You Can’t Go Home Again

This post is my attempt to discuss the recent death of my father and the family “secret.”  There are many emotions that go along with death.  Sometimes those emotions are messy.  This blog is my attempt to work through some of those emotions.

Mountain Music – Alabama

dsc_0800 dsc_0796 Through my many years of being a nurse, I’ve learned a lot of hard lessons.  One of them has been that death is never an easy subject to deal with.  There is always that risk of taking it a step too far.  Of saying something too cliche that isn’t helpful and in some cases, can be hurtful.  My father’s death has already caused a bunch of this.  No one quite knows what to say to me, so they immediate start with “I’m so sorry for your loss.”  I can tell by the looks on their faces that I’m somehow not responding like they expect.  I don’t quite know how to fix it.  How do I explain that sometimes you can mourn a person long before they die and there is just no grief left?

I mentioned that my relationship with my father wasn’t good.  And it wasn’t.  There are large parts of our history that I don’t talk about much.  It isn’t because I grieve it, it’s because it’s confusing and in some cases, very unpleasant to think about.  The confusing part is like having a puzzle where lots of the pieces are missing so you can’t quite make out the picture.  Discussing him has always been difficult for me.

My first memories of my father went something like this…

 My grandmother would come to pick me up for the weekend from my mom’s.  On Friday night, my cousin, James and my other cousin, Floyd, would play baseball out in Granny’s yard.  We had a real bat, but no balls, so we’d used chert rocks or in the Summer, crab-apples.  Our games were elaborate complete with ghost-men and there were very particular rules about ghost-men.  Breaking one of those rules would get your nose busted.  Or we’d head off to the barn and climb up in the loft exactly like Granny told us not to do and jump out into the bales of hay.  Or we’d run off down to the sawdust pile to play King of the Mountain.  Saturday’s would go much the same way until James and Floyd would leave to go play with other boys in the neighborhood (there was only one other girl and she was much older than me). 

In those hours, I’d slipped up into the attic.  I’d wait until my grandmother was in the kitchen preoccupied with making the Sunday meal, so she wouldn’t hear me step on that fourth step that always squeaked and would give me away.  Sometimes, I could successfully skip over it and other times she’d catch me and my Saturday trip into the attic would be thwarted.

Going into the attic was a huge no-no, bigger than going to the barn.  But it didn’t matter, I was drawn to that attic like a fly to honey, no matter the cost. 

The attic consisted of two main rooms.  In my day, Granny had them sectioned off into a large bedroom and a storage room, but they hadn’t always been that way.  The first one at the top of the stairs wasn’t really much of a problem.  Except it was for me because there was a tiny trunk up there that I was convinced held the body of my dead sister  (A story for another day).  This bedroom had once belonged to my uncle.  He was a boy of 12 years old the last time he used this bedroom and he would never get any older.

The second room was a sharp left from the top of the stairs through a doorway (the storage area in my day, but my father’s bedroom in years passed).  Just passed the doorway was a little alcove before stepping into the room proper.  To the right of the doorway on the wall of the alcove was a large world map, dingy and dusty with age.  Just touching it would cause the fragile paper to fade away into dust.  On one such trip into the attic, my older cousin, Caleb, had filled me in on the family secret.

There are many versions of the story.  What I’m about to tell you is my version of how I think the “secret” went down.  I have pieced my version together from a stack of investigation photos, newspaper clippings and, of course, the outcome.

My father was 17 and my uncle was 12.  I don’t recall now how, but my father had broken his ankle and had a cast on.  He was in his attic bedroom in the back up against the window, cleaning his 22.  The windows were open because the attic was nearly always hot as three hells.  Downstairs, my grandmother’s sister was taking a nap on the sofa.  She was there because my grandparents were at the hospital with my aunt, who’d just had surgery.  Outside, my uncle picked a watermelon.  It was a big one and I imagine he had a time getting it lugged into the house all the way back to the kitchen, where he placed it on the table.  After getting it stable, he went into the kitchen to get a knife, which he brought back to the watermelon.  He stuck the knife in the top of the melon and couldn’t get it to budge.  After several attempts, my uncle decided to go and see if my father would help him cut the watermelon.

Upstairs, my uncle stepped into the doorway and asked for help.  My father pointed the gun at my uncle and said, “Go away and don’t bother me again or I’ll shoot you.”  Just to prove a point, he pulled the trigger meaning to shoot the wall to my uncle’s left.  Only the gun had a faulty sight and the gun was actually a hair right.  The bullet left the gun and struck my uncle’s carotid artery.  Blood spattered against the back wall, on the floor and dripped down the wall into a piano that sat below in the hallway.  (Oh, and just FYI, in my father’s version of this story, there is no watermelon and my uncle had the gun and basically killed himself, which is different from the story he told the Sheriff, who then had it reported to the newspaper.  In that version, there is a picture of said watermelon).

