“Come with me,” my father said before leaving our apartment, and then again in the taxi when it stopped in a neighborhood I’d never been to. Taking a taxi seemed odd when our 1954 Plymouth was parked right there on Church Avenue, near our Brooklyn apartment house.
It had been a rough night. My 17-year-old sister, eight years older than I was, hadn’t gotten home until very late—in fact early that morning. My father was waiting for her. Only a few words were exchanged. I could hear the anger in his voice and her pleading: “He was only a friend! Nothing happened!” And then the taxi ride in silence.
The taxi door opened, and my father said to the driver, “Keep the motor running.” My father motioned, and I followed him up a path to the doorway of a brick building. He knocked, and when the door opened, without words, he hit the man, still in his pajamas, with a sharp right hook to the jaw. The man, much bigger, reeled backward. My father walked away, down the path, back to the taxi, with me following. It was dawn, and we went home.
My father must have assumed that my sister had been violated in some way, even though she’d told him that “nothing” had “happened.” Since she tended to hang out with older guys and often kept our parents in the dark about her whereabouts and activities, it made sense for him to be suspicious. Also, she hadn’t gotten home for hours beyond her expected return—something that always set my father off.
He was all scowl and silence that morning, all 5 feet 4 inches of him—a wiry, well-built man, whose intensity could show itself in generosity and love, but also in a level of rage that exceeded expectation, considering his size and stature. But then again, my father had grown up in a rough-and-tumble neighborhood of Brooklyn, friends to gangsters and thugs, often forced to fight for survival. He emerged a tough guy with a thin skin, who took the side of the underdog and became a defender of workers’ rights. He married and divorced young and had a daughter who’d grown up outside his life, but had always stayed inside his heart. This first child, a product of a teenage marriage and an early divorce, had never lived with him, and, though he’d maintained some minimal level of contact, her absence from his daily life had left a huge hole. Now, he was determined to protect the first child of his second marriage, whether she found it awkward or not.
When I think back to that scene on a street in Brooklyn, I feel a connection, both to the man my father was then, and to the different kind of man I was to become. I could see how such fierce loyalty in such a violent act demonstrated a depth of love that always lingered just beneath a hair-trigger temper. While punching out a stranger doesn’t immediately suggest love, his sometimes violent actions were, in fact, an expression of caring and protectiveness. But he was a lot more than this aggression, which reflected only part of a complex personality. I believe now that I was there to protect him in some way, to keep him grounded in reality, to prevent him from losing his tightly contained control. What lessons had he wanted me to take from this experience? that protectiveness and loyalty to family come first? that love is most clearly expressed in violence?
Although he had a quick temper and a capacity to strike out physically when he thought his family was threatened, he had a soft, warm, tender side, too. He was physically affectionate and expected that same level of hugs and kisses in return. He belonged to many different organizations, maintained regular contact with friends, was active and athletic (played handball regularly), and loved eating in good restaurants. He took an interest in his appearance and clothing: he’d enjoy getting a haircut, a manicure, and a shoeshine, simultaneously. He loved my mother and showed her great respect. On his $15K salary, he eventually left her thousands of dollars, saved $5 and $10 at a time in a savings account. That money and her social-security checks allowed her to live comfortably for most of the 25 years she survived him. His tears would come easily when he was happy at some accomplishment of mine, or of my wife’s, or of other family members, and sad over some loss. He was extremely generous with his time when friends needed his help. Many summers, sometimes with one of his friends and the friend’s son, we’d take a trip to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, or the Catskill Game Farm. He loved Willie Mays, and we had a lot of good times at the old Polo Grounds. I have a funny picture of him, holding an ice cream cone in each hand, trying to get back to me in the park, while several deer running loose were trying to steal the cones out of his outstretched hands.
As a 6-year-old coming by ship from “the old country” to America, alone with his mother, around 1908 or 1909, and growing up in a turbulent urban neighborhood in the teens and twenties of the last century, he learned early he had to take care of himself and those he cared about. This meant learning how to show your loyalty to others so that you gained their protection. As a young man, he once took the rap for some criminal activity that gangsters on the street had committed. He didn’t have a criminal record, so he knew he’d get off without jail time. Doing this demonstrated his loyalty to the street mobsters, who protected him from that point on. His style of parenting reflected this creed: protect those you love, even if it puts you in jeopardy, and maintain your integrity and respect at all costs.
