Breaking The Family Cycle of Physical Abuse

It’s never too late to change.

When I was five years old, I walked to the Stop-and-Go all by myself. My family lived in a trailer park in Modesto, California, and one day I walked out of our trailer and just kept going.

Stop-and-Go was always a major event for me. My mom and dad brought me there often and always let me pick out a small toy or comic book without me even asking. I’m not sure if I walked there for anything in particular at such a tender age, but my father and I made that walk all the time. Surely I could do it by myself.

The store was on a major highway, and I remember staying close to the side of the road so the cars whizzing by wouldn’t flatten me. The walk was longer than I remembered, and my little legs were tired by the time I got there. I remember bits and pieces of what happened inside the convenient store. I sat cross-legged and read comic books for a few minutes, and I remember asking the cashier if I could take one home. He said no.

I finally caught the attention of a woman who was shopping there. She asked me where my parents were and gasped when I told her I was by myself. I asked her to give me a ride home, but only to the trailer park entrance. There would at least be yelling when my parents found out, and I didn’t want this innocent bystander to get in trouble along with me. I remember her car was the nicest I’d ever been in before with leather seats and cold air conditioning, but I was too small to see out the window and enjoy the scenery.

I thanked the lady when she dropped me off. She looked around nervously and waved goodbye, and I walked along the sidewalk towards my trailer. I’d just turned the corner on our street when I saw my dad walking towards me, red-faced and furious. I didn’t even have a good explanation for what I’d done. I'd never seen my beloved daddy so angry, especially not at me. I hurried for the last steps until he was towering over me and blocking out the sun.

“GO TO YOUR ROOM!” my father shouted at me in an unfamiliar voice. I instantly burst into tears and hugged him, the full weight of what might have happened to me finally sinking in. He pointed a finger towards the trailer, and I walked up the steps, through the kitchen and into my room, shutting the door behind me. Suddenly, I felt exhausted, and I laid on my bed and slept for several hours straight.

I wasn’t the kind of little girl who disobeyed very often. What I’d done was completely out of character for me, and it was the first time I ever heard my father yell before. My daddy was my gentle giant, a father I could come to with anything and who always loved me unconditionally. As I awoke in my room that day, I worried that he wouldn’t love me anymore. He was so mad at me, and it was more than my little heart could take.

I found Dad in the living room sitting in front of the TV with a beer in his hand. He wasn’t really watching anything on the screen and seemed a million miles away, but still had a look of disappointment on his face. I felt my eyes get teary all over again as I told him how sorry I was and how I wouldn’t disobey him anymore. He was mostly quiet, nodding his head but not looking directly at me.

“Dad,” I asked in my squeaky little girl voice. “What I did was really bad. Why didn’t you spank me?”

He looked right at me then and answered. “I almost did,” he admitted, “but I was so angry I was afraid I’d hurt you.”

I tried to imagine my father raising his hand to me but then blocked it out because it was too scary to consider. My dad never hit me, not even once, and it would have traumatized me if my cheery, joking, wisecracking father ever got angry enough to strike me. The whole idea was absolutely foreign to me.

I hugged him then and felt him hug me back tight. Everything was okay again, and I could go back to being Daddy’s little girl the way I’d always been. The Stop-and Go event became something we joked about in later years. My dad laughed about it then, but there was always something extra that let me know I’d truly scared him that day. I swore I would never make him feel that way again.

As I grew older and got to know my father even better, I realized the conflict within him on Stop-and-Go day. We were always honest with each other and as the years passed, I wanted to know more about his family, especially my grandmother and grandfather. My dad walked away from all of them when he was 21 years old after his mother died, and he never spoke to a single one of them again. My childish mind couldn’t comprehend not talking to your own family, but when he explained the reasons I completely understood.

He told me the story of being a little boy and hiding under his bed before church so he didn’t have to go. His father dragged him out and beat him with a coat hanger. There were dozens of incidents just like this while my dad was growing up. The only time he remembered his father showing him love was at his mother’s gravesite where his father put an arm awkwardly around him for a minute. My dad was close to his mother. She showed him a kindness that contrasted with his father’s meanness. After she died, my father left their house forever and never spoke to anyone in his family again.

Before he met my mom, my father acted like a nomad. He skipped from city to city trying to find his way in the world, getting involved with women and then leaving them behind without a word. It was as if he couldn’t stay in one place too long, and I wonder if he rejected the world the way his father rejected him. Maybe he wasn’t able to trust people having grown up in an abusive household and was afraid of getting hurt. Only he knew the answers, and he didn’t share them with me before he died in 2003.

One time when I was asking my father about his family, I could tell he didn't want to talk about it much. "But Dad," I begged, "I want to hear about your young life. It almost feels like your life didn't start until after I was born."

"Because it didn't," my dad replied.

My father is a hero, not just because he stayed with me as a child, but because he broke the cycle of abuse in his family. It might have been easy, almost natural, to parent me the way his dad parented him, complete with yelling and screaming and spanking and hitting. Yet he never laid an unkind hand on me. Nobody taught him how to be a father, but he knew the way his own father did it was wrong. He once told me he wanted to do everything the opposite of the way his father did it. The day I went to Stop-and-Go, he resisted falling back on old patterns. It would have been so simple to treat me the only way he ever learned, but he wanted more than that for me… and for himself.

My dad spoke often of his regrets, his running away and the things and people he left behind. I know he blamed himself and lacked the self-confidence to make things right. He answered the questions I had about his life openly and honestly, and for that I’m forever grateful. My dad’s stories helped shape the way I wanted to be a parent someday. The day I placed my first-born son in his arms, I saw hope on my dad’s face. It was another chance to make things right as a grandfather, and he stepped right up to the challenge and was the best one my son could have asked for.

The gift of breaking the cycle of abuse may be the greatest gift my dad ever gave me. He may have thought it only affected the two of us, but I’m able to be honest with my three kids the way he used to be with me. I talk to them about their grandfather and tell them he was strong enough to change his behavior, and it’s helped make me the mom I am today.

I wish there had been more time for the kids to get to know my dad, but I’ll always keep him alive in my heart, where he is the best father in the world.

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