I was talking with my brother, Mark, about my father’s legendary temper. Recalling how Mom would say, “Wait til your father gets home,” to get us (mostly Mark) in line because the threat of Dad’s anger was a powerful weapon. Leah, my daughter, who was listening to the conversation, later said to me, “That’s not the Grandpa I knew. He wasn’t intimidating to me.” I smiled, happy that her experience was different. Happy, too, that Dad, as he got older, mellowed and rarely erupted – he was more at peace with himself, I think.
I knew my father’s anger well. He had quite a temper when we were growing up. His deep voice, muscular frame, bald head and prominent nose gave him an intensity, even when he wasn’t angry. He was the perfect high school dean, which, in fact, he was. He was perfect because while he did have that presence about him that made you think twice about doing something wrong, he was also fair-minded and had a deeply engrained, true moral compass.
Despite his volcanic outbursts, he never, to my knowledge, raised a hand to any of us. I was on the receiving end of his verbal outbursts – usually because of fighting with my brother, Mark, or for using a ‘tone’ with my mother. I think it is fair to say that I could be pretty disrespectful to her and Dad rose readily and angrily to her defense.
One of the things that made living with my dad’s anger more tolerable was his willingness to apologize. Pretty much like clockwork, after the yelling, after I ran to my room crying, there would be a knock on my door. Usually he would say something like, “I shouldn’t have raised my voice like that, I’m sorry. But that doesn’t excuse your behavior….” He would then explain what I had done wrong. He would be calm and sorrowful. The anger gone like a brief, intense summer storm.
I was, I think, ten years old when I realized he was gruff on the outside, and prone to bursts of temper, but a marshmallow inside. It seemed that his anger needed venting, like a pressure cooker. While I don’t remember how I came to that understanding, I do remember the moment of clarity; the time when he screamed and I looked at him and knew that he wouldn’t actually do anything to me.
I had been upstairs in my grandparent’s apartment and I did something awful. I don’t remember what precipitated it, but I yelled at Uncle Terry’s girlfriend (now wife) that I hated her and I ran downstairs to my room. The way I remember it, my parents were in the room when I had my outburst and my father was hot on my trail as I ran down the steps. He boomed, “Linda!!!! How dare you!!! You go apologize this instant!”
It was at this moment that I decided he wasn’t going to hit me, and I didn’t have to do everything he said. I said, calmly, “No, I don’t want to.” I was feeling quite righteous in my own anger. My father was taken aback. Interestingly, he didn’t get angrier, he was silent for a moment. Quietly, he said, “I’m not going to get into an argument with you. But, I want you to think about Uncle Terry.”
That penetrated. I have no memory of why I was so angry at Barbara – I’m sure a good measure of it was jealousy. After all, her time with him cut deeply into my own.
“We love Uncle Terry,” he continued, “and we want him to be happy. You acting that way will not make him happy.”
That took the wind out of my sails. I felt embarrassed. “Okay, I’ll apologize.”
With great difficulty, I climbed the stairs and faced Barbara. “I’m sorry I said that. I shouldn’t have.”
Somehow I understood my Dad and 99% of the time I ended up agreeing with him – despite his temper.
That wouldn’t be the last time my father got angry with me. And, his anger could certainly make me unhappy, uncomfortable, frustrated, resentful, or angry with him. But, I wasn’t afraid.
I don’t know if my brothers ever came to the same realization.