For the Love of Nonnie

I’ve gone delinquent, if not rogue, on my writing responsibilities; thus, this entry is quite overdue. Besides leaving our mountain for a solo road trip, I’d already stepped away from the novel I’m writing…it and the characters decided to take off in a very different direction than I’d originally planned. It happens. It’s interesting (although very inconvenient) but is a phenomenon not suited for this blog. Why did I even bring it up? Because if I didn’t stray from the subject matter, you might think I was an imposter.

Speaking of the subject matter, for this entry, it is my dear, late sister Rhonda (AKA, “Nonnie” to my brother Rick and me because we couldn’t quite say that complicated other-two-syllable word when we were little squirts, and “Sister” to my other sister Sandi because, well, Rhonda was her world – and I apparently never quite made the “sister” cut; more on that later). 

My last blog was about birthdays, and I wrote it on Sandi’s birthday (I might have mentioned that she’s very old). Since then and during my break, we faced yet another of Nonnie’s birthdays without her; she would have been 66 on October 8th. What I’d give to harass her about being the most ancient of our brood, but she never made it to 54, thanks to a form of cancer with a name so long I’m sure it would damage my keyboard. If she was here, she’d point out that since she left us at 53, that technically means I’m older than her, even though I’m the baby. 

Preposterous. And the fact that I turned 60 between the last blog and this one is hardly worth mentioning.

Anyway, as always, I conferred with my siblings about this business of Nonnie’s birthday by asking what their favorite memory or memories were. Usually, I take their feedback and weave it into the storytelling. This time, I’m sharing the conversation straight from Facebook Messenger:

ME: 

[What are your favorite memory or memories of Nonnie?]

SANDI: 

[All of them]

[Anything that made her laugh]

[When we slept together and I felt protected because I held onto her night gown]

[Learned to drive ❤️]

[Together]

[Playing football and having her block for me]

[Hearing her say “little Mom” and “little Cricket”] 

(Cricket was Sandi’s nickname…I can imagine all kinds of reasons for that, but I won’t elaborate because she’d beat me up.)

ME:

[Sigh. So sweet! You two had such a special relationship.] 

(My code for, I wish I’d been a “sister” too, and why was she your favorite sister? What am I, chopped liver? She obviously didn’t catch my drift because she continued with her very sweet thoughts about her sister, her other sister notwithstanding.)

SANDI:

[Watching her at the zoo because she loved it so much]

[Going to the Balloon Festival with them in Albuquerque]

Enter Rick.

RICK:

[On a long meeting right now…will jump in when I escape.] 

(That’s code for he was out messing around on the beach where he “works” in Florida, and he probably got a phone signal when he stopped at some beach bar for another beer, so he tossed us a bone. Oh, and notice that he uses punctuation; someday, we will introduce the concept of using periods and such frivolity with our older but not necessarily wiser sister.)

SANDI:

[👍]

ME:

(Emphatic eye roll…but what I typed was:)

[Thanks!]  

(He would expect nothing but a disingenuous response from me; we are very much alike.)

TIME GAP

RICK (probably several beers later and after de-sanding his feet):

[When we were in elementary school, she was a great protector. Every time I ran my mouth too much around the big kids…I know it’s hard to imagine, but it happened, she would never let them hurt me.

When we were older it was always fun to mess with her when we played board games because she always took the rules so seriously. As adults, it was seeing her scorn and hearing her say “potty mouth!”

Mostly it’s just the way she loved us so unquestioningly. She just did and you felt it all the way through.

Damn, I miss her.]

ME:

[She hugged you, and you just felt it permeate you. And I loved her Scooby Doo giggle…]

RICK:

[Yup.]

SANDI:

[👍]

(…Because that’s easier than writing actual words…it’s kind of like not using periods.)

It is clear, Nonnie was our protector. If you follow this blog, then it’s probably self-evident that our mom had her hands full, mitigating our dad’s actions (or inactions). She worked so we could eat, even though Dad managed to burn through much of her salary. During all this, Nonnie was like a second Mom to us. 

She was undoubtedly the head of the kid quartet, although she wasn’t outspoken, didn’t sport a lot of charisma, and didn’t smile nearly as much as we would have liked. When she did smile? It lit up the room. When she giggled, well, as I mentioned earlier: think Scooby Doo. 

It was delightful. And as you might have gathered, when she hugged, she hugged.  I can still feel it; I can still smell her hair. I can still feel her love; in fact, it’s running down my face right now. It hurts in a way I could never articulate, but it feels as beautiful.

She was arguably the first to have her childhood stolen at our father’s hands, and most certainly endured it for the longest if you knew the more intimate histories of his “pairings” with his own offspring, which I will never share in this forum. Maybe that’s why she took on the role of protector. Because it was something she could do, something she controlled to the best of her ability.  

All we know is that she was possibly the hardest working, most steel-hearted, hard-loving, and devoted human we’ve ever known. Unfortunately for some still-living humans, she was only too happy to share – or enforce – her steadfast nature on anyone around whom she felt might be deserving. If she liked you, your life was better. If she didn’t like you, well, you’d remember her as well. Instead of Scooby Doo, think of the most stubborn stereotype of a mule, and you’ve got it. Rick mentioned “Potty Mouth” in his memories. Get a load of this. While Nonnie could, and did, drink men twice her size under the table (and did so repeatedly during her stint in the Navy), she was shockingly chaste and was appalled and disgusted by swearing (kind of hysterical if you’ve spent more than five minutes with yours truly or my brother). She whipped out her worst label, “Potty Mouth,” with the speed of a gunslinger to squelch swearing by anyone but her husband (he must have had a prenup on that one). She was even known to get up at restaurants where rude patrons might be cursing a bit too loudly, to brand them with the ultimate shame name, Potty Mouth, of course, as she tuned them up on their abhorrible manners. Damn skippy, Nonnie…you nailed their sorry asses right there in front of God and everyone! Shit, that was good stuff! 

And yes, I can hear you from here, wherever you are. I am, and always will be, a Potty Mouth. What’s that I hear? A Scooby Doo giggle!

Nonnie’s favorite color was purple. She loved elephants. She loved anything peanut butter; she even ate peanut butter and bologna sandwiches as we stood by and gagged. She loved liver and onions. She loved the annual Albuquerque balloon festival, which fell on her birthday every year. She loved John Wayne with such a passion that her home looked like a Duke museum: she understood that he was the original stud. She loved her husband and her son, she loved us, she loved our mom so much I’m surprised it didn’t squish the dear tiny soul. She even loved our dad, who scarred her so deeply that I still hold him at fault, to a degree, for her early demise. She just loved; she was love.

I guess you expect to outlive your parents. You pray your children will outlive you, and you know it could go either way with your spouse. These are things inside of you, whether you consciously think about them or not. But for me, I guess I thought my siblings would always be there. They were already around when I got here, and I never imagined life without them.  

Her death was devastating to us, the remaining three. We are supposed to be a quartet, not a trio; it’s not the same, not squared off without her.

But even now, we still feel her love and her protection. I don’t know how she does that, but I am eternally grateful. 

Happy 66th Birthday, Nonnie! I love you and miss you…and you are STILL older than me!

Life is a Highway (with no pee-stops)

There are upsides to being reared by an unstable, often brilliant, funny, dark, incestuous, egomaniac. 

OK, strike the “i” word, but the rest stands true. Imagine being a little kid and having a dad who would say, “We’re going for a ride!”– and the translation of said statement could mean a Sunday drive, OR a multiday journey to parts unknown; money, school attendance, and potty stops not included!

Nope, not kidding. I was there, so I know. While I can’t remember many geographical specifics because most of these adventures happened when I was really small, I can remember other stuff, like all four of us kids being crammed into the back seat. Yes, it was very crowded, but besides the fact that complaining was strictly prohibited, even in matters of life or death, it was all we knew. And sometimes the alternative to these gallivants was going to school, so, I, for one, was in!

The other kids were older, so I’m sure they weren’t as enthusiastic about these jaunts since we were packed like sardines into whatever given heap we called the family car at the time. After all, we had to be touching each other from shoulders to feet for hours on end. I know that was preferable to being touched by the guy driving the car, but that’s an element of this blog that will continue to be alluded to, yet never allowed out to play.

Most of our “drives” were actually cover for the fact Dad was an on-again, off-again, traveling salesman. I’m guessing he only brought us along when he didn’t have a prospect for a little between-the-sheets extra-curricular activity on the route; I can fully understand how his wife and kids could have been an impediment in that area. However, when summoned, we piled in and often drove miles, if not days, so he could follow a “lead” in hopes of selling a set of encyclopedias. [For our younger readers out there, “encyclopedias” were the book equivalent of Google; took up lots more space, were heavier, and way more expensive, not to mention you had to actually apply yourself and put in some effort during your “search.”] 

The less exciting element of the trips was the four-pack-a-day smoker behind the wheel who didn’t believe in pee-stops, wife and four children notwithstanding. 

Here’s how it went: as we left town, we were in somewhat good spirits, and those spirits lowered as the amount of smoke in the car increased. God forbid we should complain or want to roll down a window, verboten! Even as a young ‘un, I remember knowing when the smoke filled the car enough to get down to my face level, I would start to get queasy. I also knew there’d be hell to pay if I complained. So, I guess during the drives, we were a four-pack-a-day family.

Dad’s solution to the pee issue was (are you ready for this?) a three-pound aluminum coffee can, fortunately, with the lid. And no stops meant no stops, therefore, dig this: we had to find room among the other six legs in the back seat floor to cop squats (in the girls’ cases) and pee right there in the car at sixty-miles-per hour. I’m sure it was easier for my brother, stupid boy; just doesn’t seem fair, does it? But for all, spillage was also verboten; thus, we were excellent aims.

I remember the time my late sister was doing her thing there on the floor of the car, and Dad, being the sensitive and thoughtful soul he was, passed a semi truck…the driver must have gotten a quick glimpse, because he blew his air horn so loud she probably squeezed out an extra pint or two. (Of course, I only share this because she is not here to read it; I’d rather still have her here, but just the thought of her frowning and smacking me across the head makes it worth it.) My other sister remembers the pee-can doubled as a puke-can. We were often in the car for hours – including the time he was in the “lead’s” home selling his wares – and my sisters frequently got sick (geez, I hope you weren’t, like, eating while reading this…). My brother says the sales trips were the best kind because we had a chance of actually going to a drive-thru or restaurant. Otherwise, our fare was white bread and a pack of baloney. If we were lucky enough to stop, we ate our plain sandwiches at picnic tables within a stone’s throw of outhouses (rest area sanitation, back in the day). No one can say the Seley clan didn’t know how to have a good time!

On a side note, I was terrified of outhouses because I was afraid I’d fall in. Dad told me I’d better not, because it would be easier to “make” another kid than to clean me up! Those loving words still make me a little misty.

So, there you have it. 

Between the many moves and the “drives” in between, we were like modern-day gypsies. I sometimes wonder if Dad wrote that song, “Life is a Highway,” because he had no trouble riding it all night long, as long as we had a pee-can.

Laughter: Our Snake Oil

In the spirit of fairness, I need to point out that our homes were not houses of horrors, although horrible things did happen in most of those homes.  Ah! You say…the disfunction did make her crazy!

Maybe so, but my real point is that even in the most unsuspecting places, there is good, and more importantly, there is fun.  My dad could be cruel, indecently inappropriate, and controlling, yes!  But, gosh, let’s give him a momentary reprieve because he was also quite funny when times were good, and the tide was with us.

We’ll ignore the fact that he completely controlled the tide (flexibility is important, after all) and consider how humor is a tremendous survival skill that helped my siblings and me become relatively successful and very adaptable humans.

One of my early memories from somewhere in Kansas involved the four of us young ‘uns collectively taking an enormous risk to tap his humor.  I wasn’t even in school yet; thus the others were all still in grade school, which might account for the very poorly advised plan, what with underdeveloped brains, and whatnot.  We were all in trouble (which sounds like a big deal, but was more likely something as egregious as someone not making their bed properly or all of us being inconsiderate enough to act like children and do something crazy like laugh too loud…I think you get my point…).  Rather than doling out on-the-spot spankings, either individually or in group formation, Dad would set a time for us to “appear” to accept our punishment.  As a veteran, I have to give a nod to his grasp of psychological warfare; the anticipation was way worse than the actual butt-whacking.

In any case, on this occasion, someone devised a strategy for us all to hold pillows over our rears as we somberly marched down the stairs in order of age (an excellent plan for me; as the youngest, I would be last to the slaughter) as we reported in for our spankings. The hope was for an unprecedented softening of the ogre, that he’d laugh uproariously, and all would be forgiven.  Cray-cray, right?  How opportune that he was, after all, cray-cray, and it worked!  It worked as never before (or after, I might add). It was a perfect storm in reverse. He laughed heartily, probably accrediting our wit to his genes, and there were no spankings that day. Our victory cry was fiercer than our wails would have been. I think I remember it among so many blocked memories because of our success, and because it was never to work again.  And because it was funny. The Seley kids’ first and last stand. It was epic.

And then there was the time when we lived on a reservation in New Mexico and my brother was out hurdling sage bushes (yes, he did it for hours, but that’s not the funny part) and somehow flew face-first into a large cactus patch.  Ouch. We rarely went to the doctor for anything, so Mom went at it with the tweezers and proceeded to pull a bunch of needles out from all over…and I mean, all over. We could hear it all from the next room. How can three sisters not find humor in that?  Not at the time, of course (at least where we could be heard), we ain’t that cruel, but I’m sure there were many subsequent jokes, and even he laughed about it later, because that’s how we coped.

We played when we could, laughed at every single opportunity, sometimes just for the sake of feeling it all lift away.

Fast forward through a rollercoaster of moves to my teenage years when I was the last kid at home, now in Idaho. The other three had escaped things I hadn’t even known they’d endured, and I was just navigating through my remaining time.  On this day, Dad was prone on the couch, taking in some football (which he could apparently watch while sleeping because if you had the gall to change the channel or turn it off, he’d awake in mid-snore to tune you up). Mom and I returned from the local laundromat and upon entering the living room, we saw him “watching” the game, mouth agape, drool, snores, and all.

As we crept in with our full laundry baskets, the floorboards inevitably creaked, and he loudly proclaimed (eyes still closed), “Quit walking on the floor!”  Mom and I looked at each other, asking the same question with our eyes: Where then, are we supposed to walk? The ceiling, perhaps? And then we did the unforgivable: we dissolved in laughter.  Unlike with the pillow incident, he was none too pleased, all was not forgiven (although no alternative trek besides the floor was offered for us to bring in his clean skivvies).  I remember this because, well, it was damn funny, but mostly because my normally very meek and accommodating mother was actually in cahoots with me, and she boldly giggled through it all without regret.  I suspect there were repercussions for her later, but I saw it as the beginning of an unprecedented and wonderful alliance that lasted until her dying day.  Yay for smartass humor!

We often laughed a lot when it was just us kids at home, or out of earshot when he was home.  We laughed with him when he was “up,” as we called it, because when things were good, they really were good.  And it was such respite from the dark times, it made the good times that much brighter. 

Unfortunately, sometimes it was a tightrope.  Depending on which Dad we had on any given day (same man, mind you) his humor could be so lewd and inappropriate we either didn’t understand or laughed because when he laughed, we all laughed.  That’s just how it was.  I also never would have joked about my brother getting cactus needles yanked out of his junk if I’d known he ran and hurdled sagebrush for hours as his way of escaping what he’d been privately subjected to by our father since he was a small child. He was running because he could.

But I didn’t know that then.  My brother was and is one of the funniest people I know. He makes me laugh until I cry.  I just didn’t know that back then, he and my sisters laughed so they wouldn’t cry.

Laughter is the best homeopathic medicine for short and long-term ailments.  It is, at least, when butt pillows are deemed funny.  And it is, for sure, when for one brief, shining moment, your mama becomes a giggling rebel.  That was sweet

And for the record, when transporting laundry across the house, to this day, I audaciously march across the floor.  And laugh the whole way! Touché!

Seley Household: 20th Century COVID-19 Training Ground

As we all settle into our new normal of “social distancing,” however temporary it may be, I can’t help but think of how this was the norm during our childhood. Allow me to explain (as if there were any doubt at all that I wouldn’t pick up this thread and ramble for a good 800 words or so!).

If you follow this blog, it won’t surprise you that our dad was much a self and family isolator. He often took his self-isolation to extremes by not leaving his bedroom or closing all the curtains in the house to shut out light and people for days or weeks at a time. Sometimes it included blankets over the curtains, which was a bummer in the winter because we kind of favored the blankets in our beds. Overkill on the isolation thing, you say? Well, maybe. But dang! He would have been Corona-virus-free for sure! Let’s take a look at social distancing, Seley-style.

Ours was not the house all the kids came to, ever.  That sounds kind of sad, but it wasn’t a big deal because our parents never had friends over either, so it just seemed normal. In fairness, Dad did have a charming and funny side to his personality, which was delightful but unpredictable. His Mr. Hyde-side was completely antisocial and could surface as quickly as it took for us to go to school and return. It was too risky to bring someone home even with a rare advance permission. So, for most of our childhoods, we were well-insulated. Today that would be ideal! No people, no germs!

As I’ve pointed out to a ridiculous degree throughout previous blog entries, I was exempt, for whatever reason, from the worst of Dad’s indiscretions with his own children (producing a nice package of gratitude buried in a lot of guilt). But as the youngest, I think I had some unique experiences; I suppose it’s typical for the rules to loosen with the last kid. I made my first friend, Kris, in the sixth grade, and we quickly became BFF’s. It was wonderful. Fortunately (and I should have capitalized that), she never noticed anything strange about the old man, and he was very fond of and entirely appropriate toward her. Maybe she was sprinkled with my immunity-from-him fairy dust? I don’t know. But in years to come, after my sibs all moved out, I became more social, and sometimes my two worlds were allowed to overlap. Although there were definite windows of time (closed curtain times) when I wouldn’t have dreamed of having anyone over, there were exceptions. They didn’t always go well.

I’ll ease you in with a reasonably harmless Lesson #1 on the value of isolation/distancing in our house, once I was the only kid left. It came at about the age of fifteen when one of the coolest girls I knew was coming to our house for a sleepover. This was a huge deal because I was kind of a shy nobody; I was nervous and excited. So, over she came and when it was time for dinner, honestly, what was going to be on the table was the least of my worries because my parents were great cooks. Silly me. 

When we sat at the table, Mom looked embarrassed, and Dad was just as charming as could be. Charming, indeed, as he dished up the cold pork and beans from the can with a side of canned store peaches. That was dinner. Allow me to elaborate. We had lots of other options, humble, perhaps, but stuff for real meals. While over the years, our fare during lean times might have been bread with gravy, bacon and beans, or potato soup (all delicious) because there wasn’t much else, we had never, I mean never, had cold food straight from the can. 

This wasn’t a case of me being a spoiled, entitled kid, it was a case of me, a shy kid at a critical social moment, being caught off guard by a mean person with an ax to grind for reasons I still don’t know. Mom was as mortified as me, but of course, held her tongue. My friend was a little surprised but very gracious. I kind of wanted to die.

 I obviously didn’t die.

But I also never invited that girl again, which was easy, because I’m sure she couldn’t get out of there fast enough the first time. Sheesh! If I’d only known the value of driving people away decades in the future, I suppose I’d have been grateful for my COVID-19 prep training. If they don’t come over, they can’t bring in them germs!

Seley Isolation/Distancing Lesson #2 was when I had a second BFF who shall remain nameless. We were in junior high and utterly inseparable. And while her family life was far from perfect (I discovered we didn’t corner the market on dysfunction; my dad was too handsy, among other things, but her dad got drunk and beat her), she was very ill-prepared for what my fabulous father had in mind for her. This gets tricky. To keep it short and not get too icky, he couldn’t “have” me (a subject for a future blog, I’m sure), so he thought she would do fine. And he wanted me to ask her

For reasons I hope are clear, I’ll vague-out here…I have my blog-blabbing limits, after all. But, no, his wishes did not come true. While she was very sympathetic toward me about the weirdness of it all, she obviously stayed clear of him after that, and things were never quite the same. If we’d had a pandemic right then, by golly, I would have been saved from getting too close to her. But at the time, it sucked.

Lesson #3 came when Daddy-o hit on the very first boyfriend whom I brought home (you can read that again, but you did read what you thought you read). Imagine my surprise. I guess the upside is that the cute boy came out years later and was very openly and happily gay; maybe he would have thanked my dad for helping him discover his sexuality? I don’t know. I’m happy for him. And, more importantly, I learned not to bring boys over for a long time and later, when I did, they were strictly supervised. I ensured they stayed at least 10 feet away from Dad. I instituted social distancing decades before COVID-19! My genius even astounds me sometimes!    

While I would gladly deal with my late bizarre father again right now if it meant eradicating the insidious COVID-19 from the planet, truth and perspective are important. Because of him, I was predisposed to living by our current safety guidelines way before I even knew how to spell “pandemic.” 

Finally, after all these years, I can say, “Thanks, Dad!”  

And boy, was that weird.

The Unholy Trinity of Chocolate Kisses, Training Bras, and Robert Goulet

What I remember about the place on Beech Street in Coffeyville, Kansas, was that it had two bedrooms for six people and, as a kindergartner, that seemed plenty big to me. 

We’d already moved all over the state during my short life but had landed back in Coffeyville (our hometown) for reasons I’ll never know. Although we’d lived in many homes before and after Beech Street, it was a memorable place.  

What I remember about that house was that we four kids shared a room, and I slept in a rollaway bed with my late sister who was six years older than me. There might or might not have been another bed; I just know my other sister and brother slept somewhere in there. I also remember sneakily eating chocolate kisses (a very rare commodity, so it must have been Christmas or something) and my mama suddenly appearing, insisting that I give her some sugar (if you are from certain parts of the country, you’ll know that means a kiss, not an actual sugar hand-off). I panicked, but she wouldn’t relent, and the minute I offered the tightest lipped, fastest kiss in history, she asked, oh-so-innocently, “Do I smell chocolate?” I was so busted. I also remember I was madly in love with the singer Robert Goulet (my first love), and instead of doing our assigned chores in our parents’ absence one day, my siblings all pretended to be Robert Goulet as I chased them around the tiny apartment in the throes of passion. I was busted, once again, as Dad came home unannounced at the most inopportune time. As he walked in, I was alone at the top of the entry stairs, arms in the air, screeching, “Robert Goulet!” Of course, we all got spankings, but I’ll never forget that moment of truth, which felt suspiciously like when, as an adult, you see police lights in the rearview mirror of your car. It sucks.

What my sister remembers about living on Beech Street is talking to the kids who lived below us on the ground floor through a hole in our closet floor. And speaking of floors, my brother remembers sleeping on the floor a lot in that house. 

But they both remember dad telling Mom he needed some “time to think” as he went away on a weekend trip with an 18-year-old girl he worked with, leaving Mom shattered. My brother remembers Dad returning with red patches on his elbows from when he was “thinking” in his motel room while he was away. My sister remembers that Dad was particularly out of control sexually in that house on Beech Street. And she also remembers something about him buying her first bras because he didn’t want her to be embarrassed in gym class as a girl who didn’t need a bra yet; she was confused because she wasn’t embarrassed about it to begin with. Obviously, someone had boobs on the brain, and it wasn’t her! And we all remember dad moving away to New Mexico with that teenager. Still, I didn’t feel the intense relief they did because, as I’ve made abundantly clear in previous blogs, his abuses were focused on my siblings while I was apparently eating chocolate and fantasizing about Robert Goulet. My sister remembers that he told our mom something ridiculous – or sick – or ridiculously sick – about the fact that he was a sex addict and that she and our late sister were getting “too old,” so he had to go. I don’t even want to spend a second analyzing that one. My brother remembers we were very, very poor after the old man left, having only Mom’s income, but he “embraced the poverty” as he collected pop bottles to help with money during the “glorious summer of hope” without Dad.  

And alas, we all remember moving from Kansas to New Mexico in an old VW Volkswagen with broken windows that our uncle helped Mom buy. I don’t know if Dad ditched the 18-year-old, if she ditched him, or if he just actually missed his family. I only know that he beckoned, and we went because that’s how it was. Not exactly the Brady Bunch, but apparently, we were a family package through thick and thin.  

So, that’s how I learned to be a better chocolate thief and to be more subtle, or at least timelier, with my romantic passions for Robert Goulet. And that’s why my sister probably packed bras she didn’t need when we moved. 

And why my brother learned that being super poor was better than a whole bunch of other things a kid shouldn’t know about. And that’s how we ended up on a Navajo reservation where I eventually thought I’d be eaten by werewolves.  

If that last line confuses you, refer to previous blog entry, Vampires, Werewolves and Zombies, Oh My! 

(http://tammyseleyelliott.com/2019/12/03/vampires-werewolves-and-zombies-oh-my/)

Otherwise, we’ll see you next time as we have an intense storytelling session involving a meal of pork and beans and peaches. For reals. 

You won’t want to miss it.

Our Father Which Art in his Recliner

Our Dad liked to hold court with his hatchlings sitting on the floor around his feet.  For the record, these were not wholesome Paw Walton kind of moments. I think you’ll agree.

Believe it or not, sometimes he would sing to us and while that sounds very cozy and “Sound of Music,” it was more awkward than anything else.  His voice wasn’t bad, but his attitude was so expectant and “cool cat,” we just sat with plastered smiles, wishing it would end.  But his mini-concerts were the most benign examples of those pow-wows.  When you get a load of the two most memorable sessions from my childhood catalog, you’ll see that at times we probably wanted him to break into a tune, any tune.

I was somewhere between four and six years old when one of these little meetings was his forum to inform us that he was God.  I don’t mean like something your drill instructor would say, “I’m your Mother, I’m your Father, I’m God for all practical purposes,” you know, a great movie line, scary stuff to troops, but audiences and G.I.s don’t think the hard-nosed sergeant means it literally.  Dad, however, presented it as a statement of fact and not in a kind, loving, biblical sense either.  Even as a very small child, I sensed the underlying threat and something I later qualified as egotism.  Sadly, I was so little, I was a bit in awe and was instantly “god-fearing.”  I recently checked with my two remaining siblings and discovered they were old enough at the time to know he was full of crap, and also old enough to have known to absolutely not suggest that idea to him.  They likely just smiled and nodded as I sat gaping at our own domestic deity. 

Before you whip out your DSM (diagnostic manual for mental disorders) and declare him a poor sick man, please know that none of us believe that he believed what he said.  A lifetime of examples boiled down to our conviction that he was not delusional but was a first-rate narcissist.  He was also a shameless opportunist with his children in the emotional sense and in countless physical instances with the other three kids.  Oops…did it again, dragged you down a rabbit hole!  Let’s move on to the slightly more disturbing second memory and, yes, I said more disturbing.  To me, anyway.

I was in the sixth grade when he called us together to congregate on his bedroom floor. After we were all in our places with big smiling faces, he announced with sad and saintly deportment that he was going to commit suicide.  Boy, we really could have used a couple of rounds of “Sound of Music” that afternoon – even a rousing rendition of “My Favorite Things” would have been bitchin’.  But, instead, we watched him (I say watched as opposed to listened because it was a performance deluxe) calmly explain to his offspring we’d be better off without him, and that we’d be happy as clams with his survivor’s benefits (which I now realize were few to none).  I remember our mom sitting dutifully next to him, exhausted and crying.  For me, that was the hardest part.  She just didn’t know how to counter this strange man whom she loved and served with a loyalty that only a woman of her generation and background could. 

The scene could be considered a cry for help, could be seen as the ramblings of a crazy dude.  But I guess you’d have to be there to see, to feel, the cool calculation.  The composure.  The this-ain’t-rightness of the whole thing.  And here’s the worst part: I think deep down, my siblings just wanted him to do it so he could never lay a hand on them again to siphon away what was left of their innocence.  And me, being the naïve sucker that I was, took the bait and pondered that maybe it would be cool to have money instead of him.  I was old enough to acknowledge we were not among the privileged and I understood the only reason we were on Welfare from time to time and always broke was because he quit working as his mood dictated. Mom worked as long as I can remember, but her wages were barely enough with four kids and a husband to house and feed.

Alas, because he was unreliable in all things, he randomly changed his course of action within a few days of his grave announcement, after we had all walked around on eggshells wondering when “it” was going to happen.  That was a weird time, I’m telling you.  This was pre-suicide hotline; it was when families kept their dirty little secrets. I hope I speak accurately when I say we all felt a degree of guilt that we were not relieved when he didn’t follow through, when he had the nerve to stay alive.  Hard to blame kids when he, a natural salesman, made such a compelling pitch for his own demise.  For years I felt secret guilt at my own disappointment over his survival. It was dark and it was confusing.

But then I realized what a cruel thing he’d done to us, that I was actually not the most awful and selfish human alive.  It’s pretty pathetic that what he really wanted was for us to beg him not to do it. But we didn’t beg him not to do it and if he had gone through with it, we would have cried because Mom cried, and we would have been sad because we really did love him. But deep in our souls, we might also have been singing, “Ding dong, the witch is dead.” 

Basically, he transferred his demons to us, or tried to, and I suppose in some senses it worked.  But in the long run, not so much. 

Crazy? You betcha! Severely mentally ill? We think not.  Certainly not mentally well, but he was always able to make choices and did so with brilliant and manipulative forethought. To quote my older, although not necessarily wiser brother (I put that in there just to see if he actually reads these things, and because it’s true), our father was the perfect storm between cowardice and selfishness.  And we were just the poor schmucks caught in the storm.

The good news, and this is important, is while we all had to acclimate to the real world, we turned out fine.  It took longer for a couple of us to figure things out, but we emerged from that very long weather phenomenon known as “Dad,” fully armed to face any storm life had to offer.  We are smart, adaptable, reasonably successful, and at least one of us is pretty damn attractive and was also Mom’s favorite.  And with that line, I’ll hit “publish” and wait to see if either of them reads their kid sister’s blog.  Ready, set…go!