Do you remember the first time I saw my father? It was when I was six. I had been out playing, and Mabel called me in to dinner—supper, we used to call it. I came rushing into the dining room, and stopped short at the sight of the stranger who was standing near the head of the table, holding in his hand a huge, and somewhat grimy, potato. To me he was a terrifying creature, with his fierce eyes looking out under the shaggy brows, his unruly, wild red beard, his disheveled, sparse hair, his strange backwoodsman clothing.
Everybody stopped speaking as I came in. I looked in terror for my mother. I used to be agonizingly bashful, you may remember. Mother’s face was flushed, and she looked as if she had been crying. I started toward her; started the question, “What is the matter?” when you said, “This is your father, Charlie. Go and shake hands with him.”
He lay down the potato and held out a hand toward me. I started forward, with my eyes on the floor, lest I should catch sight again of that terrifying beard. “Look at me,” he commanded. Fearfully I raised my eyes, and was overcome by that shaggy mane. With a torrent of sobbing I broke away and rushed to Mother.
There was a scene. It is only a confused recollection of angry words, but it extended far into the night, even after I was supposed to be asleep. I lay chilled with fear, as the voices went on—all a memory that persists only as a “feeling” whenever I think of father.
I don’t know why I should fear my father, except for the red beard—unless it was the heritage of fear which my mother had had of him while bearing me. But afterwards, when I used to go to Sunday School and Mr. Pryor would tell us about God upon a throne, Who knew every bad thing we ever did, and would burn us forever and ever, unless we took pains to please Him, it was always a terrifying man with a red beard whom I saw in my mind’s eye—my Father in heaven!
I didn’t see him again for a long time, years. And the next morning Mother told me she was going away for a little while, and we all went down to the depot to see her off, and I cried some more, and Mother asked me not to, and to be her brave little man, and then she was gone, and I started school, staying with Mabel and Fred. During the next two years Mother made little flying visits to see us, during which I would receive my fill of the affection which she lavished upon me, and which Mabel, who had no great gift of expressing affection even for her own youngsters, never thought of giving her brother.
I was eight when Mother sent for me to come and live with her in St. Paul; and the trip was my second railway journey alone (I had visited grandma and grandpa at Anoka the year before). Mother was alone at the station to meet me, and on the long car ride she told me a number of things that I couldn’t understand, but was too excited to think much about. It was the second day after the cyclone which old timers still remember as having laid waste a good bit of the Mississippi valley; and I was all eyes and wonderment at the signs of devastation on every hand. Signs were down; great gaping holes yawned where the plate glass windows had been. In one place a telephone pole had been forced into the ground at a rakish angle, and broken double like a bent twig.
Mother was telling me that I was soon to meet my new papa, who was not fierce like my other father, and that I must love him, because he was so good to her, and would love me too. I would meet some of their friends, too, whom I would like and who liked little boys, and she had told them what a good boy I was and how well I learned my lessons at school, and they had a little dog who would stick his nose into your pockets for candy. Ed always brought him candy, but he would bring me candy now instead, she said. “Ed” it seems was my new papa, and I might remember that I had seen him before, but that now his name wasn’t what it had been but was the same as mine and hers. “How did he get a new name?” I asked, and she promised sometime to tell me, and to see that sign all twisted up in front of that cigar store across the street. And I mustn’t let Al and Em (the friends) know that my papa was a new papa, but pretend he had always been my papa. And I wasn’t to call him Ed as she did, but Papa. She knew I wouldn’t forget, because I was her bright little man, and she was proud of me, and I must promise to remember all she had told me, and not to forget.
I was happy to be with her, after two years with my sister; she loved me and I loved her with a love that began to question what she had said even that very night after I had gone to bed; but she was my mother, and she must know what was best; and I wasn’t afraid of that Big Man with the red beard, who sat fiercely on his golden throne up in the sky—not afraid when my mother was near. So I said just what she had told me to, and kissed my new papa just as if he were my mother instead (I pretended he was, to help), and surprised my mother by calling him Dad instead of Papa, which was a great improvement, and which I had gotten out of a story that you had read me one time.
That was the beginning, Jo: the beginning of years of mental anguish, of physical deprivation, of nameless fears, of lies, lies, lies, that make my cheeks burn as I write this; lies to you, Jo dear, who taught me always to be truthful, lies to Mabel and Fred when I got back to them next year; lies ever since; twenty years of living a lie. Oh, Jo, can you ever understand it all? I don’t expect you to love me as you have; ’cause of the lies always coming between us. But, Jo dear, you know what it is to love; and you can, perhaps, forgive the weakness of love, and the fearful strength of it, too.
