She loved me enough to throw in a deep, wet inhale of snot and tears. “The cold air will come a lot quicker on the other side of the hill!”
I hated winter. Despised the snow. And that depressing, one-horse, pulp-mill town, lingering the air with that caustic, every-day stench. How was I going to make it through two years over there, alone and friendless? I was already depressed, thinking about it and feeling like I'd settled into a choice that was second best.
I didn’t have to leave, I knew that. No one around here cared if I spent all of my working years as a slave at our own, one-horse saw-mill. It was almost expected I'd stick around and my hand-full of buddies actually looked forward to the prospects of working down there for themselves.
"Eight to Five, every day. Good money. You're nuts taking on college. I can't wait to get to work." This was the standard spiel from my buddies, all totally willing to sign their souls over to the devil by staying behind. Success, they say, scares the shit out of us more than failure. That mill, for them, was a sure bet they knew wouldn't challenge them too close to the limits of their own sanity. I knew better.
Nobody really gave a shit about anything beyond acceptance of a daily grind, for me or anyone else in town. Rising above expected choices wasn't much on anyone's radar, growing up in Rural Nowhere.
Except, within his own ignorance and limits of mediocrity, my Pops.
There were times when I'd decided the mill was going to be my next summer adventure over my high-school years, Pops, every time, practically stroked himself to an early death, spouting off a tirade of rage, typical of all our Dads when they stepped in to straighten any of us out, and line us back up to their own pathetic vision of a manly life.
“I spent my whole life down there. My whole, God-damn, miserable life. Either pushing, pulling, piling, sawing, or stealing God-damn wood. For what? For nothing! I’ve been there from the time I was your age and I’m telling you this: You don’t want to set foot down at that place."
"Once your in that shit-hole, you never get yourself out. Are you listening to me, boy? Stay away from there. If I so much as see you sniffing for work in that direction, I’ll slap your nose off your twit, God-damn face. You ever show your ass down there, I swear to Christ, I'll take you out back and kill ya, bury you in the garden before I let you do something as stupid as that.”
The last few years before I left for school, all Mother and I heard was the same, tired, drunken man - moaning about the same tired. old, pissed-to-the-gills rants about pretty much anything and everything to do with the world we lived in.
That threat of death was enough to keep me away from the mill over those summers. The threats kept me dreaming at least, trying to do something with my own, God-forsaken life. Threats of violence from Pops, when I was still young enough, always knocked me back to paying attention, if ever he dreamed up I wasn't paying his ways attention enough.
He never really beat me, much. I was lucky as far as I was concerned, looking at the mess some of my buddies brought as badges of honour to school with them some days. We'd all learned to believe, whatever violence Dads did, was justified. We deserved every punch and kick; every hockey-stick across the back for leaving our gear scattered across the driveways of our run-down, cruddy mansions, scattered across the mountains since time here first began.
All the beatings, at least, weren't anything that wouldn't heal back up over a month or so. They weren't anything worth whining about. We all learned too how to keep our pain to ourselves around one another. Boys from Nowhere aren't allowed to be weak. Showing weakness only serves to get us beat again at school, by angry, younger souls, taking every opportunity to force the shit they carried into school from home to run downhill.
We'd all dawned enough inner and outer bruises to make sure we had fear of the old-men slapped rightly into us. Like all my buddies, this was Pop's way of earning my respect. I lived every day, we all did, with that fear-driven, messed up respect drilled in at any opportunity they all had to deliver it. I know I carry that fear still. It haunts me, hearing myself bully everyone around me with my mouth at any given frustration almost every day.
Pops was so much older than Mother. To this day, I find myself wanting to beat the crap out of other old men. All over a rage that can sometimes come on, just because they're stupid enough to wander around town with grey hair. All that fear I still live over those beatings handed down from that shitty-old, bully of a man.
This is how he learned to build respect for my Gramps, through his own growing-up years. Across many days of his own childhood circus of a life, there were days Pops would disappear from view for awhile. He wouldn't turn up at school or anywhere else in town. Like he disappeared from the planet, Pops was nowhere to be seen, most times in line with Gramps drunken pay-day binges, drunken nightmares just like all the men of his generation pulled together as some kind of reward for all their hard weeks work.
