Branching Out - Geneviève Villamizar

Scanning the shelves at Lowes, I was already overwhelmed —parts, shapes, sizes, prices; the big box fluorescent lighting; high, industrial ceilings made for raucous acoustics. Through it all, I could hear kids giggling, and then, their dad.

“That’s it! You [f-ing] kids, if I have to tell you one more time! You never behave! You never [f-ing] listen!” 

What? Was this for real? I saw a father and two little kids halfway down the aisle. 

Oh, Dad. They were listening. One hundred percent. Their bodies were suspended in tension, mid-play, their eyes darting about, looking everywhere but at him. The sister was maybe 11-years-old, and her brother, perhaps eight. They were radiant, beautiful beings; so darn innocent in their play.

And, my God, that man’s language, each word exploding in a hushed staccato fury.

You’re the worst [f-ing] kids… 

In those moments, does a parent realize how many decades those words might haunt their child? How deeply it might stain their self worth?

 “You are so bad.”

And, that was enough for me.

“Hey! You don’t speak to kids like that,” I said. Just as I had said to my own father, 37 years ago. I was 14, a freshman in high school, and completely shut down inside after years of verbal abuse at home and recent bullying at school.  

This dad looked to be in his mid thirties. He was well dressed, and groomed to a level of conceit. He was physically fit, presented as well educated, and was obviously successful in some manner. But he wielded power like a thug, crippled by his inability to parent or connect with his own children.

“You. Stay. Out of this. This is none of your business!” 

“Oh, yes it is,” I shot back, making solid eye contact.

That man’s children are our future. But, that Sunday in Lowes, that brother and sister were voiceless and helpless, reduced to panic, fear, perhaps resentment and who knows what other undignified, disempowered emotions. Emotions that often lodge themselves in the cells of our being, becoming a part of us, forming us, clouding the shining potential that is every child’s birth right. 

So, no; I wasn’t gonna “stay out of it,” hiding in my shopping and to-do list to avoid my own discomfort. As a witness and an adult, I made a choice. A choice so very few made on my behalf through a tumultuous family life and several abusive exes.

October is the country’s 35th Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and yet violence within families and couples has hit record numbers since the pandemic. So, not only do I care about the children around me, I care very much about our “culture of quiet” and a judicial and social services system that fails the building blocks of civilization: family. 

So, I am a voice. I engage. I call it out every time I witness it — I don’t care who it is or how big they are. I write about it every October and then some. I talk about it openly, frankly. I share stories about it on stage. And I make it very clear the fault in domestic abuse resides in the perpetrator — not the victim. Our culture is far too quick to blame victims.

“Don’t listen to him. You’re not bad. You’re just kids and you’re still learning,” I told the brother and sister. “You’re the grown up here!” I said to their dad. “Those kids aren’t ‘bad.’ You’re the one who’s bad. You’re a bad parent for talking to them like that.”

Brother and sister looked at me with the oddest expressions — like they couldn’t believe what was happening, someone standing up to him. And I couldn’t help but wonder, was there a mom? Did he yell, denigrate, and threaten her, too? Did he do it in front of these darling cherubs? Did Mom stick up for her kids or was she too afraid to?

Life will be hard enough. Why wouldn’t a parent use everything they have to protect the very children they chose to bring into existence? 

I looked at both children so they would feel seen, and said, “No parent should ever talk to their kids like that.”

The boy’s eyes widened in surprise, but I think there was a glimmer of triumph in there, too. 

I was 48 and a parent myself the last time I told my father he couldn’t speak to me the way he did when he was angry — no matter how much he loved me in between times. I told him that as his daughter, I would hope he wouldn’t want anyone else to ever speak to me like that either. About an hour later, he came to me, wrapped me in a hug and shared the first apology that I can remember from him.