The next part, I can’t see so clearly. Did my father jump off the bed to go to my uncle’s aid?  Did he sit there in shock while my uncle bleed to death? Or did he sit on the bed watching in fascinated enjoyment? 

From an old clip in the newspaper, I learned that my father walked the mile to my great-aunt’s house for them to call for help.  For the life of me, I can’t understand why he didn’t just call from my grandparent’s house.  Surely if my great-aunt had a phone, my grandparents did as well.

So, on Saturday’s I would eventually find my way up into the attic where I would stare at the map and the bloodstains that it didn’t cover.  (Family legend has it that my grandparents painted over the area many times and the paint would never cover the stains).  Sometimes I would think about it and sometimes I just sat there in silence.

On Sunday’s, my grandmother would pack up the Sunday meal that she’d cooked all day on Saturday.  She had this stackable metal plate carrier.  There were about five plates in all, each about two or three inches deep.  She’d fill each one with something – corn, creamed potatoes, gravy, fried chicken, cornbread and cake.  Then the whole thing would clasp together with a handle that ran from the bottom plate to the top lid.  My grandfather would come into the kitchen and tote it out to the car while my grandmother would finish filling up a gallon jug filled with ice tea.  Once all the food was packed, James and I would join my grandparents in the car and we’d head off to the prison.

In the early years, it wasn’t bad.  My grandparents seemed to know everyone and everyone was quite friendly to them.  An officer would take a fork and check out all the food to be sure there wasn’t any weapons in it and then he’d hand it back to my grandmother.  Sometimes, she’d bake a pie or a cake to leave with the officers.  After that, another officer would pat all four of us down.  Usually, the officer would be someone who we knew and he would joke about how big James and I were getting.  When we were signed in and the “call” had gone out for my father to come to the yard, the four of us would start the long journey across the red clay field to the yard.

The yard was a fenced in area.  There were picnic tables scattered all around and what I’ll call porches.  I call them that because that’s sort of what they looked like, only there were several and they went on for a long way.  On the porches were long wooden benches attached to the wall.  In the winter, there were burn barrels for heat.  Usually, my grandmother would start her preparations.  From somewhere, she’d pull out a red and white table-cloth which she used to cover the picnic table.  From somewhere else, she’d pull out plastic silverware, plastic plates and napkins.  After the table was set, we’d sit quietly waiting on my father to arrive.  James and I were usually very quiet and still during these times as we watched other inmates arrive and meet their families. 

Once my father arrived, it was expected that I would go running up to him, jump in his arms and tell him how much I missed him.  Then we’d all sit down to pray.  My grandfather usually did this and he would usually pray for a very long time.  Finally, we’d eat.  No one talked very much during this time except for pleasantries – Dorothy and Sam just had their first child.  A boy.  They named him Sam Jr.  Something of that nature.  After we ate and things were properly packed back up, James and I were finally allowed to go and play.  This consisted of a long walk around a sandy path to a small playground where there were usually some other children playing. 

This was a very strange type of play ground.  There were other children playing, but usually only in the groups they came with.  I can’t recall ever meeting, talking or playing with any other children except James.  And in all my years as an inmate’s daughter, I’ve usually felt like I was the only one.  If there are others, I don’t know them, although I know they are out there.  Maybe keeping it all in, like me. 

At some point, James would tell me it was time for us to go back.  I don’t know how he knew, but he always got us back just as my grandmother was hugging my father goodbye.  Each time, she’d remind my father to be sure to give me a goodbye hug and kiss, which he’d do.  We’d all stand there and watch as all the inmates left.  Once they were across the yard and behind the big gate, we were allowed to finally leave.  The drive home was always somber which my grandparents talking in very low voices.  Usually, James and I would fall asleep which thankfully made the ride home shorter.

It wasn’t until I started school that I became aware of exactly what going to prison meant.  For me, it was just something that we did.  But I quickly learned that for other children, this was WAY outside the norm.  At some point, I came to realize that this meant that my father had done something wrong and I had no idea what that wrong thing was.  Was he in jail because he’d killed his brother?  I simply didn’t know.

It took a lot of courage for me to finally ask my mother about this.  I could tell by the look on her face that she’d been dreading the day she had to explain and here it was.  She hadn’t done anything wrong and it was going to be up to her to shatter her daughter by telling her that her father “wasn’t no nice guy.” 

