A letter to my father

Dear Dad

I know it’s against the rules to blame anyone, but I blame you. I’m all grown up now and should know better, even so, it’s hard to get beyond that sense that I keep chasing you in all these men I’ve met over the years who turn out wrong, not because they themselves are wrong but because they’re not you, the you I needed when I was little.

You even spelled my name wrong on my birth certificate, not that it was you who spelled out the letters. You must have gone to Births, Deaths and Marriages to register my name and sat in a small office with a clerk whose job it was to take down the details. And you got it all wrong, my name spelled in the English way and not the European and even the births of my other siblings, the ones who came before me, you listed in the wrong chronological order.

How could you do that? Were you addled, too overwhelmed by the birth of your seventh child, your sixth child living, to notice that the clerk put down a ‘z’ instead of an ‘s’, to notice that the clerk listed your first born daughter as younger than her older brother.

These things matter, to me at least, even if they did not matter to you. It’s the order of things. The way we’re put onto this earth to live out lives in a certain order in families from oldest to youngest, but you paid it all little heed. We could all be one just mess of children, each one indistinguishable from the other.

And then that decision to name me after my mother, your wife. What about that decision? Did you have a say in it? I found out later I should have been named Petronella after your mother, but my mother told me you hated her so much, your mother that you wanted none of your children to be saddled with that name. That was good of you. Bad enough to be saddled with my mother’s name but then to cop your mother’s name, the one you supposedly hated, far worse.

You were tall and intelligent enough to beat Barry Jones on Pick a Box not that you’d have tried. You’d have had to front up on the television screen in front of all those viewers. Not for you the performance, at least not one held in public. You preferred your own company but then from time to time when you grew lonely you took off in search of one of your daughters, one would do, preferably the oldest but if she was not available and my mother was nowhere to be seen you’d go after me or one of my younger sisters.

But I was smart, Dad. I knew how to avoid you. I knew how to make myself invisible, as thin as a sheet of paper. I knew how to slide from room to room on tiptoes, silent as a beetle and just as small, and you did not see me as I slid down the hallway past those double glass doors that led into your chamber whenever you called out my name.

You called and you called and the more you called the more I plugged my ears and hid from view, from you, from everyone. Out back to the laundry toilet with the door closed tight even without a lock. You refused locks in our house. You wanted access at all times but you could never access me, could you Dad? You could never get to me, inside my body, under my skin or into my brain.

I held firm. I held you at arm’s length and now I have to suffer the consequences, the guilt that slides like treacle down my back and sticks to every pore of my skin, making it hard to breathe.

My younger sisters weren’t as smart as me. They heard your call. They came when you called. They went into your bedroom and closed the door behind, and even though they were five and eight and I do not know what happened behind that door, nor am I ever likely to know because the older one of those sisters has sealed her lips tight like a clam and she will not speak to me nor to any of the others and the younger one cannot remember other than to tell me how ten years later when she was fifteen and we older ones had all left home, she heard you at her doorway late one night.

She knew you were there. She knew you were naked. She could see your silhouette against the hall way light. She knew it had reached the stage it was her turn, but our mother arrived in the nick of time.

‘Leave her alone,’ our mother said and you skulked away like a rodent. Never to pester her again, except in her nightmares.

As for me, you still appear in my dreams, not as often as before. I can still feel your presence at night in the dark when I tread over cold tiles to the toilet and hold my breath fearful of your touch. Always your touch, the touch I avoided throughout my childhood, the touch I feared that has made me now into a woman afraid, afraid of closeness, afraid of penetration, a woman who has sealed herself off from too much bodily connection. And I could not reclaim my body long after you had left. No body, no chance of penetration, no chance of invasion, no chance of the burning touch that drives even stronger people mad.


Persecution of the internal kind

At night he calls out in his sleep to unknown assailants who populate his dreams. ‘Stop it’. He calls these words out repeatedly and when I reach over to urge him into wakefulness and away from these demons he falls silent as if I have chased them away for long enough for him to get some relief and slip into a noiseless sleep but they will be back later the next night and the next whenever he finds himself tortured by too much pain in the world.

My husband grew up in the generation that taught young boys to be tough and strong to withhold their tears and to take responsibility. Fathers were breadwinners and mothers were homemakers and although today he lives in a world where his wife shares the financial burden, he cannot escape this belief that he is only as good as the money he earns and if he stops earning then they might as well put him out to pasture like an old race horse, no longer able to compete on the track of life.

