Monday, December 22, 2008


Maggie's parents and older brother in 1949 (Maggie's mother, older brother, and father, circa 1949, Bowie, Texas bus station)

I've been missing my father, wishing I could talk with him. He's been dead two years, and it's only in the last couple of months that I've begun missing him. Especially on Thanksgiving, and I expect it will hit me again on Christmas.

He wasn't always home for Thanksgiving with us. I'm not sure how many Christmases he missed, beyond the last one my mother was alive. Mostly he was not there for birthdays. Mama made them holidays without him. I never missed a Thanksgiving or Christmas with Mama, despite moving out to California, and I never missed them with my little brother Bill, either, until -- well, that's the story I mean to tell, here. Somehow.

Bill and I were three years apart in age. He was an accidental pregnancy, and honestly, it showed in how my parents treated him. Not overtly, but the difficulty his needs brought to our already strained family was evident to even him. Kids who grow up with that knowledge have a hard time, you can't convince me otherwise. I believe it played a (small) role in his early death. My wanting him was not enough: What he needed was to have been welcomed, in a way he was not, by my parents.

We're not supposed to admit these kinds of things about our families. Especially in working class families, where any admission of being fucked up is going to be used against us, proof that we deserve our poverty and hard life. They are all dead now, except for me, so I'm not betraying them. At least, not directly.

When Daddy washed out of the Army Air Corps right before the end of World War II, he drifted around for a while, then got a job doodlebugging. His boss told him it was not a fit occupation for a married man, because it paid little and meant moving every six weeks to three months. Daddy assured the guy he had no intention of getting married or having a family. Six weeks later he met Mama, and five weeks after that, they got married. Daddy didn't tell her about the reality of his chosen occupation. She figured it out slowly, on her own, by the time my oldest brother Glenn was born two years later.

But it was 1948, and folks didn't get divorced. And Daddy kept saying he'd get promoted, moved up into an office job, where we'd stay in one place. Join the middle class, or at least the illusion of middle class that office workers have. In the early 1980s, shortly before she died, Mama told me she'd figured out all the ways Daddy had kept himself stuck in the field work which was what he really loved. He wasn't comfortable around men in white shirts with soft hands. He didn't feel good enough to do labor that didn't involve getting sweaty and making loud jokes with other men. He was thrilled to have escaped the farm, and grunt seismology felt respectable enough for him.

So we lived rootless, in trailers or crappy rent houses, except for the two times Daddy convinced Mama to let him take an overseas hitch, where the pay was good and Daddy got to push around brown people. Mama handled all the work of keeping us a family, not perfectly (not even close to that) but using every last bit of juice she had. I worshipped her, as did Bill. And she worshipped me back, flagrantly preferring me to my brothers.

My older brother Glenn was the only child for almost eight years before I was born. He was furious at my arrival, furious at my father's absence, furious at our inability to be anything more than working class in a good year. When I was four, he began coming after me. By the time I was nine, it was sexual as well as all the other ways he could think of to hurt me. He was 17 then, the local high school quarterback, massive and dangerous. Mama was too tired to see what was going on.

At least, that's the story.

I'm not going to tell you any details except this: I did what I could to keep him from going after Bill. I did whatever I had to. Because of this, Glenn said I wanted what he did to me. And Bill, as a toddler until the age of 8 when Glenn finally moved out of the house, was eaten up with guilt at my sacrifice for him -- even as he let me do make it for him. It was the only way we knew to stay alive.

(Bill and Maggie, summer of 1964, Houma, Louisiana, with chihuahua Chico)

I planned for me and Bill to have all our adult lives together, to grow old as brother and sister.

Mama had four heart attacks before she finally died of the fifth one, when I was 28 and she was 56. Once I got to college on scholarships, she and I collaborated and wrote a resume for Daddy (I checked out a book on how to do it from the university library). We got him a suit and I typed letters for him on my Olivetti portable seeking job interviews as a consultant in the seismology field. He was sullen and self-sabotaging, but eventually, in spite of his crap, he got hired on making four times more than he ever had. I was able to leave Texas knowing Mama was financially secure. The last six months of her life, they even bought a house.

The day we buried Mama, Daddy said to the three of us "I know you kids would rather it have been me that died than her." None of us said anything. I feel terrible about that now.

I was the only one in the family, I think, who was able to mourn Mama without conflict. She and I had talked over everything before she died. In 1980, she flat out asked me if Glenn had molested me -- a truth I had thought I'd never be able to tell her because of her precarious heart condition. I answered honestly, and she and I worked out the mess between us. She also asked me if I thought Glenn's three kids were at risk, and I said absolutely, of course they were -- the oldest already showed profound signs of damage. She decided she wasn't up to confronting Glenn, so she sent Daddy to do it instead. Five years after she died, I found out that Daddy had fucked it up in his predictable way. He asked Glenn about it, Glenn said I'd made up the whole thing because I'm a man-hating lesbian you know, and they had a beer together. Daddy came back and told Mama that Glenn had agreed to go into counseling, it would all be okay.

