“Look up, not down,” said a wise man.
Sometimes, though, it’s a comfort to look back and inward.
To counterbalance the stories of unsolicited violence from my childhood, I’m sharing this picture of my dad and mom.
I’ve mentioned before that I have no pictures of us as a family at our own house. At one point in my life, I focused my attention and determined that I had lived in 20+ different places by my 18th birthday. This tally ignores the temporary places we huddled. Our lives were suspended in alcoholic amber and economic instability. Only when we appeared at other family member’s homes did any corroborating evidence of ‘us’ exist. Despite challenges to the contrary, no one can show me a picture that includes dad, mother, and three children. I don’t flinch from the fact that such photos would probably include cleverly turned profiles to avoid the camera and clues regarding the consistency and temperament of the group being photographed. Later, I learned that I could use photo trickery to unite us, much in the same way I fooled my mind into believing that the bulk of my life was normal.
This picture was taken in the living room at my Uncle Buck’s house on Ann Street in Springdale. To whoever bought the house once both Ardith and Buck passed, I hope that no spirits roam the hallway of that dwelling. I spent a chunk of my childhood there. My cousin Jimmy lived a charmed life, initially untouched by the lunatic gene passed down through the family. Looking back, I can see that it deeply affected Jimmy’s life and choices. This clarity wasn’t always available to me. It is maddening to know that adulthood would conceal this truth from me for so long. In the picture, dad is wearing one of his many Don Williams hats. He alternated hat styles. In my opinion, he seemed to be most natural wearing anything evoking Clint Eastwood. You can see that his hands are greasy from hours of being elbow-deep in something mechanical. Mom had a phenomenal job at SW Bell, a job she landed with the help of my aunt. Both my parents were imbibing at the time of this picture. Let’s be honest, had the picture been taken in church, it’s likely that one of them would have been drinking. had my parents been Catholic, I would joke that one of them would bring a straw for the priest’s chalice. Mom’s beer probably rested on the counter between den and kitchen. It’s hard to see, but mom has a lit cigarette in her hand, which presupposes that whatever drink dad enjoyed wasn’t explosive.
As my Aunt Ardith was trying to take this picture, dad told her, “Take the picture already, #&#(@^#^$%&.” He used his favorite curse word. It should have been engraved on his tombstone. It’s a terrible word and one which to this day I find to be hilarious. I have a book of stories about him and the usage of this word, especially around people who had no context with which to judge its usage. If I ever write a book, I may well title it #&#(@^#^$%&.
On those days when both sets of parents weren’t angry, the level of laughter could lift the ceiling, especially when Aunt Ardith and Uncle Buck joined in. Uncle Buck was an accomplished musician with nice electronics due to his job as a tech at Montgomery Ward. Country music always accompanied the mood. At the time, I despised it, failing to see that all genres have something to offer anyone who is careful enough to notice. The kids in the house could move freely in those moments, unafraid of a squall suddenly building and releasing its fury around us. There were times when each of us was truly alive and glad to be present, even if most the music and conversations of the adults made us wince.
Other times, it was a race to discover who would silently become the most belligerent as the whiskey and beer slowly did its magic act by disappearing swallow by slug. In those moments, we became adept at using unobserved doors to make our escape from their immediate wrath. Even some of those moments, though, were filled with muffled laughter.
I’m guilty of forgetting many of these moments. Anger and violence often evoke a pattern of amnesia and discolor surrounding moments, no matter how vivid their imagery.
It’s strange to look at this picture and know that after each visit, no matter how late, I’d have to climb into a car or in the bed of a pickup and go home with someone drunk. As often as possible, I stayed the night with my cousin Jimmy. For several years, my cousin Jimmy had a waterbed. He cherished that cliché of a bed. There were a couple of times when he would wake up shouting at me. Some people call it ‘wetting the bed,’ although a more apt description would be ‘urinating near another person,’ as it more accurately describes the reaction of anyone else in the bed at the time of the incident. One night, after I had indeed wet the bed, Jimmy was shouting at me. It wasn’t so much the fact that I wet the bed, but that he was going to have to get up long enough to put more sheets on the bed. Jimmy was a grouchy sleeper. He was ranting at me when I looked at him and said, “Hey, it’s a WATER bed.” When Aunt Ardith burst into the room to see what the ruckus was all about, Jimmy was trying to kill me with his prized Dallas Cowboys pillow. I was laughing.
As the golden moments of life crest behind me, I still feel the effects of moments, most forgotten, accumulating behind me. Doubt is winning this war of details.
As you read these words, stop and consider how much of our lives transform in our memories. Jimmy’s dead now, as are his parents. Several years later, he’s still mobile within my memory.
Dad, mom, cousin, aunt, uncle, all of them departed. The place remains. An imprint persists, as long as someone like me continues to remember it. My day approaches, a slow, inevitable slide toward the abyss.
There is a majesty somewhere in this, one born of being a surviving witness to life.
As it approaches, I find myself seeing this picture as an evolving truth.
Look up, not down.