‘You made a bad bargain’ he says to me in moments of despair, as if our relationship was one long contractual economic arrangement with monetary value its only currency.

This morning he did not want to get out of bed even after an early night. He woke at four and from his perspective has not slept since but when I heard the alarm ring he did not stir, though my husband is adept at closing his eyes even while sitting on the couch, even in the company of others and he gives the appearance of a man asleep but he’s not, he tells me later, when I urge him to go to bed if he’s tired. He’s thinking behind closed eyes he tells me.

Sometimes his thoughts are taken up with plans to build something: a gate, a table, a new attachment to the salami-making machine so that he can improve the output of his sausages. But other times he ruminates. I know this when he scrunches up his face, eyes closed as if some monstrous thought has crossed through his mind that is almost unbearable.

Therapist that I am, I put it down to the difficult relationship he had with his mother, an unhappy woman herself overwhelmed by the burden of six children very little money and a husband who drank too much and flew into rages especially with his sons. His father did not help much but it was his mother who visited upon him all manner of cruelty.


My husband was the second born son and he arrived in the world healthy, unlike his older brother who suffered mild cerebral palsy at birth and could never attain his full potential. My husband on the other hand was a bright boy, a quick-witted boy, a boy who refused to do exactly as he was told when he was told and in his mother’s eyes he was naughty.

‘You ungrateful wretch’ she said to him whenever he challenged her authority.

My husband believed his mother preferred girls to boys, a view which clashed with my own experience of a mother who to my mind preferred her boys.

We came into this marriage with different mind states therefore, made worse by the fact we had four beautiful daughters, four daughters who became my husband’s pride a joy, the reason in his mind that he continued to work hard, the reason he went back to study law, the reason he left the Commonwealth Public Service and sought to develop his capacity so that he could earn enough money to pay for their schooling to renovate our house and to cover all the costs associated with a large and growing family. In his mind he did it all for them.

I have argued with him that this is not entirely true.

This is the myth of the old generation: man as bread winner; man who justifies his existence by going out into the world each day and bringing back the bacon, the bread, the money, the means by which the family unit can continue.

But my husband was not the only one to earn money. I helped, but somehow my work and earnings count less in his mind than his own.

Beyond his work, he took on hobbies, multiple hobbles and tried to perfect them. Here lies the rub. He tries to perfect things to the point where nothing is ever good enough. Nothing reaches his standards of acceptability and so he chides himself for his lack of standards.

He expects too much of himself. I fear he expects too much of me, too, but at times I morph into being as his mother, who also expected great things from him. He is in the grip of his mother’s criticism these days and no sooner do I ask him to do something than he hears me issuing commands.

Many years ago my husband taught me the importance of honesty in my requests. Don’t ask ‘Would you like to do such and such.’ Don’t ask ‘Are you doing anything tonight?’ as a precursor to asking more. Don’t ask a person indirectly in that not so subtle manipulative way that women of my mother’s generation used in order to get their way. Be direct.

I agree with him, the direct request is one to which a person can respond with a clear yes or no. An indirect request, a manipulation is harder to tackle.

I have learned to ask directly but even now my direct requests come as commands to my husband’s ears so I become wary of asking even as I all but ordered him out of bed this morning.

‘You’ll feel better,’ I say, once you’re out and about. If you lie in bed you just torture yourself.’

In my mind’s eyes I see his father, a man who spent the last several years of his life in bed, sly drinking and listening to the races until the Korsakoff’s (brain damage from too much alcohol) hit and he lost his memory and wound up in a protected facility with minimal control of his gambling card and a life of inertia.

My husband seeks oblivion he tells me, an escape from the endless tyranny of his mind.

I do not remember a time when he was happy for any extended period of time. He had his moments of fleeting joy but nothing sustained. Contentment is not a word that comes to mind, just this endless cruel striving and a man who continues to say things like: I still haven’t figured out what I want to do when I grow up.

For a talented man, a man who can do almost anything he turns his mind to, in the preparing of food, of cooking, of word turning, jewellery making, photography, house building, interpreting history and the law in its many manifestations, writing, reading, and when he was young running long distances, all these gifts and more and yet he cannot find happiness at his finger tips, only this endless restless search that is more often than not punctuated by cruel persecutors who tell him he is no good.

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