Even in that first year, Jo, I questioned my mother’s new relationship; because I knew about our father at Fort Ripley, and I used to go off by myself sometimes and pray to that Other Man with the red beard; pray to him that it was alright to have this new father; pray that my mother and he were really married in spite of my other father. Strange, grown-up thoughts for an eight year old, weren’t they? I early became acquainted with stranger thoughts; thoughts that burned in my mind, and made me always fearful and self-conscious, that made me an expert at evasion and downright lying. My training was good. And I had promised my mother, and, someway, any amount of lying did not seem as bad as breaking my promise to her. And, then, too, I had heard her tell my Dad that if he ever left her she would have nothing to live for, and that she had arranged a way to end it all. She hinted at suicide, and sometimes, when things were going especially bad, I have seen her pull a little bottle out of her breast and regard it, to be hastily concealed and denied when she saw that I had seen.
And things were often very bad. My Dad drank. I think he felt awfully bad about his part in the mess. He loved my mother, and I think now that he was also sorry for her. She was much older than he, and terrifically nervous. Their common weaknesses seemed to hold them together. Their love was not of strength. If it had been they wouldn’t have been together. They would have faced things and worked them out in some decent kind of way, or else not worked them out at all. But there was something beautiful about their love, too. Poor Dad! He was always losing jobs, always on the ragged edge, always hoping to gamble himself into fortune, or to drink himself out of the lack of it. My mother was a tower of strength to him; always encouraging him, always knowing that he would never drink again, always accepting his vow that he wouldn’t, always in an ecstacy of fear lest he should. She finally hit on the plan of working, too, over his protests, as a means of being constantly with him, and trying to keep him away from the first drink, which with him could never stop there, but always meant more and more and more, and spending whatever money he could get hold of, even if it meant walking to work the next day.
Many’s the time, too, that he would elude her on some subterfuge, and then there would be long evenings of waiting, hoping that he would come home, listening for every streetcar, running to the window to see if he got off at the corner. Sometimes he would, and then we would pretend we hadn’t worried, and didn’t realize anything was the matter; but Mother would kiss him with extra tenderness, and he, grateful, would try to be kinder than usual, and if he had any money left, give me some for candy. But more often we would wait and wait till Mother’s nerves were raw, and then we would go out “for a walk,” as my mother called it, and it would always lead past the pool rooms where he might be, and then she would coax me into the most likely one to ask if he were there, to say that there was someone outside to see him; and he would come forward with a bravado that was designed to prove that he wasn’t ashamed and that he hadn’t been drinking, and that he had planned to be called for.
Times, too, there were, when he repaid all that Mother did for him; for her health was poor, and sometimes in the night she would give a slight moan. Instantly he would be at her side. Again and again I have seen her lying as stiff and cold as death, and have held her hand while he rubbed the other, and made her try to sip a remedy that was always close at hand; and then I would feel that cold, paralyzing fear which must have been clutching at my mother’s heart to make her so ill, gripping mine, too; and then I would see and respond to the wonderful gentleness of him, that would win out over my jealousy of him—for, or course, I was jealous of him, and at times almost hated him because my mother loved him so much, and because I felt instinctively, (and even had enough worldly wisdom, picked up in the cheap rooming houses where we lived) to know that he shouldn’t be living with my mother as he was.
Three years of this in St. Paul. Time and again mother and Dad would start some little business, flourish for a time, till his drinking or her extravagance and bad management would undermine their efforts. Even in these ventures they would not face the music, but would stall for time and get further in debt—the one endeavor in which they were always expert—and then we would leave between daylights—leave for some remote section of the city, where we would struggle along for a time, they would be content to work a little for someone else, and then the same miserable story over again. Of course that couldn’t go on indefinitely, and that is what finally led us out to Seattle where by now you, as well as Mabel and Fred and the youngsters, had moved.
It was then that all my old doubts and fears and scruples arose in a whirling torrent of troubled thoughts, Jo. I began to see the way other folks lived; to have a clean and normal existence; for though I had gone to school and was mentally keen for my age, I made no chums; we moved too often, and there was my bashfulness, and my fears which it covered and cloaked. And we were always so poor and I was always so untidy—for my mother paid almost no attention to my clothing, and my manners of toilet were all in my own hands—that I expect I wasn’t a very enviable prospect as a chum.
Your own straightforwardness was always a rebuke to me, Jo, and I believe that if you could have sympathized with me just a little, if you had been able to show a little more how much you thought of me, I would have been unable to hold out longer than this, but released my pent up fears and emotions in an outpouring flood of confession.
It was all planned out on the train going West, what we were to do. Mother and I would accidentally meet Dad on the train—although from then on he wouldn’t be Dad anymore but Ed M—, and he would establish himself in our several good graces as an old acquaintance who had befriended us on the trip.
I dreaded that meeting with you. It seemed a ridiculous story to me, even then, but though I urged this upon Mother, she wouldn’t listen. I don’t think Dad cared one way or the other. I think he would have been glad to have had the whole business over with. But it didn’t work out that way. . . .
© 1984, by Ronald and Beverly Potter
All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission.