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After dad died, I still didn’t feel safe. Until now

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Wham! My father's gigantic hand, the size of a baseball mitt, slams into the side of my face almost knocking me off my feet and making my cheek feel as though a wasp has just stung me. I squeeze my eyes shut and tell myself: "Don't cry, don't let him see you cry."

"And don't you EVER talk to your mother that way again, EVER, do you understand?" he says, his face close to mine, his menacing hand looming inches from my face.

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"Yes," I say in a tiny voice before he can hit me again.

"How DARE you talk to your mother that way!" he screams. "What utter gall."

I back up slowly. He glares but doesn't move, so I wheel around, race upstairs to my room and fall onto my bed, covering my head with a pillow to muffle my sobs.

That's the way it was in my house – being hit by someone who was supposed to love me. It was always the same: I'd have a fight with my mother about something ridiculous. She had no control over me, so I'd defy her, and she'd say: "Wait till your father gets home, you're going to be severely punished."

He'd come home from work and she would pour his first martini and begin to complain about whatever I'd done. He'd charge up the stairs, barge into my room, whack me across the side of my face or the back of my head and say: "Don't you EVER talk to your mother that way again, you little brat. DO YOU UNDERSTAND?"

After a while, I accepted my father's abuse as part of my life. His smacks would sting for a moment, and then it would be over. But once he charged me like a football player, grabbed my ankles with one enormous hand, and suddenly I was dangling upside down like a chicken. He spanked me again and again with the other hand, but the slaps didn't hurt half as much as his vise-like grip on my ankles. And what hurt most was the humiliation of knowing he could see my underpants.

When I was 14, a boy I liked invited me to go out, but it was July 4 and my parents insisted I come with them to see the fireworks. It was the first time I'd been asked out, and I really wanted to go, but my parents were adamant. I sulked in the car as we went, bitterly complaining.

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We'd gone about half a mile when we came to a red light. As the car stopped, I suddenly pulled open the back door, jumped out and raced up a set of stairs on a hill to make a break for freedom. There was a gate at the top and it was locked, and as I was trying to figure out how to jump over it, my father appeared, grabbed my arm and yanked me down the stairs.


Then, he kicked me hard in my shin, right in the middle of the street, and pushed me into the back seat.

After that, I gave up. I was relieved when I left for college and only had to come home for breaks. While I was away in my second year of college, my father took his own life.

Oddly, I felt no safer after he was gone.

I graduated from college and married a man who also flew into rages – except he hit the walls, not me. I divorced him and some years later married a man who didn't hit anything, but there were other problems. I divorced again, buried myself in my career and got on with my life.

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I didn't think much about either of my parents (my mother had died of cancer during my second year of marriage), but whenever anyone's hand got too close to my face – even if they were just pointing to something – I'd flinch and automatically brace for a blow.

After my second divorce, I threw myself into exercise, running marathons and doing triathlons, needing to feel as though no locked gate would stop me if I had to run away from someone.

Two years ago, I began mixed martial arts. At first, I couldn't punch or kick, I could only put my hands in front of my face to protect myself. But, it was such a great workout that I stayed with it. Now I do it twice a week, and even though I only hit and kick my instructor's padded mitts, it has given me a sense of empowerment. Sometimes, I'll see a mailbox or a garbage receptacle on the street and think: "I could kick that easily."

Last month, my boyfriend Jamie and I were driving around Toronto mesmerized by all the buildings. "Look!" he said, pointing to the PaintBox Condominiums on my side of the windshield.

His hand was just inches from my face. I'd never told him about my father. My reflexes took over before my brain knew what I was doing. I didn't flinch or squeeze my eyes closed the way I used to: I swatted his arm away. If I'd been standing instead of sitting, I might easily have brought my knee up to my chest, pivoted and nailed him with a round kick, even though he's a big guy.

Without saying anything, Jamie gently squeezed my hand, smiled, leaned over and gave me a peck on the cheek. He's not a fighter, he's a lover. Maybe it took me half a century, but I can finally stop running races to get away. I don't have to fight back. I'm safe.

Margie Goldsmith lives in New York.

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