Silent Rage

Silent Rage

There is an interesting juxtaposition of themes in those two words.

One, Silent, expressing quiet, solitude, introspection, snowy landscapes, secret sanctuaries, lofty cathedrals, intimate caves.

The other, Rage, conjuring images of hate-fueled anger, unpredictable, noisy arguments, inexplicable, unfocused lashings out, and frightening, out of control intensity.

Together: they imply a simmering cauldron of explosive potential that seethes with a life of its own, an uncontrolled and uncontrollable force that, once unleashed, threatens to tear away the shell that has contained it and everything in its path.

When I look back at my life as a child, it is full of Silent Rage.  I was born and raised in what would have then passed as a normal, nuclear family, along with my older sister.

Retrospectively, I have often asked myself “How could they not have known?”  But then times were what times were, and they were who they were, and the generations that have marched on since theirs view life, and self-examination, and introspection, and evaluation, much differently.

They struggled to survive the hell they had created by and for themselves, I’m sure with little thought as to the effect they were having or the hell that they were inflicting on those that they bore the most responsibility for.

Or did they?

I have questioned this a lot over the course my life.

Did they know just how toxic a stew they brewing?

Had they always been this volatile?  Was lethality in their DNA or was the synergy of their respective components such that the test tube of their lives together simply had no choice but to rumble, smoke, and continually erupt like a volcanic pool of miasma just beneath the calm surface of the populated earth, sporadically and without apparent warning, boiling to the surface with deadly emanations of poison and vitriol?

Do opposites really attract?

My parents were, in true fashion, opposites.

I cannot speak to their attraction, at first, only to their revulsion, later on.  Like two hand-held magnets, when you try to push the like polarity ends together, they push back….hard……reeling randomly away from the mirror of themselves held in your hands, while you, clutching them desperately, have no control over where and when they rebound.  We all did this as children….with magnets….over, and over again…marveling at the forces of nature clutched in our eager hands, not understanding the principals involved but respecting the laws that they were governed by.

I did this with my parents, holding them in separate hands while they, repulsed by each other but committed to their dance of family and respectability, careened off the walls of their self-inflicted scientific experiment of a home, seemingly unaware or at least unable to even observe the carnage that they were creating with the violent vortexes of their internally driven repulsions.

I can’t remember ever loving my parents.

Shocking? It’s hard for me to say.  There are just no imbedded memories of soft times, gentle hugs, and quiet words, or unconditionally loving responses.

There is a tension to my young life, taught, like a car spring that bounces back to its rigidly held manufacturer’s-detailed specifications if you push down on the trunk deck.

I was always “in check”…….waiting……alert…….ever expecting the next sharp word or misplaced phrase or unintended letdown to trigger the recoil that would shuffle the energy of my small universe, violently at first, and then slowly, like a roller coaster dissipating its energy on each subsequent hill, draining the force out of the explosive outburst until the world was quite once again, and rigid once more, ready for the next test, but stable?


Think of those funhouse Bozo Balloon Bop Bags.


That was me, complete with the fire engine red hair and the screaming-scarlet, permanently ashamed, and embarrassed, complexion, buffeted by the energy waves of my parents mini-nuclear warfare, careening off whatever was in my path but always on a steady course to try and right myself back to the quietude of center….but never, ever, getting fully there; shuddering with solitary determination, waiting for the next set of shock waves to send me reeling once again on the wild ride that was life in my own personal fun house.

Where did it start?  What was the genesis of this dysfunction? Was it always so?

I asked my decade older sister once if they had always fought like this.  “Only after you were born.”

Our relationship was doomed from the start, obviously.  It, like my parent’s marriage, continued to careen out of control and spiral downwards for decades until, after a particularly volatile and religiously tinged series of exchanges, I pulled the plug and like any machine, without it’s power source, it………just………stops.

Period.  The end.

But back to opposites.  My parents were, literally, from two distinctly different worlds.  Both were born, 3 months apart, in 1912.  Their similarities began and ended there.

My mother was the eldest daughter of seven children born in rural Wisconsin of immigrant Norwegian/German stock and raised, as many were, in very humble and lower working class beginnings.  Her tyrannical German father was a house and barn painter, gruffly commanding the home and hearth while her Norwegian mother did what most women did then, bore and raised children….and tried to avoid and downplay the volatile and egomaniacal outbursts of her under-educated, petty minded, ineffectual-in-life German husband.

My father was the second eldest of four sons born to well-to-do Washingtonians of staunch New England stock with a dash of Southern gentility sprinkled throughout for flavor, and raised on Chevy Chase Circle at the District line.  His father, in real estate, provided well but not opulently until the crash of 1929 when the rupture in the country’s economy fractured his family’s fortunes as well.

Things were never the same.

My mother, through dogged determination and with the help of a kindly teacher, managed to complete college, a first for her struggling clan.  Her father, belligerent to the end, brought home a Civil Service exam from the Post Office and said; “Take it, you’re smart, you can pass this”.

She was.  She did.

She left Wisconsin at the beginning of December in the late 1930’s on a train for Washington, D.C. with no friends, no real life experience, but with a job…grading the very same Civil Service exams she had just taken and passed.

She found a room at the YWCA, settled into her routine at the Civil Service and began to shake off her small town roots and aspire to become a big city gal.  One of her co-workers whom she befriended suggested that she move into the boarding house where she was living off Dupont Circle and share a room.  Meals were included.

And here the plot thickens.

The rooming house was owned by none other than my paternal grandmother.

