Thursday, November 09, 2006

King Dad


Some memories remain forever.

My father died on this date in 1965.

I first heard the expression “Napoleonic complex” from his lips, describing another lawyer, not himself. It never crossed his mind that he had any flaws because of all the people on earth, God had singled out my father to embody total perfection. Dealing with everyone else’s glaring imperfections was a great trial to him. He was often “aggravated." My main job in life was not to aggravate my father.

He took frequent naps when he was home, requiring total silence throughout the house. I always marveled at his ability to sleep in the daytime as I couldn’t manage it myself. Even more surprisingly, he would undress and don his pajamas when he napped, exactly as if it were night time, which to me was as miraculous as the loaves and fishes would have been had I known about them.

When he was not napping, he sat in his big green chair in the study and read. Nobody else ever sat in that chair, even my brother; it was my father’s chair, and was by far the most comfortable seat in the house. He could not be interrupted for any reason when he was installed in his chair, reading.

My mother never had time to sit down anyway, as she had to tend to the many details of keeping house. I wondered what, exactly, "keeping house" meant, or more accurately, I knew very well what it meant, but wondered why. Why she had given her life to laundry, and why stewardship of my father’s house, for all things belonged to him, was a temporary condition needing to be renewed constantly. His entitlement was so great that the rest of us were there only by his considerable grace and we all knew it. We had no power, but had to take the oath of office every day. It was unsettling.

My father informed us smugly that all the best chefs were men, but I never saw him cook anything. On holidays, my mother roasted a turkey with stuffing and potatoes and vegetables, or she made roast beef with potatoes that she cooked in the same pan so they’d soak up the garlic and pepper she’d smeared on the meat.

My father made the salad dressing, a star turn dramatic performance. We watched breathlessly as he rubbed a clove of garlic over the inside of a large polished wooden bowl he had made on his basement lathe, and then he mixed oil and vinegar and something that turned it the rusty color of French’s French dressing. My mother cut up the salad vegetables while she checked her pie in the oven. When we sat down to dinner, everyone raved about my father’s heroic effort, how his salad dressing was the best in the world. It seemed so unfair but I did it too; we were all in this together. My father was the one we all hungered to please. Then we ate the huge meal my mother had spent the whole day preparing.

My father was a Mason. This was a secret organization with a secret password and a secret handshake, like the Boy Scouts but for grownups. Or the Ku Klux Klan, who burned a cross on our front lawn when I was three. I watched them in their ghostly bedsheets from my upstairs dormer window.

My father was proud of being a 32nd degree Mason, which was the highest you could go except for Shriner. The Shriners wore Turkish fez hats with tassels and went on parades. They all seemed to be Midwestern. My father even had a special Masonic Bible.

He said that Catholics couldn't be Masons because they had to tell all their secrets to the priest. Since I was a secret Catholic, I felt bad about this. I looked forward to the day I would have really bad things to confess.

One day I told him, “I know the Mason’s secret password.”

He regarded me with mild contempt. “And what do you think it is?” he said.

“It’s Tubalcaine!” I bellowed triumphantly. His eyes stopped moving for a second, and I knew I was right. I savored my moment of power.

“Where did you hear that?” he asked casually. My father was a trial lawyer and a poker player. I was a child, eager to even the score.

“I read it in a magazine,” I said. He didn’t answer.

“It’s from the Bible,” I announced.

“What would you know about that?” he sneered. He was losing patience now but I was on a roll. I couldn't stop myself.

“It’s from Genesis.” I recited, “He was a forger of brass and made pillars of stone.”

My father went back to his book. I had lost his attention and wished I knew how to get it back. I knew that "Mason" was short for "Freemason;" I wasn't sure what that meant but I’d heard of stonemasons. I didn’t understand why a lawyer would belong to a secret society of men who made things out of rocks, unless he had even more of a secret life than I suspected.

My father wore Hickey Freeman three-piece suits and a holster with a loaded .38. He was known to have caused other lawyers to hit the floor in their favorite lunch spot near the County Courthouse when he whipped it out and plunked it on the table, right next to the hot roast beef sandwiches.

He was a criminal lawyer, not a Mob lawyer like you have today, but a defender of private individuals who committed violent crimes like Tony Leckich, who shot his uncle at close range with a shotgun in their used car lot.

My father’s unsavory clientele, along with his own abrasive manner, made him the target of periodic death threats, so he was permitted by the police to carry a gun. He had several guns, actually, but carried only one at a time, thereby not flouting the authority of his permit.

