Raised in a Barn: When Cracks Become Visible

We had not yet moved to Massachusetts permanently; we were there for the weekend, and were going… somewhere. We did a lot of driving around, often going to antique stores looking for stuff. My brother and I were absolute champions at not breaking things in antique stores: mostly we stayed outside where most of the things on display were all-weather unbreakable objects (I remember one place that had a phalanx of cast-iron lawn jockeys, all with the paint chipping off, and at least one missing his nose, which must have taken a hell of a blow). My mother loved milk glass, and would examine every dish or vessel in a shop, looking for something that met her inscrutable criteria. My father was a fan of ironstone–a kind of white china that was ubiquitous in New England for a while. We had a huge number of ironstone platters and pitchers, and a couple of ironstone bowls large enough to bathe a baby in.

But I digress.

I don’t know where we were driving to. We were somewhere off our normal routes, which may mean we were lost (or “having an adventure,” as it was sometimes known). The road we were on was a paved (not always a given in those days) lane-and-a-half road (not one-lane, not two. A specific subset of country roads), which stretched from one turn-off from the main road to another, through fields unaccompanied by dwellings. A road where one might encounter another car, but might not. And then one of us noticed a police car behind us.

To be clear: the police were not in pursuit; like my family, they appeared to be going from one place to another, and just happened to be on that road, behind us. My father, who was driving, said something on the order of “oh, look, a police car.” And my mother, seized by an apparently irresistible whim, grabbed one of my brother’s toy guns. In those days there were always toy guns around, and unlike today, there was no fluorescent stripping to signal from afar that this was not a lethal weapon. My mother leaned out the window with the toy Luger in her hand and started going “pew pew pew!” at the cops.

Predictably, there were differing reactions. My brother initially thought this was funny. My father and I freaked out. Dad screamed at Mom, who retreated into in the car with the air of someone who was expecting applause and was shocked by the lack thereof. I, no stranger to anxiety myself, tried to explain to her why shooting a pretend gun at people with real guns who might perceive a threat and attempt to defend themselves was a bad idea. And my father delivered a blistering scold.

If my mother’s attack of stupid-whimsy had been startling, my father’s icy rage was scary. When roused to anger Dad’s ire could strip paint. My mother, who had retreated from the window with an “ain’t I cute” expression, now sank into the plastic leather of her seat. It wasn’t the “my God, what did I almost do” that got her; it was the blowtorch of Dad’s anger. He yelled at her the way he would have yelled at one of us kids, and it was… embarrassing.

Was what my mother had done stupid? I still think so.

Was my father justified in screaming at her in front of the kids? I don’t doubt he was filled with adrenaline, but Dad’s jeremiad was humiliating to watch. I can only imagine what it was like for my mother.

My parents stayed married–increasingly unhappily–until my mother’s death, another 20+ years. If I had to pin-point a time when I realized that the united front they presented was beginning to crack, this would be it.

4 thoughts on “Raised in a Barn: When Cracks Become Visible

  1. What a heart-breaking story, for everyone concerned. It reminds me of stories of children of mentally ill parents, trying to understand and cope with the bizarre behavior of those who were supposed to take care of the kids.

    I can’t help but think that in another time and age, had your parents been Black, the consequences might well have been fatal.

    But all in all, the scars of a single ill-thought deed persist to this day.

  2. While from the perspective of time I can understand why your father’s actions were destructive, I have to admit that I might well of reacted as he did. I doubt he was even thinking clearly enough to come up with a more appropriate way of saying something that wouldn’t have humiliated your mother. Perhaps even if he had been able to separate his fear from his reaction, he would have done the same, but I can see screaming in fear.

    Though there’s an element to your mother’s action — dangerous as it was — that I can appreciate, particularly in a well-brought-up woman in the 1950s. That’s an even more complex issue.

    1. I do understand my father’s reaction, so much so that it wasn’t until recently, talking about the incident with my brother, that I realized how destructive it was. It went on for what seemed like a terribly long time. Having been on the wrong side of my father’s anger once or twice, I know how scary it could be. It was just… one of the cracks that let me see a light from a place I hadn’t imagined.

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