Tag Archives: fathers

A Father, a Daughter and a Fire: A Cautionary Tale about Voice.

DSCN0139I grew up in an age and family where children were meant to be seen, not heard. If either of my parents could have foreseen how my older brother and I would erupt with ideas and opinions as we neared adulthood, they probably would have been more lax about the policy. But they weren’t. And, boy, have they paid for it.

In high school my brother and a friend put out a political newspaper printed in red ink that protested the Vietnam War. He hawked copies at his high school, and when the administration found that to be disruptive, he took his bundles to the street corner and handed copies to driver stopped by traffic. I can’t remember whether all of this came before or after the year he joined the debate team. He has always loved the art and power of persuasion. How he ended up being a real estate developer rather than a lawyer still puzzles me.

I, too, had my causes. Most had to due with women’s rights, and I still champion those, although I no longer discuss them with my mother whose views are conservative. She still refuses to acknowledge that I kept my own surname when I married 17 year ago. Last week I received a birthday card from her. The last name on the envelope was my husband’s.

Such protest by my mother or others by my father has not stopped me from expressing myself on the pages of magazines, short stories, novels, letters to the editor, feature articles, Facebook and this blog.

Once I wrote a story about a trip my brother, father and I took to Belize in the days before it became prettified enough by Francis Ford Coppola and others to appear on HGTV and the Travel channels. After the column appeared in a magazine, my father threatened to sue me. He said we were definitely not on the same trip. My brother agreed, but his version differed from my mine and my father’s, too.

So, understanding how opinions and point of views can create havoc and dissension in a family, I still can’t believe that my father took advice from me seriously when I was only eleven or so. Back then, even I knew my suggestion was a fantasy, a crazy one. The kind Beaver Cleaver might dream up. But, heck, if my father was willing to listen to me, I was glad to hog the spotlight and talk.

It was a sunny fall day. My brother was off who-knows-where, and my mother and her best friend were going shopping and to a matinee in downtown Norfolk. Before leaving, she instructed my father and me to rake up and burn the leaves four-inches deep on our three-quarter-acre yard. Just the idea of this chore sapped our energy.

I wanted to bike with friends, hang out at the neighbor’s house where the daughter and I would take our Barbie and Ken dolls and smash them together so they could make out. This was long before we found out that Ken was gay. Before we even knew that gay meant something other than happy.

My father, who often kept a bushel of iced Lynnhaven oysters on the flatbed of his pickup and a bottle of Seagram’s under the driver’s seat, wanted to visit his buddies. I don’t know what his exact plans were for that day, perhaps rockfishing, but he had no more desire to clean up the yard than I did. For the first time, I understood we were allies. And that was when I told him I had a plan. I did not think he would go for it. Afterall, he was the adult.

I suggested to him that we rake the leaves away from all the trunks of the trees, then set the yard on fire. He said it was a fine idea. I was thrilled, even though I had doubts that I kept to myself. Whatever happened, I imagined my mother would never ask us to rake again.

The job took longer than we thought, leaving us no time for our friends, and by the time my mother returned home late that afternoon, we were guarding our yard of smoldering ash, careful to make sure the house did not burn down.

It took my mother a few moments to take in what we had done, even longer to find her voice because she was so livid. Madder than when I forged her name perfectly on a failing arithmetic test in third grade or when, at age four, I stole a caramel out of the Braff candy barrel at Overton’s Supermarket.

She wanted to know what we’d been thinking in our addled brains. We told her.

Then she told us what was in her sensible one – that someone would have to clean the smoke film from the windows, the soot we tracked onto the floors of the house, the paws of our white toy poodles every time they came in from doing their business.

But that wasn’t all. Someone, meaning my father, would have to plow up the yard with his tractor, rake it smooth, sow new seed, and keep it watered with a web of hoses attached to sprinklers cross the yard until grass sprouted.

It was a long time before I saw my friends anywhere except in Sunday School. My mother kept me busy after school and on weekends, washing dogs, dusting, mopping and so on. A list too tedious for details.