He practiced shooting in our basement, pumping rounds into a man-sized target he'd bought on a family visit to the FBI in Washington one Christmas vacation. The tour guide at the FBI showed us pictures of famous criminals like Babyface Nelson and John Dillinger. I couldn't decide if I wanted to be a criminal or a G-man. There didn’t seem to be any women in these professions, and I was at a disadvantage in either case because I was afraid of guns.

I was convinced that any moment, a bullet would come through the floor and kill me. I hunched up small in my closet, chewing my nails and wondering if I would know I was dead right away, or if it would feel the same as being alive, except for being invisible and oozing through walls. I startled each time a shot rang out. I made up prayers because I didn't know any real ones.

My parents’ friends, Eric and Alice Bender, came to dinner occasionally. Eric was a roentgenologist and Alice was his office assistant; she adjusted people to have their X-Rays taken. She kept two pampered cats named Panda and Faust who drank water from the kitchen tap. She dressed them in tiny baby garments and bought them fish heads from a specialty market frequented by foreigners. The Benders had no children.

They had escaped Nazi Germany and come to America just in time; both lost all their family members in the Holocaust. Eric was a dark, gutteral man who argued with my father often as both were opinionated and invincible. Alice was a large, kind, bony woman with light hair and spaces between her strong yellow teeth.

One night at dinner, my father was showing his guns to the Benders. He brought them forth like Exhibit A and Exhibit B while sitting at table, spinning them tenderly in his blunt-fingered hands.

Alice became increasingly nervous and said, “Pleass put them avay, Irffing.”

He laughed and spun them faster. “They aren’t even loaded,” he said.

Alice looked as if she would slide senseless into her brisket with boiled potatoes and lima beans. “I vish you vould take them off the table,” she pleaded. All her w’s sounded like v’s.

“Look, Alice, they’re perfectly harmless,” my father said, grinning, as he pulled the trigger. The gun leaped in his hand. The noise was deafening in our small dining room. Our dog, Patty, exploded from under the table, yelping, butted the screen door open and raced down the street.

The next morning, Sunday, the phone rang while my parents were still in bed. My brother answered it and immediately left the house. I pulled on my jeans and t-shirt and ran after him, but he was already coming back from the far corner and wouldn't allow me to pass him.

I saw the brown heap of dog on the curb and struggled to go to her, but he got me in a kind of hammerlock and dragged me back to the house. He woke my parents because he didn't know what to do.

“Can we bury Patty in the back yard?” I asked.

“The town will take care of it,” my mother said in a tone which signified that I may not broach the subject again.

They left our dog stiffening on the far curb.

I cried silently for days under my soggy bed covers, making obligatory appearances at the dining table where I had to pretend nothing was wrong because children were not allowed to display their feelings in our home. I was ashamed that I had any. The only emotion that got expressed with impunity was my father’s anger, which was an unpredictable but regular occurrence. I felt as if I had a huge lump inside my head.

I made a marker out of a Good Humor stick that said, “Would God be wasting a dog like Patty?” which I thought sounded Irish. After all, Patty was a pedigreed Irish Terrier. Invoking God worried me as I was unsure of my parent’s position on Him. I hid the marker under a rose bush, but a few days later I saw it in the garbage can, and there were pink tea roses in a cut crystal vase on the sideboard.

No one ever mentioned Patty again.

A few years later, Alice Bender died of leukemia and Eric’s new assistant was not required to stand by the table while he took X-Rays.

Within a few months he married Judith, an elegant woman in a black upsweep hairdo with a single perfect strand of white accenting her refined features. She never set foot in his office, she gave away Alice’s cats, and they soon disappeared from my parent’s life.

To this day, I recall every detail of my father's death and the remarkable aftermath. He had always promised that if there were any way to send a message from beyond, he would. I never doubted it because he had told me my entire life that he could do anything.

An hour after he died, the entire East Coast of North America experienced an unprecedented complete blackout for which there was no logical explanation. Since my father was an accomplished curmudgeon, I was sure that if his lights were out, damn it, EVERYBODY'S would be out.

The Blackout of 1965 disrupted the supply of electricity from Canada through New England and down the Eastern Seaboard to Florida. Twenty-five million people over 80,000 square miles had no electricity for up to twelve hours. The cause of failure originated in Ontario when lines became overloaded, which automatically shut down the entire power distribution system like falling dominos within five minutes.

Since that day, whenever my brother's family and mine get together for weddings, funerals and other State Occasions, the lights go out briefly but unmistakably. Like a bird dipping its wings. And we know Dad is still with us.

44 comments:

Odat said...

Oh wow!
You ought to write a book!
(I cried for the dog and for you).

And I think I've mentioned this before to you, if not for all this, you wouldn't be the special person you are today, enriching all us with your wonderful thoughts and memeories.

