While sifting through a seemingly endless box of odds and ends recently, I came across a hand-carved leather checkbook cover I recognized as having been made by my father. Unfolding the stiff leather, I discovered a photograph tucked inside its lining. Only mildly discolored with age, the picture has the strange yellow cast, which in part makes old photographs so intriguing.
The date August ’67 is imprinted in the top border. Hardly an action picture, it features a lone man, in his early twenties, standing outside his California desert home. He is adorned in a chef’s hat and apron, wholly engaged in cooking pre-packaged hamburgers on a grill. To the average person, this picture is hardly worth a second glance. For me, however, it’s different.
Looking at this picture, I see a man with a sense of humor, as evidenced by the apron that reads “I’m an old chow hand.” I notice a long scrape on his left shin probably obtained while playing baseball, a game this man loved. I’m also aware, if only slightly, of the broad, authoritative stance I’d learned over the years to pick quickly out of any crown or photograph. I see a wedding ring suggesting to me lots of love and plans for years of happiness and fulfillment. Most of all, however, I see a face in which I imagine the hopes and dreams of the young; a nice home, a good job and of course, healthy, happy children.
It’s funny how things turn out. The man in that picture is my father and the date places him in his twenty-third year, approximately one month before my first birthday. I was the first child and because my father had always wanted children I’ve often imagined those early years to be a happy time for him. After all, he gave up a college baseball scholarship to get married and my childhood memories of him are filled with camping trips, family bicycling adventures and hours spent playing in the snow. To me he was the perfect father, strong, willful and always with a dream. It wouldn’t always be so.
When I was eleven, my parents bought a farm in a small old town known as Pendleton, Indiana. The farm came with eight acres, a stream, a large eleven room house and a majestic old barn with hand hewn beams, something my father had always wanted. He and I spent long hours cleaning out the barn and working with the animals including a pony he bought for me named Patches. It was a dream come true. Unfortunately as with most things in life the dream had a time limit.
About the time I turned 12, my parents divorced. My father remarried soon afterward, but his new wife didn’t want to live in farmhouse he so dearly loved. My mom, brother and myself moved to Florida and although our communication was not frequent, the times I spoke to my father on the phone he tried to sound happy and positive as if everything was ok, but somehow I knew better. Looking back, I think losing the farm was a pivotal point in my father’s life. During his second marriage I gained a half-brother named Scott, and much like when I was young, Scott got lots of attention and parental guidance. Once again though, my father’s marriage failed. This time, however, he was the one to move to Florida and again communication with his children lapsed. The last time dad went to Indiana to visit family, he didn’t even try to call Scott.
During his first couple of years in Florida my father lived in a trailer next door to his parents, an arrangement many in my family viewed as unhealthy due to the strong dependency each developed for the other. Finally, however, my father remarried for a third time. I attended the wedding to take photographs and noticed he appeared happier than I’d seen him in a long time. Although much had happened in the preceding years, my father still had many dreams and his new wife seemed supportive of them. Unfortunately, dad’s dreams and those of his new wife weren’t exactly alike and since she had two children of her own, dad was out numbered and out gunned. He dreams were put on hold.
I joined the Marine Corps shortly after the wedding, but continued to maintain somewhat sporadic communication with my father and his new family. I knew from talking to my step-mother that things were not perfect. In addition to conflict over the rearing of children, my grandparents were demanding a lot of my father’s time, putting an added strain strain on his marriage. I didn’t realize, however, exactly how bad things had gotten until a few months ago when I went to visit him. He’s now separated from his third wife and recovering from the death of his father. I was not prepared for what I found. Gone was the youthful face and the self assuredness of hope; he had lost the dream.
His wife now lives with her two children in a trailer behind his. They aren’t divorced, but neither are they blissfully planning out their tomorrows. My father was sitting in an atmosphere I can only classify as dismal and dungeon like, eating, sleeping and working in darkness. Pictures of John Wayne lined the walls of this previously happy home, but even the duke’s imposing figure could not hide the change in my father. Gone was the man with the authoritative stance who had once been lord and master, no replaced by a stranger frightened of the world around him and suspicious of everyone.
Only a couple weeks after that visit I got a phone call from my father’s wife telling me he had suffered a heart attack. As I visited him in the hospital, I couldn’t help but think of the picture I’d found in that wallet and wonder what had happened. Was it one event or a chain reaction that had brought a once strong, healthy man to the brink of death years before his time.
My father has, to my knowledge, never voiced any regret over his life. Maybe the only real regret is that found by a daughter who sees her father slipping away before she feels like she every really got to know him.