Less than a year after Mama died, Daddy married a woman fifteen years his junior, a divorcee with three kids who was trying to get her master's degree in dance theory. Glenn went into a rage, saying Daddy was dishonoring Mama's memory, and cut off all contact with Daddy. I thought it was very clear the two newlyweds were playing a game of mutual exploitation, but my Aunt Sarah, Mama's sister, gave me a stern talking to and said I had no right to judge my father's pursuit of happiness if it had no impact on me. I could see she was right. I made friends with my stepmother and talked Bill into doing the same. No skin off my back.

She of course left him as soon as the bust hit Texas and he fell behind on house payments. She'd gotten her Ph.D. by then, and married an insurance salesman six months later. Daddy couldn't believe she gave up on him. Some lessons come late. He sold away his pension and most of Mama's belongings before he finally lost the house, too. At 65, he had only Social Security and a broken down red van to his name.

He moved into a shitty apartment complex a few blocks away from Bill and got a job as a security guard, mostly because it gave him a chance to carry a gun. He had few people skills, had never built community or made friends. It was just me and Bill in his life. Bill was on his second marriage and, for the time being, clean and sober. My own partnership of six years fell apart brutally. I began driving up to Irving regularly to sleep on Daddy's couch and listen to him talk over his life.

We became friends. I don't have an excuse for the choices he made, but I really do understand them. Male conditioning, living as a child in the Depression on a 40-acre Oklahoma cotton farm, coming from Fundamentalists, and never breaking out of the bottom working class all left their mark on him. I had a 36 hour limit on the time I could stand to spend with him, but that meant a weekend where he wasn't alone, that was good enough for him.

The first Thanksgiving we had both been dumped, I told him I'd drive up after work on Wednesday and cook for us. Bill was going to spend the holiday with his wife's family, so it would be just me and Daddy. Traffic was a bear, so I didn't stop along the way and buy groceries as I had meant to. Still, there was a Whole Foods not too far from his house, I'd check in with him and then brave the crowds.

When I arrived, however, I discovered he had already done the shopping. He had a canned ham (not the good kind), a box of stuffing mix, canned peas, canned corn, canned cranberries, a loaf of white bread, and a store-bought apple pie with a crust like MDF. He was extremely proud of himself, thrilled at providing for us and please that I was going to "cook it all up" for him. I didn't have the heart to go buy real food. I searched through his pantry for things I could use to make it more palatable, finding zilch. Parkay, no spices except salt and pepper, no frozen fruit or veggies, no flour, not even canned soup except for one of chicken noodle.

So, I made what I could, pulled out the good plates and silverware instead of the paper stuff he used, cleared the table of six months of clutter, and we had a sit-down meal that was one of the worst I've ever put in my mouth, nutritionally speaking. But memorable in the glow on his face. We talked for hours, watched Lawrence Welk, and he went to bed happy.

I cleaned the kitchen, then, and scrubbed down the toilet. Daddy had never bothered to lift a lid or even bother to aim. When I was a teenager, I had seethed at this daily dose of male urine, and sometimes I deliberately left bloody kotex or tampons on the floor beside the toilet to make my point. But he left it to my mother to clean up. And now me, if I was going to use the same bathroom for the weekend.

He began looking for another wife fairly quickly, and went through the rude awakening of discovering that now he was truly broke, he had no chance at all with women younger than him. He began going to bingo night at senior centers, and eventually found a woman five years older who owned a house, had a small savings, and thought he was funny. They got married without him finding out she was a serious alcoholic. Violet was an amiable drunk, but she started on vodka first thing in the morning and kept at it all day. Her short-term memory was nonexistent. Still, she cooked and cleaned, they had a little house to watch TV in all day, and he promised he would never, under any circumstances, let her get put into a nursing home.

I made friends with Violet as well, and continued to come up for weekends. I was bothered, however, by that fact that conversations with my father vanished. For one thing, he hadn't told Violet I was a dyke and insisted I not tell her, as she was hardshell Baptist and barely knew homosexuality existed. For another, while he didn't drink with her, he spent all day talking on her level and his ability to construct even a simple sentence deteriorated. He acted like having to think about complex issues or delve into memory was an imposition. I let it go. I'd had a father only briefly, and only kinda sorta. I still got to see Bill when I visited, and at least my father wasn't about to be hungry.

Bill and I talked a lot about our childhoods. To be honest, I was usually the one who brought it up; he would rather have watched ESPN in peace. But he did share his memories and his interpretation of them. The memories matched, the interpretation didn't, and I found relief in both.

