Kathryn Jankowski

In My Father’s House

Dark and moody hues may be au courant among designers, but in the late ’50s no one painted their houses black. Except my father. I wondered if he did so to warn the neighbors that within those ink-stained walls resided a man who felt ill at ease among the cheerful yellows, greens and blues of other homes on our street. Someone who kept to himself and preferred others leave him alone.

Seven bodies filled that 1,000-square foot house in San Mateo: two adults, four girls under the age of ten and a German Shepherd. That number diminished when Blackie—even the family pet had a somber name—grew too big and rambunctious. I wasn’t sad to see him taken away to the pound. He’d knocked me down while we were playing fetch and then stood over my prostrate form, slobber dripping from a tennis ball impaled by his fangs. I credit (blame?) him for instilling a lifelong fear of guard dogs. 

We had a country kitchen, large and sunny, with knotted-pine cabinets, a red chrome-and-Formica dinette and four vinyl-clad chairs. In the summer when we were bored and Papa busy in the garage, my sisters and I, dressed in brightly colored sunsuits, would mist the seats with a spray bottle and challenge each other to see who could make the most obnoxious farting sound. Mama would scold us for being crude, but we saw a smile hovering around her lips and continued unfazed.

The garage was Papa’s sanctuary. He spent hours there tinkering on English sports cars driven too many times under the influence or working out with weights on a bench press. Car and beefcake magazines graced our coffee table alongside issues of LIFE and a few coloring books. Papa kept bottles of malted chocolate protein supplements in a cabinet above the refrigerator. I stole a handful once, thinking they’d be a sweet treat, and promptly spit them out, my taste buds forever tainted. Mention malt to me today and I’ll gag.

I created my own haven in our giant two-sided fireplace. Set in the far corner of the living room, it had bricks from floor to ceiling and a wide, raised hearth. The firebox was soot-free since we never used it and perfect for a child-sized fortress. I’d seal off the opening with old sheets taped to the bricks and snuggle up with a flashlight, blanket, pillow and book, all the while dreaming of my own room. A place where I could shut out the world and lose myself in fables or myths or, best of all, Nancy Drew, girl detective. Her stories made me long for a warm-hearted housekeeper and a strict but kind father who appreciated my genius. The only aspect of her life I didn’t envy was a dead mother.

Papa never objected when I claimed that space. Perhaps it was a case of one introvert acknowledging another. Or maybe he welcomed anything that fostered peace and quiet. While he never admitted to any type of frailty, his time as a B-17 engineer and top turret gunner in World War II left him hearing-impaired yet hypersensitive to noise. It seems contradictory, how one can co-exist with the other. I didn’t understand the paradox until my own ears began to fail. The strain of trying to process sounds, especially speech, leaves you exhausted and irritable. What passes as normal for others—the clatter of plates and cutlery, the shrieks of laughing children—can set your teeth on edge or trigger a migraine.

With Papa, the damage from flying in a cacophonous plane, coupled with the daily clamor of his job as a machinist in a San Francisco canning factory that didn’t provide noise-canceling headphones for its employees, meant we walked on eggshells whenever he was in the house. “Don’t upset your father” became our mantra, the measure by which we were judged good or bad. Our behavior, like so many daughters and wives, was dictated by his moods. We learned about body language before it became a thing, watching for signs of frustration that all too often erupted into rage. If he came home pinch-faced after a bad day at work, his boots treading heavy on our hardwood floors, we made ourselves scarce. Was he drinking more than usual? Time to become a ghost.

We ate dinner in a sepulchral silence. No one talked about their day or what happened at school or current events. When the meal was over Papa watched TV from a recliner so deeply imprinted with the shape of his bulk it was impossible for anyone else to sit in it comfortably.

Light permitting, my sisters and I often spent the waning hours in our backyard. It was enormous and plain: grass, a red concrete walkway and patio (odd how I remember the house as shades of blood and coal), an umbrella clothesline and a swing set. I didn’t like the slide. Too short and too hot in the summer. But the swings? Pure bliss. Air whooshed across my cheeks as I soared higher and higher, wishing I could propel myself into the clouds.

One day my older sister, Michele, wanted to hang upside down from a bar that ran perpendicular to the triangular base of the set. She asked me to hold her legs and I thought it would be funny to let go. She fell, of course, broke her arm, and was rushed to the hospital.

That’s one of the few times I remember Papa spanking me, bellowing with every thwack how much my stupidity cost him. For days afterward I could barely sit, let alone sleep. I learned much later that his father, an alcoholic like his son, beat him on a regular basis. Not an excuse, yet something to consider in retrospect. How can a boy raised in violence know tenderness? The thrashings finally stopped after he went too far and left bruises—stunned, I suspect, at the unmistakable evidence of his abuse. 

I envied the girls whose fathers laughed and played with them. Papa might film us with his 8mm Brownie and then nod as we watched the finished movie but no amount of cajoling ever convinced him to join our games. He was a face behind a camera, a spectator, never a participant. 

We rarely had guests. I only remember Elaine, my half-sister from Mama’s first marriage, and her family visiting. When they stayed with us, Papa and my brother-in-law, Bob, would take off for the racetracks. Laguna Seca. Altamont Speedway. Either involved at least an hour’s drive in each direction. That, coupled with the time they’d spend watching cars speed in endless laps, meant we had the day to ourselves. Eight kids from toddlers to preteens and two mothers with no one to appease.

Talk to anybody who’s survived a domineering parent and you’ll hear about lives filled with chronic tension. How the need to stay unobtrusive mutes your very breath. How you wear yourself ragged striving to keep things pleasant while bracing for the next outburst. Because no matter what you do there’s always another one. Always. How your confidence and self-worth flounder. How much time it takes to heal and how quickly the progress you’ve made unravels at the sound of an adult berating a child.

As Papa and Bob drove away, air whooshed out of us in a collective sigh of relief. We rushed to indulge in anything and everything that brought joy. Playing board games and whooping when we won. Descending upon the yard for raucous ring-around-the-rosie circles. Yelling as we played tag. Staging informal competitions for the best cartwheel, somersault, handstand. Squealing as we begged to be pushed higher and higher on the swings. Standing on the swings! Bicycle races up and down the street.

We watched cartoons with the volume turned high. Likewise for the radio. Elaine led us in the bunny hop, encouraging us to shout as we jumped around the living room. We gorged on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and apples and splurged on treats from the ice cream truck. 

Throughout it all Mama kept an eye on the clock. When she gauged Papa’s return imminent, we were once again cautioned to be seen and not heard. Elaine was the only one who refused to fully submit. Papa may have grunted at her infectious laugh and vivacity but she didn’t care if he approved. I admired her courage although I suspected the freedom to act as she pleased would likely have diminished were she forced to live with him.

Given Papa’s temperament, most of my friends kept away. They might agree to hang out in the yard, but only after being assured of his absence. “Cross my heart and hope to die,” I’d swear. “He’s not here.” I usually went to their houses. Places where I didn’t worry over how much of a ruckus I made. Where my best friend, Iris, a girl of Hawaiian descent, taught me the hula. We won the neighborhood talent show and took turns sharing our dime-store trophy, a feat accomplished only because we could practice in her room—one she didn’t have to share with a sister, lucky duck!—and no one complained about how loudly we played the music.

It was a temporary respite. When evening came I trudged back to the house painted like death’s domain.

Or so I once thought. Contrary to its usual associations with gloom and doom, in feng shui black is associated with water, which in turn is linked to wisdom, depth and fluidity. Black conserves power and can ground you. Maybe that’s why, despite the psychic and corporeal harm, we persevered. Because the man who ruled our lives unwittingly enveloped us in a color that brought strength and protection.

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Kathryn Jankowski is a Slavic/Hispanic writer based in northern California who fostered a love of literature with elementary and middle-grade students in urban schools. A finalist for the 2023 Anne C. Barnhill Creative Nonfiction Prize, her essays have been published in Rappahannock Review, Longridge Review, Sky Island Journal and Microfiction Monday.