This next part of the story has taken me years to piece together. 

Immediately after my uncle’s death was ruled an accident, my father joined the Navy and off he went.  For four years, he managed to do pretty well.  There was one blemish on his record where he went AWOL.  I vaguely remember my grandmother telling me that he did this when my sister died and the Navy wouldn’t let him come home.  However, since his death, I have learned that his going AWOL happened prior to his meeting my mother.  I have no idea why he went AWOL or the events surrounding this.  He later met my mother while he was on leave, so I’m guessing that whatever punishment he was given didn’t include kicking him out of the Navy and at some point, he re-enlisted.  The romance between my parents seemed to go quite quickly from the time they met until the time they married.  Just as soon as their honeymoon was over, my father was back on ship.  It seems like it went this way for years.  Out to sea for three months, in on leave for two weeks, out for six months, in for three weeks.  At one point, my father was stationed in Cuba.  Later, he was stationed in Charleston and my mother came to live with him.  Prior to that, she stayed with my grandparents.

While in Charleston, my father got into trouble.  He spent a year in prison.  While in prison, he was discharged from the Navy and at his release he came home to my grandparents.  I was already almost a year old.  It appears that he went to work right away and provided a living for my mother.  They rented a house and saved up enough money to buy another.  I have no idea how long they lived there before my father got in trouble again.  This time for arson.  My father was that guy.  You know the one.  The one that goes around setting fires to churches.  Yeah, that guy.  They eventually caught him and he went to “big” prison where he did a couple of years.  Apparently, he could behave himself there, so they downgraded his status and sent him to a workcamp (which I described above) and finally gave him parole.  I was eight years old.

I remember going to a bank with my grandmother once.  I couldn’t have been more than about four or five.  There was a lady there, tall and well-dressed.  She greeted my grandmother icily, only good manners prevented her from saying the things that it was clear, even to me at that age, she wanted to say.  There was a certain terseness in her voice.  She had her granddaughter with her and I distinctly remember her pulling the little girl behind her.  I knew the girl.  Had played with her a few times at church during Sunday school.  I recall the lady turning to the girl and telling her she was not allowed to play with me ever again under any circumstances.  A man walked up to her and asked her what she was “going on about.”  She pointed at me and said, “Do you KNOW whose daughter that is.”  The man looked over at me and then up at my grandmother.  He pulled the woman and the girl in protectively and turned them toward the door to walk out.  I remember looking up at my grandmother.  If she had noticed the strangeness, there were no outward signs.  She simply walked up to someone else and began chatting as if nothing had happened. 

Incidents like that one were common in my grandmother’s town.  If it wasn’t the fact that I was an inmates’s daughter, it was my Indian blood, but it was always something.  Each time an incident occurred, my grandmother didn’t react, but it affected me deeply.  I grew to resent people like them, but my grandmother never did.  If any one of them had some ill fall on them, my grandmother would bake a cake and be the first one there.  She always acted like she couldn’t hear the whispers.  After a while, people started saying that my grandmother was touched in the head and they whispered about that. 

My grandmother wasn’t touched and she DID hear them just the same as I did.  She just chose to handle it differently.  She once told me that it was just easier if they thought of her as simple.  So outwardly, she gave them what they wanted.

My grandmother was a wonderful person who loved her son.  Her only crime was in believing that he was innocent every single time.  I think it was the only way she could survive.  She simply could not afford herself the luxury of believing anything else.  It would have broken her.  So every single time my father did something awful, my grandmother believed in him more.  We should all be so lucky to have one person who believes in us that much.  But it cost her and it cost all of us.  (I didn’t say having someone love you that much doesn’t come with consequences.)

Through the years, my father got arrested, did time, and got paroled for good behavior (I know, astonishing).  My mother never said unkind things about my father because she was fiercely loyal to my grandmother.  To the point that there were times when I didn’t understand whose mother my grandmother actually was.  And because my grandmother couldn’t believe anything bad, I never had a real avenue to finding out what was really going on.  She was steadfast in believing that he was an excellent son and loved him dearly, above everybody else.  And because I loved her, I wouldn’t ask questions.  From time to time, I’d hear things from classmates/family or see/hear things in the news, but there are never enough details to answer my questions.  So, because of this, my defense mechanism was to avoid the topic of my father altogether or to get fighting mad.  Oh yeah, I had lots of anger issues.

There are always those who are interested in his story.  Mostly family and they can be very pushy.  At times, they’d say things about my grandmother and there have been times when they’ve made known questions that they have about my mother.  I find it all offensive. 

