For a long time, I hated Nina Simone. For me, her voice was a portent of sadness. If upon coming home from school I heard her music as I walked up the stairs to our house I knew what kind of day it had been. My mother would either be locked in her bedroom or defiantly sitting in the living room smoking a cigarette amid the aftermath. My mother almost religiously wore a wig except in those moments. Looking back, I believe that it was a part of her baring her soul. It was a statement to my father. Look at the thing you hurt. See the soul that you bruised. Broken glass, flowerpots, and whatever else was unfortunate enough to have been in the way of another argument strewn about her feet.
My father was quiet and steady with a blue-collar mentality and affable demeanor. Work only mattered in so much that home was taken care of and his weekends were free. His highs and lows were never very far from each other. At least that is how it was most of the time. My father, in hindsight, buried everything. He ate all the stress in his life and often tried to drink and smoke it away. Jimmy was cool as a fan until something popped. Then he ran as hot as an oilless engine. Athletic and wiry I’ve seen him drop men larger than him with one punch. I also saw him nearly break my mother’s nose with a short jab. I can still hear the sound. A sharp click, much like cracking your knuckle.
My mother was in most ways the opposite of my father. She actually reminds me quite a bit if Nina. She is extremely bright despite not finishing high school. She was a devourer of books. Everything from Maya Angelou to medical texts. She, for better or worse, also had Nina’s temperamental nature. Anger and joy swirled within her like oil and water. Intertwined but incapable of diluting its counter. There could be no middle. In the middle of it all, I stood. Child, confidante, and punching bag.
I remember the belt rack. It sat beside my mother’s side of the bed. Rickety and made of dark wood, I’m not sure what it’s original purpose was but as long as it existed in my life it held an assortment of twenty or so belts. There were nylon ones, leather ones, and metal ones, thin and thick. There was also an old tan weightlifter’s belt. I often had to go pick a belt in the same manner other children had to pick a switch. That rack was the symbol of my abuse, though the beatings from my mother were not limited to belts (or reason for that matter).
I remember encounters with wooden hangers and yardsticks along with open hands and closed fists. Most vivid was getting beat out of my sleep because I forgot to go to the bodega and buy my mother a pack of cigarettes. I remember the confusion and pain, like drowning in a pool full f jellyfish. For years, if my wife woke me from my sleep I would snap upright with a closed fist. As a child, my father would do the same. I never asked.
It would be easy to paint my parents as terrible people, faceless villains exchanging pain for power. I could easily paint my childhood as some otherworldly nightmare. It is a narrative that exists for many who have experienced some sort of abuse. One or which there is no nuance, nothing to delve into because their abuser is simply evil. Evil to the point that exploration into its roots is an exercise in futility. In much the same way I could speak of my experiences euphemistically substituting words like abuse for “discipline” and speak on how the abuse made me a better man. I could wear my abuse like a badge and play “who got whooped worse” with friends, regaling in stories of brutality because, if endured long enough the worst of our experiences can be regarded as normal.
The truth is my parents love me and they love each other. They were just really bad at it. They have battled demons their entire lives, namely with alcoholism and other abuses. There are plenty of instances where they weren’t kind to each other or to me. Trickle-down violence is a real thing, the abuse my mother received from my father was passed along to me. Because what else can you do when you feel powerless over your own dominion but take control of someone else’s? And while I was at the bottom of it all I was still loved and encouraged to be the best me possible, even despite them.
Violence in my family is generational. I didn’t know it then, but as a child but I was being handed a legacy filled with switches and belts and in the extremes hot irons and other incredibly damaging means of “discipline.” It’s a legacy I don’t relish and it is one I plan on passing along. I am not better for having been abused. I am who I am despite what I endured. Issues with anger, self-confidence, and lack of follow-through have been huge hurdles in my life. They are ones I battle in one form or another to this day. Child abuse is learned. In some cases it’s cultural. What it has never been is right. It doesn’t make stronger men and women. It creates generations of broken individuals who, to varying degrees, learn how to function with dysfunction. I, like other abused children, am the man I am today because of the abuse I have seen and endured. Instead of praising what we are because of abuse maybe we should be asking how much more we might have been without it.
As I have grown older I have learned to love Nina. She was brilliantly broken like shattered stained glass gently pieced back together. She is what I see when I look back on my own life. I see her in the people I love and the experiences I have had. She is my reminder that anything of value comes as a trade-off. Art costs, happiness costs, love costs. peace costs. There is beauty in damage. It’s why after all I have seen and endured I love my parents and appreciate my awkward, self-deprecating, damaged self.