Sunday evenings have always been a scary, special time. When I was a kid, after all the ruckus of getting my siblings and me to church at 8 a.m., eating big food when we arrived home, playing like wild maniacs all day, and taking baths, the evening turned into a quiet, sad time when the sky turned gray and dread filled the air.
The weekend was over. The wonders of Saturday cartoons and all-day play marathons became distant memories on Sunday nights. My mom watched “Hee-Haw” on the tube. She finished laundry and folded clothes. My dad, after jacking around in the basement or fixing the car or napping all day, sat in his armchair drinking beer and finishing up the newspaper.
I just remember how the evening light had an edge, especially during the school year. Standing at the window, looking out onto the busy suburban artery out front, I’d watch the sun disappear into the horizon and want the whole weekend back. It wasn’t the fun I wanted, or the free time. What I wanted was the escape the weekend always entailed. For all the Sunday evening sunsets I watched at that window, I never remember any of them having any color.
Once the week began, each day would unfold the same way. We’d get up, hustle into our Catholic school clothes, eat some breakfast–cereal, mostly, Saturday was pancakes; Sunday, bacon and eggs–and pile into the car, remember this or that and making multiple trips back to the car until mom yelled it was time to go, dammit. (I’ll go into Catholic school later. That in itself was a number of repeated horrors and humiliations that deserve more time and space.)
After school, it was homework and screaming and yelling and waiting for dad to get home. When I was really young, we jumped him as soon as he would come in the door. “Let me get in the house,” he’d say every time. But that changed. I understand that now that kids can be awfully persistent about having the same good time again and again. By the time I was, say, 10 or so, he had begun scolding us for assaulting him at the door. Work, marriage, and his own narrow mind drained the fun and life out of him. Soon, when he came home, he walked in alone. Silence fell over the house and we ducked into corners to avoid his anger and frustration.
After a beer or two, he lead us into the kitchen for supper. The family meal was dad’s newspaper reading time. Mom always had us sit down to dinner, at least until I was a good 16 or 17. It was not always such a great deal, particularly since my dad had attempted to maintain his ideal 1950s-style family hierarchy well into the 1970s. We would eat. He would talk to mom and occasionally rant about a story in the newspaper. Only rarely did either of them talk to us–unless one of us, usually me, wound up in trouble at school that day.
By the time he retired to his armchair after, he was on his third of five or six beers, fortified from time to time with hefty amounts of bourbon. Between the Reader’s Digest and television, he punctuated two hours of prime time with rants on subjects ranging from those communist Democrats taking his guns away to the sins of Protestantism. Television provided examples of such depravity and decay. When Rat Patrol, Baa Baa Black Sheep, and reruns of Sea Wolf or Combat! were on the tube he would wish for the good old days when men were men and communists knew their place was in the Soviet Union.
Poor guy. Like so many other fathers of the time, he wanted to be the center of family life. The wife and children existed to make his home, his food, and his life after a hard-day’s work easier. In return, he did manly things. He delegated yard mowing, gardening, and raking to the children. From his armchair he was a constant presence as we swept the basement, cleaned the garage, and pulled fence weeds. He watched with a stern and concerned look while we shoveled the driveway, washed the cars, and cleaned the gutters. Even when he wrenched on the car, he demanded a child’s presence to fetch tools and his wife’s presence to provide food and beer.
That’s why the weekends were so important to us kids. It didn’t matter how much time we spent in the miserable embrace of arbitrarily selected and levied chores, or how long it would take to fix the car, we had time enough to disappear into the neighborhood. Not that it was a great and friendly neighborhood. We were outcasts, people living above their means in a half-swanky, once-respectable suburb. (Once respectable until those wood-pile hillbillies with the used cars moved in.) But when we were gone, we weren’t at home.
Sundays, I suppose, were doomed to be times of melancholy and depression. The freedom, no matter how slight or short, had come to an end.
Even today I feel that. I’m a grown human now. My freedom extends through the whole of time. I no longer confine myself to home or job or convention. I have a wife and children, and they are important and
indispensable people. But they are not burdens. They are not here to do my work. If anything, Sundays are still melancholy because my inner whatever had grown so used to them. It’s like the feel I get riding a train. The sensation of movement persists long after the train has arrived in the station.
In a sense, I have to feel this way. I’m glad I do. The melancholy that listening to my daughter do her college homework and my son talking to himself in the bathtub creates feels good. It’s as if being on the edge of depression is a natural state. I love the look inside. I love knowing I’m not bound by the conditions of my upbringing. I’m sure my children will have their issues with me. I wouldn’t know what not having them is.
But I hope, at least, that their Sunday evenings don’t have the finality and edgy dread that mine do. They should have times of contemplation and melancholy. But I want these times for them to be something they strive for rather than gain from habit.