I don’t mind when people are truly interested in his story and mean no malice (and there is a difference), but it bothers me a lot when people question the motives of my mother or my grandmother.  My mother married a man she fell in love with and she had two children.  Then one day, she realized she wasn’t married to the man she thought she had married, so she got a divorce and moved on.  My grandmother just simply loved her son.

Since my father’s death, I’ve received a lot of his papers that have completed some of the blank spots.  One such blank spot was the time he served when he was still in the Navy (for the record rape and burglary).  At that time, my grandmother talked quite a few people in her church into writing letters in my father’s defense.  Many, many people wrote letters asking that he be given leniency.  To my surprise, the lady from the bank was one of them.  I’ve spent a lot of time over these last few weeks coming to terms with that.  After my father came back and set churches on fire, I’m guessing that lady might have felt used.  I probably would have had I been in her shoes. 

During the years that my grandmother was ill, I tried very hard to establish a relationship with my father, because my grandmother asked me to.  Each time, he’d do something hurtful.  Want an example?  Once, when I was 30 years old, he asked me to provide him with a DNA sample so that he could prove I was his daughter.  This man never paid a dime in child support and believe me, being his kid was NOT a walk in the park.  For him to ask this was a dig at my mother because he was guilty of cheating on her every chance he got.  Want another?  When the doctor came in to tell us my grandmother died, my father jumped up out of his chair as if someone had just scored a touchdown.  (Asshole)

My father inherited my grandmother’s home.  My cousins and I all knew he couldn’t be responsible to keep it.  And he wasn’t. 

He moved back in with my grandmother several years before she died.  There were others of us that would have taken care of her, but we couldn’t with him there.  She told us that she was making the choice to have him.  I wasn’t sure why, but I knew it wasn’t safe for the other members of my family to go there.  I went often, but with the understanding that he would not be there while I was.  He agreed and for the most part, keep to his word. 

After my grandmother died, he got remarried.  During the years of this marriage, he made a lot of changes to the house, including putting a bathroom in my grandmother’s bedroom.  He added a deck in a weird place which never looked quite right.  After only ten years, the porch has completely fallen though and is dangerous to walk on. 

Since his death, I’ve had a chance to talk to James.  James was always my closest cousin on my father’s side. 

I remember one particular Sunday when he balked at going to the prison.  My father had been home for about a year before doing something else and going back in.  For whatever reason, he was sent to “big”prison again and this was a time when that prison was on the verge of riot and everybody knew it.  James was torn because he wanted to protect me, but he flatly was not going to go and there was no changing his mind.

During our conversation, I asked James about it.  He began to talk about a particular Thanksgiving.  I remember it vividly.  Everybody was home.  It was probably the first and only time that happened.  The house was so happy and bursting with energy.  The men all got up early that morning like they always did to go hunting.  I was still happy that everybody was home, so I didn’t notice that during the meal there was a distinct shift in mood.  After the meal, everybody started packing up and leaving.  I knew it was a change, but had no idea why.  Suddenly, the house with empty except for my grandparents and me.  James told me that during the hunt, my father had pointed the gun directly at him and tried to shoot him. 

Another incident on Valentine’s Day that next year changed the course of my family altogether.  After that, no one came to visit anymore and all of us lost touch.  I never quite understood why.  After my conversation with James, I finally understood the “Valentine’s Day” events and again I grieved the loss of my family.  My heart sank as I thought about all those moments my father stole from all of us.  All the Thanksgivings and Christmases that came after that we never got to have.

When I received the call that he was gravely ill, I didn’t feel like I was “supposed” to feel.  I can’t quite put my finger on the emotions, but grief wasn’t what I felt.  A few hours later, he died, and I felt relieved.

After his death, it was up to me to make decisions about what came next.  The only thing I felt strongly about was NOT having a funeral.  I can’t bear having strangers come and tell me what a wonderful person he was.  I can’t stand the idea of having people ask questions about him or come for the curiosity show.  When my immediate family questioned me, all I could think to tell them was “I don’t need a damn green bean casserole.”  I just want to put him away quietly.  At the proper time, those of us that need to be there will gather and we will have our moment.  But I refuse to do it publicly. 

It’s been a couple of months now and I know there are things I keep putting off.  Things I just have no interest in dealing with. I know I’m not the only one because my closest relatives are finally calling each other and trying to figure out how to heal. 

I know I’m not there yet because there are times when I still look over my shoulder, expecting my father to creep up on me like he’s done so many times in the past.  Little by little, we will put all the pieces back together and maybe one day, I can talk about all this in real life. 

Sincerely thank you for stopping by and reading my blog. 

~PJ

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