Friday, June 25, 2010

In Memory: A Fathers' Day Tribute to My Father

If I’m slow these days to blog, it’s because Steve and I are still traveling, and are now in an area in which our internet access is sporadic.  We’re spending a few days in the Napa Valley area, and though our b and b had advertised wireless online service, we’re finding that the ad overstated the case, and even our cell phones aren’t working most of the time.

A reminder, I take it, to pause awhile and remember that the world revolves around Someone other than ourselves.  And what a beautiful area of the world in which to pause awhile—the green and brown hilltops around the valley, with their mix of hardwoods and pines, the abundant flowers (roses of all varieties, bright blue chicory, fragrant magnolia, mimosa, and Confederate jasmine, oleanders).  It’s paradisal, this part of the country.  And, of course, the well-tended vineyards marching everywhere up to the slopes of the surrounding hills . . . .

And as always, as I tour northern California, I do so with my father in mind.  I’m not sure why I make this connection.  I don’t think of him often, truth be told.  I was 19 when he died at the age of 49.  It’s as if from that time forward, his memory has constantly receded—as if we have traveled down two different roads that diverged at the moment of his death.

As I’ve also noted on this blog, my relationship with my father was, for as far back as I can remember, troubled.  I was his oldest son, and the son who looked most like him.  His expectation was, as with most traditional Southern papas and their eldest sons, that I would mirror some ideal vision of himself that he had not realized in his own life.
Needless to say, that ideal vision was exceedingly manly.  And I, unfortunately, was not born exceedingly manly—not according to his definition of manhood.  I was bookish, quiet, sensitive and given to high drama.  When I read an article about meat production at the age of 7, I became a vegetarian for several years.  The thought of eating meat made me so squeamish that I could hold nothing on my stomach, if that thought entered my mind as I ate.

My father never forgave me for screaming with fright when he took me on a ferris wheel ride when I was three.  My brother Simpson, a year younger, loved the ride and lay in my father’s arms with delight as the wheel spun.

I cried so loudly the ride conductor stopped the ride and let me get off.  I disgraced my father by this display, he let me know—as I did when I became terrified at movies that did not terrify others.  I was convinced that the shaggy dog was real, and would somehow come into the theater and claim me as a prize.  And when we saw “Raintree County,” and a character in the movie died, I developed the notion that she was outside the car in which we watched the movie at a drive-in, outside waiting to pop up and pull me down into the ground with her. 

I had vapors, in short.  And my father did not believe in vapors.  And so he chose my brother Simpson as his favorite.  And he told me so.  He told me that I did not fulfill his ideal and was not his son in the way in which my more traditionally manly brother was his son.

And, as I’ve also noted on this blog, northern California plays into that story in the following way: my father abandoned us, my mother and his three young sons, for part of a year when I was 7.  When he came home at Christmastime in 1957, he was heavily bandaged.  He had been in a serious car accident.  He needed home, my mother’s care for him.

Not long after his return, I happened to overhear him talking on the phone in his office, telling a friend that a woman had been with him when his car wrecked in northern California.  When I shared that information with my mother later in the day, all hell broke loose.
It was then that he repudiated me, told me I was not his son, but was my mother’s son—that I did not please him as my brother did, and he could see nothing of himself in me.
And so my father is in my thoughts as we travel in northern California, as he has been anytime I have come to this part of the country.  What brought him here, rather than anyplace else in the country, when he left us?  Was there a woman here, perhaps from the war years?  Or was California simply his place of dreamy dreams, the place of ultimate self-reinvention to which he headed when he decided to slough off all responsibility for his wife and sons?
I don’t know the answer to these questions.  I don’t even know if they are the right questions to ask.  And this is, in part, precisely why I ask them anytime I am in this area of the country.
Something in us wants to know—wants to understand why our parents made this choice and not that one.  When the choice our parents make involves denial of their responsibility for and connection to us as their children, the need to know becomes more acute.  Though we grow beyond the immediate sharp pain of the wound inflicted by parental rejection—we have to do so as we mature—that wound still remains alive somewhere inside, a dull ache that might, just might, be alleviated if we understood.

Or so we imagine.
My father definitely did have ties to California before he married my mother, though those ties weren’t to northern California.  They were to Camp Pendleton in southern California.  It was from there that he was sent to Pearl Harbor sometime between April and August 1941.  I can tag those dates to his whereabouts during the war because of a picture he had taken in San Diego in April, and a letter he sent his parents from Pearl Harbor in August.  As I've mentioned on this blog, my father was at Pearl Harbor when the U.S. fleet was bombed there, and was wounded slightly when shrapnel from a bomb that exploded on his ship, the U.S.S. Pennsylvania, pierced his abdomen.

His military papers show him being discharged from service in November 1945, and a letter he sent his parents in February of that year indicates he was back at Camp Pendleton by 26 February, after a monotonous five-day train trip from New Orleans to Shreveport and then west to California.  The train had gone through his hometown, Coushatta, Louisiana, and he had stuck his head out the window and yelled, though the train was going so fast he couldn't recognize anyone in the town.

And so I try to put the pieces of the puzzle together, the puzzle of my father’s life, the puzzle who was my father.  The child inside who still wonders about his need to repudiate me asks whether the appeal of California was that it was the first really distant and exotic place my father had ever been after his upbringing in small-town northwest Louisiana and southern Arkansas.
He did spend time during the Depression doing forestry work in Wisconsin with the CCC program.  But Wisconsin would definitely not have been his land of dreamy dreams.  We never took a family vacation during his lifetime that did not involve going south—heading to his native state of Louisiana, and then to the beaches of Texas, Mississippi, and Alabama.  For him, warm weather, waves, white beaches, and perhaps fetching young women in skimpy bathing suits: these were the stuff of which dream is made.
And as I think about all of this, and about the course of his life and our relationship, I suddenly realize: this is perhaps all I will ever know.  This is probably all I can ever glimpse—precisely because he has walked down one road and I another, and our lives have diverged decisively from the point that he walked in what the Irish call the path of truth.  

I wonder where this is going, this inquiry into the past.  I wonder where any such inquiry into the roots of our parents’ behavior ever goes, since they are distinct human beings, no more the extension of ourselves as their children than we can be the extension of self they often demand that we be.  We call them mother and father as if the title itself comprises self-evident qualities that explain something about the complex human being living inside those titles, whom we will never fully know.

We will never know.  We cannot ever know, with full certitude, why our parents chose path A and not path B.  We cannot understand the pressures with which they lived as they made decisions that sometimes harmed us, their children.

What we can do is wish them peace, as they walk the way of truth.  We can hope that they find the fulfillment of the dreams denied to them while they were alive—as we can hope that we ourselves find such fulfillment as our own hearts rest in God.

And we can forgive, since those who wound us—often, to the very core of our beings—are human, after all.  As we ourselves are human.  And so I offer this memorial tribute to my father in this week following Fathers’ Day as I pray that he has found in death the peace his turbulent (and often tortured) spirit never seemed able to find in life.