“Just one way, you do get back home. You have a boy or a girl of your own and now and then you remember, and you know how they feel, and it’s almost the same as if you were your own self again, as young as you could remember.” –James Agee, “A Death in the Family”
When I was told by the youngest “Sissy” that he had died I thought that nothing had changed; he had passed from my life so long ago that any memories I think I have of our time together cannot be retrieved without the assistance of photographs. She and I rarely speak on the phone, our adulthood having separated us from the day-to-day minutiae of our ordinary lives; she said, “they found him about a week after he had actually died, sitting in his recliner.” Left unsaid: with the TV on, an empty can of Budweiser on a rickety metal TV tray next to a brown and orange plaid La-Z Boy; bloated with death and gas, putrid.
This is the kind of story, the discovery of his death, that is usually found on the second page of the second section of your local newspaper, the part that covers goings-on around the towns in your area, a headline such as this: Local Man Found Dead in Apartment and it would go on to describe how the discovery was made—the building super investigating a suspicious smell—a quick quote from a neighbor, “he kept to himself, I don’t recall seeing anyone visit him,” a brief bio provided by a Vietnam Vet at the local VFW—a snapshot of your local VFW—wood paneling, folding tables, the smell of bad coffee, beer & cigarettes, men unshaven, war stories–the same ones–told again and again, the loose ends of their lives. His family—a second wife, three children –maybe it was two, regardless, I have step-brothers and -sisters that I’ve met only once — I can’t even remember their names it was so long ago and so briefly, from what I was told, didn’t really care that much. An end to a life passes by with little fanfare, except for the prurient, and there were no tears. Perhaps of relief, but now I am being unnecessarily cruel.
My only adult memory of him is exactly what you might expect from someone not involved in your life: he, stiff and uncomfortable, dominant, “you’ve got five minutes to shit, shower, and shave,” this the day of his father’s funeral and he was marshaling the troops–his 2nd family, me, and grandma. Wisely, the sissies–two sisters, my cousins, his nieces–stayed in a hotel. I was there for two days and left the evening after the funeral. He carried grandpa’s ashes in the trunk to the veteran’s cemetery against the wishes of the rest of us—grandpa should have ridden in the car with us, his last car trip instead of in the trunk, alone. (Should I’ve added, “like an afterthought?”) But he was insistent, our pleas falling tears in the parking lot of the church, a chill February wind underlining our despair.
I was 21, he 48; in my mind I believed there would be a spark of recognition, an innate bond that time could not have diminished, some little thing that would say, “father,” “son.” Today I do not believe I yearned for that, but I do believe that I held out some hope; who doesn’t want their father to acknowledge them as their child and to take them in their fatherly arms and comfort them, even after such a long time, this particular eternity? There may have been flashes of an imagined childhood with a father even. That particular construct is difficult for me to imagine actually happened in my head at 21. I was, after all, an out gay man, making my way through school and with a job and living on my own. I had not thought of him on a conscious level for, well, forever. An introspective look at my past would have taken a back seat to the current events of my life.
On the ride to the train station that evening, he, at the wheel, turned to me and said, “Do you have any questions for me?” Which was more of a statement than a question. I, sitting uncomfortably next to him, thinking only of the escape that was just down the road for me, asked, “why did you and mom get divorced?” His reply: “There are some things, son, that are between a man and a woman and not to be discussed with others.”
And that was it. I think now I should have held onto that “son” as an admission of his failure as a father and perhaps his reaching for some commonality between us, but instead, I was put out that he asked for a question then muffed it, not even any prevarication or stutter, just the implication, a brick wall enclosing him from the possibility of love, the subtext “off limits–i won’t open up my life like that.” Me sitting there staring out the window and at the reflection of my angry face in the darkened car window, a rebuke to his absence and his refusal (or inability) to be what I wanted.
Our life together. Recently when I was having my yearly eye exam, the doctor said to me, “were you hit in the eye when you were a very young child? That might account for the mark on your retina.” From the photographic evidence i was a happy child (except for my first hair cut at a barbershop, but really, that’s to be expected); there was never any discussion of abuse, but the terms of the divorce were severe–no contact, no mail, no telephone calls, never to be seen again. And I spent several summers at his parent’s house and there were never any unexpected visits; he vanished as if a magician had pulled the fringed drapery off of the empty cabinet where only moments before he had been hiding.
My mother collected mothers-in-law and this one was no different. Even my father’s sister and her daughters, the Sissies, and their father, all played a part in my young life. But it was not until he had taken his mother into his house as she reached her dotage, that he was discussed among us—this after my mother had died. There were tales of elder abuse from my aunt—his sister—and even from my grandmother, somewhere there are the sad letters I would receive from her, detailing her decline and unhappiness and his cruel behavior. But, and this is true, everyone was afraid of him and nothing ever happened to ease her suffering until she died. It is hard to conceive that all of her love was wasted on a son like that; this loving, generous, hard-working woman and her delicate, sad husband — how could my father have been who he was coming as he did from such a home?
