Twenty-eight years ago today, my Daddy died. Although, you could say he’d been dying for a long time–in his own way. I remember being at school–knowing, like I always seem to, that something was wrong. Like the bottom had suddenly dropped out of my world, but not knowing exactly how. I peed my pants–which, as any six year old, shy little girl will tell you–is not very fun. I can still remember walking to the nurse’s station. They had trouble reaching my Mama, which was also very odd. A little while later, she came–running, with a clean pair of underwear and pants. And the minute I saw her face, I knew. And I asked her, more out of a sense of duty–to let her off the hook of telling me. She didn’t have to say yes, but she did anyway.
The weeks after all of that are pretty fuzzy, but I remember wearing black and going back to school pretty quickly–just before break. I remember his funeral–mostly the songs–and how I put my Bible and a blue carnation in his hands. I didn’t like my socks. I remember I bought him a tool kit for Christmas, and I couldn’t give it to him. And that made me sad.
I don’t want to dwell on that anymore. I don’t want to talk anymore about the years I spent avoiding grief or the aftermath of losing a father when you’re six. I’ve done that a million times. I want to tell you about who he was, but that’s hard, too. To remember someone who is really just a ghost now–who kind of always was. I have my memories, but many of them make no sense–or they’re so hazy, it’s hard to see anything. Most of what I know–the concrete stuff–comes from stories my Mama told me. Bedtime stories of a man I never really knew while he lived.
And then, there are the stories I know only by heart. The things I grasp onto on days like today. The things I know only because I’ve lived them.
My father’s name was Halbert, but everyone called him Bert. In the war, they called him Boats. He was born in Iowa (of all places)–some tiny little town called Ottumwa. The biggest employers there are meat packing and agricultural equipment companies. It’s about 535 miles from where my Mama was born, a few years later. The idea that my father came from corn country kind of makes me laugh.
They didn’t stay there long. I’m not sure why they left, but they did. My father grew up in Southern California–near the Valley–with his siblings. He was the oldest. From the picture below, you can see him (in the middle). His hair always slightly askew, that expressive face, and that almost too confident way he had. I don’t remember much about his sister–except that he hated her and that she sent me a doll she made me once. But Daddy never let me talk to her. I was closer to his brother.
My father was kind of the black sheep of the family. He started sneaking sips of alcohol from my grandfather’s liquor cabinet as a toddler. And that snowballed into a full, though mostly closeted, addiction. I don’t know why he started drinking, but I would guess it had something to do with genetics.
He was a popular kid, with lots of friends. I imagine he was a bit of a James Dean character–throwing caution to the wind and romantically doing what he wanted. He barely finished high school and never went to college–which might have been a real tragedy had he lingered on it. But he never did. He was a brilliant person–someone who could bodyslam you with his knowledge of everything and that easy, wry wit that made you think he was your best friend. There was no one more charming than him.
He was a Mama’s boy–more sensitive than he let on. He wanted to go places and do things. He was stubborn and didn’t want to be like everyone else.
He married young and enlisted in the Navy. It made sense, I suppose. He could finally escape all of those expectations and finally be someone his father would be proud of. There are pictures of him in his uniform–things always not quite straight. There are pictures of his gorgeous first wife with their baby on the beach. All black and white. Pictures of them outside the USO after he came home from the war. My whole life, I’ve heard stories of how my father somehow broke his tailbone (aka, his butt) while on his ship–how he drank so much Coca Cola, they thought he was addicted–how he learned to cook–how he cut off people’s heads. The bolo used to be in my Mama’s closet. I’m not sure what happened to it.
Two kids in, my father’s marriage fell apart. It was his fault. He cheated in a way he could not deny anymore–though she had long suspected more. If that was the only thing, it might have been okay. But, by then, he was full-set into addiction. Just beer, though–and never enough to unravel anything. At least that’s what he told himself. He jumped from career to career–playing with the idea of ministry and then backing out the night before it was supposed to happen. Or working on a farm so he could feel like he was doing something real.
My ancestry research tells me he may have married one more time, though he never spoke of it or her. And I’ve never had anyone contact me. I also found out my father’s mother died when he was 26. Which is an odd coincidence considering my mother died when I was 26, and I am named for his mother.
By the 1970s, Daddy had endured another marriage to an insane woman who never filed the divorce papers. He was estranged from both of his children. And he had started drifting–driving from town to town–working until he got a paycheck and then leaving.
It was during this time that he met my Mama. She was married–working in a hotel in North Dakota–mourning the death of her son from leukemia–living with a man who abused both her and that child. My father saw her face and told her she didn’t have to take it anymore. I imagine he smiled that crooked smile he gave to me. He gave her my Uncle’s phone number and told her he’d be in Denver in a few days–told her to go there and call my Uncle–that my Uncle would give her a place to stay until he could meet her.
The next day, my Mama got on a bus with only the clothes on her back–telling no one–not even her parents. And she met my father in Denver. And they traveled for a while–drifting from place to place, meeting Roy Rogers and various actors, rolling their car on an Arizona highway (complete with fireball and newspaper article)–until she finally decided it was time to stop. And then, they settled in a fleabag apartment on Broadway here in the Mile High City.
Daddy drank and worked odd jobs. Mama drank, too, and then he saved her. She was a maid at the Brown, night shift. They loved each other–probably more than they ever thought possible. And then, I came. And then we moved to Westwood. And then he died when I was six because he couldn’t stop drinking.
As a kid, my father was chaos and contradictions. He was often the friendliest, most giving man alive. He would literally give you the shirt off his back. On the other hand, he was also the guy who took money out of Mama’s purse to buy the whole bar a round–who would snarl at Mama when she nagged him about money and would disappear for hours with no warning. He was worldly and knowledgeable about just about everything, but he would also tell me not to step off a curb while passing an Asian person. He was the man whose best friend was African American–who would call others of the same color the N word. He was a good father who taught me everything I knew, but you couldn’t believe him if he told you he’d do something. You would be disappointed. He taught me nearly everything I know about cooking–to the point that I thought he was some sort of magician. But he couldn’t do the simple things that people do every day just to live. I thought he was the tallest man on Earth, but he was only about 5’7″. And while he loved me like no one else could, he was also childish and someone who could make me feel more unloved than anyone.
I have more compassion for my father now. Especially after learning about his mother and the exact circumstances–which I never quite knew when I was younger. He never got over her death, and I understand. As an adult, I can have compassion because he passed down the same behavioral flaws to me–namely, the ability to hide in plain sight and the ability to cover up pain by any means necessary.
As an adult, I can see him in me–despite how much I fought being anything like him for most of my life. We have the same smile, the same eyes, the same mischievous, up-to-no-good attitude (at times). I am restless like him. I like to go and do my own thing. I’m creative and stubborn. I get in my own way.
My father was not perfect–so far from it, in fact, it makes my head spin. I can see why he was the way he was, but that doesn’t make it okay. I can learn from it, though, and be someone he couldn’t be.
It’s been 28 years since my father died, and I still think of him every day…though I hope my life is no longer a reaction to his absence and is now more of a synthesis of his legacy. I’ve learned more about him as an adult–from his journals–and it’s odd how much we have in common. His life has been a lesson in human frailty for me. He reminds me of my own humanity and the choices I make every day. I have given myself permission to love him, and I find that it’s easy to do that now. I suspect I will always struggle to reconcile who he was in my life, though.
In an odd way, my father’s death and processing it taught me how to love and how to be myself. For that, I will always be grateful.
I miss him–for everything he was and everything he couldn’t be. It gets easier sometimes, and then sometimes, it doesn’t. But mostly, I just remember that he loved me. And I still love him.