So I wrote in The San Francisco Separation of what I now understand about a year when my parents were separated. We had no idea. Well, maybe my brother did. I never knew anything. Not so much “stupid” as clueless.
But a much spicier story preceded that. One afternoon a couple of years after my father died, Alice felt like talking. I was visiting after finally escaping back to Seattle. I had stayed with her after my father’s death for nearly two years because of her frequent suicide threats. Oh well.
I was sitting at the kitchen counter of her new house over a cup of coffee. She wasn’t reminiscing. She was bragging about all the men who had loved her. First she described the man who was in love with her when she met my father. She puffed up when she said he never married because she broke his heart. She talked about the men who came to the bank where she worked just to look at her legs. Alice, a short woman, was strutting while sitting down!
I had just returned from North Carolina visiting the man who was like a grandfather to us in the city where my brother and I were born. That was Wade. I mention him by name because he’s been gone for decades and it’s a great name. Her sudden burst of sharing was one of those occasions when you wish someone would rap you on the skull and give the order to memorize what you’re about to hear.
I don’t know why her monologue began, but I do remember how. She said that it was a good thing my father died when he did because he wouldn’t have been able to cope in a changing world. Huh? Good thing he dropped dead? The implication was that he was too soft to live.
She talked about how when they were first married and stationed in North Carolina she worked for a judge. The judge was Wade’s best friend. They were both pretty powerful men and Wade took a liking to my parents. He taught my father about public speaking. And even though he had four children, he adopted my parents. He hosted them in his elegant home. We were born a few years later and spent as much time at Wade’s house as our own. He was the closest thing to a grandfather we ever knew.
Senators and Governors were always at Wade’s house. They brewed the political beverage of that time right there in his living room. And as a very little girl I sat at their feet in the haze of cigar smoke listening to stories of the Smokey Mountains. I think it’s why I love telling stories now.
When I was 3 or 4 my father was transferred to New York and we lived on Long Island. Wade, a widower, came to visit more than once. After nearly four years Dad was transferred again, but surprisingly we went back to North Carolina where we re-entered the welcoming world of Wade’s elegant home, porch sitting and Sunday fried chicken dinners.
It was unusual to be transferred back to the same city. And that’s just what Alice was itching to explain. Wade, with all his political connections, had arranged to have my father sent back to keep us near him. Only she said that it wasn’t to have US near him, it was to have HER near him. I was always a little numb listening to her pronouncements. And from experience I knew she would never admit it in front of anyone else. At this moment she sat even taller in her chair. Alice never had any doubts about her ability to attract men, and while she told this story I swear she was flirting as though she had an all male audience.
So, when we were transferred back to North Carolina we lived with Wade for a while. Then we moved into a wonderful house. But suddenly we moved to another house closer to Wade’s. We spent every Sunday with him. His maid Annie was my friend, shielding me from vegetables. (She’d put them on my plate but somehow managed to secret them away later on.) One night I rode with my father to take Annie home. Years later when I read To Kill A Mockingbird I recognized a familiar scene. Her shanty neighborhood was unlike any I had seen. I never even knew Annie’s last name.
Alice was about to spill the climax of her story. She told Dad how Wade interfered with his transfer, so Dad moved us 3,000 miles away to Washington State. She was a little giddy, even stoned reliving her past.
A couple of years after our big move west Alice sold her farm in Illinois to the St. Louis Airport. Dad was in New Jersey that summer and I guess never saw Wade again. I can feel his anger now while telling this story even though I didn’t know at the time. He must have been annoyed every time Wade’s name came up. But that summer my brother and I went with her to St. Louis for the transaction and then on to North Carolina. She carried a strong box with all the papers and Wade invested her new money. Alice now had her own private wealth and kept it very much to herself.
Besides the usual explosive fighting and slammed doors, I knew nothing of that source of strain between my parents, or that my mother was, as she described it, the love of Wade’s life. I had no idea what that must have done to Dad. But I do understand both sides of betrayal.
I knew I was just her audience that day. There was no kindness in the way she told the story. To her, my father was a fool. He and I both were her clueless fools. I’m sure she saw Wade again. But she married another man. And Wade continued to pamper her money for the rest of his life.
When I was about twelve years old, the Coast Guard transferred my father to San Francisco. We had lived in Port Angeles, Washington for almost three years and before that North Carolina the second time and before that New York and before that North Carolina the first time. (That was not by accident but it’s also another story.) I was thrilled. No one on earth could have been more excited than I was about the move. We drove through San Francisco on our way to Washington State and I loved it, unaware we’d ever be transferred there.
I was giddy about going. I dreamed of ballet and symphonies. I don’t know why but that’s the adventure that excited me. It did not excite my brother. We were always opposites about moving. In fact I’ve done so much moving in my life, it may be why I’ve hovered in one place in recent years.
The school year had already begun so my father went on ahead of us, like the scout of a wagon train. He bought an old green Studebaker to drive there and he built a trailer to haul things to California. I announced at school that we were leaving and there was talk of going away parties for me.
Dad was gone. But weeks went by and we weren’t going anywhere and we weren’t talking about going anywhere. Finally it was announced that we would finish the school year and leave the next summer. I think Dad came home for Christmas. We were kind of used to his being gone for long stretches. He trained with the Coast Guard rifle team in Cape May, New Jersey every summer. Or he had duty nights at the base when he was home. So this was more of the same.
In California Dad went to the Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley. He went to jazz clubs and comedy clubs in San Francisco. He was always at somebody’s house for a cookout. At last it was summer. I was on hyper alert for bulletins of our move every day. We were out of school but we still hadn’t left.
Finally Alice (my mother) was flying to San Francisco to start house hunting, so a lady came to stay with my brother and me. We had never met nice Mrs. Baker before but I remember that we ate her wonderful cooking for a couple of weeks. She fed us well and of course we were supremely well behaved.
But Alice came home without Dad. And I don’t know when or how but we were told that we weren’t moving after all. Dad was going to take an early retirement. I remember something about his not liking what he saw in the schools around San Francisco, drugs mostly. So he wanted us to grow up in our beautiful safe town.
So much for my big yippee of moving. No going away parties, or gifts. I have a vague memory of announcing something awkward to an entire classroom about our not going. Probably because I had nattered on so about moving.
Eventually Dad drove back home, hauling his trailer. He had with him a gigantic ornate silver coffee service given to him for his retirement. He had no job and it took him several tries. He was a machinist at a logging camp across the state, gone again. After that he came home and sold furniture. He had a radio show. For a while he braved nipping dogs as a mailman. But he found his bliss as a teacher at our High School. He just didn’t know then that there wasn’t much bliss or life left.
More than a decade later, long after my father had died, I was told that his early retirement was for medical reasons. He lived in an age without cholesterol medication. Though he made drastic changes in his diet, it wasn’t enough.
Now within the past five years and with a new understanding of my family, it occurred to me one morning in the shower, where I have my most lucid and unfortunately evaporative thinking, that my parents were SEPARATED for that year. Well of course they were.
I’ve always secretly hoped that Dad had a wonderful time that year. You know, wink wink, a wonderful time. I’ll never know but I like to think he did.