My Brother Once Said, “My Life Was Determined By Another’s Lie.”

A man will renounce any pleasures you like but he will not give up his suffering.

 

513Rick willfully shouldered a self-imposed burden his entire life.  Unsettled by our Dad’s violent outburst’s (routinely targeting our mother), he began to peek behind, beside, and beyond our parent’s staid alibi about their colorless and urgent courtship which usually quelled curiosities. Except for one widow that pursued, with neighborly caution, my mother’s dire dodging. “It was simple math,” he’d once said, “Simple math and the ordering of month’s to quickly calculate the truth. He was proud of his steely pursuit, wishing there was a merit badge for exposure of parental lies. “Then suddenly,” he said, “the whole enterprise soured.  The recently decoded shameful and moral secret they’d disguised as hushed urgency, longing, and the mid-fifties moral compass was, in fact, his birth which occurred  five months after their City Hall nuptials.

It was then, at that inconceivable denouement, that his conception was the root cause of bout after bout after bout of unbridled and disgusting epithets often followed by a round of brutish, physical taunts which, my mother learned too late, that if you retreat to the broom closet or the empty cranny next to the refrigerator, you raise your arms to protect your face like exhausted boxers stuck in a corner. Fear and submission killed my father‘s blood lust as though he’d been fed a syringe full of Ketamine.  Oh, but those few and far between times when her self-respect outweighed her self-preservation, her repressed anger putrified to man-slaughter.  She charged at him, disgust followed by anger followed by critical injuries helped to ignore his devastating kidney punches followed by multiple precisely aimed and explosive back-handed slaps which buckled her knees; by now, in his cold eyes she’d lost any humanity and devolved into the recipient of his fully expressed hatred for her.

My mother’s marriage, a litany of lies: loathing thinly veiled as affection; irritation disguised as intimacy; and an escalating and violent blame for Marge‘s moonless flight with their three children through thorn bush and brambles, and following her husband’s business partner who liquidated their company’s assets that afternoon.  Later that evening my father received a brief call from Marge confirming that all three children were safe and in her care.  And sternly warned my father that if he pursued them, she’d kill all three of them rather than spend another minute with you, then abruptly disconnected the line.  It was then that my father accepted that he’d been abandoned, ruined, and penniless.  My father was incapable of keeping his promises, especially when it came to monogamy whether married or single. But worse still was his continued punishment of my mother for Marge’s inconceivable disappearance into the thicket behind their home. Marge later confessed that it was his barefaced screwing of the nanny.  Who, coincidently, was our mother.

Rick witnessed just one of those bloodsheds and cursed his responsible birth as cause for these vengeful and sadistic rituals.  So he heaved the imaginary and backbreaking potato sack stuffed with the rubble of our mother’s self-esteem and character; up to his waist, hesitated, then at once swung the unbalanced sack up to his shoulder while tucking his short ageless frame beneath the load like a tire winch. From there he strained and distorted and drove the shifting load skyward until his swollen knees snapped open like a toy jack-in-the-box and steadied his load . . . for the rest of his natural life.

 

After 50 Years, I Can Speak My Father’s Language

I became Harold’s (my father’s name) youngest son when he was forty-nine years old.  Forty-nine today isn’t what it was in 1958, especially when you lived life full bore.  By the time I became conscious of his presence (three years old) he’d already begun his initial descent.  He had the looks of Walter Cronkite, the physique of Jackie Gleason, the temper of John McEnroe, the contempt for women of August Strindberg (Swedish Playwright and infamous misogynist 1849-1912), the alcoholism of Johnny Cash, and a creative and innovative mind in the areas of electrical and mechanical engineering.

There were just two of us (me and my older (2 years) brother.  That is, until 1972 (I was 14 years old), when the dirty laundry was aired: Our father had a previous marriage which produced two daughters and a son.  As I recall I was excited by the prospect (kind of like the “Brady Bunch“) and my brother was apprehensive and quite angry.  The confession of a first marriage only occurred because the eldest daughter had the strong desire to discover what happened to her “real daddy.”  The first wife’s precept that no one was to try to find their father until she had passed was strictly enforced and subsequently honored by all.  She passed in the early 70’s after which the eldest daughter’s search began.  As to why our mother or father kept this secret and never disclosed anything about it is anyone’s guess.