Peace

Neurotica said...

Your father was an incredible character; I have the impression that his insistence that no one else may express emotion (after all, he used up all of it himself) left quite a legacy...
The famous Night the Lights Went Out. Wasn't there a book about that night?
Amazing details about the Benders, too. Did Patty die from the gunshot or from being hit by a car?

Thailand Gal said...

Wow.. what a story.. and what an excellent storyteller you are! I will be back to read more.

Thank you for the comment on my blog. :)


Peace,

Thailand Gal
~*~*~

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Odat,

THANK YOU! You're always there for me.

I have written a childhood memoir, which this was adapted from. I have no idea what to do with it, or if it's good enough to try.

Peace.

Neurotica,

Yes, he certainly was. I had to learn to express emotion as a young adult. Life generously gave me many opportunities to cry, and also to feel joy. As we know, you can't have one without the other. I have my preferences, however.

I have always wondered about the cause of Patty's death. It was unthinkable to ask. I lean toward believing that she ran outside in terror but not shot, and was hit by a car. I have no idea why this was not discovered until morning. I have no idea about so many things in my childhood, despite the power of my memories.

There are probably several books about that day. I haven't read them.

Thank you for your visit! I checked out your blog and it's fantastic. I'll be back soon.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Thailand Gal,

Thank YOU for your visit! And for the wonderful compliments.

We share many interests and I've bookmarked your blog so I can return often.

mist1 said...

Oh...I just love my dad. I have to call him. Right now.

Lex said...

You are such an amazing storyteller, with an amazing story to tell.

Thanks for sharing this one.

I was just researching the Masons about 3 weeks ago, but I was alone in my office late and suddenly got this eerie feeling that freaked me out. I decided to leave it alone for the moment.

My grandfather was a Mason. But I've heard that "black" Masons are different from "the" Masons. My grandfather could have easily have been either. He was half Irish and passed for white regularly.

I want to know more aabout them...partly because I'm nosy, but mainly because so many Masons have run this country. What's up with that? I have a few friends who I like to call conspiracy theorists, but the more I listen to them....the more I wonder...

And, I must not understand the KKK as much as I thought. Why did they burn a cross in your yard?

You've had some life, Heart.

I hope you're writing a book.

The Law Fairy said...

Wow, heart. You are simply amazing. I wish I were able to write half as powerfully. For whatever my opinion's worth, your writing is *absolutely* good enough to try something with.

Thanks for sharing another great story! And I'm very sorry about Patty... that nearly made me cry at work (especially since I am a new mommy to a precious little doggy -- dogs being hurt just breaks my heart).

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Mist,

Isn't it funny how sometimes we love people for what they AREN'T as well as for what they are?

For the record, I loved my dad, too. He was my dad.

He was also a first-rate pianist, who regularly played his beloved Chopin for the listening pleasure of our whole neighborhood.

Lex,

I don't know much about the Masons either, but having reminded myself of his association with them, I feel a need to learn more. Maybe we could share what we find out.

I never knew why they torched their cross for us. Maybe they werer branching out. Nobody really told me much as a child, and so many events passed into history, half-digested.

Law Fairy,

Thank you so much for your very kind words. I wondered if you would start packing a gun, too, now that you know lawyers are supposed to.

I absolutely LOVE dogs. Most of them are pure love, and I think those who deliberately abuse them should be drawn and quartered.

Lex said...

I'm going to start by trying to get my grandfather's Mason's Bible from my dad. And I'll ask him too, he may know something. I'll let you know what I find out.

Crankster said...

That's an amazing story, and it was amazingly written. Your father reminds me of my grandfather. My aunts and uncles are still recovering from him, and he's been dead for fifteen years.

Thank you for conveying your love and fear so beautifully.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Lex,

Please do. There was such an air of mystery about it when I was a child. But then, that was true of everything pertaining to my father.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Crankster,

Thank you for your lovely compliments.

Only 15 years? They have a ways to go.

I'm not sure I presented an even-handed portrait of my father because he was also quite charismatic, and resembled Humphrey Bogart. He spoke 6 or 7 languages fluently, was a magnificent pianist, a former Golden Gloves boxer, and even did a stint as a cowhand in Texas before putting himself through night law school, which he paid for by working as an interpreter on the NY docks.

He was a legend among trial lawyers, and not only for his gun-totin' ways, birds flew into our backyard and perched on his hands to be fed crumbs, and he was a household despot.

About the only thing he never was was dull.

urban-urchin said...

Your father was quite a narcassist.
Poor Patty and poor little hearts. To not be able to express emotion as a child is horrible. Between this and the boat incident I am amazed that you turned out so well.

This was a great post, really well written. Thanks again!

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Urchin,

Awww, I'm touched that you think I turned out well. I was sure the jury was still out. Thank you!

Lee said...

That was stunning! Thank you for sharing. I've got goosebumps...stunning!

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Lee,

Thank you so much! A compliment from you is a treasure because I'm a great admirer of your writing skills.

Bird on a Wire said...

Wonderful post. Keep it up.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Bird,

Thank you. You're very kind.

thethinker said...

That was amazing, very well written. I have a weakness for pets, and like Odat, that picture and the story alongside it made me want to cry. The first cat to die in our family was hit by a car and our mother told us she ran away. It wasn't until recently that I found out the real story. Our first dog to die was buried in the backyard. I was 4 years old and for some strange reason, I thought that if I sprinkled milk on his grave everyday, he'd come back to life. This was probably because when he was alive, I'd feed him milk from out of my bottle. I like your method of remembering Patty with the marker much better.

And I agree with Odat. You should write a book. I, and many others I'm sure, would buy it.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Thinker,

I so appreciate your lovely thoughts. I have written a childhood memoir, but haven't tried to get it published yet. If I figure out how, you guys will be the first to know!

I love animals, too. Often more than people. I have never been really disappointed in an animal, and couldn't do without all that unconditional love.

katrice said...

Wow! As I read your childhood stories, I see Scout- and Jem-like kids on the silver screen playing out your adventures and your tears. Your writing is CERTAINLY good enough for publication. At least in my humble opinion.

As a fellow emotionally suppressed child, I have a hard time feeling now as an adult. You don't seem to have detachment and general emotional numbness. How did you manage this? How do you begin to feel when you haven't been allowed to for so long? Just something I'm working through.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Katrice,

Funny you should mention that. I knew a Boo Radley, too, only her name was Gwendolyn. I should write about her sometime.

I never lost my ability to feel, but I still struggle with expressing my feelings. So for all the good I do others, I might as well be numb when that happens.

Cutting a child off from his own feelings is so incredibly destructive. It can only be for the convenience of parents who are themselves traumatized and detached.

The longer I know you, the more I realize how many things you and I have in common.

Pickled Olives said...

Thank you for sharing such a touching story. I could picture it perfectly. My heart aches for your inability to mourn your dog at that time. Free expression is so important for development.

Have you considered the cross incident a reaction to someone your father may have represented? It would be interesting to go through court records to see who your dad represented...

nmj said...

I agree with others, this is good writing,it feels novelistic. If your childhood memoir is this well written you should send it off, though can be a rollercoaster ride . . .

kim said...

you should send it in hearts ...
you captured not only the essence of your father,and the taste of a different era, but also how it feels to be powerless as a kid.
it was touching ... send it in

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Olives,

I'm glad you liked it.

I hadn't actually considered the bonfire in that light. My father never represented a Klansman, but certainly some of his clients were black, so it's possible that the white-robed crazies were practicing their own brand of free expression.

Nmj,

Thank you for taking time away from your own fine writing to read mine.

I think I could handle the ride. I just have no idea how to find an agent, and I've heard that unagented work gets dumped in a slush pile forever.

misanthropster said...

My dad died this past April.

I miss him daily.

This is one of the best memorializations of a father that I've read, ever.

Thank you.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Misanthropster,

I'm so terribly sorry about your father. Losing a parent is really unimaginable. I love that you and Crankster named your beautiful daughter after him.

And I appreciate your very kind remarks about my post. I really didn't know what would come up when I began it; there was so much good stuff and so much not-so-good stuff. But as you know, every father is unique.

Thank you again for your visit. I'm going to follow you home now. I'll be the one with the red carnation in my teeth.

PARLANCHEQ said...

Wow! I think you need to do something with that childhood memoir you mention in the comments. I bet there is lots more good stuff in there!

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Parlancheq,

I'd really like to, thanks. I appreciate the support so much.

nmj said...

Yeah, It is definitely best to find an agent, but it is not an easy task, and even when you've got one, the quality of the writing may not be enough as I learned . . . but I would imagine there are lots of independent publishers in San Fran willing to take a risk on stuff that is tricky to market. But steel yourself for rejections, my dear, that is just the nature of the process!

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Nmj,

Thanks for the helpful advice. I know about rejection: When I was a kid, I submitted a children's book to about a dozen publishers and got a whole matched set of rejection letters.

I wanted to wallpaper the bathroom with them, but my mother had other decorating ideas.

What's happening with YOUR excellent book, which I always look forward to peeking into when you post excerpts?

nmj said...

