That was a favorite expression of my mother’s, one she used any time one of us was visited by some tragedy of our own making. She said it when one of her five kids screwed up spectacularly – if we got busted or went bankrupt, or if we lost a job or a spouse. It was a sort of catchall phrase, said in a tone of singsong resignation with a hint of relativity – “Well, nobody died” – that was meant to remind the listener of life’s real bottom line. Dereliction, disgrace – all could be right-sized by death’s long shadow. She trotted it out for nearly any bad situation, except for the ones in which people actually died.
She’s dead herself now, two-and-a-half years as of this writing, and having seen her own mother die when she was but 12 and her father die when she was pregnant with me, I think she was quite surprised to have made it to 81. She started preparing for her own demise about the time she retired, at 65, buying herself a cremation plan from the Neptune Society, who were supposed to scatter her ashes in the Pacific Ocean. I think they went out of business first but she used the certificate to remind her children of her mortality before she got off the phone.
“Okay, hon, I hope I see you again. And remember the envelope from the Neptune Society is in the drawer by the ‘fridge.”
This was more than mere mother guilt. She’d always had heart trouble, culminating in a triple by-pass about 15 years before she died, and I don’t think she ever felt one hundred percent. She never got with the program of diet and exercise the doctors from Kaiser had prescribed but I also think life had worn her down. After her mom died she took care of her father and brothers in Chicago, and escaped that grind by joining the Marines during the Second World War, which is where she met my father. That led to marriage and her own children, followed by divorce and disappointment and this sort of pervasive passive sense she had that things generally ended badly. (When I got married the second time, she said after the ceremony, “Well, you can always get a divorce if things don’t work out.”)
Once her kids were grown and she was able to retire, she began to relax a little. She had her little pension, her TV shows, her mystery novels (marked on the binding by the public library with a bloody fingerprint) and her guilty food pleasures: fried bologna sandwiches and cinnamon rolls.
But beneath it all was an underground stream of exhaustion. “Sometimes I just wish I could die,” she would tell me when I visited from New York, and she never sounded more honest. Her last years were marred by increasing disorientation, a marked inability to read or follow even a simple narrative, and a lot of fretting on the part of her kids about where she should live and who should be with her. The coroner said she died in her sleep though who knows? She certainly died in her own bed, in her apartment in Petaluma, California, meaning she got at least one thing that she wished for.
Dad was a different story. He died about a year and a half after her, also at the age of 81, in a more dramatic fashion. He had managed to burn what few bridges were left between him and his children over the years and when Marion, his second wife died not long after Mom, I thought he wouldn’t be far behind. She was his one-man support team, head priest of the cult of Fulton Elder, and about the only person in his life that he had not shoved away. But when he kept on ticking, alone out there in his double-wide in a trailer park in the Mojave Desert, I figured maybe he had beat the odds. Some people get past a certain age and just keep going, and having suffered strokes and cancer and a collapsed lung, all complicated by a lifetime of drinking and smoking, I figured he might just smolder on through the ages like a firework that never quite exploded. I thought someone would have to shoot him.
It was the day after Christmas, 2005. We were in our kitchen in Brooklyn – my wife, our daughter, my son and I – getting ready to go to the airport. My wife’s parents had invited all their kids and grandchildren to Sanibel, Florida for the week following Christmas and my son, Adam, who had come east for the holidays, had just informed me that he had forgotten to bring his medication with him. The pharmaceutical cocktail meant to combat his depression, anxiety and mood swings didn’t seem to be working anyway – his college had just invited him to leave for a semester, due to his inability to actually show up for class – but I was beside myself.
“Why is it my job to remember your medication?” I said to him. “You’re 21 years old. When are you going to start taking care of your own problems and not waiting for your parents to fix things for you?”
That was when my sister Pat called to say that Dad was in the hospital. He had checked himself into the emergency room in Barstow on Christmas day complaining of shortness of breath. They hooked him up to an oxygen machine that was now doing his breathing for him but they had to sedate him to keep him from pulling the tube out of his throat. “They’re not sure he’s going to make it,” she said.
Pat was literally one of the last people who cared if he did or not. Both she and my older brother, Brian, had lived with Dad after the divorce and during his second marriage, and were probably worse for the experience. I had come to believe that exposure to Dad was like exposure to radiation. My younger sister and brother, April and Ethan, and I had stayed with our mother and were subsequently less badly burned. Part of the poisoning Brian and Pat experienced made them ironically care about him more (was this what the Stockholm Syndrome was like?), while April and Ethan had already willed his death. Being the middle child, I was somewhere in between, which was why Pat was calling me.
