« Free Range Kids: a rough landing for helicopter parents | Main | Why My Kid's No Abby Sunderland »

June 11, 2010

Father's Day is not for Everyone

Clarence_Sepia_Intense Dad stretched to call himself 5 ft. 8 in. A Golden Gloves Bantam Weight boxing champion, Dad was wiry, athletic and smart---long torso, short legs and low-slung ass---I inherited all three. His white blond hair and crystal clear blue eyes completed the image of bon vivant. He dropped out of high school and joined the Navy but was discharged after a diagnosis of rheumatic fever. With carpentry skills learned from his father, he expanded his knowledge to brick masonry and other construction expertise---enough to build whatever needed building. Gorgeous limestone homes and tall office buildings were built with my Dad’s hands and overseen by his intellect and expertise. But to say he blew a successful career and a brilliant mind on wine, women and song would be a generous interpretation of Dad’s career path—more like booze, broads and bawdy ballads.

On of my earliest memories of Dad was also one of the only houses where I actually remember him living with us. He purchased our first black and white TV for that house and hooked it up in the small living room. It almost seemed like we were a ‘normal’ family---whatever that means---at least as seen on TV. In that same house, I cowered in the corner as Mom and Dad had a violent fight over whether to buy me new shoes. I had been chosen as crown bearer in the Fall Festival Parade. I needed a princess dress and a new pair of shoes. Dad, coming home from work drunk, didn’t grasp the importance of this occasion, so Mom threw a pan of dishwater on him and the fight was on. I caught the combs from Mom’s thick chestnut hair when they flew my direction as he whipped her around the room. Memory fails about the outcome of the fight except I rode on the float in a new dress and shoes. The episode was one of dozens of times Dad moved out then moved back in---always a revolving door.

I longed for Dad in ways I couldn’t name. Fragments of memory about him poke through my psyche like ragged edge shards poking through soil at an archeological dig. 

During my college years, Dad tossed one shard onto the table. He fell from a three story scaffold and practically pulverized the bones in his feet. During his recovery, Dad threw his wheelchair down the steps of his second floor apartment then worked his way down after it on his butt. He rolled himself over to The Super Inn and spent the day getting plastered. In this drunken state, he started his trip home. Unfortunately, the wheelchair stuck on the railroad tracks---with a train coming! He relished telling the story on himself and how he wiggled the wheelchair loose just in the nick of time. 

I have no idea if Dad was proud that I was the only college educated Sims child of my generation. I do remember when I asked him to help me with money for a trip to Europe with the speech choir. His answer was, “Who the hell do you think you are? We don’t go off to Europe.” 

At some point in my life I heard the phrase “lower class immediate gratification.” I knew immediately the phrase applied to my family. At times, Dad would cash his paycheck on Friday night, party all weekend with the best of the red-necks at Dog Town and deposit whatever was left of his cash on Monday morning. When Dad was in the room, everybody had a good time. Even his enemies wouldn’t deny that they found him charming and engaging.

I stopped by to see Dad once in the last few years. New husband, John wanted to meet Dad to see who gave me life. Dad had not mended his ways or his shirt, but there he sat at The American Café. He appeared sober. He was facing the window so he watched as John and I emerged from the car. I walked on into the café.

His eyes did not leave me as I walked through the door. I had not notified him we were coming, so I was not sure he even recognized me. 

“Do you recognize this face?”  

“Well, I’ll be god damned, where did you come from?”

I explained we were traveling to Minnesota and introduced John. Since he eats two meals a day at The American Café, they didn’t mind that their regular customer had company at closing time.

Dad’s grizzled, scaly, skin sagged, but Paul Newman eyes shone through decades of boozing. “That-Clarence-Sims-shit-eatin’-grin” works its magic in spite of no teeth. Yet no one needs to be told---the infamous womanizer is petered-out. 

“We stopped at your house. Nothing was locked up so we went through and called for you. I wanted John to see the picture of you with cameos of all six wives. And I knew he would get a chuckle out of the refrigerator with the keg and the outside spigot. Your river’s still rolling. How are you doing?”

“Hell, I’m ok, just old.”

“Dad, did you know…” I start to ask with tears stinging my eyes.

“I know, hon.”

And that was all we said about the death of my son, Mark. 

The reality that Dad married nine times is a strong indicator that he was relationally retarded, in spite of his considerable intellect. Space does not permit a thorough treatment of all wives. I will expound on two. My Mom was Wife Number Two, Three and Nine. Mom and Dad met at Camp Reveal, a religious camp for underprivileged children when she was twelve and he was fourteen. She loved him all of her life, hated him at times, but never got to the point of indifference, though that was her goal toward the end. I suppose he loved her too---she would always say, “He loves me in his way; he just don’t weigh enough.” 

Fortunately, for all concerned, reality TV series did not exist in the Sixties, because Dad’s story with Wife Number Seven, Janet, would have made a good one. Janet was my sister, Margaret’s good friend in high school and my brother, Willie’s fiancé.  Willie went off to Vietnam; Dad stole his girl and married her and had half brother, Justin. I’m not making this up. Willie’s version maintains he dumped Janet in Evansville, far from her home state of Washington, and Dad stepped in. I can’t help but wonder what Janet’s truth is. Of course, the marriage didn’t last long and Janet and Justin moved back out West. Justin recently found us when doing genealogical research on the Internet. We are Facebook friends.

I feel great sadness about Dad. He lives alone, perhaps lonely, isolated on his glorious Ohio River. That river may be the one thing he has truly loved in his life. The longing to know Dad and to be loved by him still has the power to blind-side me. Father's Day is not for everyone.

When Brenda is not blogging at 50somethingmoms, she blogs at www.brendabartellapeterson.com. Her memoir about surviving and thriving no matter what life dishes out will be published in 2010.

Photo of the author's father by .