Since the first Scottish bastard jumped ship in New York harbor and swam for Jersey, the men have been the ones who were angry. They got drunk, they threw the glasses, they beat the wives and they strapped the kids. That’s what it was called up there in Jersey, you know… “the strap” – as in – “Don’t make me the get the strap."
It’s always the kid’s fault when they get the strap. They made him do it. I made him do it. Back then, it was always the men. Women clustered in hushed tones in kitchens and laundry rooms. They silently wiped dishes and countertops while they shushed – “Don’t upset your father.”
When I did something wrong, my mother looked like a trapped animal. Her eyes darted from one side to the other, surveying the living room or the landscape as she drove her little ’74 Toyota Corolla. We had fled in that car the single time we left him.
My father was in trucking and, best as any child is allowed to know, even at thirty-three, he got in deep with some individuals involved in the trucking industry. My mother was afraid. Even though huge amounts of money were coming in, they were going right back out again. One sunny morning, my father parked a cement truck on the Delaware Memorial Bridge that was under renovation. He told the foreman that he was a “stupid nigger” then threw the keys to the locked truck into the river. It cost the foreman a simple phone call to the concrete company and probably some headshaking – but it cost my dad his business.
The stress on my mom was too much. Strangers showed up demanding money and making threats. It was all too much for her – the former prom queen, cheerleader, secretary and now mother. She told him she was going to leave because she was afraid. That was the worst thing she could have done.
I was four years old. She shoved me out the front door of our apartment. Heather Ridge – that was the name of our apartments in Mantua, New Jersey. I’ll never forget that. Heather Ridge was a soft place somewhere back in Scotland with waving fields of heather on a cool and rocky tor.
I watched through a crack in the curtains as my father beat my mother. She alternately cried and laughed as we drove the five hours to my grandmother’s home in West Virginia. Mom’s family was British. She had a crazy old uncle who flashed people, but no one hit anyone in my mother’s family – at least not that we knew of then. When we were safe in my grandmother’s kitchen, I sat on the counter and helped my grandmother pick the flakes of dried blood out of my mother’s hair to see if she needed stitches.
I was safe among women that year - my mother, my grandmother, great-grandmother and an army of aunts standing by to hide Easter eggs and braid hair. I went to preschool without the fear of the strap. My mother was sad. My father came to visit and cried. He was all broken up, but driving a red convertible that belonged to his girlfriend. My bedroom at Heather Ridge had been turned into a weight room.
As spring came again, my father came to visit wearing an avocado green leisure suit. He let me steer his metallic green El Camino and he gave me a Sky Bar. When he left, I cried for my Daddy. I asked to go home because Daddy didn’t hit me anymore – he just gave me candy and presents. My mother went back to him because of that and she’s never left again. I'm sure you can imagine what our life was like.
My father had two sons before he married my mother 42 years ago. I didn’t know they existed until I was six. The oldest had a son a year younger than me. We were raised like brother and sister after he came to live in our town. I love my nephew more than life. But, he found my father – and her name is Lindsay. They had a baby a year ago. Last night I got a voice mail from her when she mixed me up in her call-list with another friend with the same name. The voice mail said, “Hi (name omitted). I’m going to have to take a raincheck. (Baby) broke his arm.”
I called my brother this morning and asked what happened. The state is involved. They may lose the baby. My nephew is going to try to leave her to keep the baby. This time, I hope they get away.
God help him.