One memory Bill told over and over again concerned the Thanksgiving when he was 10 and, for some reason, Glenn had gone with us to eat with our grandparents in Oklahoma. Glenn was about to be married, to a woman from an upper middle class family bristling with doctors and lawyers, and after that he seldom had much to do with us. Which was fine with me, though it always pained my mother to have been abandoned for reasons of class. Anyhow, the day after Thanksgiving, Bill went into the kitchen and cut himself a slice of leftover pumpkin pie. Glenn had trailed after him, looking for somebody to torment. Bill put the plastic wrap neatly back over the pie and returned it to the refrigerator, an imperative in my grandmother's kitchen. When he turned back around, his piece of pie had vanished except for a small wedge of crust. Glenn was sitting in a nearby kitchen chair, smirking and chewing. Glenn had stolen food from us all our lives, a favorite putdown.

Bill set aside anything he might want to say, pulled out the pie and cut himself another slice. Same thing happened, of course: When he turned back around, his piece was gone and Glenn was almost choking, trying to swallow it down and laugh at the same time. But Bill snapped. He doubled his little boy fist and socked Glenn in the face as hard as he could. Glenn's chair went over backward onto the kitchen floor.

The retaliation was severe, of course. Glenn dragged him, his mouth covered, out the garage and beat the shit out of him in places where the bruises wouldn't show. But that was the last time Glenn stole food from him. Bill's eyes would glint when he told that story.

When I was 26, Bill went to Glenn and told him if he ever came near me again, for any reason, Bill would kill him. By that time, Bill was an inch taller than Glenn and wider in the shoulders. Like all bullies, Glenn only picked on those weaker than himself. He stayed away from me. But long before that, I'd made it clear I'd kill him, too, if he bothered me. Still, I was deeply moved by Bill finally being able to defend me, returning the favor.

On holidays when I drove up, I usually did the cooking, sometimes with Bill's able assistance for the meats. I'm a good cook and I enjoyed it, and it was also a way to make sure the food was healthy. Plus, staying in the kitchen usually kept me away from trying to make conversation with Violet, who was in the habit of repeating the same remark every seven minutes or so all day long. I have a hard time with dementia, I'll admit it.

The second Thanksgiving after Daddy married Violet, I slept over at Bill's house that he and his wife had managed to buy with an FHA loan. The excuse was that I could get up early to start Christmas dinner. Instead, we sat up late playing Risk and watching a Princess Di special on TV.

The next morning, Daddy and Violet showed up around 10 a.m., which was late in the day for Daddy, who liked to rise at dawn. Violet was lit to the gills, and Daddy, for once, had decided to join her in her morning vodka and orange juice. He was tiddly, is how I would describe it. Bill was watching golf in the back room, and his wife was on her computer. Daddy and Violet pulled stools up to the kitchen bar and decided to hang out with me while I cooked.

I had planned an elaborate, 12-dish meal which all needed to come together at the same time, and I was already overheated and stressed. I'm not the sort to chat while I'm multitasking. But the drinkers, of course, were very chatty. The problem was that Violet was in repetition mode. Every seven minutes, the same conversational gambits were replayed. Her focus that day was on how I was making the green beans. I had bought fresh haricot vertes, leaving them whole except for snapping off the ends, and lightly braised them in butter, shoyu, and Chinese hot sauce, with a sprinkle of sesame seeds. Violet had clearly never seen anything like them before, and she kept asking (every seven minutes) why they looked the way they did, sitting in their bowl on the counter nearby.

Four times I explained the recipe to her. The fifth time, I snarled over my shoulder "The recipe is exactly the same as I told you the last goddamned time."

There was a wounded silence behind me. I glanced around. Violet was in profound shock, and Daddy looked belligerent. I said "Excuse me, I have to cool off" and I strode to the front door. It was about 15 degrees outside, but I didn't bother with a coat. I sat down on the front step and tried to slow my thudding heart.

After half a minute, I heard the door open and felt Bill ease himself down onto the step beside me. He lit a cigarette, took a big drag, tried to blow the smoke away from me, then lay his massive arm over my shoulders and said calmly "Well you fucked that one up."

We laughed our asses off. When I began shivering from the cold, I said "I don't know how to go back in there and face them."

Bill said "Ah, shit, she won't remember it by now. Daddy's the only one who's going to remember to be offended, and fuck him."

He was right. Violet had refilled her go cup and asked me brightly how come the green beans looked so different. I explained it to her patiently as I resumed mashing yams, and Bill, chuckling, returned to his golf tournament.

The next year, Bill's second wife had left him. He arrived at Daddy's house on Christmas morning with a bottle of Goldschlager, which he slammed down on the coffee table and said grimly "After every gift, we each take a shot." I declined, but they went after it and it was actually a hilarious day.