“I’m up in Oregon,” she said, “and there’s no way to get down there until Wednesday, at the earliest. Brian’s on one of his Indian retreats. I don’t suppose you want to go to Barstow?”
We both spent a silent moment thinking of all the reasons I wouldn’t want to and then I said I would call her once I got to Florida. I had to get Adam squared away, I told her, make sure my own children were taken care of before I thought of trying to deal with Dad.
“Let me know if he gets any worse,” I said before we rang off, meaning, I’ll come if I know he is really dying.
On the flight to Florida I was listening to Blood on the Tracks, trying to ignore the emotions roiling in me, while my kids tuned into a nature program on the Jet Blue TV screens. This one was about a mountain lion in California that had attacked a woman on a mountain bike. A diagram showed how the cat’s saber teeth pierced the biker’s helmet and penetrated her skull. Once it had the taste of humans it attacked another and they had to send in a team of lion hunters to track it to its lair. I remember looking over at the screen at the exact moment the camera found the big cat, hidden in the brush. Its yellow eyes locked on mine and the mountain lion snarled with a feral intensity I couldn’t hear. I felt it, though.
The last time I had seen my father was in 1999 on the day of Bill Clinton’s impeachment. I was working for an internet company headquartered in Pasadena and I remember listening to NPR as the Senate voted on the Articles of Impeachment during the monotonous drive up Highway 15, headed for Barstow. Clinton was impeached and stayed in the White House.
Marion was still alive then and my visit with them had been brief and relatively peaceful. They talked of their illnesses and their grandchildren, as old people do, and they plied me with things I didn’t need: bolo ties and war memorabilia, a boxed videotape set of Robert MacNeil’s PBS series The History of English and at least one book on the Civil War. It was only later in the day, when they had both sipped a bit too much whiskey and smoked a pack of Benson and Hedges between them that they began to complain about blacks and Mexicans and the state of society in general – which I thought must be rather hard to gauge from their vantage point there near the home of Del Taco and the Roy Rogers Museum.
My father was openly disappointed when I got up to leave as darkness stole in – “You have to eat supper, don’t you?” – but suddenly I was dying to get away. As I headed back towards LA, as fast as the freeways would take me, I thought of all the times I had wanted him to stay when he hadn’t, though I honestly wasn’t looking for revenge.
I was one of those kids who wanted his daddy – for about thirty years after he left my life. Even when I was little and our family was intact, I never saw that much of him. He worked several jobs supporting his family (primarily as a high school English teacher) and often used weekends to go hunting and fishing with his friends. One of my earliest memories is fishing with Dad and him showing me how to cup the water from a stream in my hands.
Other thoughts of him from that time are as fleeting as that water escaping between my fingers. I remember him going ballistic over something I had broken, chasing me under my parents’ bed while my mother yelled at him to stop. I remember hearing from the kids on the elementary school playground that he had been in a bar fight the night before, and then seeing him later that day wearing a pair of absurd, dark aviator style sunglasses on a typically overcast Crescent City day. I remember him stopping by the house one afternoon when I had shoved my arm through a plate glass window, fighting with my sister. I was screaming blue murder when his car pulled into the gravel driveway. He took me to the Seaside Hospital and sat with me while the doctors sewed me up. I was solemn as they cut numbed flesh from my forearm; even before he had moved out his appearance in the daytime was such a rare occurrence that it was as if Jesus had come down from a stained-glass window to help me.
Most of my memories of the events leading up to my parents’ divorce are auditory. I remember sitting with Brian and Pat on the stairs, listening to their screaming matches and trying to decode the accusations. (Once Mom found an article of women’s clothing, not hers, in our family’s khaki-and-white Volkswagen van: that bout went extra rounds.) I remember him outside, drunken, calling out to her when she had locked him out of the house (“Come on, Val, for chrissakes let me in!”) and I remember trying to be very still. And I remember the day he came to say farewell: he was moving to another town, far away in the San Joaquin Valley, with his new wife and family and taking Brian and Pat with him.
