Little Details (11/5/09)

Moving train

Nov. 5, 2009

By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

Our train was due to leave North Station at 5:30 p.m. We spent the day traipsing around Boston until our feet ached. Our self-guided tour included spying spindly seahorses at the aquarium and sampling cannolis at Mike’s Pastry! shop in the North End. My daughter and her friend experimented with extravagant footwear at a Downtown Crossing shoe shop and cracked open ripe pomegranates purchased from a street vendor. We meandered graveyards, parks and gardens, topping off our adventure with quiet reading amid the stacks of the Boston Public Library.

Entering the station, a voice cut through our travelers’ chatter: “Train for Rockport leaving from track four.”

Passing through automated doors leading to the tracks, I encouraged the girls to aim for the far end of the train. Seated, I pulled out a magazine, a freebie picked up at the library. The girls fiddled with the day’s treasures, including a pair of two-toned, sequined shoes.

“We made it,” the man said as he sat down in front of us with his small son moments before the train lurched forward. I caught only a passing glance, focusing instead on my reading. I did notice the father’s crew cut and his thick Boston accent.

The child’s voice — he was perhaps 3 — floated over the high-backed bench seat. Toddlers say the darndest things. I soon laughed at one of his quips, meeting the eyes of a young man sitting across the aisle. We smiled at each other as if to say, “cute kid.” I resumed reading and missed the altercation.

“Daddy, you hurt my hand!” the boy bellowed.

“You scratched me!” the father said, anger registering in his voice.

“My hand really hurts, Daddy,” the boy cried.

“Well, you hurt me too,” the father continued.

This led to several minutes of sustained sobbing, raising our car’s collective stress level. The father repeatedly told his son to stop crying. He tried — and failed — to placate him with gum. The boy’s chewing mingled with tears and cries of, “Daddy, my hand, my hand really hurts.”

Clearly exasperated, the father threatened, “Listen … LISTEN to me. Stop crying. Just suck it up. ”

The boy insisted, “My hand really hurts, Daddy. It hurts.”

My aisle-mate cast me a troubled look, picked up his backpack and moved to the other end of the car.

I looked at the girls and, pulling a pen from my purse, wrote on my magazine, “I think that man really hurt his son.”

My daughter wrote back, “If he’s like this in public, what’s he like at home?”

The whimpering eventually stopped as, I imagine, pain subsided. With the boy calmed down, the father quietly said, “Wiggle your finger up and down, now side to side.” Listening intently, I heard them work through the boy’s five fingers. The dad verified he hadn’t broken any of his son’s bones.

“Don’t you ever scratch me again,” the father cautioned. “If you hurt me, I’ll hurt you. You got that? I love you, buddy, right?”

I listened to the message laced with fear, threat and a contrived profession of love. The real message: “I love you, but I will hurt you if I want to.”

The boy, brown-eyed and smiling, playfully popped his head over our seat in peek-a-boo fashion. I desperately wanted to tell him he didn’t deserve to be physically hurt by his father. I hoped for an opening to intervene, to tell the father we witnessed his treatment of his son and felt concerned.

I caved. I smiled at the little boy but remained silent, fearing a violent response.

The girls and I discussed what happened on the train as we walked to our car. They too had wanted to speak up but did not know how.

This is what we would have said to the father: “No matter what happened to you, you have a choice to perpetuate or end the cycle of violence.” The father was likely repeating abuse he experienced as a child. My wish for the little brown-eyed boy is that someone — his teacher, pediatrician or a caring adult in his circle — notices and does what I — on that moving train — lacked the courage to do.


Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston. Reader comments are welcome at or