Sunday, February 5, 2012


Tonight I slid Calliope's legs into the legs of her velvety grey pajamas... only to have her wiggle and kick her legs right back out again.

I mockingly scolded her, "Are you being difficult?" as she giggled and writhed on the changing table.

And it struck me, forcefully, how happy it makes me to see her being "impudent," as much as a five month old can be.

Calliope is one hundred percent sure of being loved. She has not yet known fear.

I was not so lucky.

I was terribly afraid of my father.

I only remember being hit a few times, thrashed, I suppose the word would be, with his leather belt. All when I was quite young.

I remember once being lifted off a stool in the kitchen. I must not have been more than five or six years old. And I remember what he said,

"This'll teach you not to hit your brother."

I don't remember what it felt like, just the terror beforehand, lying on my parents' bed, watching him slowly withdraw his leather belt from his belt loops. And I remember the anger and righteous indignation afterwards. Lying in my bed, sobbing, imagining putting pins in his shoes.

I think his power of us was more psychological. I remember wondering, back then, if I was scared of him because I was afraid of being hit, or just afraid of how he could make me feel. I never really figured that out.

But he could reduce any of us to tears, instantly. We felt so powerless in front of him.

But once, after we were no longer small, he did hit my brother again.

It was horrible.

Horrible not in the physical damage -- I don't know if it left marks, or if the physical pain was really all that bad -- but horrible in the completely out of control anger and fear in the air. My brother was no longer small enough to be easily corralled, and it was an all out battle.

I remember my father bodily dragging him down the stairs. I remember the howls of indignation and rage, the murderous screaming from my brother, and more noises, too. Grunts of exertion, I think, from my father, as he struggled to gain control as my brother fought and kicked.

I think my mother was outside the door, pleading, "Dick, stop!"

I don't know why she didn't go in. I loathed her for that. How could she, too, be afraid?

I was only a few feet away from her, in the hallway outside our bedrooms, my heart in my throat.

I walked to the phone, picked it up, and stood there, waiting. Wondering if I should call the police. But afraid. Afraid of having my father's wrath directed at me.

And so I waited, told myself I would call if it continued.

And it didn't.

He never hit any of us again.

As I got older, I learned to see my dad's many shortcomings more clearly.

His enormous ego hid enormous fear. He was deathly afraid of being discovered, of being known as a fraud. He seemed to think that if only he showed off his many talents, and subverted those around him, no one would see his faults.

My dad had many strengths. He was enormously gifted intellectually. He also had many weaknesses, including a total inability to relate to others.

I learned to gain his respect by giving him respect for his many accomplishments. He learned to truly love me, and was enormously proud of me. After I became an adult, he was able to share his weaknesses with me, and I was able to show compassion for him.

We had a good relationship, as far as he was concerned.

And I forgave him his many shortcomings, because what else was there to do?

I believe that each of us does the best we can.

My father was a deeply unhappy man. He didn't want to hurt us, though indeed he did, he just wanted to feel better himself, and his deeply flawed thinking led him to believe that putting others down would make him feel better.

My father was diagnosed with brain cancer in the spring of 2005. After a horrible few months where my mother finally threatened to leave him -- the impact of chemotherapy on his behavior, causing him to attempt to control her even more tightly, finally pushing her over the edge -- he came to face his mortality.

He did not become a perfect man. He still lacked an ability to relate to others.

But for the first time, he wanted to try.

He and my mother had a good year together, before the cancer came back out of remission, sooner than we had expected.

He died a few months later.

This is the first time I am sharing this story.

So how does this affect Calliope, that mischievously writhing, deliciously dimpled, joyous little baby girl?

Calliope, my precious girl, you will never know this fear.

I will keep you safe. No adult will ever hit you.

You can be as naughty as you like. You can lie, steal, curse at me. You can even hit me.

I will not hit you back.

No matter what.

You will grow up taking your own safety for granted.

That is my promise.


  1. It's great that you will be breaking the cycle! I see way too many people choosing to stay with what they know, even though it causes enormous damage. I was lucky my mom made the same choice you did.

  2. Hi Abby,
    I don't know how i came upon your blog. Probably because you have a baby girl a few months younger than mine I kept reading - you write beautifully. This post resonated with me - my upbringing was not one of physical violence, but being shut out emotionally by my parents (mother in particular). She was cold and often unloving, unemotional. I look at my 7 month old every, single day - and much like you I promise her that she will never know that feeling that I had growing up, and she will ALWAYS know she is loved. Calliope is just gorgeous! Cheers, Pip, Australia. (

  3. Thank you for sharing this part of your life. I really like what you said about protecting Calliope from that kind of fear.

  4. Wow, Abby, I'm so sorry you had to grow up with fear of your father. But I'm so happy you recognized it for what it was, were able to deal with it as you grew up, and will make sure not to repeat the process with Calliope. She's so incredibly lucky to have you as her mom!

  5. I'm glad you told this story. I had a difficult childhood with a difficult father. The minute I found out he died I forgave his shortcomings. I used to wish things were different back then but now I know it made me the good person I am. I think your childhood did the same for you.