He knelt to hug me on the big lawn, pockmarked with gopher holes and crabgrass, in front of our home on A Street. He told me that if I ever wanted to join him all I had to do was call him and he would come and rescue me, as he did that day at the hospital. I probably made more of that offer than he did – in my ten-year-old imagination it was like being given some magic incantation which I couldn’t conceive of needing then but that might come in handy down the road, when trapped, say, in some sorcerer’s cave. Except that when I finally tried to cash in that chit in high school, after having been arrested for possession and fighting with my mother about the company I was keeping, he reneged. Brian was just going off to college, and none too soon for Dad and Marion. He had been trouble enough, painting his feet and wearing cowbells and serapes, turning my stepsister Kim’s boyfriend on. The last thing Dad needed was another wayward son to ruin his happy home.
I was crushed by the rejection, refused to speak to him, and spent the next few years acting out: getting stoned, getting in fights and crying in the arms of whatever sympathetic female I could find. My little James Dean drama seemed epic to me at the time and I sincerely hoped that my silence punished the old man but in reality, I don’t think he even noticed my absence.
Our week in Sanibel seemed to last a month. Cell phone reception was spotty and I had to walk over by the beach to stay in touch with the west coast. It would take Pat some time to get down to Barstow. In the meanwhile my other stepsister, Kelly, was there, representing the next of kin. Kelly was a year younger than me and I had always liked her; she had been kind to Brian and Pat, and was blessedly uncomplicated. She had married her high school sweetheart and they were still happy together despite (or because of) having raised two troublesome boys of their own. Hearing her voice on the beach in Florida was like glimpsing a distant star and it transported me out of my blues.
“I tried to tell the nurses that your father did not want to be resuscitated,” she said, claiming she had heard him voice his right-to-die several times before and after her mother’s demise. “But when I couldn’t produce his living will and I told them I was his step-daughter, they looked at me like my name was Kelly Kevorkian.”
One of my father’s blood relations would have to make the call, they said – a machine was still doing his breathing for him and when a nurse had asked him if he wanted the tube removed, he violently shook his head. Pat seemed to be traveling by stagecoach and Brian, who had long been following a Native American teacher named Fred, was off at some Sundance Ceremonies, probably sweating in a lodge under the influence of peyote as Dad entered his own alternate universe.
“Do I have to come out there for them to let him die?” I asked her. I could see the lights of Fort Meyers on the horizon and a swatch of the Milky Way stretched out like crepe paper above it.
Her voice bounced off a satellite somewhere and came back to rescue me again. “Why don’t we just wait and see what happens?”
To appreciate her gesture you must understand: While awaiting my father’s recovery, or death, Kelly was staying in the trailer where her own mother had died a year earlier. There were two little dogs to care for but no other signs of life. Rather she kept confronting evidence of his willful self-destruction – boxes of See’s chocolates, despite his diabetes; packs of cigarettes in spite of his emphysema; empty wine jugs though he’d foresworn liquor. Her time there was a torment and she couldn’t wait to leave. But she understood me when I said I felt that I couldn’t leave Adam.
“It’s like triage,” I told her. “I’m trying to respond to the casualty most likely to survive.”
For while Adam was certainly in pain and feeling confused, he showed every sign of wanting to live whereas Dad had a different history. His fortunes had taken a turn for the worse when he and Marion decided to quit their teaching jobs and move to Idaho. Their dream was to run a little restaurant and make enough for him to enjoy the hunting and fishing the land offered. That neither of them had worked in the restaurant business didn’t seem to be a concern, nor did they slow down to consider the wisdom of having Dad, who hated humanity in all its varieties, be the guy who was supposed to pour people’s drinks and listen to their stories. Maybe they thought he would change.
In the early eighties they sold their house in Rio Vista and sunk pretty much all they had into a vacant bar-and-grill called Perk’s in the little town of Mackay. The town itself wasn’t far from Sun Valley – Hemingway had killed himself in nearby Ketchum – but no one seemed inclined to leave the legendary skiing resorts to visit the lost towns of the Lost River. The biggest thing to happen in Mackay each year was the cattle auction but even then the visiting cowboys seemed to prefer the town’s other bar to Perk’s and Dad soon slipped into what he called the “slough of despond.”
I think that was the beginning of his long decline. Marion began making late night phone calls to April and Pat, whispering darkly of Dad’s dark moods, even as he insisted he didn’t need any help or sympathy from anyone. Then in October 1983, an earthquake struck the town of Mackay. (Ironic, given that “earthquake” was on the list of things Dad and Marion said they would never miss about California.) A handful of buildings, including the city hall and the Lion’s Club Den, were so badly damaged that they were ultimately condemned and razed to the ground. The big teardrop shaped Perk’s sign fell like a tomahawk through the façade of their restaurant. Their second act was over.
