Sometime between 1960 and 1961, not long after my family moved from Chicago to Orange County California, I remember walking with my father along the Southern California coast near what must have been Huntington Beach. I was two going on three. We were living in an apartment in Anaheim and would soon move to a rented house in Costa Mesa.
My feet skipped two to three steps for each one of my father’s as we walked, my tiny hand held firmly in his grip. He loved to talk, to point out the sights. A large ship heading North towards the Port of Los Angeles caught his eye, a dark horizontal gash on the blue horizon. Did I see it? I did see it and was impressed by its size.
Looking up to meet his gaze, I said “Daddy, it’s bigger than you.”
My father loved telling that story, which was true, and another story that wasn’t. The other story featured my father as an organ grinder. He would play on a street corner while I, wearing a pink dress coat he adored, held out a tin cup like a little monkey for passersby to drop in coins. He told this story often, sometimes with a twinkle in his eye so you knew he was kidding.
He called me Baby Doll and read stories to me and sang to me at bedtime.
Bye, baby bunting
Daddy’s gone a-hunting
Gone to fetch a rabbit skin
To wrap his baby bunting in
Bye, baby bunting
Bye, baby bunting
Those are my earliest memories.
In my next memory, circa 1961, I am standing at a chain link face surrounding an ice blue pool. It is somewhere near our rented home in Costa Mesa. I feel hot in my sweater so it must be Summer. A pretty blonde woman sunning by the pool raises her head, adjusts her yellow bikini top and rests her head back down facing me. I lean my face close into the chain link fence to peer at her through one of the tilted squares. I want her to talk to me. I call to her but she ignores me so I remove my sweater and slowly push it through the fence inch by inch, humming a tune. The sweater drops and I say “uh oh.” The woman gets up, tosses the sweater back over the fence, admonishing me. She lays back down on the chaise chair and I slowly push the sweater back through the fence inch by inch, humming a tune.
That was in the days when my father got fired more than once for telling off a boss and would leave home for weeks at a time in the company of other women, or so he bragged to me when I was older. My mother, a nurse, had to work to support me, my older brother age five and my younger brother, an infant less than one year old. The babysitter had her hands full with my baby brother so I played alone or with my older brother when he felt like putting up with an irksome little sister. I missed my father when he was gone. In his absence my mother, at her wits’ end, saved up a litany of parental grievances. Wait till your father gets home. This meant that when my Dad did come home I feared his anger.
This was the picture of family life from 1961 to 1964. The stress took its toll. By age six, in 1964, I had a permanent smile pasted on my face.
In the first memoir post I wrote early in 2010 I said that the physical and emotional abuse I suffered as a child did not kill my spirit and that is true. If anything, a fierceness set in. What the pasted on smile conceals, or attempts to conceal, is a broken heart. I trusted my father, looked up to him, and he changed before my eyes. Here was a different man curling his lips grotesquely and speaking hateful words to me as he removed his belt to deal out a measure of discipline. An hour or so later he was all smiles again, wanting to cuddle and bounce his baby doll on his knee. Tiring of cuddles and bouncing, he would lose himself in a book or head back out, away from home again. I felt invisible, got very good at constructing a polite exterior. Inside, a part of me died.
It took years before I had the to courage to challenge my father. I think I was twenty when I first tried to talk to him honestly about the past. To begin with, I was furious with him for lying to his new family, my step-family, about our family’s past, because it put me in the position of also having to lie to protect him. Lord knows why I felt the need to protect him. I was young, a teenager. Our adult talks might have lead somewhere positive but in fact took us into even darker emotional territory because my father insisted on belligerence, indeed stuck to his belligerent position for the remainder of his life, until his death, his dream death, in 2001. He would ask, “what do you want to do, crucify me?” Or something similarly unhelpful. No, I didn’t want to crucify my father, but I did want him to accept responsibility, to face up to the impact of his actions, and above all to stop abandoning me with his belligerence, his refusal to show empathy, his rude expectation that I get over it already and move on with the business of being a good daughter.
Near the end of his life my father said “if I had to make all of the same decisions over again I would.”
And that is how he left this world, righteous to the end. Or so I thought, for years. Now I don’t believe a word of it.
As I’ve said before, I’m not particularly religious, but there’s one idea a devout Roman Catholic told me about that I’ve borrowed for my personal spiritual practice. He said, in reference to dead souls, that the “scales fall from their eyes” meaning that there is full understanding, of what was done and its impact on others. I believe my father understood more then he let on while he was alive, even though he tried very hard to deny it. But I like thinking of him as fully understanding, not fighting it. It brings me peace. I believe he is sorry he didn’t take better care of his baby doll.
As he lay in a coma a few days before his death, this is what I whispered in his ear: it’s okay Dad.
All I have from my father at the time of his death is this photograph he carried in his wallet. The cracks tell their own story, of love and loss.