There was a lot that led up to my father's departure.
He had had a hard life long before I was born. I never knew his parents and I only learned bits and pieces of his past much later when I was older. His mother had a first marriage that produced two children but that husband died. Later she remarried and had another son, my dad. His father ran out on the family — but not before my father experienced the shame of his father beating his mother and the pain of his father beating him. With his father gone and his mother unable to support them doing her beadwork, he dropped out of school after eighth grade and worked on a truck delivering bread. He got to take the day-old bread home which was helpful to them. He told me that during the Depression his mother (maybe with him along) scavenged in the garbage cans behind grocery stores for food that was thrown away — she'd make soup from the vegetables, jam from the rotten fruit she found. He became the sole support for his mom, which is why he never went to war like almost everyone else in his generation.
There was never an easiness between us. He and my sister had a bond. She was his first. When my sister was five and my mother was pregnant with my brother, she left my father and moved back home with her parents. My grampa wasn't sympathetic. "You chose him now you have to stay with him." Unhappy with her options, my mother was trying to figure out what to do when she was out walking when my sister tugged on her hand and cried out, "That man! That man! I think that man is my DADDY!" pointing with her finger and dragging my mother to cross the street. My mother told me she felt she couldn't keep my father from her. And so she went back. My sister stayed fiercely loyal to my father and he to her. Maybe he felt she was always on his side.
My father identified with my brother. Of course he was the first son and they were both males. But more than that their mindsets were compatible. They both wanted to get rich quick and were constantly concocting schemes to achieve that goal and here's where they differed. My brother's schemes were usually illegal, generally succeeded, until he got caught. My father's escapades were always legal (as far as I know) and always failed. So in some way, my father admired my brother's successes and turned a blind eye to how it was accomplished. He relished the money and what it bought — the fancy car, the ski house, the beautiful girls, the trips overseas. And when my brother did get caught and faced juvenile detention, jail, and eventually, prison my father was always there to bail him out.
By the time I came along, there were no slots left. Not the first-anything and the youngest in the bunch, in all the chaos no one paid me any attention. I didn't understand the commotion, the outbursts, the rage. I didn't understand why our family wasn't like the ones I saw on TV. I wasn't "Princess" or "Kitten" to my father.
My father had had his share of bad luck. He wanted his own business. He knew drycleaning from working at a commercial cleaners. When I was young my parents borrowed, sold their insurance policies, scraped together the money, and bought a drycleaners. He went out to solicit new business. Was going door-to-door to give people flyers. One home he went to had a six-foot chain link fence. He went in. Somehow the gate locked behind him. Guard dogs raced out and attacked him. He struggled to climb up the fence backwards while the dogs were biting at his legs. He managed t throw himself over the fence. He broke his ankle and who knows what else was wrong. I was little. I didn't know what was going on except that all of a sudden my father wasn't around any more, my mother went to work very early and came home very late. My sister, maybe she was thirteen had to run the household. My brother and I tagged along. On Sundays when someone drove us all to the hospital to visit my dad, I was too little to be allowed in. My brother could sneak in but some relative would stay outside with me and throw stones at the window to see if we could get my father to look out the window and wave. It was grim.
Months after, my father came home to recuperate. My mom didn't drive so she took public transportation and her day was long and hard and more than any one person should have had to bear. She was worried about keeping the business going, paying the bills, putting food in the frig. We three kids were extra baggage she just couldn't carry at the time.
My father got better and began going back to work. His doctor recommended he bowl for exercise to help his ankle. He was coming home from bowling one night driving the VW van that was the delivery truck for the cleaners. Back then people referred to VWs as driving a "tin can." While he was driving home a 17 yr-old drunk driver with a suspended license ran a stop sign at a perpendicular side street and plowed into the passenger side of the VW. The force of the impact (he was in a big car) blew my father out of the van, up in the air, and he skidded 40 feet along the railroad tracks parallel to the road before his body came to a stop. Years later my mother told me that when she got to the hospital there was so much gravel imbedded in his face she didn't recognize him.
He was a mess. Now that repaired ankle was shattered. So shattered that they thought they'd have to amputate. I was told that a surgeon was found who was willing to try and save the leg but even if he succeeded, he'd always walk with a limp. My mother was grateful for that. He was back in the hospital for a long haul. My mother was back to doing everything on her own. They would be plunged again into crushing debt.
This is a compressed story of what transpired in my father's life. I can't remember the actual dates, the full facts, the other points of view. I only know that for me, this is what imprinted from the turmoil and tumult that was our family life. It was years of hard times, bitterness, fighting, never enough money, and for me and my siblings, never enough parental supervision.
|My father...at a benign moment...|
I remember it was winter because when I got to the house it was dark outside. I went in to the kitchen and my father limped in close behind me. I did what I always did — made myself small, stayed quiet, hoped my mom would walk in the door soon. He was yelling. He was mad I was late. He was mad I wasn't looking at him. He was mad at the world.
When I looked up from setting the table while trying to shut out my father, I saw his beet red face and his voice shouting at me, sputtering about how we were all no good, nothing but bums and in his hand he was brandishing a large kitchen knife.
On some level I knew he wouldn't use it against me but on another level I was just plain scared of him and his rage and what might happen. So I ran out of the house and up the long road to my friend Susan's house and told her I had to spend the night. I waited and later called my house, got my mom who was frantically asking me where was I? What happened ?? I only said I wasn't coming home and I was staying at Susan's. I remember staying there three days. When I came home I stayed clear of my father and tried to lay low. A few days later I came home and found him gone.
I've written a lot about my father: Father Didn't Know Best, Thrift — the very first post of Tales From Denise James is about my dad. To the outside world he was a jovial, fun-loving life-of-the-party jokester — but this is the side of him that sticks with me.
I didn't blame my mother if she blamed me — even if I knew better, know better — it always felt like his leaving was my fault.