Dad

June 27, 2005 at 1:38 PM (family) (, )


These next two posts take a very different tack. Deal.

There’s a precious moment in Gone with the Wind for me. The moment when Rhett arrives at Twelve Oaks, stands at the foot of the staircase and casually looking upwards, notes, and takes measure of Scarlett…and a broad knowing smile spreads across his face…. Because I catch a glimpse of my father in his youth. Just a glimpse. I would never have the temerity to suggest that my dad looked exactly like Gable. But… Imagine for a minute, that a similar smile, not the exact match, but a related one of casual careless confidence…belonged to your father.

There’s that smile in the baby pictures …later with color pictures the unexpected hazel eyes……the large lipped, white toothed huge grin that would later charm several birds from their perches…he began with a butch cut that made him seem big eared and goofy from a distance…some students, and later bankers would make that mistake. He was a C student with a lethal mix of charisma and a world of calculation, cunning going on in his head…Later in the Seventies, the butch cut grew out to a charming mop of chocolate brown hair. His looks were an unlikely cross between Gable and a young Oliver Reed. He had also decided to put that charm to where it would do the most good. He became a lawyer.

When I say calculation, I don’t mean to imply that at his heart, deep in the center, there was any evil afoot. Rather that he would always size you up. It was necessary that he know what he was facing before he proceeded to interact. Man, woman, boy, girl, there was a quick, initial calculus about people that was seldom wrong. (My mother was and remains the notable exception.) If he felt overjoyed, or intimidated, perhaps, then the bravado, the shameless posturing that both he and his brother were well known for would come to the surface. But he was also quite capable of long brooding silences that before the alcohol took over, meant thoughtful consideration and intense concentration.

He married someone unlike him…My mother, cool, eccentric, analytical, beautiful, and oddly, given to sudden loud bursts of laughter…It made them look amazing together, because the difference was so much in evidence.
He made it his business to make sure I noticed the Really Important Stuff that wouldn’t necessarily ever happen again.

In July of 1969, he rousted me out of my bed as I complained…I barely remember it but I do have a glimpse of that black and white splash of moon in my head, that I later paired up with Armstrong’s words, that I did not remember hearing.
Over great protective protest from my mother, in January of 1976, in the midst of one of two hellish blizzards that would come that winter and the next, he took me outside, bundled, to simply walk around the perimeter of the house, in the midst of that white whirlwind. Alone, I could not have done it, but with his body as the outer bulwark, we took forever, and inched our way around the house, and back in the side door. The sounds and fighting push, the push of the wind to dislodge us and the omnipresent white were like nothing I had ever felt, or seen up close.
Thankfully, he did not choose the following year, because that was the year the giant pine from the lot behind us chose to submit to the wind with a great slam and crack and slipped between our rearward neighbors garage and house. I don’t think I could have stood being outside to watch that.

Heading back north of the border always seemed to bring a temporary reprieve, and I went with him once to a more civilized part of the Canadian wilderness in 1985.
It was 11:30 at night and I was going about the important business of sleeping. My father waked me and after a lot of grousing and bitching by me, dragged me outside in the dark. The bugs were biting and I could have cared less. For away from the cities, civilization, I stared up into the night sky and saw it, actually saw the soft endless arch of the edge of the Milky Way. The sky was not blue, or black, but a deep purple…. The nearer stars incredibly bright, and the light of the farther unseen stars diffuse enough to mix with that sky and gave a silver glow as a backdrop to the nearer starlight. Openmouthed, my throat got tight and I started to cry. Like many men, tears did nothing but irritate him. I tried to explain that here, out at the edge of his frontier, he had shown me my own…the culmination of all those youthful wishes to head to the stars. This was why! He never did understand that part, but shared an appreciation for the immensity and beauty of that view.
Buy 1980, he was divorced and forty, but was sharply noticeable enough that eighteen year old girl’s heads popped astonished out of dormitory doors to watch him stroll, when I got to college. “That’s your FATHER?” they said amazed, and their hormones went off into a corner to sulk, disappointed. Clearly they had hoped for an older brother.
.
The outdoors, and sport brought him nothing but joy. Golf, swimming, strange wild fishing trips in the Canadian wilderness with his brother where the bravado actually described some truth…he came home full of smells and dirt, but full of true tales of conquering the cold, the water, the fish, the distances. His eyes were clear and his heart and mind focussed and involved.