A few days after our first conversation, Kelly left me a message from the hospital: “It lives!” she hissed. In the middle of the night my father had sat up in bed and pulled the tube out of his mouth before demanding some ice cream. She had spent the morning with him and declared him fit enough to be left in the care of the Barstow nurses while she made her getaway. Pat and Brian were coming to look after him while my services were blessedly no longer required.
Brian was the first on the scene, just as he had been in our family. His relationship with my father had always been of the love-hate variety, with most of the love coming from Brian’s end. He had been a hyper, intelligent child, overflowing with creative currency – we stole into his bedroom to gaze in awe on his solar powered alarm clock and Captain Nemo paintings – and I’m sure as a child today he would be in some kind of gifted program, and probably medicated to the eyeballs. But back then he was mostly considered weird and problematic and my father repaid his affections with shame and hostility. How he felt waking up to find his number one son at his bedside is anyone’s guess.
“I thought I’d found a really good physical therapist for him,” Brian called to tell me as Dad began to convalesce. “I thought Dad would like him – former Navy SEAL, Vietnam vet. He gave Dad this whole pep talk on how he was going to help him get better, but when he left Dad turned to me and said, ‘I couldn’t stand anymore of him and his happy horseshit.’”
For optimism was a fool’s game in my father’s book. Religion was bunk, FDR knew about Pearl Harbor and earthquakes followed you across state lines. When he and Marion fled Idaho they came to Barstow, a way-station between Vegas and Los Angeles that had already become shorthand for “next to nowhere” in Hollywood films and pulp fiction. They both found work substitute teaching there, though Dad’s return to the classroom ended badly when the principal of the little school in nearby Bishop called him the worst substitute teacher he had ever seen and fired him. Dad dealt with this disappointment by going home and eating a bottle of sleeping pills.
That resulted in another trip to the hospital, twenty years earlier, and this time Marion stopped whispering. Against my father’s wishes she came clean and told us he had tried to kill himself twice before in Mackay (once with pills and alcohol, and once Roman-style, in a warm bath with a razor) and then swore her to silence. “But not this time,” she said when Ethan and I came to visit them then. “I told him we were going to deal with this the way other people did, by reaching out to family and putting everything in the open.”
That moment of repentance was just that; he quit drinking for a few weeks, or days, and actually praised something I had written to my face, a profile of the novelist Denis Johnson.
“Yeah, he’s a good writer,” I had said, deflecting the praise.
“I was talking about your writing,” he said, making sure I got the point. A failed novelist himself, he seemed for one authentic moment to glory in something I had accomplished without resentment or rancor. Then he added: “I’m sorry I wasn’t a better father to you,” quickly, as if afraid someone else might hear the words I had waited all my life for.
Months later and he was back to his old ways, drinking like a fish, running down everything in sight. Brian, Ethan and I had come from San Francisco to see them at Kim’s house in San Jose, and I remember crying before I got in the car. “You don’t have to go,” Peggy, my future wife, said, doubtless puzzled by my outburst and the hold the old beast had over me. But I wanted him to see his grandson, I reasoned, though as I recall Dad and Marion paid hardly any attention to Adam. Dad spent most of the afternoon telling us what we didn’t know. Ethan, who had served five years in the Coast Guard, knew nothing of the history of our naval vessels. Brian, despite having studied graphic arts, was wrong about when they began using four-color separation in newspaper comics. And I, who had just finished a long story about mothers who went underground to protect their children from abusive fathers, was the biggest fool of them all.
“Women always lie about things like that,” he told me, his voice rheumy with Scotch and smoke. “I remember your mother told the judge that I had hurt you kids.” He chuckled at the memory. Even then I thought it strange he would try and rewrite family history with me, given that I had suffered more of his quick-handed attacks than my siblings, but by the end of that interminable day it didn’t matter anymore. The world seemed to be swathed in lies and rather than try and unravel them all I got blind drunk with Ethan that night, grateful for unconsciousness.
In the weeks between Christmas and my father’s death I had some of the best conversations with Brian I’d ever had. He stayed in Barstow, largely unwelcome, and tried to help his father. I told him about reading one of Dad’s books when I was in high school, a sort of Mickey-Spillane-meets-Ocean’s-Eleven crime novel in which some fishing buddies knock off a casino. It turned out that narrator – who, like him, was a schoolteacher who had been in the Marines and boxed briefly – had a past. Like Dad he’s had a wife and five kids – but they had all been tragically killed in a plane crash.
