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Becoming My Father
by Leon Baxter
TheSyndicatedNews columnist

It seems like by the time we’re adults, we’ve either fully integrated aspects of our parents’ psyche and behaviors into our own lives or have cast them aside, far aside, like our Spice Girls albums and our Y2K T-shirts. We either discard aspects of our parents, vowing never to repeat their actions, or, like it or not, we find ourselves doing, saying, and being parts of what they did, said or were to us. And, for most of us, we become a combination of the two: some parts of our personalities mirror those of our parents, while other parts have grown in the opposite direction like the negative image of a snapshot of our past.

As a teenager growing up in California’s Santa Cruz mountains, I remember my mom would often have to ask me to wash the dishes a few times in our modest two bedroom rental before I actually made the trek from wall-to-wall carpet to wall-to-fridge linoleum. I’ve never liked washing dishes: chunks of food, greasy bottoms of pots, just isn’t my thing. I couldn’t wait to finish the chore, and when the last “Hawaii ‘83” mug was placed in the drying rack, I’d toss the sponge in the sink and ready myself for the next episode of The Dukes of Hazard, or, if I was lucky, thirty minutes of The A-Team, only to hear the familiar reminder of my mother: “Leon, wipe down the counter! When you finish washing dishes you need to wipe down the counters. Wiping the counters is part of washing the dishes.”

I’m not sure what kind of twisted mom-logic she was trying to use, but no matter how I tried, I couldn’t make that leap from scrubbing a cereal bowl to sweeping the bread crumbs from the faux-tiled counter into my hand. What did the two have t do with one another? It was like Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon and Eggs leftovers: the counters were where Mom prepped the meals, which were eventually served on plates, that would inevitably end up dirty, finding their way to the sink where I’d be asked to clean them. I promised myself never to associate dishwashing with counter wiping when I grew up.

Cut to: twenty years later. I’m a married man, own a home, have two daughters but no dishwasher. I claim our kitchen lacks appropriate space for the appliance, but the truth is that I may be longing a little for the dishpan hands of yesteryear.

I do know my way around a bottle of Palmolive, but, to be honest, my wife washes the majority of the dishes in our home (I’m often too busy doing manly things like finding the remote control and putting the toilet seat up). If I stumble into the kitchen and see that towering pile of Corningware and Teflon, I make myself scarce until my wife has cleaned the last spoon. Then, I creep back into the kitchen like the coward I am. And, what do I do? I gripe to myself under my breath, “What is this? Can’t you wipe off the counter?” I grab a sponge and sweep crumbs into my hand, “Great, you can clean a pile of dishes, but you’re not done until you wipe the counters.” Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, I am now officially my mother!

When my firstborn, Madison, was two and a half, she was testing her boundaries like all two-year olds do. I don’t even recall what the issue was that particular night: wouldn’t let me brush her teeth, wasn’t following directions, refused to go tot bed. Doesn’t really matter. She was pushing all of my buttons, and I felt control slipping through my fingers. So, I hit her. Not even really a hit, a tap, a tap that made a noise... on her leg. A little smack, just to get her attention, to tell her I meant business, to show her who was boss. Madison stopped right away. We were both silent. She looked bewildered and baffled, not scared, not sad. She didn’t cry. Instead she asked me, “Why you hit me?”

I was four and looking at my reflection in the mirror. I’d never seen a real black eye before, only on cartoons. The broken blood vessels gave my eye a reddish-purple hue. The blue, green, and eventually yellow would round out my swollen rainbow in a couple of weeks. I just kept looking at my eye in the mirror. I couldn’t get enough of it. Then, my father came home. I wasn’t quite sure why, but I knew better enough than to focus on my injury in front of him. I found something else to do, looked at a book, maybe. Something so Dad would forget about my eye.

He hadn’t forgotten, though. He came straight to my room. The first words from his mouth were, “Did you tell anyone?” I looked up. “Did you tell anyone at preschool I gave you a black eye?”

I so wanted to give him the right answer, but feared the truth wasn’t what he wanted to hear. Of course I’d told someone. I was a little boy for Christ sake, and I had a black eye. I had told two kids and a teacher about what happened. But, I knew telling Dad the truth would only add fuel to his raging fire. Through trial-and-error I’d learned early on that lies would sometimes soothe him. Yet, in this situation although I knew to lie, my four-year old mind hadn’t developed enough to know how. I wasn’t sure which parts to change. So, I told my father that I’d told two kids and a teacher about my eye, but I lied about their names.

I never saw his open hand coming as it slammed against the left side of my head, sending me to the bedroom wall. Crash, the right side of my head hit. Ringing in my ears. I was too afraid to cry. “Will you tell them about that?!” my father threatened.

I promised I wouldn’t, and years later I made another promise, a silent one to myself, that I would never hit my children when I grew up.
There I was, standing over my two and a half year old daughter, her leg growing a bit pink where I’d struck her. She asked me again, really wanting to know, not understanding, “Daddy, why you hit me?”

Guilt and a broken promise to myself. I was angry that she brought me to this. Shame ached inside me, but I refused to admit my mistake. “Because you were being naughty. Now, don’t do it again.” And, I left her room as quickly as I could. I struggled with what I’d done. No matter how I tried to excuse it (I hadn’t really hurt her, she had it coming, I was hit and turned out okay) I knew what I’d done was inexcusable. I’d always taught my daughter not to hit. “Use your words, not your hands.” What a hypocrite I’d become! Will she listen to my words or follow my actions?

The smack I gave my daughter really was nothing had it stopped right there. It was merely an eye-opener for her, but also one for me. By striking my daughter that first time, had I opened the door to striking her again? Maybe the next time a little harder, just to get my point across?

As a victim I’d learned so much about the cycle of abuse past down from parent to child. It’s almost inevitable that children who are hit, become parents who hit. I was afraid that could be me. Could I control this? Would it escalate? I didn’t want to find out. I’d opened a box that I thought was forever locked and I wanted it closed again.

I returned to my girl twenty minutes later. “Madison, I’m so sorry.”
“Why?” she asked.

“Daddy should never have hit you.”

“But, Maddie was naughty.”

“I know, but Daddy was more naughty. I’m sorry.” I explained my mistake the best I could to my toddler, then promised I’d never strike her again. She smiled a huge, beautiful smile and hugged me.
“Thank you, Daddy.”
Parents shouldn’t have to be thanked for promising not to hit their children. I cried.

We hugged again, and the cycle was broken, for good. This family heirloom has become lost in one of the boxes in the attic of my memory. The box is now closed, and locked. I’ve seemed to have misplaced the key, a key I hope never to find.


Leon Scott Baxter is a West Coast writer who lives with his wife and two daughters in California. To see more of his work, go to

Published: Dec 18,2008 21:46
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