Even when queried by me, my mother would talk about our life in Germany and then the boat across the Atlantic—me, just three, in a harness with a leash so i would not dive overboard on a childish whim and our time at Fort Carson outside of Colorado Springs and back to Fort Sheridan, north of Chicago, but she would do all of that reminiscing without once mentioning my father. The only shared memory where he figures prominently was the day they were picking cherries from a tree in the backyard of our home in Highland Park and he on a ladder showing off and she, “Lee get down from there before you fall and break your fool neck.” Me, on the lawn, watching them bicker and banter back and forth. Seems true enough today to reach out and touch them both. That life together. But that is one of only two shining memories of him that I have of my own, the rest are just prompted from these photographs.
There are facts of course, many a matter of public record: his birthday, his name, his service in the army—three tours of Vietnam, a Bronze Star, their marriage—I have the license, she ten years his senior—and their adoption of a little boy before he was born, but the facts mean nothing, they are nothing but the wire hanger on which this empty suit hangs. They were a striking couple, I see that in the photographs I have of them before their marriage. Their courtship in the service–my mother in the Army as well–and a charming photo of her sitting on the grass in the yard of her future in-laws her head in a floral Aunt Jemima scarf, her skirt arrayed around her with an 8 x 10 framed photo of Lee and written below in the photograph’s margin in my grandmother’s hand, “for the birds.” That seemed like love to me. Love before I arrived.
What changed? This and other questions plague me still. Those who might know, all dead now. I grab at ideas—for one, that the ‘house-maid’, my birth mother, her occupation was listed on my German birth certificate, and this father were paramours and I am his son, but that theory vehemently denied by all concerned, except, of course, my mother who would just change the subject when I brought it up. Why the evasion, mother? She did kid me on occasion, “your father was a hick from Appalachia with a pimple on his nose and shoes two sizes too big for his bony feet.” Which would send me, depending on my mood, either into paroxysms of laughter or an embarrassment so deep my knees would blush.
The other, should you need the prompt, is abuse. Whether vocal or physical, either to my mother or to myself, my gut tells me there were some mean times chez nous. This is only a feeling, a gut reaction based on the rest of his life and the relationships the rest of the family had to him—the fear of crossing him the most prominent and the scariest, to me. And yet, when I look at these photos of me with him, how could I think anything but love existed between the two of us? And perhaps that is enough. But it is not, nor can it be, because there is more.
What changed? If this life alone had been lived with us what would have changed? What is it like to have a father? How does that fact change your life? Would that change your character? I have a hard time imagining this part of my fantasy life, the presence of a male authority figure the rarest of dreams and they never are finished, and sadly there is no difference. I think there should be a difference. Not that I would have been a different person, my essence is natural to me, although when you look at how I was raised you might be inclined to raise a glass to the concept of nurture influencing the natural character of a person.
And of course, I was influenced by all of the women in my life, there is no doubt that I was, but, what if? What if I had had a man around, to teach me to dribble a basketball or catch a baseball, or for that matter to even enjoy sports? What if there had been a man around to talk to about sex and love and relationships after I had become a stranger to my mother, the result of the gravitational pull of puberty. That secret talk that a father has with his son. They do, don’t they? Regardless, in this fantasia they do. What else do fathers give their children? Do you know? All I can imagine I needed to be an adult I learned from my mother. It was enough.
But from what I have gleaned over the years, like children do; listening, but not, absorbing without prejudice the rumblings of adults and years later those words bubbling up to the surface. (Not for everyone, I am sure, but for me they are words painted in the faintest of colors on a scrim at the back of the stage, so subtly lit that you must just let them be and that is how you discern their meaning, more a sense of their meaning, an emotional association with vowels and consonants, grammar.) I don’t believe it would not have been a loving relationship between us. No, what I see (the sense, this psychic retrieval) is a life of discord; my being who I am in contradiction to his idea of what I should be. And that he died alone, his last family unconcerned about his well-being, his whereabouts, his life (how do I not be trite here) only drives home, confirms my suspicions, that looking back, that other memory, that it would not have been good for the two of us.
Which, of course, depresses me. Me, so eager to have that bond, that relationship, but only now, not then, because, and this is the truth, I never gave him room in my head as a child. I was never teased or shunned for not having a father or for having two mothers, one the perfect substitute for a father, and any questions as to why there wasn’t a man in our lives, the answers, however they may have been formed, accepted as fact and not as an aberration by my childhood friends (god knows what their parents thought about it all, it being the time of perfect family models—the Cleavers, etc.)