After the Great Depression and the early death of my grandfather, all she was left with, aside from four boys and an antebellum manor home on the Potomac, was a whole lot of debt.  She sold the home, and bought the boarding house on New Hampshire Ave and 17th St that would provide her with some income.  Some of the boys were grown but still living at home, my father included.

During the course of the next few years, my mother enlisted several of her siblings to come to D.C. to work as well….and to live in the boarding house.  Having managed her younger siblings as they grew up back in Wisconsin it naturally fell within her demeanor to continue to navigate and direct their lives to some extent; a little nudge here, a minor introduction there.  Her brother was one of my father’s roommates, her sister roomed with another young woman who would eventually marry another of my father’s brothers.  My mother’s own roommate, Grace, her office mate as well, married my mother’s older brother.  All very incestuous sounding but rather like dynasty building if one were to objectify it.

It goes without saying that the emotional entanglements must have been confusing, at the very least.  And here lies the first symptom of the troubles that were to follow.

Clue 1

There must be an allowance made for the plausible deniability factor of the times in which these people were operating but none-the-less, when your future brothers-in-law tell you; “He’s not the marrying kind” (hint, hint, wink, wink) one might have paused to stop and pay some duly warranted heed.

Or not.

And so my parents were wed,  in April, 1939.

Clue 2

My only sibling, a girl, was born in March, 1942.  Either there was very effective birth control that none of us has ever heard of or there was some sort of malfunction on the home front for it to take 3 years to produce a child.

Clue 3

I was not to make an appearance until a full decade more had passed, February 1952.  Smell the smoke, yet?

Yes, my father was gay, a topic I’ll cover in a later chapter.  But the Silent Rage was forged here of Pittsburghian quality steel.

Yet their lives trundled along, bumping spheres with all their other married relations who also settled mainly in the Metro area.  I might add that none of these unions were particularly procreative either, certainly not when compared to the par stock that rural farm families of their generation were capable of husbanding.  One’s and two’s thoroughly dominated my generation of cousins.

Life in the middle of the Twentieth Century was on a crash course with history.  Literally the first half of the century harkened back to what would soon be considered quaint if not antiquated social mores and formulas.  Young women dated but only in groups, socializing under a strictly monitored parental gaze and a highly structured scholastic system. This was the world my sister came up in.  She dated lightly, went off to college when I was 8 and married a dentist the week she graduated.

That left me……….Home Alone.

The focus shifted in dramatic form and the dissension over who was “ruining the boy” escalated to new and more vociferous heights.  As I have stated before, when I reached sufficient age and height to feel somewhat empowered, I finally stepped between the two of them, literally, held up my hands and shouted “SHUT UP” .

They took me at my word.

I’m fairly certain that not another anything-but-the-facts, civil, conversation took place in that house again while I was a teenager.  My mother even took to eating separately from us much of the time and I, not wanting to break bread with either of them, abandoned this Lusitanic ship of silent fools and found my own way out into the greater world at large.  My “chosen family” down the lane was my salvation, more on them in the future as well.

But as to Silence and Rage:

The Silence in the domicile (I will not ever use the word home in reference to my childhood digs) promoted a slow boil of emotion and inner turmoil that simmered away like soup stock on a low flame.  Every so often, given a good stir, something new would bubble up and like water added to the pot, this new fuel would flare and cause a brief but dramatic explosivity before, once again, calming from a roil, it would go back to its watched pot status, waiting for the next infusion.

The Rage came from the constant irritation that the Silence imbued upon all who dwelled there.  Too much time in one’s head can warp even the mildest and best of intentions into venomous bile.  The ensuing eruptions were sharp, aimed, and effective in keeping everyone off balance and on guard.  I can still access the feeling in that pool of dread that churned in the pit of my stomach whenever I would come back to the house after being outside in the real world.  As a teen, pulling into the driveway after a night out with friends, it would hit me like a knife in the gut, wondering what waited behind the front door; what infraction was I guilty of this time; what manner of let down had I foisted upon them? If the light in the living room was on, it was a certainty that my mother would be sitting in her rocker…..waiting……..impatiently…… pounce.  If she couldn’t yell at my father in front of me (remember “SHUT UP”), then she would have had the donnybrook with him in private and saved the retribution and incrimination solely for me.

It probably culminated at their 50th wedding anniversary dinner.  I was living in California and definitely NOT going to be headed back east for this sham of an excuse for a “celebration”. My hideous sister had come in from Ohio, booked a restaurant (the same one she had had her wedding rehearsal dinner in, talk about gilding the dead lily of tradition), and invited all the relations.  Apparently, wheelchair access for my father was limited in the historic home setting and there was some sort of “incident” with the wheelchair, my father, and a flight of stairs.  According to my sister, our mother tried to push our father down the flight of stairs IN his wheelchair….on purpose.  So antagonistic was the scenario that the sister packed up her brood and drove home to Ohio in the middle of the night, leaving my parents to once again reside………alone…….together……… in Silent Rage.

Eventually, when my mother grew weary of care tending her failing husband of half a century and realizing that any further attempt at husbandcide would be carefully scrutinized, she outed him as gay to my sister and me, washed her hands of him by foisting him into a rest home near my sister and lived most of her remaining years alone, in another form of Silent Rage.  This one formed in the realization that her life had not been her own but was most certainly of her own design.

I suppose this was the most virulent form of Silent Rage imaginable………the Silent prison of one’s own making with no one left to Rage against.

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