When my older brother died last year, I never cried. As my siblings and I tried sharing some positive memories about him, all I could come up with was that he had played a mean game of Ping-Pong.
When we were growing up, our parents lived by the old proverb “Children should be seen but not heard.” However, in our house, I’m not sure how much they even saw the six of us. Did they not notice the red flag that my brother waved in their faces when, at only seven years old, he threw that large metal trash can onto the head of our then-five-year-old sister?
When I was seven, I dreaded him; the way he’d straddle my tiny body, then drool close to my face. I can still see his spittle snakes slithering closer and closer until they nearly bit my nose. Then, when I was around eight or nine, he started beating me up. He hurt our older sister, too. If we heard him coming, sometimes we would hide together behind Mom’s garment bags of sequined gowns, afraid to breathe, in that walk-in cedar closet that reeked so strongly of mothballs that our eyes would water.
The specifics of the assaults remain a blur, as if covered with layers of gauze. But I do remember they would happen at night, when our parents were out. Either he would pull me down the stairs to our basement or I’d already be there, practicing Mozart Made Easy on our upright piano. I see his red, acned face, the tiny slits of his eyes. There is his large sweaty hand locking both of mine behind my back, while his other one slugs me in the stomach over and over again. There’s the burning of his fists through my body, the losing of breath, the cold of the black-speckled floor tiles against my skin.
When our parents finally returned, I’d tell them, but they wouldn’t side with me, no matter how forceful or urgent the telling.
“Mom and Dad! Ted hit me!” I’d cry.
“Liar!” he’d say.
“He’s lying. He almost killed me!”
“I didn’t touch her!”
“I swear to God. He pounded me as hard as he could!”
Then Mom and Dad would glance at each other. As he turned his back and walked into his office to refill his pipe, Dad would bark, “Both of you go to your rooms and stay there. I don’t want to hear another word.” And, as was the custom in our house, that would be the end of words.
As far as I knew, there were never any repercussions for him. My parents never exactly accused me of lying; they just dismissed it as “normal sibling rivalry” or “Boys will be boys.” I was also the girl with the too-big feelings, the only emotional creature in our otherwise mostly stoic family. “She must be overdramatizing it,” they could have muttered to each other.
I can’t say exactly how many times this occurred. But apparently, I said as hard as he could so often during that period that our parents’ only course of action was to ban the phrase from our family’s vernacular. If I ever uttered that sentence again, I’d be grounded. Maybe they just thought if I couldn't say it, then they couldn’t hear it, then it didn't happen.
But the violence Ted inflicted on me still lives in me. His abuse remains visceral. It’s become as much a part of who I am as my name. I find that I’m still hypersensitive to people touching me too hard. Even if just in play, if I’m tickled or poked too roughly by my children, that old feeling of helplessness is reignited. If I had ever confronted Ted about it, he might have said, “What’s the big deal? We were kids. Let it go!” The beatings stopped when I was about eleven and my brother was fourteen. I’m not sure why. Maybe because I grew taller than him around that time. Perhaps my newly sprouted body scared him. It’s harder to break a tree than a twig.