The next November, what I had imagined would be the best possible outcome – that she would never ask my father or me to rake again – never entered her mind. I hauled one small pile of leaves after another to the fire.
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My novel, Cooley & Rose, is now available as an e-book at Amazon Kindle Store, the ITunes Store, the Sony Reader Store, the Nook Store, Kobo, Baker & Taylor, Gardner’s, eSentral, eBook Pie, Scribd and Amazon.co.uk. NEW: A paperback version is available from Amazon. Please rate and review, good or bad, with the distributor and Goodreads.com. Thanks.cover final 3-2-13

The Year I Became a Black Sheep and Stayed that Way.

imagesOne glorious morning after my high school graduation, I totaled my car while my parents were vacationing near remote Corolla, NC.  They were unreachable because cell phones had yet to be invented, and Corolla Beach was off the grid.

I had stayed home alone because of my job at a bank where I spent my days checking the accuracy of computer print-outs for credit card merchant fees.  Even then, I thought the job, aside from being tedious, was silly.  Who was I, who maintained a steady C in high school math, to correct a computer?

But I did, and that’s where I was headed on a bright June morning as the eight-track played the Moody Blues when I, the only driver on the road, hit a parked car.  An Oldsmobile that was big, shiny cherry red, and, later I learned, bought new only one week prior.

Terrified, I knocked on doors until I found the owner.  But Jerry, even after taking a look at his car, seemed more worried about me.  He let me use his phone to call my neighbor and my boss.  He called the police because he needed a report to file an insurance claim.  As we waited for our guests, he gave me a Pepsi Cola and a Valium to calm my nerves.

When the policeman showed, Jerry begged him not to give me a ticket, but I left with a citation for reckless driving.

That Friday evening, my neighbor drove me to a pick-up spot north of Corolla to meet my father as planned the week before. Because I’d already spent a good portion of my life on restriction or writing “I must not . . .” sentences hundreds, perhaps thousands of times, I was scared to tell him about the ruin of Jerry’s car, the damage to my fifth-handed 1964 Impala and the ticket.  But I had to since my car was nowhere in sight.

As I recounted my morning and all that had gone wrong, his nostrils flared.  Moments later, he informed me that I would have to pay for the damage to my car and for a lawyer, whom I’d not planned on hiring.

Then he said, “Tell me exactly how this happened.   What were you doing?”

I told him that my shoulder bag leaning against the diver’s side floor hump flopped toward the gas pedal as I made a left turn and that as I’d reached down to remove it, I swerved into Jerry’s car.  An innocent mistake.  That was all.

“Hmph,” my father said.  “I think you were smoking a cigarette and dropped it.  You swerved trying to pick it up.”

It was scary how close he was to the truth, but I stuck to my story and told it to the judge who said, “What about centrifugal force?”

I left that courtroom with a reduced charge of improper driving, a fine and a crush on that white-haired man.  Even as a teenager I had a thing for brainy guys like Leonardo Da Vinci, Albert Einstein and Judge Lamb.

I told my father about court, the wisdom of the judge, and I let my dad think that he had gotten the story right since his theory was so close.

I would have left it at that if not for one thing.  The story became part of family lore —  the-daughter-as-a-black-sheep tale, and it was brought up at family dinners for the next 15 or so years.  I had moved on, done a lot of amazing things no one every mentioned or asked about.  In some ways I had the least blemished record of anyone in the family, except my mother.  Yet the story persisted.

Then, one Thanksgiving, long after my parents had split up and married others, someone, without a doubt my father, brought up the story that had so entertained my family, my family which had grown to include two teenage brothers, in addition to my older one, and a sister young enough to be my daughter.

This time when he came to the “she was smoking a cigarette,” I said, “Dad.”  I put down my fork.  “It wasn’t a cigarette.”  For a long few seconds, no one spoke.  Everyone stared at me. Having nothing to add, I picked up my knife and fork and returned to eating my dinner.  So did the others.

Several years passed before anyone brought up that story again, and the next time it was told, it was told right.

But not by my father.  He didn’t say a word.

Writer’s Note: I’ve an old notebook in which I keep weird facts, websites and off-the–wall news items.  Today I scanned through it, hoping for a blog idea.  Then I came across one line that read — The International Society of Black Sheep. This blog almost wrote itself.

Elizabeth Taylor Was Not My Mother.

