The Playboy

Maureen Moynihan

© Copyright 2022 by Maureen Moynihan

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.
                              Photo courtesy of Pixabay.                                
My dad was an athlete who reeked of masculinity. He put ketchup on everything, including eggs, and balanced a ball with the agility of a circus seal.  When Dad stepped up to the plate, the infield inched back and the spectating wives batted their eyelashes as if the wind was blowing dust bunnies. Biff, they called him. 

You wouldn’t know it but Biff was missing half his teeth as most quarterbacks did before the mandate of facemask and innovation of shock absorbent foam.  In 1952, the protocol for head injuries included instructions to “shake it off” and if you were lucky, an ice pack. My father belonged to the former group because the coach, his dad, valued winning the game over saving the brain.  Sometimes I wonder how my life would have been different if my grandfather chose to comfort his child instead of sending him back to the field. 

Yet sports served my family well. My father inherited his muscular frame and superior visual-motor coordination from his father, both of whom used their bodies to improve the  socioeconomic trajectory of our family.  In the late 1920s my grandfather, the son of Irish immigrants, was awarded  a full athletic scholarship to Villanova which capitulated our lineage from a life of servitude to the profession of education. Following a stint in the minor leagues, Richard Moynihan returned to his hometown of Lawrence, Massachusetts to coach high school football and teach history. Dick had the patience of a two year old waiting for a slice of birthday cake but tolerated teenagers as they were needed for the paycheck and to win the game.

Biff was Dick’s protégé but his most talented son, Uncle Richie, was a brilliant blaze of paprika hair, strength, and agility. Richie was expected to excel at school and sports, which he did, until his rebellious streak coupled with a penchant for picking up women compromised his tolerance for conformity.  One afternoon between 6th and 7th period, Richie walked out of Central Catholic High School, hopped on a motorcycle, and drove to Florida dangling a Marlboro from his lips and a cocktail waitress around his hips. It’s unclear which unforgiving institution, the Catholic church, football, or my grandfather pushed Richie beyond the point of diminishing returns but he didn’t come home for 22 years.  Biff, therefore, carried the torch by default.  That’s why, despite his 67 full scholarships and 2 professional football contracts, deep down inside dad believed he was second string. 

 I realized the depth of Biff’s demons on the same day I found out about his missing teeth. It began when I discovered a Playboy magazine stashed underneath my brother’s bed. I can’t recall what inspired me to dig through the piles of dirty socks and devoured Britannica Encyclopedias but I vividly remember feeling a glorious sense of satisfaction as I drew eye goggles and facial hair upon each naked woman before returning the dirty magazine to its original spot. Hours later, while visions of full blossomed women danced in my head, I was haunted by curiosity of what the images prophesied about my own body. 

Why were the women perched in exposed and compromising positions?

What happened to their clothes? 

Would I get that hairy?

At 11, I had yet to sprout a bud of a breast and my braces constituted 20% of my body weight. Naturally, I questioned my own memory:

There was NO WAY their boobs were that big. Or were they? 
What if my breasts grow to that ginormous size? 

How does that woman not get a black eye from those boobs?

I just HAD to see those pictures again. It took days before my clandestine return to the dungeon of naked woman that hid under my brother’s bed. When the opportunity finally arrived, the Playboy had vanished and was replaced by an empty shoe box slapped with a message in thick black marker: 


I was more indignant than insulted. First of all, I was not snooping, merely refreshing my memory.  Second, I didn’t know what it meant to be a lesbian but assumed it was a disparaging reference to a Middle Eastern girl and I was from New Hampshire.  My brother ate history books like popcorn and had 3 sisters, so slaying unilateral insults against any girl was not outside his moral compass.  Apparently neither was dabbling in pornography.

As luck would have it, dinnertime presented a brilliant opportunity to try out my new word. When my older sister snagged the middle brownie square that I verbally claimed as mine, I reached into my arsenal of deprecating expressions and found a fresh new word just itching to be exercised. 

Lisa you lesbian!!” I spat.

The room fell silent and drew a breath. A stench of anger rose from my dad’s plate, sliced by the sound of  silverware crashing down on Farberware.  Lisa dropped my brownie knowing there’d be little joy in its sweetness. 

We knew warning signs of my dad’s rage in the same way we knew how to press each other’s buttons. It was a perfected skill, unspoken and necessary. My little sister searched my mother’s face for an explanation or comfort but neither arrived in time. With a swoop of his paw my dad grabbed a ponytail and whisked me down the hallway with the ease of scrambling an egg.  I protested my unrightful conviction the entire way. 

