Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Rest of This Story

This post continues the story in Things Change
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 a benign moment...
My sister got married soon after high school and my brother was locked up someplace, my mother was working and that left my father home alone while I was in high school trying to avoid coming home at all costs.  It was that behavior that made him angrier than ever.  He wanted control over something and the only something around was me.

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 BestThrift  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.


  1. It's so sad, the whole thing. I always thought the connection between your father and your brother was music. Of course they had that, but what you say here explains a lot. I understand them better now.
    Has your understanding helped you to let go of the hurt, pain, anger? Living it is a lot different than reading a one-page synopsis. Hopefully, being able to write about that time enables you to see past it, to see it as a time that has passed and no longer defines you. Love, S.

    1. I forgot about the music! There was good that is blocked out by the bad. But the love of YOU, family, friends helps...but the writing may be what helps me finally let it all go...I hope so. love you too

  2. Thank you for your honesty and sharing your painful memories.
    I hope it helps you to be able to shed--wash off layers & layers--of shame you have likely felt all these years. Holding shame that is not 'ours' can be such a rotting burden on our soul. (oh, yes, I know)
    We can't change what happened (and even our memories are stored in our bodies, senses and mind/memory). But what we can do, is realize that we have different vantage points from which we can view our past once we have some life experience. I think you, in this piece, have been able to articulate the 'child part,' the 'adult part' and your own 'parent part' thru your various lenses, which leads to integration of the self. I think this is probably the greatest blessing of aging.
    I see the child part as your true, stored emotions (pain, confusion, loss, hatred, fear, love & hope); your adult part as the analytical self (seeing through your own memories for what it was--as if from someone else's viewpoint, without the full emotion) and your parent part as having some understanding and compassion for the damaged child, that was your dad.
    It is all so sad. But also so real.
    In my mind, viewing through one's 'adult' and 'parent' lenses does not deny the pain of one's own childhood experience, but can allow one to 'hold' all three at the same time and see them all as valid, and parts of the puzzle that are who we are NOW (all 3) ---and also knowing that WE have nothing to be ashamed of (not that we don't all have our 'own things' to BE ashamed of! ;-).
    I am reminded of a 'classic' article by Selma Fraiberg "Ghosts in the Nursery" -- can't even tell you why, as I have not read it in years, but it intuitively JUMPS into my mind while reading your pain.
    I DO hope that writing and sharing this 'story' of your life does help lessen your pain.
    With love. U-Know-who.

    1. I think that's a very cogent explanation of what goes in with these "selves" and incorporating them in our present...and I thank you for the insight...AND I wish I did know who "U-know-who" is because there are a number of you out there who sign Anonymous!!! Initials would help!

  3. My father had a more successful, less accident-prone life till cancer got him at age 53. But the same anger at his children, the self-centeredness, the abusive temper were all there. He did many good things and spent a lot of good time with us but it is hard to remember those things after years of battling him and then the psychological damage he did. (I always think of Kafka's story "The Judgment" about fathers like him.) A cathartic moment for me was shortly before he died, when he was building open fires in the house (he really was) and I grabbed him by the neck and told him I would beat him up if he didn't stop. We stared at each other in rage. He said some nasty stuff about me being a traitor etc but he stopped. I stopped too--he was pretty weak and it probably would have felt good to beat him up but I just couldn't do it.... Maria and I counsel our Catholic engaged couples about taking examples from our parents--some of the best examples are the behaviors to studiously avoid. It takes a lot of concscious effort. But it is worth it to break the cycle. I feel for you. You are not alone.

    1. I'm sorry you had that experience and as much as it in some ways comforts me that I'm not alone it DISCOMFORTS me that others had these troubled relationships with a parent...the person who should be the loving foundation in a child's life...thanks for sharing Dan...

    2. When I read about your dad and your experiences with your dad, I am always so sad you had to endure this and so happy that you have done such a great job raising your own children. You have broken this cycle.