Not in a ‘He was so distant we could never connect’ way. More as in, ‘Haven’t got a memory I can trust to be real’ manner. It’s not that he ran out on the family like in a Lifetime movie of the week where the plucky mother of five makes do taking in other people’s laundry until she becomes a Supreme Court Justice. Although, in all likelihood, that could have been the outcome.
One of the main reasons was he was in the Navy. But another is he seemed to be a carouser of immense proportion. I say seemed because all of the information gathered by me was of the furtive, ‘Adults are talking softly, this has to be good’ variety.
You know when you’re a kid and you’re supposed to be asleep but you’re awake because the adults seem to be having fun and you don’t want to miss it? Even though it’s probably just them bitching about work or some other concept your tiny brain truly doesn’t understand.
But then there’s the time, later, when it’s very late, probably 9:45, when the conversation starts to soften, one person seems to have everyone’s attention for a longer period of time. That’s when you wake like a buzz saw sprung to action in your head. You strain to hear what they’re talking about. But it’s so difficult because these people, who are always so loud otherwise, are going out of their way to make it impossible for the, supposedly, sleeping you to hear. That’s when you know the good stuff is on the table.
So, if you were anything like me, you used your footie pajamas to your advantage and silently slid your body around corners. Tight enough to the wall to be considered a part of the wallpaper. Until you were in a position that was close enough to hear snippets but not in a position to cast a shadow or, even worse, make a sound. A sneeze was a death knell at this moment.
It was during some of these reconnaissance missions that I learned most of my information about my father. My mother would talk about him from time to time. Mostly in strained sainted sentiments. I never liked bringing him up because of her sadness. So, after awhile, I didn’t. I can’t remember the last time we had a direct conversation about my father. I’m sure I was still in single digits. I knew there were things she knew and those were the things she’d never say to me. And those were the things that made her sad.
In the first apartment I remembered as a kid (turns out it was the third we’d lived in) there was a picture on the wall of him. On the opposite wall was a picture of an air craft carrier he was on. I remember looking at the picture and wondering what that guy was like. I couldn’t really comprehend that that picture was my father. At that time I didn’t have a father and that was that.
I’d always hide the school flyers for father/son events. But, of course, some ‘helpful’ neighbor would get word to my mother and at the last minute I’d be bathed and dressed and shoved out the door with someone’s boyfriend or big brother as a substitute. Those times were very uncomfortable to me. It was the only time I really felt as if things were different for me. Even the kids who came with uncles seemed to be more connected to the time than I was. I remember standing there and, in an auditorium filled with kids I played with every day, with my back stuck to the wall knowing I shouldn’t be there.
If you’re wondering why my mother’s brothers didn’t take me (even though they lived around the corner) it’s because they we’re always busy with their kids and things. Jail, sometimes; drunk, most often. They didn’t want to be bothered more than they had to with this fatherless being. They were too busy being shitty fathers to their own kids.
One time I remember sitting on the curb on a blistering summer day with my feet kicking debris in the gutter. It’s too hot to play baseball. It’s too hot to be outside. I know it was hot where you grew up but there’s something about inner city heat that sticks with you. The stench of the melting rooftops; the heat rising causing cars to appear to shimmy while driving down the street.
From behind me my uncle, his wife and two kids wave to me from the vehicle. They call out that they’re going to the beach. Then continue driving off.
If that’s the behavior of a father who’d want one?
Not having a father wasn’t something I missed all that much. They didn’t seem anything like the dutiful hubby’s on TV. But I guess anyone could be a good father for thirty minutes a week. Who knows what all the suit wearing, wife pecking fathers did the other 10,050 minutes a week. Nazi loving cross-dressers for all I knew.
But there were always those little nuggets that would float past. Wanting me to get to the bottom of the story. And whatever that story was I was sure it was a doozy. I’d hear things that, at the time, made little to no sense. “In a car with a woman who wasn’t his wife.” For whatever reason that’s the exact line they’d say whenever I heard them talk about it. “Hit a gas station.” Well that’s never a good thing.
All I was really sure of is that he was dead. I didn’t even know how old I was when it happened. I wondered about it but, again, it wasn’t something I could get out of anyone. Vague words were all I got.
“You were very young. A baby.”
I tried to put it together. One memory I have is sitting on my mother’s lap. There were a lot of people there. It was outside. People were talking. Then there were three rifle blasts. It was as loud as anything I’d ever heard. That was quickly followed by a bugle playing a song that haunted me for years. I didn’t know it at the time but that combination was a 21 gun salute and Taps. For years all I had to do is hear the first note of Taps and I’d be looking for escape.
I remember some guy in a uniform standing in front of my mother and I saying things before putting the flag that was recently draped on my fathers casket in my mother’s hands. I don’t think she moved as it covered most of my legs. And that’s where the memory stops. I assume we went home but that’s all I remember about the day my father was buried.
The years pass and some things came to light. Nothing gruesome but it gave me the impression that my mother was very sad for some time. That’s to be understood, naturally. One night when it was just the two of us were talking. She must have been very down, my mother was often down, because she told this child about an earlier time when she went so far as to put her head in the oven.
The pain was too much. Even as a kid I understood it. If the saying, ‘You can’t miss what you never had’ is true than ‘You can miss beyond reason something you did’ is also true.
I asked my mother why she didn’t go through with it. I remember her looking at me with those sad eyes she often had, and said, “Because of you kids.” She didn’t want to leave us with the legacy of sad eyes.
Years went by and the snippets were always there.
“In a car with a woman who wasn’t his wife.”
