My father left my mom when I was a year old. He was a career criminal on the run. He was invariably caught and spent a lengthy five years in Prison. Indeed easy time compared to what the hardened criminal was accustomed. He begged my mother to bring me to visit him in prison. She refused. She wouldn’t subject me to that environment. Whether or not the real reason, I believe she was punishing him for abandoning us. I remember him sending drawings and letters. A nice gesture, but I always felt it was superficial. He sent a five dollar bill in a birthday card for my fifth birthday filled with his impeccable handwriting and intelligent discourse. I kept it for years in a special box. I no longer have that box. I regret that day I threw all of those memories away, but most of its contents were of sorrow and heaviness. Here I sit, still melancholy in nature. The box of emotions would offer some assistance in understanding how I became such a complex spirit. Apparently I thought purging the gloomy items would somehow uplift me. I was mistaken.
I remember my mother being very beautiful. The stress of the previous years hadn’t revealed itself. Her usual fair skin was always the perfect shade of tan in the summer due to endless hours of yard work and sun bathing. I would play on the swing set she sacrificed so hard to buy, and she would smoke cigarettes, sip on gin and tonics, and pretend to watch me. I remember the sound the ice cubes made when she would take a drink. I incessantly hollered “Look mom, look at me”! Even when she wasn’t looking she would muster up a sound to acknowledge my brave new skill. Her hair was a chestnut brown; naturally curly. The curls were perfect. Not too tight and not too loose, and always to my envy as my hair was stubbornly straight. She never lacked for attention from men. I went to my grandmother’s almost every Friday night as my mother would be escorted to dinner by a new gentleman caller. I was always her excuse, the card she would play, in case she wanted to end the night early, which was the case more often than not. They would pick me up from grama’s apartment and when we got home her date would unfailingly leave due to a curious little girl in the way. Some of the men would leave at the door as soon as they knew their fantasies would be confined to their imaginations; others would at least come inside and sit down for a drink, but I usually crept out of my room disregarding instruction to go to bed and wedged myself between them. This would often seal the deal and so it was so long to “mister get away from my mother.”
My mom was the ultimate conquest for men in her field. She was virtually the only woman there, and she performed the same if not better. They were either intimidated or captivated. Either way, they wanted to say they had boarded that train. We were on welfare for the first two years of my life. Back then, it was acceptable and allowed to sit back and receive assistance without showing much effort. Not for my mother. She pulled herself up, dusted herself off, walked right into the Shipyards lacking the first clue of what the job entailed and demanded a chance. She was turned away more than once. Her perseverance paid off. She talked her way onto those vessels. She watched, asked questions, most likely to the annoyance of the skilled men she accompanied. She didn’t care. My mother was now making more money than most men in business suits. She would come to pick me up from school wearing overalls and smelling of diesel fuel, while all the other moms looked, well, like moms. I was embarrassed. But despite the oily clothes, she was the prettiest.
My mother was determined to give me the best life possible. She would go to any lengths to make sure I had the same opportunities as any child had from a two parent household. I attended a Christian school. She bought and fixed up a house, made sure I had nice clothes, and that I was well fed. We ate steak for dinner at least once a week. She spared nothing when it came to me. Although I was an only child, I was mortified when anyone coined me as spoiled. When I heard that word, I felt a huge knot in my stomach immediately. My defenses rose faster than I could contain them. My cousins often said this (probably hearing it from their parents) because out of 4 siblings, my mother had one child, the others had 2 or 3. I never wanted people to think I received whatever I asked for, because that simply was not true. I didn’t ask for much to begin with. I despise the stigma that only children are spoiled. She was merely taking care of me, although overcompensating for the lack of my father. I see that in hind sight. I often wonder if she does. She absolutely coddled me with protection, not wanting to let me out of her sight. She smothered me with mere intentions of love. I appreciate the gesture, but resent the overall result.
Life looked great from the outside as my lonely mother tried to pick up the pieces of her shattered life. Divorcing my father while telling me what a wonderful and prodigious man he was only prompted me inward. I didn’t bother to disassemble the contradiction, rather I stayed quiet. I was shy and painfully introverted. I learned to second guess my feelings as a child. On many occasions my mother would unravel in front of me. Her open displays of hysteria startled me. As well they should a young girl. I absolutely did not deserve to be a grown woman’s shoulder to cry on. One night in particular, on my mother’s 30th birthday, we went to dinner just the two of us. I loved the Chinese restaurant down the street from our house. They always brought me a Shirley Temple. My mom laughed because I refused to eat those little baby corn on the cob things. When we returned home, the gin and tonics she guzzled at the Chinese restaurant hit her as a reminder of her loneliness. She sobbed for hours placing her head on my lap. I was 5 years old and understandably unaware of her unhappiness, and ill equipped for how to respond. I can picture exactly where we were. In the dining room, next to the entry way on her hope chest. Facing the table and thankfully a window. I caressed her head, gently pulled her hair from her face, and stared out that window until she couldn’t muster another tear. From that moment my mother’s emotions were always in the forefront of my mind. I was acutely aware of them. I see it now as an anxiety. I was learning how to enable her, consequently excusing my own emotions, often misplacing them to be shelved somewhere within me, not knowing if I would need them later or how to recall them when I did. To this day, a sense of paralysis comes over me when I realize I am being cued to feel a certain emotion, and when I figure out what that feeling is, how do I respond? My heart shuts down when I should be crying. (But I can cry at the TV drama, no problem. What the hell is that about)? Getting out of the situation is my only goal so I can return to own thoughts where no one can judge me.
My only encounter with my father lasted just minutes. I wondered why my mom dressed me up nice and fixed me up for a special day. This was extremely irritating. I felt uncomfortable. This did not fit with the tomboy I saw in the mirror, but when she informed me that my dad was coming to see me, I quietly smiled on the inside with anticipation. I wouldn’t show my excitement because there was a possibility I would be disappointed. I learned from an early age that being optimistic was a set up for being let down. Our house was small, just enough for the two of us. Built in 1914, it was old but strong with character. It contained two bedrooms, one little bathroom, a kitchen, and a living and dining room that made up one big front room. The ceilings were higher than most houses which made it feel huge. Our carpet was an ugly burnt-orange. I remember how excited mom was when she finally picked out new carpet. I tried to talk her out of beige because of how easily it would stain and reveal dirt, but beige it was. There were two rooms, one for each of us. In between, lay a huge closet connecting the rooms together. Not great for privacy but served well for playing and hiding. Our basement held the washer and dryer. It was mostly for storage, damp and dark, and of course housed many spiders. We had 3 buckets in the kitchen catching the water falling from the ceiling. I remember the work party my mom threw when all of her new friends from the shipyard came over to re-roof the house. I wonder now how many men were thinking this was their chance to get into her pants. At least the job got done. After that, my mom and I together took hammers and tore down the walls in the living room. We watched all of the old plaster fall to the floor in a cloud of dust, smiling in anticipation for our new sheet- rocked walls. We got rid of the pea green cupboards in the kitchen, along with a new stove and refrigerator. Even new tile on the kitchen floor that I helped pick out, unlike the beige carpet I had no say in. My mom was proud of what she had done. She was a single mom who got us off welfare and transformed an old dilapidated house. I was proud, but when I became old enough to have friends from school, I was quickly humbled and embarrassed because my peers had two parents and lived in a bigger, nicer house.
The sound finally came. The knock on the door I had been waiting for. My father had just been released from Walla Walla State penitentiary. He drove four hours to visit the girl he had only seen in pictures. He was present for only the first nine months of my life. I remember being awkward and unsure, a disposition I have held close like a child’s worn blanket ever since. My mother prompted me to rise from our Texas Instrument Computer as she opened the door. I was in the living room brushing up on my math skills. There was a sun room like an enclosed porch hiding the door from my view as I waited in the living room. I heard Lew’s voice. He had a deep yet gentle tone. The muffled conversation was brief. And then I was face to face with the mystery man who carried the burden of bringing me into the world. He seemed very tall to me. He was muscular and tattooed from all the years in prison. He had dark hair and blue eyes. Just like me. We walked over to the dining room table, a solid oak table my mother had spent an entire paycheck to purchase. That table still sits in the same place. I remember sitting on his lap looking at him intently and with such curiosity as he exchanged words with my mother. I kept repeating in my head, ‘this is my dad.’ There was no close feeling, no excitement in the room whatsoever, just an uneasy tension mainly between Lew and my mother. I don’t remember what my appointed parents talked about. I am sure it all sounded a blur, as I sat memorizing his face. I sensed my mother’s irritation. I could not blame her considering my dad had a friend in the car (presumably a fellow inmate), and he wasn’t able to stay long. My insignificance was confirmed when I heard him say that. Just released, he was on strict supervision, and was instructed to go straight to California. Veering in any way was a serious parole violation. So I guess the gesture to come to Seattle and meet me was a commendable risk he took. This was my special day. I had been waiting for this moment my entire childhood. And now he had to leave. He had just got here, and now he was leaving. Again. I heard the car pull away. The getaway car used to transport my father away from any responsibility or burden. I imagine them traveling the pacific coastal highway all the way down to my father’s home state of California, returning to Long Beach where his roots lie. He had brothers there and a place to live. I knew in my heart that was more important than his only daughter, at least I knew at that moment.
For months after, my mother cried. She was alone and wondering if she had made the right choice when she filed for divorce. She often wanted to talk about my dad, and I refused. I became angry and screamed at her to stop. Any talk of him hurt too much. I was intent that she was never to see me hurt or crying over my father. I had to hold it together because a house filled with two people’s emotions was like a bomb waiting to explode. There just wasn’t enough room. My mother’s emotions were always flowing, like an out of control river about to crest. My mother had no idea she had stunted my emotional growth. It was of no use telling her. In full denial, she insisted she did everything right when raising me. My mother expected full credit and gushing praise when talking of her great achievements as a single parent. Only once did she see me miserable over my father. I was sitting at the piano in our living room. I was supposed to be practicing my scales on that Sunday afternoon. Rather, I was in a trance like state, mindlessly pushing keys that formed in a sulky fashion. Tears were flowing as my mother’s attention turned toward me. With a mother’s instinct, she rushed to console me. I was too grieved to hide my feelings this time. I couldn’t control the tears. It felt like my heart had an anchor tied to it; it had sunk to the lowest place in the pit of my gut, and it just lie there like a heavy burden. As she realized the cause of my hurting, her expressions matched mine. This was the reason I never allowed my feelings through. It was too late to reel them in, so we were both broken with emotion, except my mom was getting angrier by the second. My mother reached for the phone and began making calls to California. She talked to a number of people, presumably my dad’s brothers or their wives, but she seemed dissatisfied with their responses and excuses. I sat in the other room listening to her desperate attempts to make some sense of this and grasp an answer for her daughter. I heard her say sternly, “Please tell Lew I need him to call his daughter.” My father’s family seemed to avoid contact with my mother. They were hiding something.
At the age of 14, I still longed for my father. But as life became busier with starting high school and making new friends, my attention shifted along with the painful longing. I buried the pain, but not too deep. It was just under the surface. It still lives there. I believe my depression is a result of repressed anger. The frustration of not being able to do anything about my situation, the helplessness of having no choice but to accept my life’s circumstances. I am still angry at my mother for marrying this man. I am still angry at her for defending him when there was nothing to defend. Those were her choices, not mine. Yes, we all have to live under the circumstances made by another in some way. Expected to play the hand we’ve been dealt, life is more fair to some than others. Everyone handles the good and the bad differently. That’s what makes us unique. What might drive one person into a suicidal frenzy might just be a tiny mole hill in the grass to another. We are all wired differently. How boring if we were all the same. Like robots. I guess the point being… how we respond to a problem in life is far more important than the problem itself. You may have been dealt a shitty hand, but you can still have a good outcome. I am just unclear if that is a learned skill or just luck.
One day in that 14th year of my life, we received a phone call. I remember being in the kitchen with my mom. I know the back door was open so it must have been a pleasant time of year. My mom’s reaction to the unknown caller, however, resembled nothing pleasant. She asked a couple questions, her voice getting higher with each one. The shock on her face broadened with each response. Her shock turned into anger. She yelled into the receiver as I wondered how her voice traveled through the long spiral cord that led to the big pea green box with numbers that attached to the wall in the kitchen. I hated seeing her upset. My insides immediately shook wondering how to calm her down, and what the hell could possibly be such bad news. She slammed the receiver into its cradle. Her Anger quickly turned into sadness. Crying, she explained that my father had died. Okay, I thought. Well, I haven’t seen him in 9 years and held no hope of seeing him again. So, time to console my mom. Just like on her 30th birthday. After all, he was her husband for 7 years. She refused to remarry because no one could replace him.
“No!” She exclaimed. “He died 3 years ago and those bastard brothers of his are just telling me now.” It made sense now. The phone call. It was Arden, my dad’s brother. From Long Beach, California. The place my dad drove after I met him, the place he grew up. He had worked in the Coal Mines when he was first incarcerated, which gave him Black Lung Disease. They can’t make prisoners work in places like that anymore. It’s inhumane. They also cannot conduct electroshock therapy anymore, like they did to my father. The psychiatrist couldn’t fathom how and why a man with an I.Q. so high, which it was exceptionally high, could and would become a career criminal. He re-offended so many times they gave him the ‘bitch’ (habitual offender sentence.)
He was institutionalized, however staying out of trouble long enough to court, marry and breed with my mother. And then leave. The psychiatrist labeled him a paranoid schizophrenic. I have all the documents from his many trips to the penitentiary. It’s fascinating to read things about such a mysterious man, facts and accusations all typed on an old fashioned typewriter, some of which the print is so faded I cannot discern the words.
I had just started my freshman year. My mom had to beg the all-girls catholic high school I insisted on attending to accept me with financial aid. She couldn’t afford it, but there was no way in hell I would stay in public school after those 2 nightmarish years in middle school. I was petrified of boys. They groped me in the halls. Mean girls tormented me in P.E. I sat in the corner of a stair well to eat my lunch every day. My mom with tear stained cheeks came out of the office of the school. I had waited staring up and down the hardwood floors and in awe of the high ceilings wondering if this is where I would be spending my next 4 years. She motioned that we were leaving. “Yes, she said. They said Yes.”
After my mother made some arrangements with her ex brother-in-law, we came to realize we would be receiving a measly $100 a month. My mom put that toward my tuition every month. It wasn’t a lot but it helped. My father rarely worked. When the ‘heat’ would get to be too much in one place (apparently even though he wasn’t actively committing crimes, he was always actively being pursued), he and my mom would pick up and move. It took him less than a day to find a job as an electrician. It was a trade he knew, however with his I.Q. he could learn anything. But after adding the years together, the time he spent actually collecting a pay check failed to add up to much. My father never once paid child support. I didn’t resent him. I guess I just understood things well beyond my years. He sent me drawings and cards. That was enough.
It turns out my dad’s brothers didn’t inform my mom about his death for 3 years because of an ongoing battle over the estate. Their motive was to make sure I was excluded from receiving anything. I was a minor, his dependent, and by law, entitled to something upon his death. My mom was furious at their selfish behavior. The deceit. I didn’t know what he had, nor did I care. I still don’t care because I can’t imaging it was much. I was a burden to his brothers. And to him. All those years in Long Beach, not incarcerated. No phone call. Maybe my mom to stop calling. His death sat in my mind simply as a fact. I couldn’t feel it. I wouldn’t let myself. I didn’t know how. I still don’t. Some horrible things went on to happen in my life, starting not long after this, and I know this helped aid in my ability to shut off my feelings. My mom, once again a hysterical mess, needed my consoling. She knew I was the victim here, but the burden fell on me to hold her together. She drank herself to sleep every night. A ritual she maintained since I was four. I don’t blame her I guess. To this day, when I approach her door, when I talk to her on the phone, if I hear Elvis Presley playing in the background, I slowly back away or I slowly hang up. I know she’s mourning him. I let it be. I absorbed enough of her emotion my entire life and I will no longer hold her up. I have to hold myself up.
About a month after the devastating phone call, his death certificate arrived in the mail. So many small spaces and lines for the medical examiner to fill in, so much information on one piece of paper. The lifespan of this man summed up in my hands. Probably the most information I had ever seen regarding my father.
Date of Death: December 25th, 1986
Cause of Death: Arterial Cardiovascular Disease
Number of Dependents: 0
I am not sure I saw that when I first looked at his death certificate. I don’t know how long it took me to notice. I just remember standing there in my room unsure if the moment was real. Did it really say that? Was it a mistake? I didn’t exist. This meant I wasn’t even alive, I had never been born. When his brothers were asked if he had any dependents, they replied no. I imagined them at the coroner’s office at the hospital. Lying. I felt sick. Empty. Betrayed I guess. I didn’t know his brothers, I didn’t even know him. But dammit they knew he had a daughter in Seattle. They knew my mother. How dare they. At the time, I couldn’t wrap my head around all this. His brothers were not a part of the equation. It had nothing to do with them.
Inside the deepest part of me, my dad let me down.
To my dad, I didn’t exist.
He gave me life and he took it away.
He checked that box.