When Pops did finally show back up as a kid to shoot some hockey in the street, bloodied as he'd sometimes still be, and staring into nothing but the dirt as if the other kids couldn't see, everybody he hung-out with, knew exactly what he'd been put through. Like my own buddies, they wouldn't say a thing. They'd just get back into the play, Pops allowed back in, as if he'd never been away from them at all. As if, nothing shitty had happened to him at the hands of dear-old Gramps.
Mother filled me in on all of that, about my old-man's life as a kid. The beatings from Pops towards me, were nothing like Gramps threw at Pops, driving fearful respect into my old man. My own insides would flop back-and-forth between feeling sorry for my Pops, and hating him for how he treated both Mother and I. I guess he did try to be a better man than his old-man was to him. Mother got her licks too. I wasn't ever able to feel at all sorry for him over that. I wish, still, she'd stood up for herself. She never did.
It sure as hell didn’t matter at all to me anymore. None of it. Not on moving day. I was leaving and vowed to myself to NEVER come back. I was off to school. To college. The first in our family, bright enough to go.
Pops and Mother, I knew, in their way they were proud. Mother was sure to let me know about it too. Pops didn't say a thing. His way of showing his pride for me was always dead frigging silence. But I could imagine, hearing him inside my head, telling the boys at the mill all about his son the pretty nurse, cracking-off his lame jokes about me to entertain his always captive audience in the lunch-room at the mill.
Pops was a totally different man away from home, hanging with the boys. Everyone out there in that blind and ignorant to reality world, they loved the man. Mother loved him too. So did I, deep down inside, somewhere under all the garbage memories he'd planted like weeds.
I tried hard to let him know I loved him. Tried so for years, practically begging to get close to him. Give the old-shit a bit of a hug, and most often I'd hear the same garbage from him.
"Get off-a-me. God-damn sissy."
Pops cringed at the thought of affection like that from any boy. I always wondered why. Heading off to college, finally, all I could see inside my head was Pops making an asshole of himself, taking out his covered-over weakness on his own kin, just to get a laugh out of the other, brutalized little-grown men stuck working down at that mill.
In the movie running in my head, I saw Pops celebrating his only son's success in life by showing my doctored-up graduation pictures around, just to get a laugh. I watched inside as the reel played by, him having altered the symbol of my greatest accomplishment to date.
I could see him, plain as day, spending all that time in that cellar with the paints he had down there. Pops was an incredible artist, back in the day. He didn't do any painting for his own sake anymore. He didn't draw. I never saw the man pick up a book. But inside this bullied-to-a-pulp little brain of mine, in the movie playing inside my head, I saw him laughing as he worked with his pencils and his paints, making sure he'd fixed that picture all up. A picture of me, his sissy son, wearing my nice white dress and pretty little hat, holding my bouquet of roses and smiling nice with painted on lipstick for added effect.
After he'd spent a week in the cellar, doctoring away himself at my High-School Grad picture, he rubbed it into my face, laughing and stinking from all the whiskey he drank doing is sick, hack at art downstairs.
“Get yourself in here,” Mother bellowed. “Say good-bye to the boy!” Pops moaned and grunted down the hall. Predictable, as he always did when Mother barked at him from the kitchen.
“College boy’s running away, is he? Thinks he’s something special! On his way to college! Sissy-Boy, decided to embarrass us by taking on a woman’s job. What the hell does he want to go off and be something like that for, Mother? A God-damn nurse, of all things to work at.”
“I'll be good at it, Pops. There really aren’t enough male nurses out there. Might even teach one day, you never know.” Pop's let out his usual, drunken bellow-of-a-belly laugh. Shoving Mother into her shoulder, just like he always did.
“NO SHIT! Of course they're ain't no boy nurses in the world. It's a God-damn girls job, ain't it Mother.” Then he laughed even harder. He got a real kick out of himself.
Laughing like that at every one my ideas I brought home to show him from school, was typical Pops too. He laughed that demented heckle at every one of the dreams my curiosity sent me hunting after, stalking the world for something new to learn.
He laughed like that if a cat got killed by a car. That side of his personality, always sickened me. Scared the shit out of me actually. There's no way I could live with myself if I ever turned out to have that sickest side of the man living inside of me. Always belittling me for the sake of his own dominance, he really could be a shitty little man. When he bellowed like that, it always felt like he was laughing directly into my soul, as if I was the cause of all his pain.
“Just think, Pops. In a couple Thanksgivings from now? You’ll be staring over your turkey dinner at someone who decided to make something of his life. Shitty thing you never had the balls to do that. You excited for me? Hey Pops? Or are you just scared again that your little boy might grow up to be a little better than the likes of you?”
With that little dig, he went straight downstairs, stomping his heavy feet into that stolen lumber all the way down the steps to the cellar. Mother hung her head in shame of me when I fought him off of me like that. That old bastard, he just loved any excuse in a losing battle like that with me, to head straight away. As he always did, predictable old shit, down to the cellar, crawling deep, like a bear, into his broken-down-old-man cave.
I can’t remember how old I was when I figured this little tactic out. One day, when I was still a kid, I just woke up and noticed it, I guess. Pops started hiding out in the cellar when things got a little rough for his weakness to handle upstairs. Too much honesty or emotion, get to any of his truth inside about himself and Pops was gone. Down into the cellar. His haven, I supposed. We all need places to hide. I had the mountains. Pops, and many of his cronies, had private hiding spots for themselves to retreat into when reality was too much to take.
By the time my little moving day had rolled around, Pops had learned the hard way to keep his distance physically from me. If I mouthed him off and he stood up or moved towards me, I stood up too, pushing him back on his heels with only my eyes for weapons by then. I didn’t take being punched around anymore.
It only took one punch one day, he knew I’d learned to hit back. I hit him so hard his eyes rolled back in his head and he dropped to the floor, shaking like a chicken. Pops hit his head on the kitchen counter too when he fell. I thought I'd killed the little shit.
When he came around, downstairs he went. I scared the hell out of him. I doubt anybody ever knocked him to ground like that. He was known around town to put up a pretty good fight. Actually, for me, it didn't feel right really. I kind of felt sorry for him, after I'd got my own lick in. Something though happens to a boy, they say, when he finally reaches that point of being tougher than the old-man. I felt I could finally handle myself against him, sure enough. With Mother's help, it didn't take me too long to feel only shame again, after he'd hauled his ass downstairs.
On moving day, after he stomped off and slammed his way down to his little den, feeling sorry for himself, I hugged Mother good-bye, headed straight for the back door, tossed my stuff into my crappy old Datsun Station Wagon, fired-up that piece of shit and drove away.
After the first few miles into the mountains, I actually tasted a little relief. "Bring on the dream of nursing." I thought. My substitute decision because I didn't have it in me to risk failing on my way to becoming a doctor. I think I maybe even felt a smile.
I found out after Pops died why he enjoyed the cellar so much. When I went down there finally, I was never allowed down there as a kid, after a little digging around I found he'd left behind a full case of whiskey in an old pantry cupboard. It was crammed inside behind an empty toolbox marked EXPLOSIVES. Sneaky, the old-man.
Good thing I found that whiskey. That's all I got to remember him by. I didn't paint, so those antique brushes of his went straight into the trash.
Tricky move, I thought when I found it there. I guess he thought by marking the box the whiskey was hiding behind with EXPLOSIVES, Mother would stay away from that side of the room, with it potentially blowing up and all. Mother was never known to be all that bright.
She was a laughing stock herself from all the bitches living in this town. She kept away from that box alright. She still hasn’t questioned the fact that the dynamite had never been there. As far as Mother is concerned, there’s dynamite in that box, to this very day. As a matter of fact, she’s absolutely convinced of it, I made sure of that.
Nursing wasn’t really my dream. Like I said, I wanted to be a doctor, I just didn't have the guts to chase that one to death. Mother dreamed of nursing when she was that age in her own life. Pop’s dream coming out of high-school was “wiring the electricity”. I knew, wiring for a living, I would’ve died trying that. Nursing was the lesser of both of their evils and the closest to my own dream.
I've never really had any dreams, other than doctoring of my own since. Once the move came about and I’d made it over the hill, things went as I expected. It was a damn-cold, stinking waste of two full-out, depressing frigging months in absolute hell. I ran back home, scared to death, broken and vowing never to give that college thing a try again.