There is the one other memory, one that is mine alone as I have never shared it. I’ve been reading lately about how, as we grow older, our memories of our early childhood disappear very rapidly and that usually by the ages of 10 or 12 (or younger) those memories of when you were a baby, a toddler, a young child, have vanished. And it is then that you start your memory bank for use later on as you grow older.
So I believe this is my earliest memory: he has taken me with him to the army base where he is stationed (Fort Carson? possibly because of the sensory truths that have stayed with me), I am possibly three years old (or not much older, this event just before their divorce) and he is showing me off to his buddies. Have you ever been around a bunch of young men in the army? That part is more of a feeling. This part is true: he lifts me up onto a tank with its engine running, the intent to take me in it for a spin around the barrack’s yard or parking lot, wherever tanks are on an army base, and he clambers up after me and lifts me up again onto the turret. He slips down into the tank and reaches over the edge of the turret and lifts me up and we drop down into the tank. Down there it is all man sweat, motor oil, and that peculiar dirt smell that I always associate with the army. I wail. I struggle for breath, I squirm and scream and slobber, tears racing down my face, hot and claustrophobic in this small space with my father–a rejection. For both of us.
He carries me back up the inside of the turret and lifts me—still in full wail—out of the tank and sets me down outside of the hatch. His buddies staring, their looks a mixture of disbelief, amusement, and embarrassment (I imagine now), because he was furious with me, his anger stiffening his back, his voice a sharp rebuke to my behavior. I don’t believe he hit me.
To understand what this memory has meant to me we must now jump ahead in our story eleven years: I am 14 and in the full bloom of puberty. Awkward–clothes refusing to fit– and horny, passionate and aloof, too eager to please, in reality, a mess. I am spending the summer with Mary (my real father) in Colorado Springs not too far from Fort Carson. Besides going to church, a southern Baptist brimstone and fire church with Elmer Gantry’s stunt double as a preacher (was Elmer Gantry enough of a description or would you prefer: a floppy mop of auburn hair Brylcreemed into a pompadour, ruddy complected, heavy beard (a twice a day shaver), big barrel chest and like his wife a hugger?) His wife all bosom and talcum powder, forever grabbing you into a hug “bless you, child”ing you until you thought you’d faint from those great ham hocks of wobbly fat arms locked tight around your middle–well, at least my middle–your breathing erratic (and ever so slightly erotic, in spite of your inclinations, for there were definitely inclinations).
I am volunteering at the church, helping with kid’s summer camp, but the pressure is on from Mary to be contributing to my savings with a job. She decides, as she always did, dominant as she was, a foghorn voice and a laugh that always shot out of her, pellets of sharp guttural guffaws, so distinct you could identify her location even if you couldn’t see her, that I will be cleaning apartments in her complex, filled as it with military and base personnel. I post a card on the bulletin board in the common area and a day later I get my first call and as it turns out, my only one.
It’s a lieutenant stationed at Fort Carson; I meet with him that evening and he tells me that he’s never home, always out on maneuvers, but could I just clean up after him. We set a price and a schedule, he gives me a key and that’s that. (Except, of course, the fact is that I have fallen madly in love with him.) Days later and I’ve let myself into his apartment and his smell overwhelms me. It’s in the bathroom, it’s in the living room—he doesn’t use the kitchen—and it’s definitely in the bedroom. It is the smell I remember from my father and the tank, motor oil, male sweat and the red dirt of the plain at the base of the Rocky Mountains.
The dirt rings the bathtub, caked on the sides and all I can do is sit there on the edge of the tub and fantasize about him naked, me washing him after field maneuvers. I wander from the bathroom without cleaning it (although I did rub my fingers over the ring of dirt in the bath and held them close to my nose, a strong intake of breath) into the bedroom where the bedsheets are in a knot at the bottom of the bed, pillows on the floor, which I pick up and place back on the bed and promptly lay down on my back, hands clasped behind my head, dizzy from all the blood fleeing to my crotch.
I do not fantasize about having sex with him, that would be too much of a leap of faith in my imagination at the time, but I do imagine playing house with him–whatever that would entail–perhaps a cocktail waiting for him when he comes back from the base at night, dinner in the oven, me in an apron, cleaned up and expectant, catering to his whims (only years later would those be of a sexual nature), taking his boots off, rubbing his feet and inhaling that scent–that red dirt, motor oil and man sweat.
After cleaning his apartment I would go back to Mary’s and draw a bath and soak until the pads of my fingers shriveled into those little prune faces and masturbate while I had the apartment to myself, but still behind the closed door of the bathroom, my eyes squeezed shut and the images of the men in my life flicking by–my lieutenant, the preacher, and my father from that day in the tank, when he held me in his arms while I wailed, with the smell of the earth all around us and the noise of the engine drowning out his love.