But I didn’t do anything. I didn’t do anything!

Easy Biff, she’s barely 90 pounds,” my mother said. As always, her words were futile .  Once ignited, my dad’s anger left little air for logic or reason.  

She is a mouthy little brat, is what she is.” He dragged me to the bathroom and propped me in front of the sink as I begged for answers. 

What’d I do?” I pleaded. “What’d I do?”

He cradled my tiny face into the palm of one hand, my cheeks manipulated like pigskin under his fingertips.  Within seconds of forcing my jaw open, he wet the bar of soap and shoved it into IVORY letters faded with wear.  Chunks of soap became lodged into my braces while bubbles of suds raced up my nose, burning the inside of my nostrils. As I gagged and fought for breath, he told me that fresh girls like me deserved to have their mouth cleaned out. We’re not  the type of family to raise street rats, he said.

It wasn’t the bitterness of soap or taste of my own blood that was most painful. Rather, it was his absolute conviction that there was something horribly wrong with me. My badness was so beyond the edges of Santa’s naughty list that warranted humiliation.  He didn't look at me during the entire experience; I was a dirty rag doll in need of a thorough scrub.  How I hated him.

Then I heard a whisper, clear as crystal.  Or maybe it was an epiphany, if children are allowed such luxuries.  Whatever it was, the message This is not about you cha-chinged my head with the resonance of a Vegas slot machine. This was not a lesson on vocabulary or dining etiquette. Not at all. There was a sense of relief or perhaps even joy that secreted from his pours while he punished me. At last, he was able to release some of the pain that leathered his soul. And shove it into me.  I wondered if my body had enough space to accommodate such a tall order. Children are resilient though. Right? Or so they say.  

The foul taste of shame clung to my teeth well beyond bedtime. Late at night when the house was drenched in sleep, I tiptoed to the bathroom to brush off the grime and the memory of what transpired that evening.  Still too small to reach the medicine cabinet, I hopped on the vanity, popped open on the door, and sprung back to the floor with the terror of a field mouse that had dipped into a snake pit.  A row of human teeth glared back at me, soaking in a glass of Listerine. It was a display that belonged on the set Alfred Hichcock film alongside other jars of human remains such as floating eyeballs and chopped off fingertips. It certainly did not  belong in a medicine cabinet near sleeping children. 

Drenched in panic, I slammed the door shut  and scurried back to bed.  As I was soothed by the lullaby of my sister’s  rhythmic breathing, I finally understood why my dad ate corn on the cob from only one side of his face. And I confirmed that Biff was indeed a monster. 

If I could hop on a time machine, I’d travel back to the sidelines of a 1952 Central Catholic High School football game so I could  hold my grandfather accountable for what he did not know.  I wonder if he would be remorseful if he knew that when he sent his injured son back into the game he also set off a tsunami of  trauma stress down the line of our family. You are not just injuring your son, I’d say, you are throwing your granddaughter back in the game as well.  

As an adult, I can understand that my dad’s anger belonged to him; that his bitterness was the product of his own disappointments and unresolved issues. But a child lives in an egocentric world, leaving her vulnerable to misinterpretation and its impact on self-reflection. For years, I swallowed his bitterness as a product of my own behavior and digested his personal grudges as an assessment of my own worth.  This is a dangerous practice for a little girl because, on an unconscious level, it makes her more tolerant of both villains and fools.

Genetics plays a pretty cool role because it enables us to connect with previous generations. Maybe we can wiggle our ears like funny Uncle Red or curl our tongue like crazy Aunt Mae. If we are lucky, we might inherit a particular skill that serves us well, like David did when he slung the stone at a Goliath.

But what about those less tangible traits that are passed down from grandparent, to parent to children? The ones that we can’t touch, see or measure. Isn’t the way we respond to frustration or manage our anger also tainted by ghosts of the past?  If so, what is our obligation to the next generation? 

Accolades and even death do not put an end to emotional trauma. The wounds of the past will bleed into the soul of the next generation, unless we’re willing to unpack the baggage that was handed to us at birth. Sometimes it takes trauma in our own lives to inspire us to dig to the root of our father’s pain. Or maybe, his father.  Then maybe we can all rest in peace.

Contact Maureen

(Unless you type the author's name
in the subject line of the message
we won't know where to send it.)

Maureen's story list and biography

Book Case

Home Page

The Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher