Sunday, May 24, 2009

Memorial Day

It's Memorial Day tomorrow, in which we remember and honor those who have lost their lives in defense of their country. I certainly am doing that, complete with the traditional hot dogs and grilling out, but from the very name of the holiday I can't help but observe it in a broader sense as well, and remember all of those that we've lost. So today I'm going to post a remembrance of my father, and tomorrow, of my mother.

Here's what I remember of my father.

He wasn't a terribly big man. If I had to guess today I'd say he was about 5' 7". Black hair, blue eyes, dark skin... darker than the picture I have would indicate. Think a deep Mediterranean tan; the sort of tan you get from being outside most of the time in the subtropical climate of Charleston, SC. His joints popped incessantly... He would have my brother Robert and me pull his toes for him. (Mom says her mother sometimes referred to him as "Mr. Cracky-Bones") He had false teeth, which he soaked in a glass by his bed.

I remember that he loved fishing. He and my mother made the nets. They'd tie the twine to the doorknobs and use big shuttles to make the knots. These would be used for shrimping, which I never did. However, we did go down to the river to fish and to the inland waterway to go crabbing. He'd bring a big (to me) trashcan about 1/3 full of water. He'd have several lines in the water, and by "lines" I mean clothesline. Each line would be tied to a hambone. Once a crab got hold of it he wouldn't let go, and you could just pick him out of the water... sometimes several on one bone. He'd hold them over the trashcan and would let me knock them off into the can. When he'd been fishing he would come home and dump the fish, still alive, into a bathtub filled with water. Robert and I would lean over the side of the tub and watch them. They'd stay there, swimming around, until Mom killed and cleaned them.

We lived on Tahoe street, West of the Ashley river in Charleston. The backyard was fenced in, and had honeysuckle and strawberries. It was a pretty nice place to play, when the sun wasn't beating down so hot that you burned yourself on the slide. Then my father, for some reason I can't fathom, brought home two goats. They liked to butt. So much for playing in the yard. Also say goodbye to the honeysuckle, strawberries, and grass.

He was a Mason. I have one picture of him, and it shows him wearing a yoke with a square and there is a square depicted on his apron. This denotes that he was the Master of his lodge. The picture would have been taken to commemorate his election. It was probably one of the proudest days of his life, and he certainly looks it. He would have been younger then than I am now.

What remains isn't terribly flattering, but they're my first-hand memories, be they what they may:

He wasn't what I would call terribly responsible. I remember that he and Mom argued about things such as his buying a car before paying off the one he had.

He was a bit of a slob. He tended to walk around the house in his underwear, and he had a bad habit of spitting to one side of his bed. Gross. He abused not only alcohol, but also other drugs, including, I believe, morphine. We had a loose tile in the bathroom, and there was a needle hidden in the wall. Needles were also hidden in the hems of the curtains.

Not to put too fine a point on it, when he drank he was abusive, and my mother was the target of his abuse. He called her stupid (she was anything but!) and was physically abusive as well. Mom didn't leave until she was faced with a "no win" choice... Everett threatened to run away from home, and she had to face losing at least one child or taking all of them and leaving her husband. She packed us up in the middle of the night and we drove the three hours to Columbia, where we re-settled. She didn't tell Carrie where we were going for fear that she would tell him. And when I say "fear" I mean it literally. She stayed afraid until she was granted a divorce and remarried.

I know Frank Leigh had some redeeming qualities that caused my mother to fall in love with him and marry him. If, as she told me, my brother Robert is his father made over, then I have a good idea what they were. But I do wish I'd seen more of that when I knew him. (As I'm looking at his picture, it's amazing how much of him is in Robert. Rob's hair is thinning on top, but otherwise it's the same face; the same smile.)

I have one last memory, and it's kind of sad. In the divorce settlement he was granted liberal visitation rights: "reasonable notice, reasonable hours" in my mother's home. I know because I had exactly the same language written into my own divorce settlement years later. He never took advantage of it. Not once. Once, when he was visiting my sister, Mom took Robert and me to her in-laws' house to meet him. He spoke with Carrie quite a bit, but obviously didn't feel comfortable with us. Years later, when I was 17, during Mom's first bout with cancer, I drove her to Charleston for a medical appointment. I stopped to refuel, and at the other side of the very pump I was using was my father. I finished, walked past him and nodded, payed for the gas, walked past him AGAIN, and got in the car. I told Mom to look, and she quietly asked, "Did you say hello?" I said, "Why? He doesn't know me."

[update: my older brother informs me that I got "99%" of this right... except that my father didn't drink... it was barbiturates. In my defense, when you're six years old you don't don't know why an adult is screwed up... just that he is. Also, while I mentioned that Mom said my brother Robert was "his father made over", I want to make it clear that substance abuse was NOT part of Robert's inheritance.]

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