Copyright 2022 by Maureen Moynihan
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.
My dad was an athlete who reeked of
put ketchup on everything, including eggs, and balanced a ball with
the agility of a circus seal. When Dad stepped up to the
the infield inched back and the spectating wives batted their
eyelashes as if the wind was blowing dust bunnies. Biff, they called
You wouldn’t know it but Biff was missing
his teeth as most quarterbacks did before the mandate of facemask and
innovation of shock absorbent foam. In 1952, the protocol for
head injuries included instructions to “shake it off” and
if you were lucky, an ice pack. My father belonged to the former
group because the coach, his dad, valued winning the game over saving
the brain. Sometimes I wonder how my life would have been
different if my grandfather chose to comfort his child instead of
sending him back to the field.
Yet sports served my family well. My father
his muscular frame and superior visual-motor coordination from his
father, both of whom used their bodies to improve the
socioeconomic trajectory of our family. In the late 1920s my
grandfather, the son of Irish immigrants, was awarded a full
athletic scholarship to Villanova which capitulated our lineage from
a life of servitude to the profession of education. Following a stint
in the minor leagues, Richard Moynihan returned to his hometown of
Lawrence, Massachusetts to coach high school football and teach
history. Dick had the patience of a two year old waiting for a slice
of birthday cake but tolerated teenagers as they were needed for the
paycheck and to win the game.
Biff was Dick’s protégé but his
most talented son, Uncle Richie, was a brilliant blaze of paprika
hair, strength, and agility. Richie was expected to excel at school
and sports, which he did, until his rebellious streak coupled with a
penchant for picking up women compromised his tolerance for
conformity. One afternoon between 6th and 7th period, Richie
walked out of Central Catholic High School, hopped on a motorcycle,
and drove to Florida dangling a Marlboro from his lips and a cocktail
waitress around his hips. It’s unclear which unforgiving
institution, the Catholic church, football, or my grandfather pushed
Richie beyond the point of diminishing returns but he didn’t
come home for 22 years. Biff, therefore, carried the torch by
default. That’s why, despite his 67 full scholarships and
2 professional football contracts, deep down inside dad believed he
was second string.
I realized the depth of Biff’s
the same day I found out about his missing teeth. It began when I
discovered a Playboy magazine stashed underneath my brother’s
bed. I can’t recall what inspired me to dig through the piles
of dirty socks and devoured Britannica Encyclopedias but I vividly
remember feeling a glorious sense of satisfaction as I drew eye
goggles and facial hair upon each naked woman before returning the
dirty magazine to its original spot. Hours later, while visions of
full blossomed women danced in my head, I was haunted by curiosity of
what the images prophesied about my own body.
Why were the women perched in exposed and
What happened to their clothes?
Would I get that hairy?
At 11, I had yet to sprout a bud of a
breast and my
braces constituted 20% of my body weight. Naturally, I questioned my
There was NO WAY their boobs were that big.
What if my breasts grow to that ginormous
How does that woman not get a black eye
I just HAD to see those pictures again. It
before my clandestine return to the dungeon of naked woman that hid
under my brother’s bed. When the opportunity finally arrived,
the Playboy had vanished and was replaced by an empty shoe box
slapped with a message in thick black marker:
MAUREEN YOU LESBIAN STOP
I was more indignant than insulted. First
of all, I
was not snooping, merely refreshing my memory. Second, I
know what it meant to be a lesbian but assumed it was a disparaging
reference to a Middle Eastern girl and I was from New
My brother ate history books like popcorn and had 3 sisters, so
slaying unilateral insults against any girl was not outside his moral
compass. Apparently neither was dabbling in pornography.
As luck would have it, dinnertime presented
brilliant opportunity to try out my new word. When my older sister
snagged the middle brownie square that I verbally claimed as mine, I
reached into my arsenal of deprecating expressions and found a fresh
new word just itching to be exercised.
lesbian!!” I spat.
The room fell silent and drew a breath. A
anger rose from my dad’s plate, sliced by the sound of
silverware crashing down on Farberware. Lisa dropped my
knowing there’d be little joy in its sweetness.
We knew warning signs of my dad’s rage in
same way we knew how to press each other’s buttons. It was a
perfected skill, unspoken and necessary. My little sister searched my
mother’s face for an explanation or comfort but neither arrived
in time. With a swoop of his paw my dad grabbed a ponytail and
whisked me down the hallway with the ease of scrambling an
I protested my unrightful conviction the entire way.
I didn’t do anything. I didn’t
Biff, she’s barely 90 pounds,”
my mother said. As always, her words were futile . Once
ignited, my dad’s anger left little air for logic or
is a mouthy little brat, is what she is.”
He dragged me to the bathroom and propped me in front of the sink as
I begged for answers.
I do?” I pleaded. “What’d
He cradled my tiny face into the palm of
one hand, my
cheeks manipulated like pigskin under his fingertips. Within
seconds of forcing my jaw open, he wet the bar of soap and shoved it
into IVORY letters faded with wear. Chunks of soap became
lodged into my braces while bubbles of suds raced up my nose, burning
the inside of my nostrils. As I gagged and fought for breath, he told
me that fresh girls like me deserved to have their mouth cleaned out.
We’re not the type of family to raise street rats, he
It wasn’t the bitterness of soap or taste
own blood that was most painful. Rather, it was his absolute
conviction that there was something horribly wrong with me. My
badness was so beyond the edges of Santa’s naughty list that
warranted humiliation. He didn't look at me during the entire
experience; I was a dirty rag doll in need of a thorough
How I hated him.
Then I heard a whisper, clear as
maybe it was an epiphany, if children are allowed such
Whatever it was, the message This is not about you cha-chinged my
head with the resonance of a Vegas slot machine. This was not a
lesson on vocabulary or dining etiquette. Not at all. There was a
sense of relief or perhaps even joy that secreted from his pours
while he punished me. At last, he was able to release some of the
pain that leathered his soul. And shove it into me. I
if my body had enough space to accommodate such a tall order.
Children are resilient though. Right? Or so they
The foul taste of shame clung to my teeth
bedtime. Late at night when the house was drenched in sleep, I
tiptoed to the bathroom to brush off the grime and the memory of what
transpired that evening. Still too small to reach the
cabinet, I hopped on the vanity, popped open on the door, and sprung
back to the floor with the terror of a field mouse that had dipped
into a snake pit. A row of human teeth glared back at me,
soaking in a glass of Listerine. It was a display that belonged on
the set Alfred Hichcock film alongside other jars of human remains
such as floating eyeballs and chopped off fingertips. It certainly
did not belong in a medicine cabinet near sleeping
Drenched in panic, I slammed the door
scurried back to bed. As I was soothed by the lullaby of my
sister’s rhythmic breathing, I finally understood why my
dad ate corn on the cob from only one side of his face. And I
confirmed that Biff was indeed a monster.
If I could hop on a time machine, I’d
back to the sidelines of a 1952 Central Catholic High School football
game so I could hold my grandfather accountable for what he
not know. I wonder if he would be remorseful if he knew that
when he sent his injured son back into the game he also set off a
tsunami of trauma stress down the line of our family. You are
not just injuring your son, I’d say, you are throwing your
granddaughter back in the game as well.
As an adult, I can understand that my dad’s
anger belonged to him; that his bitterness was the product of his own
disappointments and unresolved issues. But a child lives in an
egocentric world, leaving her vulnerable to misinterpretation and its
impact on self-reflection. For years, I swallowed his bitterness as a
product of my own behavior and digested his personal grudges as an
assessment of my own worth. This is a dangerous practice for
little girl because, on an unconscious level, it makes her more
tolerant of both villains and fools.
Genetics plays a pretty cool role because
us to connect with previous generations. Maybe we can wiggle our ears
like funny Uncle Red or curl our tongue like crazy Aunt Mae. If we
are lucky, we might inherit a particular skill that serves us well,
like David did when he slung the stone at a Goliath.
But what about those less tangible traits
passed down from grandparent, to parent to children? The ones that we
can’t touch, see or measure. Isn’t the way we respond to
frustration or manage our anger also tainted by ghosts of the
If so, what is our obligation to the next generation?
Accolades and even death do not put an end
emotional trauma. The wounds of the past will bleed into the soul of
the next generation, unless we’re willing to unpack the baggage
that was handed to us at birth. Sometimes it takes trauma in our own
lives to inspire us to dig to the root of our father’s
pain. Or maybe, his father. Then maybe we can all rest in
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
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