A skinny twenty-seven-year old, I pull a thick afghan onto my lap and ask my father to tell me about his childhood. He begins with the usual maneuvers: he adopts surliness, then he jokes, evades. By this time I am armed with the fledgling skills of a young therapist. I have learned a few in the craft of opening up a closed heart.
“You know, your mother and I deliberately made the decision to keep this from you,” he begins.
“I understand,” I say.
“We didn’t want to burden you kids.”
“I appreciate that.”
He pauses. “You’ll never know what it was like back then,” he tells me, “the Depression..” He lapses into silence for a while and then he begins. He wasn’t more than six or seven when his mother died of some lingering disease. He had only vague pictures of her in his head, hardly any memories he recalled her warmth, an infectious laugh.
After she died, things went downhill for my father’s father, Abe, a weak passive man. Abe lost his job, bought a little mom-and-pop store; then he lost the store. Unable to support itself, the family broke up. My dad and his young brother went to live with a cousin. “Aunt” Sylive was mean. She was bitter before the Depression and taking in my father, Edgar and his brother, young Phil, did nothing to shake the venom in her disposition. She was cruel in a daily, ordinary way.
“Like how Dad?” I ask him.
“Oh I don’t know,” he shrugs me off.
“Like how, Dad?” I repeat the question.
I eventually get my father to tell me about the humiliation of ragged hand-me-downs, about how Sylvie would dish out food to him with a line such as, “Here is a big piece of chicken for Steven, because he is my son. And here is a small piece of chicken for you, Edgar. Because you are not.”
When he was eleven or twelve, the rage in my father, the missing of his mother, his father, filled him to the bursting point. His little brother was still young and sunny enough to adjust, but my dad began acting out. An “instigator” at school, a petty thief at home, he lasted through one or two “incidents” and then Aunt Sylvie summarily got rid of him. He found himself banished to the home of elderly grandparents in another part of town.
“What did you do?” I ask.
“What do you mean, what did I do? I went to school. I worked.”
“Did you have friends?”
“I made friends.”
“Did you see Phil and your father?”
Yes, he saw them. All that winter after school he would walk six miles through the snow to have dinner with them at Sylvie’s house. He would linger over a cup of cocoa until Sylvie asked him to leave. Then he’d walk back again alone.
I look out of the window of our little seaside apartment, onto bare November trees. I picture that twelve-year-old boy walking back in the snow.
“How was that for you?” I ask. “What did you feel?”
My father shrugs.
“What did you feel?” I insist.
“A little cold, I guess.”
“Come on, goddamn it.”
“I don’t hold a grudge, Terry.” My father’s tone levels me. “They did what they had to. All right? These were rough times. Besides,” his voice becomes still, “I understand in a way. I wasn’t so easy to handle.”
“You were a child,” I tell him.
My father shakes his head. “Yeah, well, I was pretty hardboiled. I could be quite a little son of a bitch.”
“How much of a son of a bitch could you have been, Dad?” I say. “You were twelve years old!”
He turns away. “I don’t know.” He slumps.
“Look at me.” I take his shoulders. “I don’t give a shit what you did, do you understand? You were a kid. Your mother was dead; your father was gone. You didn’t deserve it, okay? Don’t you get it? You didn’t deserve it.”
My father looks up at me, his blue eyes magnified by thick glasses. “Okay,” he sighs. Then, as sudden as any rage, he reaches out his thick arms and pulls me toward him. Without a word he lays his head on my shoulder, as tender and guileless as a child. Holding him, I breathe in his familiar smell, coffee and cigarettes and a touch of Brylcreem. Feeling the weight of his great head, I am physically awkward, almost repelled, but when he pulls away, I instinctively tighten my hold on him. Gingerly, reluctantly, I stroke his back, his stiff har.
“It’s okay, Dad,” I murmur.
I look out past him at the trees, and wonder what will become of us, my father and me. I still neither trusted nor forgave him, but something deep inside me began to uncoil.
That night was a first green tendril piercing through a stone wall. Others followed. In the years ahead, as our closeness developed, my life became more successful, and my father’s life grew ever more desperate. I watched, helpless, as financial worry, social isolation, and finally, a horrible disease whittled him, sucked the marrow out of him, pulled him under. I stayed close, I gave as much as I could.
I buried my father in September 1991. The night before, when I left his bedside, he gave me his blessing and I gave him mine. The next morning, I walked into the hospital room to hind him dead. His head was thrown back, his eyes shut, his mouth open. It didn’t look like my dad. It looked like my dad’s body, a thing made of clay, like his statues. I touched his eyes and kissed him. His skin on my lips tasted bitter, earthen.
I have often thought about the high school boys my father saw drown and the advice he gave me: “Don’t touch them. They’ll drag you under.” As in so many other instances, his advice on this matter was wrong. I did not go down into that dark vortex with my father. But neither did I let go of his embrace.
Excerpted from I Don’t Want to Talk About It by Terrence Real.