What scared me off? It was a simple matter of confusing what it would mean to be in a room full of gals, practicing bed-baths. At eighteen and never brave enough even to shower with the other boys in the locker room, let's just say I was a couple inches shy of wanting to get naked in front of the female portion of the nursing class.
Pops died six months after I came back home. Twenty-five years ago last week.
Pops once moaned, after reaching his own twenty-five year milestone, “You think after twenty-five years a man would get a God-damn gold watch or something.” He screamed that out to us all through one pay-day from down in his cave. I didn’t really understand it. I could never figure out what he was so frigging drunk and upset about. Not for the longest time.
I get it now. Yep, I understand old Pops now, pretty much all the way.
Mother’s still alive. She can’t remember day-to-day who I am most of the time. But, God-damn-it, she’s still frigging alive. How do I spend my days? I spend them at the mill. I started my own lumber-tossing grindstone existence right after Pops died. It’s a little hard to knock someone’s face off or strike him down dead from the grave, I figured.
It was one of those, screw-it-all decisions we sometimes make, the best decision about my own life I could come up with at the time. That old bastard. He was right. Once a man gets himself into that saw-dust farm of living hell, it is a trap.
There's one thing. Pops was certainly right about that.
My nights, like Pops, I reserve those for the cellar. It took a bit of time getting used to the idea. Now it's the only place left on the earth, that this heathen-of-a-man feels safe. I wander down, every night after choking down Mother's demented effort of a supper.
Pop’s left-over whiskey aged nicely over time. Like the best of wines, I tell myself. I learned to pour it into me from watching him over the years. It takes away the numbness of living that shitty mill-life I fell into. I feel that death, every second without the whiskey poured in me at the end of it. The flask in my boot works well through my days, humping out lumber so other man's mansions grow bigger in status for them up on the mountain of High Hill.
The Cellar. That's like going to a frigging spa now for me. A gift of genetic inheritance, planted into me long ago from a broken, drunken, pissed-off little man. His legacy to me, I guess, certainly was the best dowry that mess of a man could provide.
I get him now, though, like I said. I know exactly why Pops put together his EXPLOSIVE little treasure box. I've lost count of how many cases I’ve stuffed into that cupboard and behind that box now since inheriting Pop's cave of a hiding place.
It’s a good-enough life. God-granted, it's as good a life as I’ve ever deserved living. I plan on hammering out my remaining days down in that dismal little cave from here, waiting patiently for Mother to die.
The musty smell of the dirt walls, down below. The damp cold, always in the air. The webs of death strung across the dismal grey concrete. That hole in the floor, the place Pops once did, and now I go to piss.
Living down there at night, shook me up a bit at first. It felt like his ghost was down there, bitching at me to leave. The whiskey took some getting used to. But I've grown into it. The burn of whiskey as it first hits the tongue, what once was an effort to swallow, it sure as hell don't bother me now.
"Believe-You-Me," as Pops would say. I know how to finish out my life in the sanctity of that cellar. This copy-cat existence seems perfectly natural to me, today. No need for anyone to worry, don't anybody worry about me, I'll be alright.
I would have made a useless, drunken, messed-up nurse or doctor anyway. I love it down in The Cellar-My Place to Reflect. That dynamite whiskey is my best friend. It's like a little bit of heaven to me now, down there in that dank old cave.
And don't any one of you folks worry about that dynamite either.
"Believe-You-Me," when I tell ya. I know how to handle that TNT . . . I learned from the best.
Darren Michael Gregory. August 12th, 2014
Vilayanur Ramachandran: The Neurons That Shaped Civilization
(Families and Generational Trauma, As Well?: Darren Michael Gregory. Aug. 14th, 2014)
Disclaimer: These materials and resources are presented for educational purposes only. They are not a substitute for informed medical advice or training. Do not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem without consulting a qualified health or mental health care provider. If you have concerns, contact your health care provider, mental health professional, or your community health centre.
Darren Gregory © 2014: All Rights Reserved
Certified: Community & Workplace Trauma Educator Traumatology Institute.
Associate Member American Academy Of Experts In Traumatic Stress.