The marriage bond between my father and mother was broadsided by the wrecking ball in 1963 when the County Sheriff appeared at our front door to serve our dad his notice to vacate immediately which, we learned later, was a bitterly contested condition of their divorce. From that day on and until the day he died he expressed a cruel, ruthless and chronic acrimony and rancor toward our mother which he publicly and conspicuously displayed, especially when we visited on Sunday afternoons.  I don’t know if his brutish and vengeful behavior during our visits was aimed at my brother and I, or if he thought we’d run back to headquarters and repeat verbatim his vitriolic euphemisms such as “that god-damned pollock” (those were the only words he ever used to reference her).  I think his ruthless contention began after his first wife deserted him in the middle of the night with the children and his business partner and their business’s assets liquidated to cash.  The few things he treasured had fled in the night leaving him alone and penniless.

But he was not the victim; he was the perpetrator.

As I was to learn later in life, my father lived fast!  It took me a number of years before I could admit that my dad had already been someone else’s dad before he was mine.  What’s more, he was dad to three kids and husband to some lady some place and neighbors and club members and tavern buddies and business partners and customers all of whom I would never meet, but of whom meant very much or very little to him, and this whole other life never ever in a million years, not even for a split second ever imagined that somewhere some day in the universe there’d be Harold’s youngest child telling you their life story.  Well, until the age of fourteen I thought Harold being my dad was a one-act play; I was shocked to discover that there had been an earlier play, a one-man production entitled The First Dad is the Real Dad penned by his first family, which unbeknownst to me, devolved my one-act into a superfluous epilogue found in ancient Greek dramas.

Yet there were earlier chapters, when he was practically barbaric; young and handsome and strong and libertine.  Chapters in which he had pockets stuffed full of youthful immortality and adventurous hunger. Chapters which bore great resemblance to the stories of Hemingway or Faulkner or Steinbeck.  Chapters of male bonding and passage: acquiring the finesse of fly fishing; developing the patience of a deer hunter; learning how to set up camp.  Chapters about acquiring mechanical and electrical skills when combined with his creativity conjured up devices which awed his employers.  It’s these chapters that are out-of-print, those few siblings able to remember have long passed, names of friends or places or dates abandoned.  It would seem that my understanding of who and what my father really was would be conjecture, similar to explanations of figures in portraits painted by famous artists.

Except, there was one trail which we’d never bothered to follow: a couple of phenomenally heavy boxes which contained an enormous array of hand tools, parts, components, knobs, fuses, and rust.  These boxes had been buried in my brother’s basement for years, neither he nor I had any practical use for them.  In fact, they reminded both of us of particularly painful memories when both of us declined our dad’s invitation to study drafting in high school (and therefore follow his life’s path) and turned our attentions to the performing arts.  That was when I could feel my father’s pride drain from him as though he’d just been gutted.  But fifty years later, after I endured a break down and was determined to entertain my curiosities and creativity I spotted the art of wood working.  And I read a passage: “A Woodworker works wood with hand tools, he doesn’t machine wood with power tools.”  And so began my acquisition of various tools, all with specific purposes, and some which looked distantly familiar, as though I’d stumbled across them long ago but didn’t know what, if any, use they’d have.  What I didn’t understand then, I clearly understand now: Context was missing; meaning was missing; purpose and use and technique and discipline and understanding were all missing the first time, as an adolescent, I had found them.  But today, as I work wood with my hand tools I finally understand my father’s native language.  A language of tools and imagination and creativity.  A language of applied science.  A language which died the same day he did.

But it’s been rediscovered and is as important to me as the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.  I finally understand the language he’d been speaking, how he saw his world, what he’d use to solve problems, and why he was so devastated when my brother and I impolitely snubbed his advice about drafting class and joined glee club instead.  And while I’m overjoyed to finally uncover a common thread uniting me to my dad, it’s also bittersweet: It’s a reminder that he’s gone and a wish that I’d give anything if he and I could, for just one day, sit together in my work space and “talk shop.”

The attached pictures show my dad’s tool at the top or the left and my tool underneath or to the right of his.