Two years after that, Violet died one October morning as they were getting up. Daddy had managed to keep his promise to her, allowing her to live at home until she passed. Daddy inherited the house and her savings. At Christmas, he mailed a check for $8000 to Glenn, asking to make up. Glenn's second marriage was failing, he'd been fired one too many times to find work easily, and he decided Daddy's offer was just what he needed. He called Daddy from the road in California, asking to come live with him. If he drove straight through, he could be there by late Christmas Day. Daddy was ecstatic.

He came into the guest room where I was sleeping and woke me up to tell me that Glenn would be there in a day, to celebrate Christmas with all of us. He said we were to all be nice to each other, for his sake, and in particular I was to not bring up in any way all the abuse Bill and I had suffered at Glenn's hands. We were to act as if nothing had ever gone wrong.

I stared at him in disbelief. I said "I can't possibly agree to that. I won't make a scene, but I'm not going to lie about what he did."

"Then you'll be the one making trouble. The rest of us want to be a complete family again" Daddy said.

I called Bill and we talked it over. In the end, Bill said he couldn't give up on Daddy, no matter what the conditions were. He was still trying to get the love and approval he'd never had as a boy. He said he didn't blame me if I couldn't hack it, we'd still see and talk with each other. I told Daddy I wasn't going to pretend, and he said I should go, then. I packed my bags and left at 8:00 on Christmas morning. Bill came over to see me off.

Glenn moved in permanently to Daddy's house. When I lost my mobility and my job, Bill came to visit me, including in the rehab hospital after my knee was replaced. Daddy never did. I called him every week, where I'd have to listen to how great Glenn was and the latest jokes he'd told Daddy, which I invariably had to interrupt because they were obscenely racist.

Bill's anger built slowly but perceptibly. He blew up increasingly easily when on the phone with me. He kept saying "I don't know how to do this without you here". I felt bad, and kept taking it to counseling, but kept coming up with the same answer: I'd give visiting a try as long as I could be honest. But Daddy kept saying that was out of the question.

A year later, Bill lost his job, I think because of anger issues. He had trouble finding a new one, and when he did, he failed his screening drug test. I didn't know that at the time; he told me he just didn't like the fuckers. It took him a month to land another interview. He managed to pass their drug test, I'm not sure how, because his friends and ex-wife later told me he was using cocaine regularly. By then, he was in default on his truck payment and had lost his insurance.

He had a heart attack, it now seems clear, while he was mowing his lawn. He went in to lie down and eventually called Daddy, saying his chest hurt. Daddy convinced him it was probably just from pulling the mower cord. When I talked with Daddy a day later and heard about it, I immediately called Bill and told him to go the ER. He said he didn't have insurance, and I said they had to treat him anyhow, if it was cardiac (and given our family history, it probably was) they could treat it and he could blow off the bills. He said the pain was getting better, he thought it really was a pulled muscle. I said I'd call him the next day to check on him. I then called his third wife at her job and told her to get him to the doctor.

He didn't get help. Instead, he went to Glenn and confessed his drug usage, saying he was scared it would show up in any medical test and he'd lose his new job. Glenn tore into him, calling him a loser for taking drugs, and said he didn't want to hear any more about it.

The next morning, Bill called in sick to work and told his wife he was exhausted, he just wanted to sleep all day. He lay down on the couch, a golf game on TV, as she left for her job. When she came home at 2:00 that afternoon, he was stiff and cold. The coroner said it was complete cardiac tamponade. The heart attack, whose pain had undoubtedly not only continued but increased, eventually tore open the pericardial lining around his heart and he bled out into his chest. I hope he was asleep when it happened, because my own doctor told me it was an agonizing way to die.

I went to Bill's funeral, driven by a friend. I did not speak to Glenn there. Daddy went home with Glenn, and the rest of the family had a wake at Bill's house. Bill's friends refused to speak to Glenn or shake his hand. It was the last time I saw Daddy.

A few months later, Glenn told Daddy about his last conversation with Bill and begged forgiveness. Daddy called me, suddenly realizing what he was living with. I stayed in touch with him, calling him and listening to him as best I could. He died one morning sitting in his recliner in front of the TV. Glenn found him. Four months later, Glenn died alone in the same house.

I'm not sorry for how I hung in there, and I'm not sorry for when I drew the line. I'm especially not sorry I made a choice different than Bill's. I'm alive, and he's not, and I believe the reason is that divergent choice we made.

I miss Bill every day. But it's odd to now, finally, be missing my father. I'm not sure what it means, except that we are all human and, given enough time, humanity is all we remember.

[Cross-posted at Group News Blog.]

No comments: