My parents had a blue Chrysler minivan. There were compartments beside the back bench row that flipped open – you could store treats or books or secret messages in there. My siblings and I used to play a game with each other to find the hidden treasure – we’d hide notes in the compartments or stuff secret maps in between the seat cushions. It made for more interesting car rides, when we’d dutifully climb into the car, over younger siblings, for long car trips to our house in the country or to see relatives far away.
My brother was the first one to find the note just before we were to leave the country after an uneventful summer shabbos. It was scrawled, in misspelled Yiddish, and stuffed between the seat cushion underneath the seat belt.
איך האב אים פיינט
I hate him. I hated him so much for what he was doing, and yet in my nine year old brain I couldn’t manage another emotion than pure hate. I hated myself. I hated my family for not knowing. I hated everything.
The note was passed to my sister for inspection. She threatened to tell my parents, that it was a horrible thing to say that I hated my brother. I couldn’t tell her that it wasn’t “him” that I was referring to. The hate that radiated through my body made me lash out at my sister, slapping her across the face and telling her she didn’t know anything.
The car ride was spent in silence. It was a Sunday night, we had stayed over motzei shabbos to take advantage of the weather before heading back to the city, and we were too angry with each other to notice we were tired. I remember sitting in the back, on the right side of the car with my face plastered against the glass, resolving to say something to my parents as soon as we got home. I was familiar with these promises to myself, I’d been making and breaking them for nearly two years.
One by one, my siblings were put to bed. As the oldest, I was always allowed to stay up just a few minutes later to read, and I was in the middle of a page when my mother sat down on my bed and stroked my hair to indicate it was time to put everything down.
“Mommy, can I say goodnight to Tatty too?”
It wasn’t unusual, and my tired but smiling father appeared soon – hovering over my bed lest he sit down with my mother.
“Something bad happened. To me. Someone did something.”
My mother’s face lost color. She looked nervously up to my father.
I took a deep breath and launched. I used words I shouldn’t have been familiar with. I tried to spare my parents the embarrassing details, said maybe it was my fault. At some point, my father sat down. He grabbed my hand and asked me when it started. Since everything at a young age revolves around ages and birthdays and holidays, I could tell him I was seven and three quarters.
My father squeezed my hand. It started to hurt. My mother had tears running down her face but said nothing.
Tatty rose quickly, storming out of the room. I heard a roar, then my scared baby brother crying.
There was a Y-shaped crack where my father’s fist had met the wall. Another roar. My mother ran out to the hallway where my father had collapsed outside, the bannister providing support to his hunched figure. He was shaking, pushing my mother’s attempts to comfort him away.
Not long after, my mother’s parents came over. Hushed voices could be heard from downstairs in the dining room. My sister and I, in matching nightgowns, sat nervously on the stairs. The glass on the antique French doors my mother had been so proud to install obscured the adults’ figures as though we were watching them underwater. My sister held my hand, I appreciated her silence.
We heard muffled words. Languages we couldn’t understand. They seemed to be arguing.
The voices got louder. There was a commotion and the French doors suddenly swung open, breaking a pane on the floor and my grandfather angrily stormed out. We scampered up the stairs to the landing as we watched our father, grandmother and mother stand in the way of the front door. They were pushing him back, begging him to calm down and stay where he was.
“I’m going to kill him! Call the police! Report a murder!”
The baby started crying again. My sister ran up to get him, giving away our listening position on the landing. In the commotion, my grandfather escaped, making it halfway down the block before my father caught up with him. I don’t know what was said, but I know my father returned alone, and told everyone to go to bed. We would talk in the morning.
I was unprepared for what was coming my way in the morning. Years later, my mother told me that they had been up all night, repeating the m-word over and over so it could lose some meaning.