Mental dexterity was also beloved…he played bridge, not as the placid amusement of socialites, but as if it was war reduced to 52 chances to win or lose. He’d already calculated half the outcomes in his head and was sorely tried if his partner wasn’t equally quick to analyze, to understand the complexities. He felt his reputation; his heart and life were on the line with every card laid.

Two cracks at his beginning, proved his undoing….
There’s a twisty road of emotional trouble in my family, what practicing shrinks might label bipolar disorder, beginning with his grandfather, my paternal great grandfather, Paul. Disbelieve if you like, also disapprove of admitting such things publicly. If anyone has that right, I do.

And, anyone outside of shrinkdom knows that if someone has undiagnosed, untreated bipolar disorder and they’re a guy, and it’s the early sixties, they sure as hell don’t go to a shrink to feel better. They go to a bar.
He basically went to his first bar and never quite left.
And then there’s his mother. A stunning lady, gentle and churched, that bequeathed her looks and goodness to her daughter. He lost his mother when he was young, sometime in the fifties. He was a sensitive boy and I think somewhere inside, no matter how often that grin crossed his face, he was missing her.

The alcohol eclipsed and eroded the best of him and brought out an angry bitter temperamental fool, given to the worst possible words. It took his job and his marriage and his life. Why it isn’t as illegal and hated as crack or heroin, I’ll never get.
The one amazing thing the alcohol did was bring out the storyteller in him…He’d worked for the Mob, no, it was the Navy, no actually it was the CIA, where he was still employed, and there would be a knock on the door and they would come for him. If it hadn’t hurt so much I would have laughed.

He imagined himself so much to be the young Connery, Eastwood, McQueen, that he created his own movie trailer that followed him around in his head, that he would grasp plot points from time to time and attempt to convince the ever more skeptical listener that they were true. It’s his fault that I love some truly un-girly stuff. Cleveland Browns football. Jim West and Artemis Gordon. Bullitt. Connery and Brosnan’s Bond. Mission Impossible. “The Wild Geese,” a tough guy movie with the Richards-Harris and Burton. I’ve had to regretfully leave off my joy at the oeuvre of Eastwood, due to his anti-disability malarkey.

When I was seventeen I was unable to separate the alcohol as cause for my father’s constantly emotionally abusive tirades, and so I hated him with a passionate hate that was as emotionally intense as his own anger. At 25 when I married, he showed up sober to church, not quite sober but not quite drunk to the reception, and I saw that as a victory of sorts. I stayed away because he could not be counted on to drive sober with me in the car, but I didn’t hate him. I pitied him.

Later, much later, after my husband was gone, I made a cautious pragmatic, rational agreement with him. I wanted to see him, to socialize, but made it clear that if the alcohol came with him he would be turned away. We saw each other often the last nine months…We did repair much of the damage done, and I was glad to reconnect.

But if I think of him now, it always seems to be through that lens, that moment of Gable’s in Gone With the Wind…world weary, more knowing than the rest, and yet, forced into a sudden smile, by an unexpected intrigue.

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3 Comments

  1. bridgett said,

    Having known them both, you got their numbers beautifully. I haven’t visualized your father in years, but I can see him very clearly right now, sitting at a table in the fancier of our two collegiate dining halls, looking very much the cross between Steve McQueen and you.

    We were blessed by our early complications to realize in the bone that this was not a world in which things would come easy.

  2. bridgett said,

    Oh, and in the same vein of people struggling with human ambiguity of failed fathers…

    http://www.aprilwinchell.com/
    (June 27th post)

  3. Father’s Day linkback « Midlife And Treachery said,

    […] June 15, 2008 at 8:13 am (Uncategorized) …Because I spoke best about my Dad in this 2005 post. […]

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