Shortly before Mum died, she told me that she was silently cheering for me from behind the lilac bushes the day I punched Tommy Zelnick*. Tommy was the neighborhood bully who beat me up when I was 5 years old. He was two years older than I, so he was 7 when he beat me up. Mum said I didn’t fight back during that first encounter when he sat on my chest and pounded on me with his fists. It wasn’t until a couple of days later when Tommy attacked the next-door neighbor boy that I struck back.
I remember the beating that I got, but I don’t remember, or can’t remember, that I had hit Tommy to protect my neighbor. So, that deathbed story shed a bit of light on a mystery on why I walked to and from school alone, yet I don’t remember being afraid of Tommy. He had hurt me, sure, but I had hurt him back. I may not have remembered that, but perhaps Tommy did.
It has been a year since Mum died, and it’s been a couple of months since my 40th high-school graduation reunion. There were a lot of people at the party whom I never knew, couldn’t recognize, or simply had no desire to see again, but there were a few people there from kindergarten and first grade and I felt compelled to seek them out.
Shari Zelnick told me what became of her big brother since his release from Stillwater prison. Evidently, he is now working in a bar at the south end of town. Her brother was always a bully. He was a tough child, and he remained so as an adult. Shari knew nothing about my run-in with her brother over 50 years ago, but I learned what became of Tommy and I figured that was enough to sate my curiosity.
In the following days, there was something else that bothered me about that story, and then it clicked.
Mum had observed both altercations and had done nothing.
I guess that’s what’s called the “Let Them Bleed” approach to parenting. It’s a style of parenting I did not choose for our kids. It’s just a bit too tough loving for my taste. What would motivate a mother to let her child get beaten up, or even punch another child back, and not intervene? I had only to look in her writings to get my answer.
After years of hearing me talk about my writers group and seeing me publish a book, my mother joined her own writers group and began writing her memoir. She and I would trade notes on our writings, and before the end she was able to assemble 85 pages of text, which reads like a flow of consciousness without any breaks. I never realized what a hard youth she had. She was a survivor of her father’s involvement in a religious Ponzi scheme. Her father was the willing believer who was duped into indentured servitude running a printing operation for a religious magazine. The “King of Kings” church had a lot of markers of being a cult, such as its members not being allowed to speak with non-church members – including blood relatives.
One important part of her story was how the head of “King of Kings” church in Winnipeg enjoyed the company of women. She wrote about her anger when the head of the church ran his hand down her bum and grabbed some, and she realized what a fraud all that holiness was. She learned to run. She became adept at learning everyone’s schedules. She identified when it was safe to come and go and when it was best to be out at a theater. As she got older she stopped running and learned to fight.
It makes sense that we never went to church as a family. I was constantly told to think for myself because my mother’s parents had let themselves be manipulated by men who leveraged the power of God to get whatever they wanted. My mother got no help from her parents. They were as incapable of protecting her as they were themselves because they did whatever the authorities said without question.
The current sexual harassment allegations that are splashed across the headlines, such as those against Roger Ailes, Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Bill O’Reilly, Roy Moore, Al Franken and Donald Trump, are an extension of what has been going on for centuries. It is only just now seeing the light of day. But seeing the light of day does not mean that these power games are over. Still today my daughter, working in a corporate environment, is finding herself dealing with a creepy boss, and when she speaks out, the human resources department turns a deaf ear.
Sometimes you think the world is changing for the better, and then the Machiavellian players win an unexpected hand. Perhaps that’s why Mum’s condition worsened after the man-child got elected president. Within a week of the election it appeared that the U.S. government was destined to be operated the way the “King of Kings Church” in Winnipeg once was, and Mum died.
The world is full of power players who get what they want by using fear and intimidation. We just have to all keep punching back together before the way things are will change. I learned that from a 7-year-old Tommy Zelnick.
* Names in this piece have been changed.
Walter Sigtermans is a computer programmer who enjoys reading history books, playing violin and occasionally writing essays.
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