I drove over to see my very-sick aunt in Neshoba County this past weekend, and she shared two stories about my daddy that made me cry.
First, she told me about a big orange cat that my dad's father, by then a grandfather, had locked inside his house and was horribly beating with a stick. My daddy went into the house and told his father to stop hurting the cat and then took him home with him, where he liked to lie on the floor with the kitty sleeping on his chest.
That sounded like the charming, loveable daddy I remembered loving oh-so-much and then losing to a heart attack when I was in the second grade, as he lay on the couch while I rubbed his forehead and we waited for the ambulance to arrive, too late.
My aunt also told me about the time that he broke my mother's arm. It was in another one of his drunken tantrums that I remember so well, if not that particular one, in the first house I ever lived in. She was home recovering after a mastectomy when this attack came; she had lost her right breast and much of the muscle in that arm.
He broke the other one.
I can take these stories now, even if they puncture my heart. The two stories describe the complicated man that I still cherish dearly, 45 years after he suffered his last heart attack in our house out in Neshoba County.
My daddy was uneducated—only went to school until third grade in a country one-roomer—and yet he was a smart man trapped inside. He had passion and spirit that he had nowhere especially good to put. He grew up among many broken men who believed it meant they had to break others, as too many still do, yet without his hardscrabble life as an excuse.
And, as I've learned while delving into my family's history, his own father lost his father when he was a teenager, leaving his wife—my great-grandmother—to be the single (as far as I know) matron of a posse of progeny for another 60 years. They were poor farmers, who apparently descended from monied, privileged planters, but had fallen so far after the Civil War and the Depression that most of them barely got any schooling. Disputes involving those in my family tree just might end up in violence—and I fully expect to find some more tales.
Some, or maybe a lot, of that violence involved women. These boys were raised, like too many Mississippi men, to believe that they could and should control women. My aunt told me stories about one wife walking two steps behind her husband at all times if out, then constantly being abused at home. Another story involved my mother being haunted by a relative on her side—she didn't remember which—who threw an unwanted baby of his unwed daughter in a well to die, rather than allow her to keep it.
Like I said, I come from quite a line of folks. Many of us do.
But here's the thing. My father has been dead for four decades, and my mother for more than two. Neither was educated, or perfect. They played the card they were dealt because there wasn't another card available to them. They were trapped in their lives.
My heart can feel like it's splitting open sometimes when I stop to remember what my mother went through. After my daddy died, she remarried my stepdaddy, who grew up with a tough, abused life at the same intersection of Neshoba and Leake counties as where my people come from. (In fact, I suspect we are related through my real dad.) My stepdad was the same verse, different hymnal. He fought in two wars and became an alcoholic to deal with the horrors he saw there, he told me once, like seeing his best friend blown away next to him in Korea.
Like my real daddy, he was a charmer, and I loved him dearly, too. But when he was drunk, he, too, terrorized us, destroyed our things, gambled our money away. And again, my mother tried to help him until she couldn't any longer.
Thinking back, I know that they were all locked in a cycle due to their lack of opportunity. Of course, that didn't excuse the violence that sent my mother to the hospital during both of her marriages. And I've often wished that I was older then, already the tough-as-nails woman I've become who could have helped her more. The irony, of course, is that my toughness came from her ability to survive her life—her daddy was no cup of tea, either, I'm told—and to keep loving and feeling compassion, anyway.
And I'd be dishonest if I didn't admit that I realize I'm a Ladd through and through, which means in my case that I'm not prone to take injustice lying down. They might have solved their disputes with fists or perhaps a baseball bat; my chosen weapon is more of a proverbial baseball bat at times.
But here's the thing: I love them all anyway. Learning about my daddy breaking my mama's arm doesn't make me love him less; it makes me mourn for such a loss of potential. The man who had miles of cars following his hearse after his funeral, due to his good looks and love of life and vast circle of friends, had nowhere to funnel his passion. Education is freedom; it allows us to lead healthier, better lives if we put it to good use. The lack of it can literally kill people as I saw too often growing up, and still now.
It's taken me a while to understand that my deep well of compassion comes to me honest. That is, I watched people, and especially men, be trapped by who and what the small society around them told them to be. Much of the bravado resulted from shame, I believe, in being involved in a long line of people who abused others, whether their own wives and children or the slaves who did their work for them. Or, too often, both.
As a result of so much unresolved trauma, individual and societal, too many of us still blame each other, point fingers, hate, bash and claim that "the other" is evil. Meantime, very similar-but-secret things may be happening under our own roofs.
No, not all men abuse or hurt, but collectively we have condoned a society that excuses it too often when they do. It is time that all of us select a different path: Let's choose love and understanding first, even as we do what we need to do in order to protect the safety of our loved ones.
We have to stop the cycle for the future, and it can be done. I and many others just a generation away from violent, trapped parents prove it.
We must start with education and high expectations. We must stand together against abuse. And we must love, anyway. Always.