Years Before I Happened

Alright… here’s what I know:

Sometime in the late 1930s or maybe early 1940s, a married couple named Adolf and Bertha left their home in Linz, Austria. Fleeing the Nazi death camps, they somehow found their way to some large Atlantic Ocean liner and got on. Together, they immigrated to the United States through Ellis Island; and settled in a modest, two-bedroom apartment in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Adolf took a job in a small corner grocery while Bertha stayed home and mothered two children. First, came their daughter Henrietta, and several years later the human who would someday become my biological father.

Dad’s upbringing was modest too, just like the living room couch he slept on. He never had a birthday party. He never learned to ride a bike. He was color-blind and socially awkward. But even still, at the not-so-ripe age of 17, he graduated high school, and headed out west to study at Stanford on a mathematics scholarship. Following Stanford, Dad studied statistics at Yale and Princeton. By age twenty-five, he held degrees from three Ivy League schools.

Mom was also born in Brooklyn, but raised in working-class Connecticut. Her father Morris was a kind and gentle ex-Londoner, who spent most of his days in a Timex factory job. Out of all my blood relatives, Morris was the only one I ever really connected with on any sort of human level. I don’t remember much about Mom’s mom Shirley—mostly that she raised her children to believe in one simple truth: Society holds boys and girls to entirely different standards. That’s just the way it is. From what I gather, Mom’s older brother Barry used to get away with all kinds of stuff.

Mom attended nursing school in New Haven. During this time, one by one, she watched her girlfriends get engaged and married off. This made Mom extremely nervous. Why wasn’t the same thing happening to her? What was she doing wrong? Why wouldn’t some man make her his wife? Was her number-one life goal slipping away?

And then Mom met Dad.

Mom’s first impressions of Dad weren’t great. She said he was obnoxious, never found him attractive, and didn’t really like him that much. Nonetheless, she could tell he was smart, figured he’d get a good job someday, and be a good family provider. She said that he was very persistent and bad at taking hints. At the end of their first date, when Mom tried to say good night and send Dad on his way, Dad forced Mom’s front door open with his foot. I’m not really sure what transpired after that. Dad must have expected something more than what Mom intended to offer. She never said it outright, but I think he really scared her. 

Mom shared this story with me when I was eight years old.

A few years passed, Mom and Dad got married, and then they had their first baby girl, Daniele. Dad said “yes” to a midwestern university professorship, and off they moved—from their former New York home—to white, suburban, heteronormal, Middle America. Aka Anyplace U.S.A. 

A year or so into Mom and Dad’s marriage, the cracks were beginning to show. Dad’s behavior grew evermore controlling, more argumentative, more volatile, more erratic. He started beating Mom up. I think that made him feel powerful. He had to have enjoyed it because he did that for years.

One day, Dad got mad about something—probably because Mom hadn’t cleaned the house to his liking. It must have been something along those lines. It was one of his favorite arguments. Wrapping his hand around Mom’s throat, Dad shoved her into the kitchen wall. With his other fist clenched, he punched her seven-month pregnant belly. Mom screamed and fell to the floor. Surely, Dad knew his behavior placed his unborn child at risk. Perhaps that’s what he wanted.

Mom never said anything about this for decades.

About twenty-five months after that, I was born. This is the “home” where I learned what “home” was. Nobody, especially not I, had any idea what was coming.

Tune in next time, and read about the night when Dad threw me down the stairs…

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