Friday, June 1, 2007

Dad~Part I

This is a two part post, dedicated to my father, who died Thanksgiving Day, 2005. He would have been 80 tomorrow. He was many things, an engineer, an archaeologist, a craftsman of stained glass, a historian, a man who could easily discuss anything from Greek drama to the minutia of the battles of the wars he studied. He gave me a love of music, reading, and history. He did not suffer fools gladly. He held medals of honour from Korea. He had a wicked sense of humour, a hard hand, and a great love of his grandchildren. He died while suffering from Alzheimer's, his only discussion points Judge Judy, the rotten food he ate, and his pride in the Jarhead. While in the home, he started many a geriatric rumble, an evil grin on his face as he yelled "Fuck you!" to the Mormon caretakers. He knew what he was doing, and loved every minute of it...

In the book, The Road, the father says, "....this was the time by which he measured all other days of his childhood."

I spent my summers in Monroe, Louisiana, where my father's family had moved when he was four. My time to measure all of childhood days was measured by a day in one of those summers, a day plotted by my dad and my uncle.

Summer started with our annual road trip to Monroe, which began the day before Dad's birthday, in order for him to be there with his mother, a wonderful, odd, Sicilian woman who loved him deeply, and who built her life around his well being. I was, as the eldest grandchild, her secondary purpose in life, and with the passing of my grandfather, our summer drive up to drop me off was a ritual, consisting of an hours long drive ending with an enormous meal that we were expected to consume when we arrived, no matter everyone was dead tired..

These rides gave me such a dislike of cars, that until I could control the steering wheel, I never liked road trips, nor cars in general. I still hold them as something to do only when pushed. To me, they were moving bits of steel that encased my at the wheel, mother making bologna sandwiches on white bread with that nasty sandwich spread and my mother's Golden Child, who always ignored the magic line down the middle of the back seat and encroached on my space. By the time my youngest brother was around, we had a station wagon, and the entire back area belonged to me and the luggage. Six pieces of Samsonite making a barrier around my pillow and books and imagination were far better than sitting with the rest of them.

I was not a social child.

My side of the backseat contained my books, a pillow, a shared blanket and the Barbie I refused to play with. Since we were usually traveling to the home of someone who had a daughter, and I would not be allowed to sit and read the way I felt I should be, I knew I'd have to do the Barbie thing. Out she came for the trip, complete with the wardrobe in the nice shiny black case with the pink 'BARBIE' in script on the front. Mine had a bubble haircut, and her head fell off on a regular basis. Actually, this made it easier to dress her.. I just popped off the head, threw on her clothes and there you are... instant out-of-proportion female body to aspire towards in your near future, including breasts with no nipples. Personally, I loved Ken and his embossed jockey chance of sex education from Mattel! I wasn't good at Barbie.. my imagination didn't go down those lines. My Barbie was content to lie in her box and not talk to the other Barbie's. She, too, was a Private Car dweller...preferring to observe life and avoiding contact with others. The GC's side held tonka trucks, and a colouring book with colours.

Oh, and it held the Golden Child himself.

We'd drive like mad down the two lane highway, both parents smoking like trains, Mother's voice an Mississipppi accented flow of sound...Dad's a responding grumble... hashing out the day and week and their lives together working themselves up to arguments that would do Edward Albee proud... They really were masters of that biting cruelty. The funny thing is, in her mind, they were speaking sotto voce, and we didn't hear anything. I remember fights, smoke, JuicyFruit gum and Estee Lauder Youth Dew perfume, all crammed into that interior, each of those things can still make me ill, especially when confined to a car.

The trunk held small suitcases with their things, they only stayed until the morning after Dad's birthday, my big case for the summer, and the ice held muffulettas from Central Grocery for my MawMaw, with the olive salad in a separate container, cannoli from Brocato's on Carrollton, and Creole cream cheese... all her favourites from the city she was born and raised in.

We didn't have air conditioning in our car. When we complained about the heat, Dad's standard joke was that we had 475 conditioning.. four windows down, doing 75MPH. I'd read as long as I could by the light of day, having taught myself at a very young age this useful skill or I'd watch the fields go by...wondering who worked in them, what they looked like.. thinking the rows between looked like the legs of someone running as we drove past. Sometimes, Dad and I would sing, stopping only when the GC or Mom joined in... to say they couldn't carry a tune in a bucket is the kindest thing I can say.

That was the only kind of stopping we ever did. Those signs would be there, 'Come see the Biggest Iron Skillet in the World! Only Cruel Parents Wouldn't Stop Here!!' We didn't stop. "No restroom for 50 miles!!" Nope. 'Only 14 miles to the next Stuckey's!' Having never stopped at one, to this day, I never understood the appeal of Stuckey's. Dad would not be swayed from his schedule. He actually made schedules for our trips, timetables a train conductor would envy. The trip from New Orleans to Boston one June still gives me nightmares... we camped out the entire trip, pulling a trailer. Camped out. For over 1000 miles. That trip alone constitutes it's own story. I don't camp anymore either. Our experience on the New Jersey Turnpike was so traumatising when we tried to get to NYC, it was either stay or it was kill a toll collector. It kept me from visiting the city for years, in fear I'd have find that same toll collector and be there forever. The only thing Dad found acceptable to stop for was gas and a Civil War site...other kids had Mickey Mouse tshirts, mine showed Stonewall Jackson. We worshiped at the shrine of Jefferson Davis.

As we traveled along, GC would start to complain his stomach hurt. He'd alternate the complaints with kicking the back of Mother's seat. Eventually, her hand would swing over the bench seat, swatting at whomever she could reach. GC stayed curled up, I was leggy and had to stretch... I took the swats. So, I'd have to pinch him in retaliation. It seemed fair to me. He'd scream as if, well, soundly pinched. This would be the point where Dad would yell at Mother who would yell back.. she'd turn around and bend over the seats, swinging away. I've always said the behaviour of children in cars has decreased with the removal of the bench seat. No longer do you see cars hurtling down the highway with some mom's bottom framed in the windshield as she dealt with the recalcitrant children in the back seat of the family sedan...add to this is the knowledge that there was a good chance she wore a girdle and stockings, balanced a lit cigarette, kept her high heels from puncturing any of the upholstery and never smeared her lipstick proved her dexterity in this job. Truly, a lost art form.

Depending on the trip and how bored he was, GC worked on his carsickness with the deft touch of a master.

"Ohhh, my head. Let me put my head in your lap, Sis."


I knew what would happen. I'd have to be quiet and not be able to hold my book up to my nose to read.


The front lines of war started again...usually, they had both left directly from work to start to the trip, and were tired from the get-go. Dad telling her to do something, anything to shut up that highly pitched sound. Mother and I would have the "why do I have to let him by me because I said so but why he will throw up on me no he won't yes he will do it or I'll beat you" discussion. Eventually, I had to allow him to cross that line, and put his head in my lap, and proceed to complain every time I turned a page.

That wasn't the main strategy, though. Oh, no...that was just the tease to the Big Show. He'd wait until he was really starting to feel ill... when he could time the amount of smoke in the car, that the two combatants in the front seat were at a breaking point, the fact I could no longer read.. and no rest stop for at least 50 miles. He'd sit up, and scoot back, huddling on his side.. gagging. I knew it was coming. I'd curl into my corner, as tight as I could get.

"Mom.. he's going to throw up." My refrain didn't halt, as he inched his way back over, holding my eyes... working it.. working it.. and when he got right on me... up it came. On me. On Barbie's case. On my side of the magic line. Mission accomplished, he'd burst into tears and move back over to his pristine seat, looking wan and pathetic.

He was an expert.

Dad would curse and yell, Mother would shout back he should have stopped at the last rest stop... they'd slam onto the kudzu covered shoulder, I still sat in the remains of sandwiches and chips. He was pulled out, cleaned up and comforted.. and I sat until they were done with him.

Finally, everything was clean as possible.. his clothes changed.. mine too, but, that stench lingered. The windows were rolled down, in spite of Mother's complaints about her hair blowing about. GC had the blanket to himself, they would have moved the ice chest from the trunk to the backseat floor, creating a little bed for him, and I stayed on my side of the line, watching and listening as they showed me how not to be married, voices truly lowered now, but, the anger was always there, floating on their smoke. Their tone became a lullaby...we'd drift off to the rhythm of the standard arguments we knew by heart. As his eyes slowly closed, GC would look over, and smile. I had to hand it to him.. he was good.

We'd pull in around 1AM, the porch light would be on... she'd come out....running to Dad, throwing her arms around him, pulling us out of the back seat. Holding us tight, ignoring my mother who was Irish, and not good enough. It didn't matter she'd married one, too. He was dead, and therefore now sainted.

My room was ready, my little fan already going, the cotton sheets crisp and white and ironed. The books were lined up, the dresser drawers empty and sprinkled with lavender. My PawPaw's photo was on my nightstand, the one of me sitting on his lap...

My summer was there, to start in 24 hours...

I could wait.


golfwidow said...

Not sure I can. (Wait, that is.)

Deb said...

Your Dad certainly WAS a character! I liked when he answered the phone and I got to talk to him. I must say, you weren't kidding about "Don't f.. I mean bother him when he's reading." I remember the first time he told me you weren't there and I asked "How are you doing today Sir?" His voice got very low. It wasn't a growl, but I can't find any other word to describe it at the moment. Anyway, in THAT tone, he said "I'm READING." The phone suddenly felt molten in my hand as I remembered your dire warnings. "Okthankyoubye" I hung up the phone and ran for the other side of the room at TOP speed!
I miss him too.

modelbehavior said...

Loved the stuff about your Barbie! I always wanted to know what Ken's genitals looked like too. Why was everyone alays forcing us to play with such useless toys that ruin a peron's body image for the rest of their adult life?

ellagood said...

so well written.

the details are so rich, i felt like i had lived it.

what a beautiful tribute to your father.

Quin said...

gw~part II is done..hope you like it

deb~ha! i remember that day! "that girl from texas called." he liked you, actually. i miss the old coot.

mb~yeah, ken was certainly 'tucked' in, wasn't he? and barbie...since they were named for the children of the owner of the have to wonder what THEIR body image was. heh.

ella~thank you. deeply and sincerely.

LisaBinDaCity said...

I had a few wacky Barbie experiences myself...