By Linda Wisniewski
George, my elderly neighbor, is not well-liked. He has a reputation for being a grouch, but in the six years we’ve lived in our townhouse community, my husband and I have tried to be friendly and cordial with everyone. When George-from-across-the-street said that Sam-from-next-door hated him because he was Jewish, and that Sam’s wife Gert was crazy, I said we wanted to get along with all our neighbors. For six years, I smiled and made nonpartisan sympathetic noises while Sam and George badmouthed each other. My husband counseled them, both men in their mid-eighties, to calm down before they had heart attacks. But this week, their feud entered my personal space.
My husband and I were about to get into our car for a day out, when George ambled by. We had a pleasant conversation about a bed he was buying his dog when out of the blue, George wheeled toward Sam’s garage, right next to ours, and shouted, “What the hell are you lookin’ at?” Sam was merely standing in his garage, perhaps giving George a dirty look. And for me, it was childhood all over again.
My dad verbally berated my mother, my sister and I for all kinds of minor transgressions. “What the hell” was a common prelude to a string of insults. My mother was a lousy cook, my sister and I made noise with our forks. My mother “had no friends.” I “had no boyfriend.” Honestly, the stuff he came up with to yell at us for almost makes me laugh today. Almost. Because it still hurts.
I have been through years of therapy. I have many self-help books. I have taken seminars on loving myself. And yet. In a second, all the protection I had built up around the scared little girl inside of me tumbled down at my feet.
One thing since childhood has changed. I did not remain silent. I did not cry. (Until later.) I yelled back.
“I don’t care what your problem is, take it someplace else. I don’t want you yelling in my driveway!” George turned on his heel and walked across the street, got in his car, and drove away. To buy the dog bed, no doubt.
I got into the passenger seat and prepared to drive away with my quiet husband. But Sam moved toward us and motioned for me to roll the window down. Before he could speak, I told him off too. “I don’t care what the problem is with you two, I don’t want to hear it. And I don’t like being in the middle of it.”
“I didn’t say anything!” Sam protested.
“I know you didn’t,” I replied and rolled up the window. As we drove away, I let the tears fall. Tears of anger, yes, but also fear. I was yelling at George and Sam, and also at my dad. The man who terrorized my childhood with his words. He never hit us, but we lived in constant fear of his tirades. We never knew when he would blow, and that’s why angry men terrify me still.
Later, on the treadmill at the gym, I saw the President of the United States on one of the TV screens and my stomach clenched. I flashed back to his campaign rallies. “Get the hell outta here!” “Throw ‘em the hell out!” He’s toned it down a lot, but all I need to see is his face or to hear his voice and my body reacts like the little girl in her father’s house long ago.
“He’s a bully,” I thought. “The President and my neighbor are bullies.” And I remembered my son’s tormented middle school years. With undiagnosed ADHD, he had trouble sitting still in the classroom and learned differently. A neurological defect made his head dip when he walked and the mean kids called him “Cranker.” When he was sixteen, some boys invited him outside for a birthday surprise: a beating about the body where bruises would not show. They blamed him for being so gullible, but he was just trying to be a good sport, to have friends. It was years before he got over this, and writing now, I realize he may not be over it yet. Like me, he may carry this hurt all his life.
After he graduated from college, he ran into one of the high school bullies at a convenience store. The young man apologized to him, and my son said it was a great feeling. It was a good, courageous and insightful thing that young man did, when he could have just slunk away. He made himself vulnerable, too, like my son had been. He admitted his sin and made amends.
I wonder if that will ever happen in my neighborhood. And in the White House.
Linda Wisniewski shares an empty nest with her retired scientist husband in Bucks County, PA where she writes for a weekly newspaper. Her memoir, Off Kilter, was published in 2008 by Pearlsong Press. You can find her online at www.lindawis.com.