“Hit a gas station.”
I know my mother had lingering questions. One night, long after I should have been sleeping, I heard her talking. She wanted to go to my father’s mother and ask if she knew the name of the ‘woman who wasn’t his wife.’ She knew my grandmother would know. She was sure of it. From what I was told she always got to the bottom of things.
But I knew she’d never ask. Maybe knowing would have softened the rawness. Possibly it could have rubbed it to bone. It was probably the fear of which way the angst would fall that kept her from asking. Maybe it was the fear of knowing the name of the other family who also experienced this.
I didn’t know how I’d do it but I told myself I’d try to find her name for my mother. I might not even tell her, but if there was a way, one day I’d get it for her. And keep it locked up. But I’d be glad to know it was there.
I didn’t get to know my grandmother too well. She lived down South. But the times I did spend with her are still vivid and colorful memories. Her coming North. The one time we kids spent a week down South. If you could imagine a brassy, Southern lady then capitalize LADY that’s my image of my grandmother. Full of everything. Life, words, ‘sugar’, her voice still rings in my head.
I would have liked to known her better but, as with many things, I felt there was a chasm there. Even as a kid I could read a room. I knew it didn’t have to do directly with me but I was still in it’s net. I would have liked to have met her when I was older and ask what kind of guy my father was to her. To me he was a bad driving cheater. I know that’s a simplification but you can only proceed with the information you have at your disposal.
The last time I saw her she came up for my high school graduation. She didn’t stay long but it was so good to get some of her ‘sugar’ again. I used to love when she’d send me my birthday card. It was always a little kid card of a baby on a choo-choo or something like that. It always made me laugh. I’d even show it to friends because it showed me someone cared. I had proof. I had proof that someone out there with a new family (who were always awesome to me) took that time to make me feel connected.
I never found the name of the ‘woman who wasn’t his wife’ while my mother was alive. She spent most of my post high school years dying. It was a long, painful run. For those few years, I’m sad to say, I didn’t think much about my father.
What he dealt with in a moment I got to watch unfold over years. I’ve got to tell you, the last Christmas you know you’re going to have with a loved one isn’t the most rollicking. It’s as if the Christmas tree smelled of death.
At that time when I should have reached out to my grandmother I couldn’t. I’d been estranged by then from most of my family. I wasn’t used to going to family for help. Believe me when I say, outside of my grandmother, it was with excellent reason. I just sort of ambled on figuring out adult life on own. And now that I really had no family it was a pretty simple choice.
My father and the ‘woman who wasn’t his wife’ took a backseat to life. The picture I remembered of him was long gone. I had one picture of my mother. One of my grandmother. None from my childhood. None of other family members. Time went on and it all faded away. I’m not saying I forgot. I’m saying it took second and third place to another life.
Decades later I get a call from a man. He asks me some questions and I guess I answered them properly because he told me we were cousins. Now that’s just not what I expected to hear this late in the game. But it was interesting. He knew stories of his branch of the multi limbed tree. He’d just found out about my father after years of family research. He found his obituary.
I asked him to send that to me.
Wow, we were living in South Carolina then. Look at that, a date. I was thirty months old. There was no mention of the ‘woman who wasn’t his wife.’
My cousin asked questions and I answered the best I could. Most times the best I could was to tell him I didn’t know anything. So he had to tell me things. It’s seems that my father’s father was something of a grifter, bootlegger, someone who stayed off the grid before there was even a grid.
I was proud to see that it was my grandmother who took the initiative, after who knows putting up with what, to petition for a divorce. I was so proud of her when I heard that. I guess it was true, no one was going to wrong my grandmother.
I felt bad I couldn’t help out my cousin much. He’d sent me all kinds of family papers. But I could get him in touch with my grandmother’s daughter from her next family.
I hadn’t spoken to my aunt in years and will admit to having some trepidation. So I did what someone who hasn’t talked to a family member in most of his life would do. Had my cousin call her. I have to admit there was a little perverse humor in there for me because my cousin and I have the same first name. Later, when I did talk to my aunt we had a laugh about the confusion at the beginning of that first phone call.
Her laugh reminded me of her mother.
My cousin asked me to do the one thing I could. Get my father’s military records. Maybe he could piecemeal some information to use in his constant search of family information. So, gladly, I did it for him. Those papers weren’t going to reveal anything to me. He was a myth. A long vacated myth at that. I didn’t think I was going to dig into something to explain to me why he wasn’t there for me. For my mother. For the entire family. It already seemed to me that, in his short life, he had a lot of his wandering, carousing father in him.
The records came and I actually learned a few things (he made donuts before he went into the Navy?) but, as expected, nothing that was going to change the tiny image I had of him. But I kept reading. And then I found it. Not only the name of the ‘woman who wasn’t his wife’ but a recreation of the accident.
As bad as the snippets I’d heard as a kid were, the actual event was worse. The only good thing I can say is, from his vantage point, his death was quick. I had to admit in that sexist time I was surprised to see it was the ‘woman who wasn’t his wife’ who was driving. I’d always assumed it was him. It doesn’t make it any better for anyone but I’d rather have the facts. Reality may be uglier but it’s a lot more comforting.
Reading about the multiple building impacts, sheared telephone pole, his injuries and the gas station they finally came to rest at all I could think was, “Damn, that car was flying.”
After all my readings I packed up all the paperwork and put it in storage. I didn’t have to read it again. I knew the exact address, time and date, company names of the buildings they hit, his injuries. When I put the files in storage I had to smile as I said,
“I know her name, Mom.”