DSCN0108When I was a kid, one of my favorite rainy day activities was to dig through the hall closet and haul out family albums and other mementos and spend an afternoon studying them.  Among these items were a small carving of Buddha, a picture of my father’s Japanese girlfriend, Mit-su, and a magical wooden cigarette box that he brought home with him from the Korean War;  photographs of my mother and her seven siblings taken at Ocean View Beach, the streets of Berkeley and my great-grandmother’s house in South Norfolk;  and a bronzed pair of baby shoes that had belonged to my older brother, a baby book that detailed his first year and every inch of him, his birth certificate riddled with errors, and an album fat with photos of him as a newborn.

I was eight before I realized that according to our closet, my own history with my family started when I was old enough to push my naked self up from my belly to stare into the camera. When I asked my mother why there were no pictures of me as a newborn and no baby book, she said, “I didn’t have time.  You were a baby.  Your brother was one.”  And my babies shoes and birth certificate?  “I don’t know.  They’re packed away somewhere.”

For a long while, I pondered her indifference, and it wasn’t until a girl in the neighborhood told me that she was adopted that I suspected that I was, too.  When I asked my mother, she snorted, “Adopted?  You look just like your father.”  And when I went to my father, he told me I looked just like my mother.  To me, their answers were fishy.  They looked nothing alike.

I turned to my grandmother for the truth as she was rolling out dough for dumplings on the kitchen table.  She stopped long enough to roll here eyes to heaven, shake her head and sigh before continuing on with her work.  From her actions and lack of words, I understood she had been sworn to silence.

Evidence mounted.  I spent a good portion of my life on restriction for various infractions, from storing my dirty socks under my bed and refusing to eat eggs, gagging at the sight and smell of them to failing a math quiz and forging my mother’s name on it.  That signature passed muster with my teacher but not with my parents.

It seemed as though years passed without my being allowed to see friends, talk on the telephone or watch TV.  If these people were my real parents, why weren’t they  nicer to me?

Then, when I was 12 or so, I read a newspaper article that said most children at some point in their lives believed they were adopted. Still, I had no evidence that I wasn’t.

And more to the point, I had nothing in common with my parents.  My mother, a Southern Baptist, loved church and True Romance magazines.  I did not.  My father enjoyed any dinner that included wild game riddled with buckshot, which I did not.  Both of them liked car trips that involved lots of scenery, especially long drives in mountains.  With my behind petrifying in the back seat of the Ford, there was only so much scenery i could take, 10 minutes at the most.

After college, I decided to take my savings and travel solo in Europe for three months.  This, of course, required a passport which, in turn, required a birth certificate that I ordered from the Virginia Department of Vital Statistics.  When it came, I saw for the first time that my parents were who they said they were, although our last names, typed incorrectly, were scratched through and written by hand.  Perhaps I should have been relieved to have my roots confirmed.  Instead, I felt a bit let down.  Elizabeth Taylor would not be coming to claim me.  Ever.

But this story doesn’t end there.  In time I started looking more like both of my parents who divorced after 21 years of marriage.  I kept my father’s coloring and my face began to resemble my mother’s.  As the three of us aged, I found much in common with both of them, too much and some things too embarrassing to list here.

Then, towards the last half of 2012, my parents each gave me what I consider as gifts.

My father told me about his cousin’s daughter, a woman close to my age whom I’d never met nor heard mentioned.  He thought we would like each other. because — get this — we both shared common medical histories. While that might be something to discuss, I didn’t see this common denominator as reason to embrace another relative.  (As those of you who read this blog know, I have a billion of them, not including my in-laws.)

My father sent me her email address, and I wrote her.  Becky wrote me back.  We continued to do so, getting to know each other as though we’d been set up by Match.com.  It was crazy how much alike we were in our interests.  Then, on Facebook, I saw her headshot, and there, I saw parts of myself — the shape of her face, the mouth, the teeth, and I knew her to be, without doubt, not just distant family but as a sister who “got” me and vice versa, even though we’d never met.

In November, during a visit to my 80 year-old mother, I told her of Becky and how much we shared in terms of genes, education, interests and so on, and when I finally stopped talking, she stood and said,  “Wait here.  I have something for you.”  She disappeared down the hall toward her bedroom, where I assumed she had a piece of clothing to pass on to me, but instead she returned and held out a set of bronzed booties.  “Take them,” she said.  They’re yours.”