“I remember reading that and thinking, ‘That was what Dad wanted,’” I told Brian, talking to him on my cell phone while sitting in my car on Fulton Street in Brooklyn. “He wanted to kill us all off.”
“I don’t think it’s that simple,” Brian said. “I think seventy per cent of him wanted to kill us but thirty per cent of him was saying, ‘My god! What have I done?’”
It was that thirty per cent, the minority vote, that allowed him to bring two of his children with him when he divorced, even if he would have been happier without them. It was what allowed him to praise a story of mine (once at least) and send us good wishes when we adopted our daughter. It was a small voice, I believe now, one that he heard less as time went by, a voice that he finally drowned.
I got the word Dad died a few weeks after Christmas. I was working a day job at a magazine in midtown, and doing some freelance reporting on the side. A men’s magazine had asked me to do a quick piece on fathers who thought their mates were not such great mothers.
“’My Wife’s a Bad Mommy,” the editor said to me over the phone. “It’s a headline in search of a story.”
I was trying to find some disaffected husbands when Pat called with the news. Dad had checked out of the Rimrock Convalescent Hospital a few days before and sent her packing. He was well enough to look after himself, he insisted. Before she left he asked her to get his pistol for him, one she learned later he had asked Brian to put out of reach. When she asked him what he needed the gun for he said something about intruders.
Once she left he went into the laundry room and shot himself in the head.
I remember walking through the canyons of skyscrapers on my way to Grand Central feeling torn and useless. Of course I wondered if things might have turned out differently had I gone to Barstow, if seeing me pull up in front of the trailer Dad might have laid that pistol down and shouted, “My favorite boy is here, come to see me all the way from New York! Maybe life is worth living.”
I used to wonder why Dad seemed to hate us so. Yes, we were loud and many, we were dirty and often crass, but as kids we adored and feared him, we hung on his every word and hungered for his touch. Why did he withdraw when we reached out to him?
I have a photo of the two of us taken when I was probably 19 years old. We had reconnected when I was going to school in San Francisco and I spent a few long liquid weekends at his home in Rio Vista, soaking up his booze and swimming in his pool. In the picture we are both wearing swim trunks and holding pool cues. I am grinning like a ten year old and Dad, who must have been the age I am now, stands beside me holding his beer belly like it was some prize melon and smiling in a more ironic fashion. That may have been the day he told me, while I was racking up the balls, that he had never planned on having more than two kids. That, in a just universe, I should not exist. And would I like another drink?
“Why would you tell your son that?” I asked my shrink years later. “I thought we were having a good time, that he was as glad to see me again.”
“You posed a great threat to him,” my shrink said. “There is nothing harder than to have someone love you when you don’t love yourself.”
Is that what he meant by intruders?
I flew west with Adam that weekend and dropped him in SF, where he was headed for a group therapy program, before catching a flight south with Brian. Where I had valued the conversations we’d been having, I suddenly found myself wishing he would shut the fuck up for just a second as we flew to Ontario and then drove to Barstow, where we checked into a Holiday Inn. Dad’s death seemed to have unhinged him a bit and I wanted to surround myself with silence.
That evening we found Pat, Kim and Kelly all cleaning out my Dad’s trailer; with them was Marion’s sister Shirley, who was acting as executor of their estate. I was frankly surprised that they had an estate to execute, but it turns out they had saved some money over the years and the trailer was worth something. No sooner had I sat down in the big Barcolounger, about ten feet away from where Dad died, than I was offered some Laughing Cow cheese and given a copy of the will by Shirley. She seemed strangely contrite, touched that I was even there.
“Each of you kids is supposed to get a copy of this,” she said. There was an addendum to the will written since Marion died in which Dad made a show of giving most of the money to Kim and Kelly, a small amount to Brian and Pat – and nothing whatsoever to April, Ethan and me. In the margins of his addendum – as an afterthought to an afterthought – Dad wrote, “Because of some bad blood that exists over some things that I said about their late mother – perfectly true! – I am cutting Sean, April and Ethan out of my will.” As I read those words I thought I had no business being there.
After our mother died, Pat had written to inform Dad. I don’t believe that my parents had spoken in 30 years but I suppose Pat thought he might want to know that the woman who had bore him five children had died. In his reply, which she circulated among us, he recalled her as “the filthiest woman I’ve ever known,” and then recounted their last marital battle. “She was always screaming about my ‘false pretenses,’” he recalled for his eldest daughter. “I walked out the door that day and never looked back.”
