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We’ve all heard the stories from our parents and grandparents about how life was different “back then.” You know the ones – how they had to walk 20 miles to school uphill both ways in 5 feet of snow or how all of the kids would pile into the back of dad’s pickup truck for the weekly trip to town for provisions from the general store. Every family has some version of these stories, often with their own unique twist or insight.

While most of these stories are funny and the younger generations like to poke fun at our elders for how much harder they had it than us, there are other types of stories some families have that are often left out of the conversation or forgotten entirely, or at least tried to be forgotten.

My family has one of those stories – the darker kind.

My father comes from a large family with nine children. He is the oldest boy and second-born child. My dad grew up in a small house set high on the hill of his one stoplight town in rural upstate New York, where his parents struggled to raise and feed their brood of children. His mom, my grandmother, worked odd jobs between carrying, birthing, and raising babies. His dad, my grandfather, was a World War Two veteran and worked every day but Sunday at a timber yard just down the road from the house. And almost every day after work, he’d come home to his houseful of kids, start drinking, and not long after start beating his wife or one of his children for no reason at all.

Over the years, I heard numerous tales of the abuse, mostly from my aunts or from what my dad had told my mom, but not from my father himself. One of the worst accounts my mom heard was the time my dad was scrambling to get ready for school before the bus came. There was one bathroom in the house and the majority of the kids were girls, so my dad and his brother didn’t get much bathroom time. As my dad rushed to get dressed and downstairs to the bus, his dog started to bark because the bus had arrived. My grandfather yelled to my dad that he better “shut his dog up” or he would, and as my father rushed down the stairs and was within feet of calming his beloved dog, his dad came around the corner with a shotgun and killed the dog right in front of his eyes.

Then, he was told to get on the bus. He went to school that day with his dog’s blood on his shirt. He was 9 years old.

There are other stories that I could share, but you get my point about the kind of abuse my father was subjected to during his childhood.

My dad left his parents’ house as soon as he possibly could and spent a great deal of time at my mom’s house once my parents started dating in high school. My maternal grandparents were kind, loving people and treated my father like one of their own. They showed him what the love of a parent should look like.

After my siblings and I were born, we never spent much time with my dad’s parents. We were there enough to know my paternal grandparents, but I don’t think my dad ever wanted us left alone with my grandfather because of the awful things he had lived through in that house. I don’t remember my paternal grandfather much as I was only five when he died. Although my mom said he had softened with age and regretted a lot of the things he did to his family, the scars of the abuse remained on the souls of all of his children.

My dad’s abusive childhood affected the way he learned to love. He was not given hugs or kisses as a child, or at best, they were few and far between. My dad definitely showed his children affection, but probably not in the capacity that he would have liked because he was never truly shown how a parent should love his child.

As a result, I hug and kiss both of my children every day, every chance I get.

My dad is a stoic, steadfast man. To an outsider looking in, he would probably appear mean or conceited because he’s not necessarily a conversationalist. This is a result of years spent being told not to talk unless spoken to, because speaking up could get you beaten.

As a result, I am known as the “big mouth” of my family and probably voice my opinion more than I should. This is a quality I intend to pass down to my children. 

My dad has a lot of anxiety stemming from his abusive childhood. He doesn’t do so well in uncomfortable social situations or around people he doesn’t know well. This is probably because he and his siblings were never allowed to go anywhere besides school or work.

As a result, I am very outgoing and consider myself a social butterfly. I’m best around others and thrive on social interactions. I will encourage this in my kids as well.

For all of the negative side effects that my father’s abusive childhood had, he is an amazing, resilient person. He broke the cycle of abuse. My parents never hit us nor were they psychologically or emotionally abusive. In his own way, my dad let us know that he loved us all very much. He worked hard most of his life to provide for us, he coached our baseball teams, and he never missed an academic awards ceremony. Although he is a quiet man, he is a very smart man and if you are lucky enough to open him up to a topic he’s passionate about, he’ll talk your ear off. He is the kind of man who would give you the shirt off his back. These are all qualities I try to carry over into my own role as a mom.

Although my dad doesn’t talk to his mom much because he still partially blames her for not stepping in and stopping her husband from hitting her children, I do have a good relationship with my grandmother. But, when my aunts get mad at him for not coming around to see the family more often, I always step in and defend him. If I were in his shoes I would feel the same way.

If my spouse was abusive, there is no way I would allow it to happen. As a mother, I am my kids’ number one protector, and although I know times were different “back then,” I often wonder how my dad’s life would have been different if my grandmother had taken the kids and left.

As for me, I don’t visit my grandfather’s grave in the churchyard not far from my dad’s childhood home. I don’t even have a picture of him. Some will say it was his own upbringing, his PTSD, or some other psychological reason as to why he did what he did, but I honestly don’t care. I know some may say this is petty and that it’s never been my battle to fight, but I disagree.

I’m my father’s daughter and although the cycle of abuse stopped with my dad, it still had lasting ramifications on the generations that followed. Not just for me and my siblings, but for my cousins as well – we are all children of victims of child abuse.

No, I won’t brush the abuse under the rug like some in my dad’s family like to do or praise a man I barely knew. It may be sacrilegious to curse someone who has passed on, but I honestly don’t know if my grandfather’s soul is in Heaven. If it is, I hope he sees what a good man, husband, father and grandfather his son became, despite him.

So God Made a Mother book by Leslie Means

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