set, when she came home from work.

I was a difficult student. I now understand why, but at the time, the guilt over my failures was crushing and constant.

I do not recall anyone ever sitting me down and explaining to me what was happening in our lives and how we were dealing with it. Although we were doing far better than anyone could expect, although my parents were amazingly courageous and constant in struggling against the insults of our world, I never knew and never appreciated that courage until many decades later.

I know now that my beautiful mother, tall, slim, brilliant, was constantly hit on by everyone from the grocer to our parish priest (who also hit on me) yet was faithful to my father.

Sunday’s after church, meant going back home, cooking a great dinner,wrapping it in towels to keep it warm, and then walking a mile with her, to deliver it to my father at the sanitarium.

There was no cure for TB. It was (as it is again becoming) highly contagious. Children were particularly at risk. Contact was prohibited. He was the man in the window on the fourth floor.  So we waved at each other.

Antibiotics were still laboratory phenomena. As the war raged on in that alternative universe outside our own family drama, they were produced but only for the military. Through rest and diet and daily care in that hospital, Dad survived with that killer inside him. He survived episodes of pneumonia and even one unimaginably frightening incident in which he suffered a broken blood vessel in his lung and almost drowned in his own blood during the hemorrhage.

All through those years my mother was an angry woman. The world had taken her away her excellent husband and her enviable life. Although she never shirked her responsibilities, and even gave us a better life than “ordinary” families around us, she was being cheated. She knew it.

Unable or unwilling to blame God (she was relentlessly religious), she turned on me. And I gave her all the ammunition she needed to make me the object of her unspeakable (literally never spoken of) wrath.

So it was that when I had my teen rebellion, it was a doozy.

I don’t remember when verbal abuse became physical rage. I must have been 12 years old when beatings became routine and too shameful to report to anyone. I can’t recall any specific offense, but what offense justifies stripping a 12-year-old boy naked and whipping him with the heel of a shoe? What is the possible excuse for replacing the shoe, after the heel breaks off, (“Now look what you made me do.”) with a wire clothes hanger?

Not once, but routinely.

So, I ran away from home. At first it was just overnight, sleeping in a streetcar in the nearby trolley-barn. Then, after that act of resistance simply invited even more vigorous beatings (never on the face; never) I went for days, and even weeks, hiding out in the maze of Manhattan’s streets, just a 20 minutes subway ride away.

In those innocent days, the ground floor entrances and even the roof doors at the top of the stairs of those 4 and 5 floor New York City apartment buildings were not always locked. Many had pigeon lofts. That area, despite public-relation efforts of real estate interests to change it to Clinton, is still known as Hell’s Kitchen.

Sleeping in a pigeon loft is possible if it is raining and you are really tired. You put down a layer of open newspapers to cover the pigeon shit. To this day, I cannot see a fully open New York Times without thinking of that.

I also learned more about pedophiles than any child should know.

I was cornered by one of them in a pigeon loft atop a 5-storey walk-up on 9th Ave around 40th Street, now the site of the Port Authority Bus Terminal.

After a few peaceful nights in that loft, the owner discovered me. I almost melted when he spoke kindly and stroked my hair. I had not known affection. It took me only a few moments to learn what he wanted. When he realized I would not be seduced, he became demanding. I struggled when he opened his pants. I had to fight my way out of there.

The noise attracted a woman from downstairs. I suspect she may have been his wife. While he tried to talk his way out of it, with his pants around his ankles, I slipped away, somewhat bruised, but stillvirgo intacta.

Then I discovered the place where those touristy Central Park horse carriages are parked when not in use.

The horses spent (and still spend) nights  inside a brick, two-storey-high barn on far West 39th Street near 10th Ave. The carriages sat outside in a long row along the street until midday, so I was able to sleep late under the heavy, pungent horse blankets.

I spent my days anonymously wandering the island. I earned what I needed by standing outside grocery stores and offering to help carry packages for a tip. I tried begging but quit when I encountered a cop. As a wiry, tough kid I was able to slip out of his grasp. I outran him and never went back to that block.

Evenings and nights, until it was late enough to go to the refuge of the horse carriages, I became feral.

Eventually, after a few weeks of this, I grew weary of the daily struggle on the lonely streets and returned resignedly to another series of beatings, “For what you are putting me through.”

I survived them. Occasionally, through my mid-teens, I would run away again for a few days, just to make the point, whatever that point was that I was trying to make. I did not know, until many years later, that I was even trying to make a point.

It took a few years of therapy before I learned about that – and more important – learned what I was doing and why.

Just as someone standing outside the orbit of the Moon can see both sides of it, to those at the center of it, there is no other side. It does not exist.

The beatings stopped only because of the inevitable. I became big enough to refuse to strip and was able to wrestle away the weapons. At that same time, I was earning money (as a very successful thief in the city), so my financial contributions became part of the families survival.

The war had ended. The violent maimings of combat had resulted in great advances in antibiotics and in surgery. They made it possible to remove infected lobes (chambers) of a tubercular lung without killing the patient.

So it was, some nine years after he “disappeared,” this stranger moved back home, into my mother’s bedroom, and tried his best to be my father.

I was 17. It was too late for us. I loved him. I respected him. But we were strangers. I never understood what I was really feeling. He never knew how it was affecting me and so, I was a puzzle to both of us.

Soon enough, before those things came to a head, I went away into the army and we lost any possibility of intimacy.

Over the years that followed, I married. Like my father, I had three children, too. (Also two boys and a girl.) And when the oldest was 8 years old, just as if I was programmed (surprise, surprise) I divorced and left them without a father in their home.

Meanwhile, although very successful in business (genetics are persistent, aren’t they) my personal life was shambles. Fortunately, I do not like the taste of alcohol and drugs were rare.

But I found other was to screw up. I don’t think that I ever owned a car, of the dozens of new cars I owned between the ages of 21 years old and 40-something, I never had one that was not badly damaged in one crash or another.

Through my late 40s, I never had a relationship with a woman that did not end badly. And of course, I mostly chose tall, slim, beautiful, clever, loyal, but withholding, women.

Finally, in my late 40s, after one especially hurtful relationship disaster, I came very close to overt suicide (as compared with the sneaky “accidental” self-destructive stuff). Friends intervened. I began counseling, first in private and then in weekly group  sessions.

It took two years of that to bring me to the Saturday morning when my shrink asked me, for the first time and oh-so-casually, in front of the 8 or so fellow-clients, “Joe, why don’t you tell us about your deep-down anger towards your father?”

“What are you talking about? I loved my father. He was . . . ”

At that point something inside me broke open. Until that moment, the word “catharsis” described something that happened to other people. What happened then is almost beyond description.

All the pain and anger I had carried since I was 8 years old surged through me like I had become a violently writhing snake. I fell to the floor, howling like the wounded animal I had always been. I screamed without words, I pissed and shat in my pants.

It may have lasted for 5-minutes or even 15. I do not know for sure.

I finally came back to my senses, lying on the floor in that session room, more exhausted and peaceful than I recall ever before that time.

I was quietly weeping. No sobs, no heavy breathing. That had passed. I was simply lying there staring up at an air-conditioning grill in the ceiling. The tears ran, not as bursts of drops, but in a stream, flowing effortlessly up out of a deep spring. No words, no thoughts, just weeping.

I am weeping that way, right now, as I type these words.

Weeping for him. Weeping for her. Weeping for us.

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