In the next paragraph he had talked about their dogs.
I remembered wanting to see the letter then; I thought it was proof of some kind of narcissism that would both prove my worst fears about Dad but also somehow let me off the hook. It made no more sense to try and connect with him that it would to try and befriend a wild animal. Turn around and he might bite you. Ethan wrote him a final fuck-you letter then and April shared the sentiment in an email chain circulating among us siblings before Dad died (subject line: “gone directly to hell!”):
“I don’t give a rip about the old man one way or another,” she wrote from her home in Texas. “Like Sean I have my own family with their problems who love and need me and that is where I am. If I were dying from cancer I certainly would not expect to hear from dear old Dad… after all I got through adolescence, adulthood, two marriages, two children and never heard a word from him. I prefer to keep it that way.”
I was considering the wisdom of her approach when we left Dad’s trailer that night. Brian, Pat and I stopped at a cavernous Mexican restaurant in Barstow and had a rather sullen meal. On the way back to the Holiday Inn Pat and I split a joint and then watched a movie in my hotel room. I can’t for the life of me remember what it was now. In the middle of the night I woke up and wrote on a notepad: “You expect nothing and you get less.”
The note was written to myself, I suppose: I didn’t think I could feel any worse about my father and now I did. But I wonder now what my father expected of life and if he felt disappointed by his lack of success, fame, adulation – let alone presentable children. I know that his early war experience shaped him in some essential way, as it did for many men who served in the Second World War. The last long conversation we had was when I interviewed him for a story I was doing on the phenomenon surrounding Tom Brokaw’s book, The Greatest Generation. He hated the idea of being part of some selfless, giving tide of humanity, and mocked the clubs and veterans reunions that had sprung up in the wake of the book’s popularity.
“I don’t buy it,” he told me. “I was just reading about the Mexican War here and ‘what we need are more selfless men!’ That’s fine for the guy who’s not going. Everybody’s for himself, to a certain extent.”
Contrast this to what my mother told me for the same article, when I asked her why she had joined the war effort. “Something was going on and you weren’t part of it,” she recalled. “There was no fear or gallantry; I just wanted to be part of it.”
Mom was not unusually altruistic – she allowed in the next breath that she also wanted to join the service because there were a lot of men there – but I think she was happy with less. Her marriage and divorce were probably her greatest disappointments and she spent much of her later years depressed and increasingly isolated. But she retained the gift of gratitude, an ability to appreciate that extra dollop of ice cream or the dime left in the pay phone. I believe that the surroundings you choose say a lot about your sense of self-worth; my mother always gravitated toward the Pacific Ocean while my father settled near Death Valley. Mom never seemed happier than she did watching the sunset while Dad was always critical, as if he could have done better.
It took a lifetime to realize it but what I wanted more than anything as a boy – to spend more time with Dad – would have been terrible for me. Only half exposed to his radiation I could gravitate toward my mother’s unqualified, and too often unrequited, love. He tried to hurt me while she tried to help. It doesn’t get any simpler.
My last day in Barstow I made a few runs to the local Goodwill, schlepping boxes of clothes and household items. I felt nauseous most of the day though I couldn’t tell if it was from the Mexican food or something more philosophical. Brian and Pat decided to stay another day while I, once again, couldn’t wait to be gone.
Before I left Shirley and Pat were trying to ply me with mementoes. There were manuscripts of books he had written and never published, would I like those? I had plenty of my own, thanks. What about his Marine jacket? It was too small to wear and I couldn’t see enshrining it. There were a couple of photos I admired, one of the five kids when we were little and another of us taken in the seventies. In the childhood picture April and Ethan look as if they were just awoken; Brian is about to say something smart; Pat appears clinically depressed; and I seem possessed of some naïve optimism time hadn’t killed. Fifteen years later, in a photo no doubt taken by our mother at a house near the ocean in Mendocino that she loved to rent for family gatherings, we appear remarkably intact, happy to be alive.
Pat was insisting I take my father’s guitar and a Civil War sword he bought somewhere. What cheap symbolism, and what false dichotomies, I think now – music or battle, feminine or masculine, ocean or desert, victim or predator. A good writing teacher would circle the metaphors in red and tell me to do better, not to be so obvious.
I told Pat to keep the guitar and the sword, and I took the photos and left.