Sunday, June 20, 2010

Remembering Dad Through Mom's Pain

Mom and Dad (above) in about 1958, two years before his death; below is Dad at Virginia Tech in 1932 in a photo Mom liked a lot.^

I don't think I was ever mad at my dad and maybe that's not fair. He was an alcoholic who died when I was 14 and left a scared, broke wife, eight kids and not much else except the empty rationalization that he did the best he could.

Mom got all the blame for what happened after he died and for much of what went on before. She was the one at home complaining, crying, being depressed, telling us how worthless her life was. She couldn't make ends meet. She gave us an empty refrigerator, lights that didn't come on, a furnace that didn't heat, a phone that was off more than it was on. She was head of household when we went up on Monday mornings to the front of homeroom in front of our friends and people who weren't our friends and picked up our free lunch tickets, the ones the poor kids got. Mom was there to take us to the thrift store to get clothes. She was the one who told us we couldn't have a bike because we didn't even have enough money for food.

Dad was dead or off drunk or in the military on the other side of the country or--briefly--at an AA meeting. He was absent when he was present. The minute he walked in from work every day--and dad worked every day but Christmas--he picked up a book, read until dinner, went back to the bedroom and read until "Bonanza" then finished the evening by finishing the book. It was usually Zane Gray. Sometimes on Sunday, he took us to the library with him so he could load up on 15 books for the next two weeks. And sometimes he took us by Dairy Queen on the way home. He was a hero on those days.

Once he hit baseballs to me in the back yard. He had been a college baseball player. One ball got through my glove, hit me between the eyes and knocked me out. I awoke with Mom looking down at me, saying, "Catch it next time, Little Man." Dad never hit to me again. I remember Dad hitting balls to me that one time. I don't much remember Mom fixing scraped knees, whooping cough, dinner, my ripped pants ...

Dad was in the Army during World War II, an officer, but he wasn't driving a tank, flying a plane or trying to take Guadalcanal. He was in Oregon running a munitions depot, getting drunk with the other officers at night. Mom was home with four little kids, all the way on the other side of the country, waiting for his military allotment check which was usually late, watching her astonishing beauty fade.

Dad never spanked me. Mom spanked me about once a day. The spankings from Mom got to be a game and I stopped minding them because they never hurt. Never, even when I had to cut my own switch. Dad once slammed my older brother into a wall for talking back to Mom and I think it scared her more than it did anybody else. "Now George ..." she said. He apologized for losing his temper. My brother never talked back to Mom again.

Dad was smart and educated (Business at Virginia Tech), an athlete (football and baseball in college) and all the other things a kid wants his dad to be. But he had that problem with alcohol--one he passed to me--and it made for a sad situation and an unfair image of a mother who was a good one, but couldn't overcome what dad's disease left all of us.

After Dad died I missed all the things I wanted to know about him and never got to hear from him. I wondered what he thought of me. He never said.


  1. Oh, Dan. This one takes the breath away.

    One of the things he might have said, or might not, was what a fine writer his son became, and is.

  2. Keith: Thank you, sir. From a better writer, that has meaning.

  3. I couldn't stop reading it even as I was moved to tears. Why did you write it?