“My father lives in Spain.” “My father is a science fiction author.” “My father started a well- known international music festival in Mallorca.” “My father tours around Europe with a chamber music orchestra.” “I love to hear my father play Spanish guitar.” I love to talk about my father, because it sounds so glamorous. But our relationship is nothing to brag about.
We have begun to communicate again during the past year, and he has been trying to clarify incidents that I remember from my childhood. He sends me emails to answer questions. I asked him to explain to me about the car accident during my childhood:
May ’60? Studebaker broke down, bought Chevy Bel Air Saturday, accident Sunday on the road to Apopka. Car salesman had lied, saying insurance was good until Monday, but not so. The drunks who ran into us were on their last binge before going into the US Army, no insurance. Chevy a total loss, but at least I managed to avoid killing the Negro children leaving their church just off the road.
He says that he left my mother in 1960 (when I was two) because he “unraveled” from all of their problems:
I had lost both my jobs, an unfortunate car wreck wiped us out financially, and I could see no way out. Of course, fate and the desire for literary and artistic adventure and travel, instilled in us all at university, these things sent me sailing away with Mari to Europe within a couple of years. (The last thing I remember in the house on Julian Street: you were looking out the window from your crib and said: Why is the moon blowing the clouds away?)
Soon after his departure, I was sent to a crippled children’s home in Florida, had an operation, and wore a full body cast for about a year. My father came to visit when I was there:
About this time (1960?), I made a visit to Florida from NY, and you were in Umatilla Children’s Hospital with braces between your ankles to straighten your hip joint. Your mother of course knows a lot more about this than I do. (You poor thing, all smiling, with a pleated light blue skirt, scooting around with fantastic energy and will.)
He also recalls visiting us in a one-room apartment where we stayed briefly with mother. I remember the place, but not his visit:
1961 Spring- visited you all in your grandfather’s garage apartment in Indialantic, soon after which I left New York for Paris.
Summer 62 – summer 64: I was in Europe and Turkey with Mari, until she had her nervous breakdown in Germany.
He came for Margaret and me during his second marriage, and we stayed with him in Missouri. He published his first story for a science fiction magazine while we were there.
I think in autumn 64 (maybe 65, since when we first returned, Mari spent several months in the Nevada Mental Hospital south of Kansas City) she and I drove to pick up you kids from the house in the country (NC?) You three spent part of that summer with us in Pleasant Hill, Mo.
December 1965 Analog published my first story: Countercommandment. I began writing sci-fi regularly, and when I had sold a few more, and when Mari was working and healthy again, I left for New York. (Her family did not like me, and blamed me for her breakdown.) A year later I went to Mexico for a divorce.
I asked my father where he was when we were placed in the custody of the state of North Carolina, and he replied:
In 1967-68 I was working for the Welfare Department in Brooklyn, caring for unwed mothers and abandoned families, ironically. My supervisor convinced me I could get custody of you guys. Shortly after that, my new wife and I visited you girls in NC, with a view to perhaps taking you with us when we got married (May 1968.)
By that time, not sure when, James was already adopted by your grandparents. When your mother learned my plan, she sent a telegram asking me please not to take you. She was about ready to bring you home with her, I guess.
This message made me rather downcast, because I believe things would have been much better for me and Margaret with our father, but we were destined to return to our mother instead. I ended up in Gainesville alone at the age of thirteen. My father appeared one day when I was living on the streets.
I visited you in Gainesville, staying with Grant. You said somewhere I turned you on to LSD on one of these visits – I always thought it was the other way around, though definitely I remember walking around Gainesville with you, stoned. You visited your trunk on somebody’s porch. I believe you were living in the woods? Reading Shakespeare and Chaucer? Learning guitar? Writing poetry? This is the way it comes to memory.
Wow! Did I really turn my father on to drugs for the first time? Maybe so, but I am sure he made the purchase. I asked him if he or my mother had ever experimented with drugs and he answered:
Your mother and I never used any drugs, did not smoke cigarettes, and only occasionally drank wine with a meal. I first smoked when I started working in night clubs, and drank the occasional Scotch. It wasn’t until I was caring for drug addicts in the NY welfare dept that I discovered marijuana, say in 1967-68.
As for the hippies, yippies, and yuppies, maybe, briefly, from 1968 to 1978: smoking dope, magic mushrooms, long hair, beard, improvising music and life in general. But that is behind me.
After my father’s visit in 1974, I did not see him again until he was appointed by the Spanish government to visit Saint Augustine in 1988. He claims to have lost track of me when I moved to Oregon to attend college, but I remember asking him to “give me away” at my wedding, and sending him birth announcements for each of his grandsons.
I lost track of you when you went to Oregon, or so I believe, and the next thing I knew you were married to a Quaker baker, and had children. When did all this happen? While I was in Galilea?
My father visited me in Saint Augustine during the Christmas holidays just before my sons had reached school age. He had never seen them. He kept hugging them and reading them stories and singing to them. He was just as charming as ever, with his slender body and warm resonant voice and goatee. He told us that he wanted to be part of our lives from then on and promised to keep in contact with us after he went back to Spain.
That night, he went out with a lady from the local cultural events committee and had a few drinks, and began to tell her about what a terrible father he had been to me. The lady quoted him as saying, “I can’t believe my daughter even lets me in the house or speaks to me. But she invites me in with a smile, and gives me homemade pumpkin pie, and lets me help decorate the Christmas tree. I just can’t stand it.” I guess I was torturing him with kindness.
During this visit, my father told me his version of what happened during my childhood. He spoke again of the car accident and my hip defect, and how the medical bills began to flood in, putting tremendous strain on their marriage. I guess that means that a lot of their marital troubles were my fault.
He also said that while he was working all day and going to school in the evenings, my mother was busy hanging out with her friends. No food was ever prepared for him, and the sink was always full of dishes, and we were always in our cribs crying in our dirty diapers. After a long exhausting day, he had to change our diapers and do dishes and find food to eat. So one night after the anger had been building in him for a long time, he came home and found the sink full of dishes.
He called my mother into the kitchen, and pulled a dish out of the sink, and asked her, “Are you going to wash it?” She stared at him with those cold icy eyes that I know so well, and said nothing. He threw the dish on to the floor where it shattered. He picked up another dish, and asked her again, “Are you going to wash this?” Again, no answer. He threw this one on the floor, and this continued until every dish was broken on the floor.
At least now I know where one of my tragic personality flaws came from. I cannot stand for a man to tell me what to do. Perhaps this is what was wrong with Eve in the garden. Maybe she resented Adam’s authority.
The night my father left, he says that Margaret and I heard him threatening to leave our mother. So we tied his shoelaces together and hid his shoes. When he was ready to walk out, he had to search for his shoes and untangle the knotted up laces. When I heard this, it made me want to laugh and cry at the same time.
My father says that he returned a year or two later and tried to reconcile with Mother, but it didn’t work out.
But why did he throw his children away?
I am told that he had an abusive alcoholic father, so perhaps he passed on the neglect he experienced as a boy. I really think we had two parents who did not wish to be parents.
My father was in Saint Augustine for a week or two, and returned to Spain, where he promptly forgot about us again for many years. My three sons are now in college, and he still asks me their names whenever he gets around to calling. Now that he is elderly and his companion is gone, he is in touch a bit more. He wants forgiveness, but he can still be terribly insensitive towards me.
I have tried to tell him that it’s never too late to start being a father. Once I became weary of him wounding me, and cut off all communication with him for over a year. It was the first time he ever had to grovel for attention. During this time, his email messages to me completely changed. He started writing them with the greeting “Dear Daughter” and signed off with “Love, Papa.” He had never tasted his own poison before. The poison of neglect and loneliness.
My father tells me he has lived his life well and to its fullest. I have barely survived and suffered tremendously. I cannot imagine bringing children into this world, and doing nothing for them in your whole life. Not one single thing. I would hate to take that to my grave or to my God. I am not so angry with him now, but I feel very sorry for him. I cry at night sometimes when I think about him. He will become very lonely one of these nights. It is his karma.
In a recent telephone conversation, my father said, “I feel so guilty because I have had such a good life, but I have not been good. I didn’t deserve any of the things I’ve enjoyed. But if you live long enough, your evil ways will catch up to you. Mine are catching up to me now.” I felt a warm wave of comfort splash upon the shores of my mind as he said these words to me, a feeling I cannot fully describe.
