When my father started school he could only speak Hungarian and didn't know a word of English. On the first day of class the teacher asked each of the children what their name and address was. My father's family lived on Robertson Street in New Brunswick, New Jersey. He told an amusing story about how he desperately tried to convey the name of the street - "Roobatsoom" to the baffled teacher.
Minorities weren't catered to or coddled back then. Nobody ever helped my father. He eventually learned English entirely on his own.
Why am I writing about my father? I very seldom write about him. The memories are far too painful, far too complicated. And much of what happened sounds unbelievable.
I could seldom bring myself to call him "father" or "dad". I cringed at saying the words. I referred to him as "the old man". I always felt uncomfortable in his presence.
In retrospect, his life wasn't easy. He was the third of four children. His family was poor. His father had a violent temper.
Dad in his telegraph uniform, probably age 15
Dad with his brother Jim's car
By the time he was fourteen he had a full-time job delivering telegrams (on bicycle). He later got in trouble with the law (stealing cars, etc.) and other things too detailed to mention here.
He was drafted at age nineteen, courtesy of WWII. Joined the Navy, saw the world: England, France, Italy, Africa. His ship was bombed. He was eventually in the Normandy invasion.
Dad on the right
He dated my mother for several years before they married (a legal technicality kept them from marrying sooner). I was born several years later.
I don't think my mom realized the extent of dad's extreme violence and severe mental problems before they were married (perhaps she saw them but tried to ignore them). There were signs, I'm sure, but his evil side didn't seem to fully manifest until after they were wed.
Taken in Atlantic City
before they were married
She was twenty-two when they married, he was twenty-seven. Her family insisted she marry a Hungarian. My father was neither handsome nor an intellectual giant, but he was a fastidious dresser, meticulously clean, a hard worker, and often charming.
They eloped in dad's Willys Jeep
(no, I'm not kidding)
The chaos came later. The signs were terrifyingly apparent: his violent temper got him into trouble with the law on numerous occasions. During the time my mom was pregnant with me, my father would have been put in prison (for an extremely disturbing incident that I won't reveal on a public blog). The judge suspended the sentence because he felt sorry "for your wife, who is with child".
How can I possibly explain an entire lifetime of chaos, terror, and utter uncertainty in one feeble blog post?
All I can say is that my father was extremely complicated and filled with massive contradictions. He definitely had a split personality, was intensely paranoid, and seemed to have an absence of conscience.
I never saw anyone who had a temper as violent and absolutely unpredictable as his. He could be perfectly calm and normal one minute - and the next second explode unto a complete raving maniac. His insane rages could last days - or sometimes weeks. Then, suddenly, he would awake as from a dream and everything would be back to "normal". He'd never mention it and certainly never apologized. In his twisted mind, the violence was never his fault. My mother and I had to play along with the sick game, do everything possible to appease him, and wait in absolute terror for the (inevitable) next explosion. It was an insane and completely exhausting way of life.
Why did my mother stay with him? she tried to leave numerous times but he'd always eventually track her down, bully her with threats (that he'd kill her and me), and persuade her to come home.
Things were very different long ago - - abused women had no resources, no one dared to speak of family violence. The victims of abuse suffered silently - helpless prisoners in a toxic and twisted existence. The real world ceased to exist and your only reality was trying desperately to survive.
Mom often said that she stayed simply to have a roof over her head. My father was a good provider and could be generous when he wanted to.
My mother was truly beautiful. Dad was proud of her but I have no doubt that he was also jealous.
There's really no use in revealing the long-ago ugly details, yet they haunt me like echos of recurring nightmares.
Some people tell me to forget the past, but that's an impossibility. Our past - good or bad - is the foundation of who we are today. I'd rather tell the truth than ignore it.
I remember the endless nights when Mom and I would hide in the yard because we were afraid to go in the house. The nights that he'd lock us out.
And at dawn, completely drained, I'd get ready to go to school - pretending that nothing had happened.
My father never liked "hard" alcohol, but often drank a large amount of beer. He wasn't an alcoholic. And many of his most violent episodes happened when he was cold stone sober.
I remember the physical pain.
When I was fourteen he fractured some of my ribs and stomped on my bare feet with his work boots until my feet bled.
Once, when I was practicing the piano, he tried to break my fingers (and almost succeeded). I couldn't use the "pinky" on my left hand for way over a month.
When I was nineteen he attacked me with a shovel and swung so hard that he gashed his own hand. I was wearing a new suede coat and it was splattered with his blood.
I remember one incident when I was taking a shower. He was so angry at me (I honestly can't remember why) that he stormed into the bathroom, ripped me out of the shower, dragged me stark naked to the front door and threw me outside. I hid under the porch until Mom could bring me some clothes.
He beat my mother relentlessly more times than I'd ever want to remember. And his insane strength was incredible. Once, he ripped a solid oak closet door off the hinges and kept bashing Mom over the head with it.
The feeling of complete helplessness that I had under his power is indescribable. I often said that I feared my father far more than I ever feared God. My father's presence was omnipotent. God was never there......
The continuous verbal abuse was almost as bad as the physical violence. His words always cut like a knife.
Once, he handed me a loaded pistol and begged me to kill myself.
Ironically - insanely ironically - he could be kind and very generous. The kindness was painful because it never lasted.
He bragged every time I had a magazine article published or gave a piano concert. He secretly told my mother that he wished he would have been handsome like me (his words) when he was young.
On their 40th wedding anniversary
He would give my mother expensive jewelry on their anniversary one year, and the next year (being angry for some reason) would say "You're not getting anything this year, you dirty bitch!"
On their fiftieth wedding anniversary he ordered the biggest, most beautiful cake I've ever seen.
He was alarmingly hyperactive and a consummate workaholic. I seldom saw anyone who worked as hard as he did.
He was a control freak. He controlled absolutely EVERY aspect of our lives.
Me and dad, when he was nearly 80
This post is far too long, yet I haven't even scratched a fraction of the surface.
I forgave my father long before he died. What's the use of hanging onto the hate? I was consumed with intense hate for far too long - hatred for him and overwhelming hatred for myself. His detrimental influence hung over me constantly, like a suffocating cloud - I felt like a helpless child until I was nearly forty.
I was with him when he died in 2005. It was so sudden, so unexpected. I always thought he was invincible.
The last thing I said to him was "I love you".
It was also the first time.