And Yet She Cried The Day He Died

IMG_0838My earliest recollection of my dad came when I was four or five and he had come home from working as a second shift foas foreman at a drop forge plant.  He was sitting at the kitchen table eating poached eggs and dry toast, washing it down with a boiler maker.  “The Twins” as he would refer to them with great affection were my dad’s undoing; he would drink when manic, especially near the end of an episode, when his aching bitterness and resigned sarcasm hinted at a common premonition: he would soon retreat to his basement work shop for days on end tortured by his emotional evolution, and his inescapable march down the steep stairs of depression.  He must’ve been in the throes of mania  when convention insisted they marry upon discovery that his rakish bullying on the back seat of his Packard on a rural road outside Thorp not only massacred her wide-eyed naiveté but abolished any hope of extricating herself from beneath the clammy, sour-smelling, incoherent beast.  Her surrender of modesty produced more than forty-five minutes of vintage 1955 passion.

They found themselves in a stone-cold courthouse in Green Bay with a couple of bar friends to witness.  My mother clutched a small handful of wildflowers they bought from a farmer’s road stand that morning.  My mother was a beauty queen back in 1955, with full, red lips, wavy, blond hair that fell over her shoulders, and bright, anxious blue eyes.  She stood looking at my father, the barrel-chested, dark-haired, first-generation Norwegian she met less than one month before.  I’m certain that neither one of them intended for the wedding to be the result of a quickie in the back of a sedan on a country road, but in 1955 it was more important to uphold convention than it was to be in love.  No one ever questioned their motives in getting married, instead hoping and wishing them the best of luck in the new life together. They never won the prize of a 1960’s nuclear family, a foursome driving a new sedan, owning a new house in a new sub-division, boys going to the standard public school, belonging to a crisp, new Catholic church, it just never happened.  It never worked out and eventually corroded beyond what was once recognizable as a relationship, and turned physical, my father opting for punches and slaps instead of hugs and kisses. I want to believe that it was hard for both of them, especially my mom, of course, but also my dad, landing punches onto the delicate face; the face of a woman that once he had found so attractive that he invited her to share his rumble seat.  I want to believe that neither of them was a monster, that neither of them hated the other, that maybe, in the beginning they held the same blind, young hope that life would work itself out.

It started with a cymbal crash, or it might’ve been a car accident, or even the frying pan falling out of my mother’s hand as she scrubbed the caked egg.  But it struck with velocity, as though it had been tossed, no, more like it had been thrown, aimed at the floor, or better, the cupboard, for it never made its mark, instead falling short and striking the edge of the table and finally the floor.  My eyes shot open and I listened only to hear the sirens race toward the accident, but the suburb was four-thirty quiet, and the only sharp wheeze I heard bumped first against my door, then slid slowly down to the floor, her form eclipsing the bright kitchen light. As though the car she was driving careened out of control and struck some child in a cross walk I heard her whisper some apology and asked him to think about me.  I slipped out from my bed and crawled over to the rag rug, and put my face to the door.  His voice was a distant gush of slurs and profanity, italicized by the growling.  She stayed there, mashed against my door, her long, painted fingers clutching the same rag rug on which I sat and which had slid half-under the door, clutching, as though her whole life was that simple rag rug.

Suddenly the door thumped with a low, heavy sound, like dropping a melon on the table.  I dropped to the floor and pressed my face into the colorful coils, and saw his black, steel-toed Oxford’s sparkle in the bright overhead light.  I saw the swift shadow, perhaps a bird and heard that same heavy thud, and watched as crimson rain sprinkled the linoleum.  The color spotted the vinyl floor slowly, as though it were being restrained somehow, pulled in, withheld, and swallowed. It was quiet for a moment, the shiny black Oxford’s rolling as though they were standing on the deck of a heaving ship, the scarlet rain drops preceded by a sniffle.  Through the whole time I had held my breath until I exhaled with a small sob.  My mother’s face grew enormous as I saw her eyes and bloodied nose drop to the floor, pressing herself to the door.  Her hand waved him off saying, “Ssh, he’s awake, he’s been listening. . .”  Her bright blue eyes caught mine and we looked at each other for a moment.  As I began to move towards her, to . . . I don’t know what, help her . . . again I saw that fluttering shadow, except this time it was no shadow, but a black, heavy steel-toed Oxford, and it landed its iron nose at the back of her head and crushed her face into the crack at the bottom of the door.  Her eyes didn’t close, but opened further as though she were releasing any blind hope and I moved quickly away from the door and crawled under the bed.  I heard his heavy steps move off and watched as the kitchen light was turned out.

It was months before I could sleep in my bed, often crawling under it once she turned out the lamp and closed the door.  I suppose the worst part though was for her: For me to see her like that, in a position of no hope, no dreams, just the flat end of a hand or the blunt toe of a shoe.