My father still cares about my mother, and he always inquires about her. He loves to look at photos of her, and he says that he will never forget the day that he climbed into the back seat of a friend’s car and met a woman with long blonde hair, a low-cut dress, and a classic face like a goddess. I asked my father if he and Mother were beatniks, and he sent me this reply:
Well, it was the age of beatniks, all right. But I didn’t know that. When I hitched at age 17 from Florida to Michigan and on to Seattle, to go for a summer job working in the Coos Bay Lumber Camp in Oregon, I had no idea Kerouac was also on the road. And when the lumberjacks went on strike, I turned in my boots and bought the second book I ever bought, The Old Man and the Sea, which was brand new, and best of all, very short.
I went on to San Francisco, but when I went to the City Lights Bookstore, I didn’t know that Gregory Corso, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti and the whole bunch were going to be so important. I bought a couple of books, moved over to Berkeley Bowl to set pins in the alley for a couple of weeks before heading on back to Tallahassee to start college.
I did buy my clothes in the Army surplus, and copying a self-portrait of Van Gogh, wore a woolen cap and smoked a stub pipe, walking around the campus with my buddy David Wade, quoting Dylan Thomas to each other, and generally staying independent of all the usual college guy stuff.
Your mom was of the same ilk. She hung out with the art crowd, let the famous Karl Zerbe make a plaster cast of her face, and while he was at it, he pulled her top down, so she said. I wouldn’t blame him. She wore strapless elastic gingham dresses that tested gravity and the will power of mankind itself.
Now I address my father as “Poppy” because it implies both toxicity and endearment. Our communication is much better these days, and because of him I know a few things about my parents that I can laugh about.
I always search for good attributes in people, because we are all fallen in some way. There is a verse I love which says, “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”[i] Meditating upon this has proven to be an excellent spiritual exercise in my own life.
Here are some virtues of my parents’ legacy: we were taught tolerance and surrounded by diversity. My parents were activists in the early days of the Civil Rights struggle, and were thrown in jail for trying to integrate buses in Tallahassee in 1956. My mother was always receptive to other cultures and new ideas. I remember many of her friends: A Native American eagle dancer named Martin Allen who tried to teach me ballet (what a joke), a young Jewish man named Joseph Potash whose countenance radiated sweetness, a kind plump black lady named Pearl, a dainty and lovely Japanese friend named Mary Katayama, an old Chinaman who wanted to marry my mother and cooked wonderful stir-fries for us. Unlike many of our Southern neighbors, we learned that bigotry was ignoble, and that everyone should be treated with acceptance.
There is another accidental blessing that took place. After my father and brother were gone, I found myself in a household of women. Three of us had been molested by men who knew our parents, so we didn’t miss the male attention too much at the time. We each constructed our fortresses of inner strength in our own way. Although we longed for companionship when we were lonely and battled our personal demons, we learned that life without men is not such a dreadful thing. There are no weak women in our family, and I am proud to say that.
We attended Quaker meetings when we lived with Mother, and I learned about a young zealous seeker and free thinker named George Fox, whose journal writings encouraged me to seek truth for myself, instead of letting someone sell me their version of it. I learned not to be afraid of being alone or being different. I learned not to be driven by the crowd.
Yes, some wonderful gifts were bestowed upon me by my parents.
My father still lives in Mallorca, and had his first heart attack several months ago while sitting at a café with a doctor; then he had a quadruple bypass. Soon after that, he broke his foot while building a chicken coop outside his villa. He blames it upon his crazy rooster that crows in the middle of the night, instead of waiting until dawn. Now his lungs have only have forty-eight percent of their capacity. He is writing more nowadays.
I’m not much of a traveler anymore, and I’ve never been to Spain. My father emailed me today, and said he is finally able to go out for a walk. I replied that I wish we could take a walk together.
He answered my message with these words: You are walking with me, in spirit. Hopefully one day again in the flesh. Just the two of us on a country road, or along a river, under autumn leaves on fire with the sunlight.
[i] Philippians 4:8