A few years after the incident with my sister, I had another opportunity to experience my father in action. This time, I myself was the focus of the incident. My friends and I would often collect bottles to take to the corner candy store to exchange for sweets. One day while in the store, I got into a scrape with the big 20-something Marine who worked behind the counter. It ended when he hit me across the face with a wet dish rag. This really set me off. I looked behind me and noticed the magazines laid out all neat and orderly on the shelves. In a fit of rage, I started tossing them around the store. The Marine came out from behind the counter, grabbed me, and bodily threw me out. I felt humiliated, and ran home and told my father. He could see I was upset, and led me back to the candy store.
When we arrived, he motioned to me to stay just outside, where I could observe what was happening. He went behind the counter, and with one hand forced the Marine’s hands behind his body. With his other hand, he grabbed the malted-milk machine and started hitting the Marine with it on the head. Soon, they were whirling around the store, tables overturning and customers fleeing. My father needed to keep the Marine’s hands restrained or it would have been lights-out for him. Finally, he said something, and they both calmed down. In less than a minute it was all over. My father walked onto the street, still fuming, took a few steps toward me, and slapped me hard across the face. Saying, “I could have gotten arrested for what I just did,” he let me know that there was a price to pay for starting fights. We walked home in silence with me weeping. Once family honor and loyalty had been upheld, he got down to the business of dispensing tough justice to me.
I see my father’s actions that day as reflecting his protectiveness and support. He placed his family’s protection first, and was vigilant in defending his kin from anyone who threatened them. The message he sent, as in the incident involving my sister, was that love and loyalty at times required physical aggression. He grew up understanding that tough actions are sometimes needed to stand up for what’s right and “even the score”—that, at times, you can maintain your integrity only by taking on the forces that oppress, humiliate, and diminish you. These ideas served him well in his job with a labor union, when, with equal passion, he’d encourage fellow workers to assert their rights and get their just deserts in the face of unfair labor practices. For him, standing up for your beliefs through passionate speech, and even using physical violence against those who might threaten your family, weren’t opposites, so much as actions on a single continuum.
These are valuable lessons, which, though lost on me as a boy, are now more clearly understood. The fortunate souls who had my father’s loyalty and love—close friends and family—felt protected, their “backs covered”; they experienced his most generous and caring side. Those who didn’t got his wrath. Some of us, my sister and I included, got the former most of the time and, on rare occasions, the latter. Though my father’s behavior may differ from what we now consider effective parenting, it was a natural outcome of his culture and time. It forged strong and loving bonds between us.
I’ve evolved into a different person. Having been born into another world, I’ve followed a different path into adulthood, but one that still embodies fragments of my father’s life—my occasional quick temper, my impatience, my high expectations of myself and others, the value I place on loyalty and respect, my support for the underdog and sensitivity to oppression, my standing up for what I believe in and maintaining my integrity in the face of risks. I know I’m my father’s son when I realize how easily I can have thoughts of “knocking someone’s block off,” or when I tear up at an emotional moment. Fortunately, my life has been freed from the occasional need for violence that was both an inescapable feature of my father’s early life and a part of his nature. His actions taught me valuable lessons about caring and family, but my survival, and the survival of those I care about, don’t depend on my physical abilities in the way his did. Possibly because he made me feel safe and supported as a child, I don’t feel the same need to be physically aggressive and violent. Though not as ferocious or intense as he could be, I still embody the seed of his will to survive, to protect, and to love.
On the day of my father’s funeral, in West Palm Beach, Florida, the clouds darkened, the winds howled, the skies opened, rain fell in torrents, streets flooded, roads were washed out. It was a strong storm, which kept all but the hardiest and most persistent from attending. The heavens exploded in violence, making a show of awesome power, a rumble in the universe. He’d have liked that—challenging those he cared about to show how much they cared back. As the casket holding his body was lowered into the ground, the clouds lightened, the wind abated, the skies cleared, and the sun came out.
Steven Friedman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, writer, and teacher living in Quincy, Massachusetts.