So there is this very small part of me that I allow to be connected with my father. It’s a tiny, dark room that sees no light and never gets aired out. Part of my brain or soul or whatever was boarded up decades ago and claws its way out when I feel rage or shame or inadequacy.
In writing about my life, I have done everything to avoid going in this room. I have clamped off the vein to his DNA. I changed my name. I spent my love and goodwill on family I chose. I ran. I moved countless times. I cut ties.
But neglect allows shadows to grow. The lifelong belief that I clung to is that I inherited his rage. And often I turned that rage upon myself with cutting and eating disorders and self-destructive behaviors. I’m like the stranger in Lovecraft stories who turns out to be the monster he fears. I don’t want to be that. I am an enlightened, educated, loving person. I don’t want to fear anything anymore. So I will tell my truth.
So here is what I know, what I’ve heard, what happened after:
My father worked at Pabst Blue Ribbon Brewery. He was 29 when he married my mom and only 32 when he died.
In 1971, my father died of a gunshot to the stomach in a bar over a football bet. The shooter did so in self-defense because he was a small man. He also had some mental issues and probably should not have had a firearm. My father was a giant to me, 6’4” and 250+ pounds. Sometimes when this story was told to me by other adults, my father would be taller or larger and always the antagonist.
But they fought and my father ended up on the ground. The small man told the jury that he knew if my father got up, the small man was dead. So he shot. My father did not die right away, but the next day in the hospital from blood loss.
My grandmother Liilian’s account: She was his mother-in-law and never liked him. She said he beat my mother. My mother brought the clothes he was shot in to her and my grandmother scrubbed them with Fels Naptha soap until her hands were raw and hung them in the basement on the clothesline to dry. She said the phone rang and as she answered it, there was a bright light gleaming across the framed picture of my mother and father’s wedding day. Then a shadow passed over and she knew before answering the phone that he was dead. She would narrow her eyes and try to sound as ominous and spooky as she could. She would end with, “I have The Gift, you know”.
My grandfather would not speak of it at all. Ever.
My mother’s account: In two short years, she went from a newlywed with a newborn (me) and 4 stepchildren to being free. She left me with my grandparents. They received the money from my father’s death benefits and were good with it. Suddenly, she was finally allowed to have a bit of her life just for herself. According to her (and her friends who corroborated) my father was an abusive bully. He beat her, used her breasts as punching bags, forced her into sex, set a time limit for her to be away from the house. His friends likewise beat their wives. And the wives would talk amongst themselves about what they did to “get it this week.”
She told me that we were at the funeral and someone asked us kids if we knew “where our Dad was”. My two-year-old self stated frankly, “He’s up in Heaven making Pabst Blue Ribbon with Baby Jesus.”
At 22, my mother was expected to take on all the wifely duties and parent 4 stepchildren ages 4 to 12. She grew to love those children. And she loved me. She said that she understood that they were all in the same boat- all at the mercy of my father’s temper. She told me that he punished my youngest half-brother for being dyslexic by locking him in a closet once.
She had gone to my grandparents for help, but they said coldly that she had made her choice by leaving college to marry him. My mother was smart and beautiful. She was a tiny woman (4’10”) with wit and personality and light blonde hair and dark brown eyes. She was bright and popular. And she became a prisoner of my father’s brutality and abuse. She did love him. But she said that when he died, she felt fear and then relief.
My Father’s Mother Edith: She never accepted me as her grandchild. My father even made a comment that I was not his because my eyes were not brown. All of his other children had brown eyes. She hated my mother and by extension myself. There was a rich passive-aggressive streak between them. For example, Edith asked my mother what they were going to name me.
“Molly or Holly.”
“Well, anything but Holly.” Edith said.
That’s how I got my name.
Even when they buried my dad, my mother had “Husband of Judith” engraved on the headstone just to piss Edith off.
I had little contact with Edith throughout my life. I called her once in the 1980’s to try and get some information of my father.
“What do you want to know?”
“What was he like? What was he good at?”
“You know, I don’t have any money for you.”
“I’m not asking for money. Just information.”
“Ask Alvie and Lillian. They love you and all.”
So I hung up. I swore never to contact her again. But my mother made me send her a birth announcement when my son was born. Again, the response what that she didn’t have any money to give me.
My mother said I should ask her for the life insurance money she stole from me with interest. My mother said this in 2009, but Edith died in 2004 so I was off the hook.
Accounts from my father’s contemporaries: He was a bruiser with a bad temper. He bullied, he drank and he won fights because of size not skill. He was mean. He “nearly kilt” me in a bar fight.
I began to string all this together – all the acrimony and sorrow and rage passed down to my generation. I had to somehow make myself separate from it. I fashioned their words and actions into a nightmare figure – a haunt, a great shadow that hung over my childhood. This specter followed me into puberty and the cutting began. I knew what half of me was. My mother signed off her parental rights when I was 11. She knew what half of me was and where I was headed. I believed at the time she wanted nothing to do with anything that was also part of him. I wanted to be free of him too.
I stayed here where it happened – where he became a cautionary tale that drunk people who knew him would reminisce about. I don’t know why my mother stayed friends with them. Sometimes she would trot me out and introduce me and it would start with “Hope you don’t have your dad’s temper!” That usually followed “I see you got our mom’s rack.”
The thing about shadows is that they themselves are empty. You can fill them with any fear you would like. And within the map of that shadow was the unknown.
If he had lived, would my life have been terribly different? If my brother was punished for dyslexia, how would a girl with autism be treated? Would I have survived at all under his tyranny and mercurial temper? Would I have retreated further into my self and my imagination? I was pretty far in there already.
I still harbor a fear – not of my father – but of being caged. Something in my mother’s voice when she spoke about her first marriage brought about an ache in me. I understand why she went a bit wild after he was gone. I tried to be married for 17 years – and two years in – I felt like I was dying inside. Every day not being able to meet expectations or be good enough. I felt caged.
Feeling trapped in any way just fed the beast in the dark room. I would not become either of my parents.
So now we come to it – MY memory:
Sunday, March 15th, 1970 evening. CBS was showing “The Wizard of Oz”. I was already walking, cruising the furniture. My dad, enormous and tired, lay on his side on the big couch. He was drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon. He was eating American Cheese slices, the kind that come wrapped in cellophane. I was standing by the front of the couch and leaning against his shins. He was a loud breather and I cannot clearly see his face. We watched the small color television. Just as Dorothy was leaving Munchkinland and beginning her journey to Emerald City, I started sliding sideways. His big hand took hold of my elbow and helped me steady myself.
Part of me hopes that my father got all the hard lessons learned in his short life and his next trip through mortality will be gentler. Part of me hopes he is making beer with Baby Jesus. Or maybe just at peace.
The thing about shadows is that they themselves are empty. You can fill them with any feeling you would like.
That is the only true thing I know.