As we get older, the disappearance of family members is a sobering one. Within my own family, about half of them are gone now. It’s a sobering thought, especially remembering those that I did not know well. One of them was my dad.
My first memory of my father was when I was about two. He was as tall as an oak tree with a personality just as large. He was always laughing, even though our family had little money and every one of us had to share a room.
Dad was the antithesis of my mother, who was firm and stern, doing her best to try and hold the family together. Someone had to reign in six unruly children, but it wasn’t my father, always the entertainer, always finding a way to get us out of going to church, or if we had to go, taking us out for ice cream afterwards.
Living with my father was like having an in-house comic. He was a pie-in-the-face kind of guy, full of pranks and laughter. I’m sure I got my silliness from him.
But there was a dark side to my father as well. Behind the funny guy was the manic depressive gene.
I remember closed-door conversations that he had with my mother in their upstairs bedroom. I would hear hushed whispers and found out later she was doing her best to encourage him to feel better, to have confidence in himself, and to hopefully return to work. But he couldn’t go to work. His mental illness prevented that.
Back then we didn’t know a lot about manic depression, and its ability to render somebody hopeless and helpless. My dad would lay around in his bathrobe all day, with the drapes drawn, and the bed unmade. To this day, I have a thing about making the bed. An unmade bed means someone’s not going to work, and that was my father.
My dad underwent electroshock and institutionalisation. Electroshock was pretty common back then, a probable way to obliterate the memory so that the recipient forgot why they were depressed. Its short-term effects would help at first, but then the demons would return.
Although they loved each other dearly, my mother was forced to divorce him for economic reasons. Somebody had to support the family and my father was incapable of doing so. He had stents in Camarillo, and then eventually went to Mississippi where he had family roots.
At the age of 12, I saw my father for the last time.
My twin sister and I met him in Van Nuys, where his two sisters lived. He was no longer the tall, strong, funny father that I remembered. He seemed frail, playing with his dentures out of nervousness, and seeming unsure of himself.
What happened to the funny father I remembered? He was a stranger now, clamouring to make conversation.
Years went by until I experienced my father for the last time in 1985. A trip through Mississippi took me to my father’s family plot in Canton, Mississippi. This tiny backward town didn’t even have a formal floral shop. I could only purchase fake flowers if I wanted to decorate my father‘s grave.
I saw the graves of his siblings, remembering them throughout the years when they visited our family from time to time.
It’s funny how life is sprinkled with stops and starts for all of us, people coming and going, sometimes, for no apparent reason. As I am the youngest, I suspect that I will most likely outlive everyone.
As I age, I reflect upon these memories, knowing that someday I will be reunited with my father once again. Until then, I have my memories of him to sustain me.
What was your family life like? Do you have fond memories, or are they stained with painful recollections like mine?