Hey, It's kind of on the back-burner just now, had planned to self publish on lulu website, but because of the publishers' feedback and readers in general and my own belief in it, I feel the book deserves better! We shall see. I used up so much energy on it, & my energy is precious, whole process took six years from start to finish, so just letting things rest for a bit, but the book is there, it cannot disappear . . . btw, I blogrolled you last week when I made the beta leap, so hope this sends some more UK readership your way!

heartinsanfrancisco said...

NMJ,

Well, you know what they say: When the time is right, the book appears. I'm sure we'll all be reading your wonderful work between hard covers before long.

Thank you for the link! I hadn't been keeping up with mine, but was delighted to add yours to my roll. And I promise never to send you any :)'s or :('s.

nmj said...

Jeez, I didn't mean, 'I've blogrolled you, so you do me', it's so personal who you put there, most people don't even know they're on mine . . . & please don't refrain from the smileys if it's your preference, I really have no problem receiving them!

heartinsanfrancisco said...

NMJ,

Okay. Listen up. It IS personal. Everyone on my blogroll is someone I enjoy reading. I happen to know that I am not on some of theirs, and that I AM on one or two others that I haven't added for whatever reason.

I've intended to add yours since I first read it as I admire your style and like your views. So when you said you had added me to yours, my reaction was, "Oh shit. I've been meaning to put her on mine for easier access, but forgot."

And my comment about the smileys was because I've read your views on them. I think they're overdone, but can take them or leave them.

Are we still friends?

Aisby said...

This hit me deeply. You are a wonderful story teller and through just this glimpse, I can almost picture your father. One thing I can say is if the KKK burned a cross on your lawn, he must have done something right.

Although it sounds like a repressive and at times frightening childhood, I would prefer to believe that your father came from the old-school of non-parenting fathers, where most of the the men really just didn't know any better. I remember being shocked to find out that my beloved grandfather barely showed up for my dad's birth and attended none of his sporting events. I prefer to remember him in the later years.

My father and I have often had a rocky relationship but I do still have him around and I'm working on mending our past.

velvet girl said...

Wow, what an incredibly powerful piece. I think that you should seek out a publisher for your story. I was absolutely spellbound.

You don't hear about many fathers like yours these days for whatever reason (at least I haven't). The blackouts and light flickers are very odd. Very strange.

Again, wow.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Aisby,

Thank you for your comments. Unfortunately, my experiences with my male parent set me up to have very low expectations of men. My first husband dropped me off at the hospital when I was in labor with my first child, and the second time I couldn't find him at all. I drove my daughter to my mother's and then drove myself to the hospital to give birth.

I am not so inclined to excuse such appalling behavior as a cultural, or "in those days" kind of thing.

I'm glad you still have a chance to get to know your dad as an adult, and I wish you luck with this important relationship.

Velvet,

Oh, my. Thank you so much. He was definitely one-of-a-kind. He was both very wonderful and very terrible, and thus, always confusing.

The light thing is quite a fascinating phenomenon. I have recently read books by mediums who say that spirits can manipulate electricity. Knowing what I do, I'm willing to consider it.

storyteller said...

H in F
I know you wrote this a year ago, but I just found and read it today. What an amazing piece. So much "resonates" and I'm sure you WILL be published soon.

My dad (who died of cancer in 1976 when I was 30) used to say, "What doesn't kill makes us stronger." In my day, children were to "be seen and not heard. Parents often did what had been done to them and many lived life "in survival mode" once the "The Great Depression" wreaked havoc in their lives. In some ways my childhood was simple and good ... in others it was repressive and hurtful, but I am who I am because of all the experiences of my life. Your stories help me remember my own ... and your courage in sharing them so eloquently emboldens me to give serious consideration to sharing my own.
Hugs and blessings,

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Storyteller,

They say the truth shall set us free. Let's hope it's true.

Thank you for coming back to read this. I would enjoy reading your stories, too. We grew up in the same general era.

storyteller said...

H in SF
Ah ... thanks for responding. I didn't know whether or not you'd ever see my comment, but I'm glad you did.

I'll be back for more ... count on it! The frustrating thing about being new out here in the virtual world is that there's so much to catch up with! But then, I do have lots of discretionary time these days :)

In a moment of boldness, I did share one of my Visual Poetry pieces just yesterday at Sacred Ruminations. It's a big step for me to "go public" in this way ... but I'm taking it one day at a time. We'll see what happens.
Hugs and blessings,

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Storyteller,

Blogger sends an email every time someone comments to a post. Otherwise, I wouldn't have known you had read an older one.

I've been busy all this week, but will definitely check out your poetry later. I have posted a couple of poems, too. It took far more courage than prose.