I saw my father slap my grandmother's face.
Just like that, he leapt out of his chair and he slapped her sharply across the left cheek because she had contradicted him.
She stood in the middle of our kitchen, stunned, hurt, humiliated. Her cheek streaked with red where his hand left an imprint. Her huge hazel eyes filled with tears and she bit her lips back, but she did not cry.
Still not satisfied, my father, screeched, "You're nothing but a whore!"
I was old enough to know what that obscenity meant, and I could see my beloved grandmother inwardly crumble. I rushed to her side, with unbound fury, and began pummeling impotently at my father. He laughed and knocked me away.
Gram, now alarmed for me, cried softly, "It's okay. He's right. I am a whore," and then the tears slid down her face.
Every family has secrets, some deeper and darker than others. Whenever my parents celebrated their wedding anniversary, I'd ask my grandmother why she never celebrated hers and granddad's. sometimes I'd ask why she didn't have any more children, only my father. She would just hug me and say, "Oh, I've been married so long, I don't remember the day we got married." And when I persisted about why she didn't have more children, she would be silent for a while, trying to find a place to hide her sadness, I think, and she'd say, "Because God didn't want me to." My grandmother had talked to me about God, a lot, and I knew He was no one to mess with. So if He said no, that meant NO.
I was a teenager when she felt I was old enough to understand. By today's moral standards, her story would raise very few eyebrows or set tongues to wagging. But she was born over a hundred years ago, when moral and social codes were strict and unforgiving. You married someone of your own faith, someone of your own ethnic background, and you had children after marriage.
She did none of those. My half-English, half-Irish Catholic grandmother fell in love with a Protestant Frenchman. She became pregnant without the benefit of marriage. She gave birth without the benefit of marriage (my grandfather's divorce was not yet final). She was disowned by her father, lost the comfort of her family, gave up the solace of her church, because she loved my grandfather and wanted his child.
Nearly, ten years later, my grandfather was taking a train to St. Johnsbury, Vermont. As circumstance would have it, his first wife was also a passenger, and they talked for a while, reminiscing about old times, good and bad. That brief encounter irrevocably created a chain reaction that rippled through generations: she had lied about their divorce being finalized.
You can imagine what ensured after that. The Secret was well guarded. That is, until my father went to join the Army at age 16 (to go to Korea) and he needed his birth certificate. He was standing in line to sign up with a bunch of other guys, when the recruiting officer pointed out that his mother's and father's names were different. Abject humiliation transformed into burning anger and seared deep into his soul. He learned unforgiveness.
From that moment on, he never forgave his mother for being an unwed mother. Never. He used it as a weapon at every turn. He used it as an excuse for all his failures and sour luck. He used it as a reason to despise all women. He wore his anger like a mantle, and his mantra became "I'm a bastard and the son of a bitch." His father, rancorous about his own soured life, did not dissuade him.
At his grave, an off key, off beat bugler played taps. A handful of mourners regarded his death as symbol of their own finiteness and unfulfilled lives. Grief was for potential unclaimed, for pride that did not allow love. He would not be missed.
I heard solitary muffled sobs and turned to see who would cry for a man who was so ill-regarded. His mother, my grandmother, cheeks flushed red and huge hazel eyes filled with tears, was weeping for the son she loved.