Dreams of My Absent Father: An Anecdote not on Race but Inheritance
My Uncle Cranford was three years younger than my father, so they shared their boyhood years together and were close, providing Cranford with a perspective on my father that I never had due to his absence from my life.
Yesterday, I received from Uncle Cranford an interesting email relating an anecdote about a memorable Christmas around 1945 that he shared with Bradley on the isolated family farm on the edge of the wild:
Christmas didn't start out very well. The week previously our mother had to go to Little Rock for an "operation," -- I'm not sure which one, but believe it to be a cancer surgery. She took my younger sister [i.e., Virginia] with her to my aunt Cora's (paternal aunt) to keep her during the surgery and recuperation.Here, Uncle Cranford picks up the tale again:
The rest of us kids still at home were scattered among various relatives, except for Buel who stayed to tend the farm. Bradley and I were farmed out to my aunt Bertha (maternal), her husband Earl Harbor, and their four children, all older than we two. During that pre-Christmas time they treated us well, fed us apples from their storage basement, and we were having a good time.
Bradley (age 9) and I (age 6) would look at the big Christmas tree, glistening with ornaments, and piled high with presents, and imagining what was there. We just knew at least one each of them would be for us. After all, Santa wouldn't forget good little boys. I will now let Bradley tell what happened, as he related it to my wife Linda Gay, a few years before he passed away."The days before Christmas we would look at that big, beautiful tree and all the pile of presents, and Cranford's eyes would shine as he dreamed of what his would be.
Christmas morning after breakfast, aunt Bertha said, 'Come in children, and see what Santa brought us.'
I held Cran on my lap and everyone except us was opening gifts -- lots of gifts, and the pile kept getting smaller and smaller and smaller. Pretty soon there were just two left, and I thought 'There's nothing for us.'
Sure enough, the last were opened and we didn't get a thing. I looked at Cran and big old tears were filling his eyes. I thought of our tree at home, and just got madder and madder. I said to Cran, 'Get your coat, we're going home.'"
We got our coats and started for the door. Aunt Bertha asked, "Where are you boys going?"Uncle Cranford then comments:
Bradley, my big brave brother said, "WE'RE GOING HOME!!!! WE'VE GOT SOME PRESENTS THERE!!!!"
She tried to talk us out of it, but away we went. As we were leaving, I heard her say, "We should have gotten those boys something."
Away we went, walking the six miles home, happy about going home and finding our two gifts.
When we walked in the door, brother Buel was sprawled out on the couch with his feet propped up, with a big box of mom's candy in his lap. He said, "What are you boys doing home."
Bradley said, "We came for our presents."
Buel asked how we were going to eat. Bradley told him he could cook. Buel said, "Well, you guys can do the chores too, I'm going to my cousin Ordean's," saddled up his horse and left.
For two glorious weeks we did the chores, played with our toys (airplane & cap pistol each), ate lots of scrambled eggs, sausage, gravy and homemade biscuits (and anything else we could find), made popcorn balls, played checkers and Old Maid, went hunting when we wanted, ate all the Christmas candy mom had stashed away, got up when we wanted, went to bed when we wanted, and no one to tell us what we could or couldn't do.
My wife cried when Bradley told that tale, with a lot of flair and emphasis, not expressed in my recital here. I learned a few truths from this incident. First, I could trust Bradley to do anything he set his mind to do, then as long as he was with me, everything was right in the world no matter what, and last of all, Santa brings better gifts to folks with a little money than he does to poor folks. I guess he likes them better.This is a touching story of two brothers devoted to each other, and it raises a central question in my mind: What happened to that 9-year-old Bradley? Where did he go? If he had been the father to me that he was the brother to Cranford, I'd have similarly good memories of closeness. I have a few good memories, but none of fatherly closeness or real trust.
I'm not saying that he did nothing for me. As I've noted once before on this blog, he did realize, when I was about a year old, that if he and my mother tried to keep me on the baby formula any longer, which I could not keep down, then I'd starve to death.
As he once explained to me, he'd said:
"'I believe that boy's starving to death,' so I threw out the formula and fixed you a big plate of scrambled eggs. You ate them all and cried for more, so I fixed more . . . and more."From mere skin and bones, I grew fat -- not obese, but fat like a baby should be.
Without Bradley's decisive action, I might not have survived my infancy, so I perhaps owe him my life . . . but I don't remember that incident and only know it from the retelling.
Sometimes, the moments most crucial to our lives lie outside our memories. In Michael Chabon's novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, one of the two main characters, Sammy Clay, is sitting in a shvitz -- which seems to be Yiddish for "sauna" and perhaps is related to the English word "sweat," but don't quote me -- with his immigrant, largely absent father during one of the man's brief, very infrequent visits home, and after a long silence, his father suddenly speaks:
Then his father said, "I know you had polio." Sammy was surprised; his father sounded extremely angry, as though ashamed that he had been sitting there all this time when he was supposed to be relaxing, working himself into a rage. "I was there. I finded you on the steps of the building. You were pass out."Sammy's father insists on the truth of his story, but for Sammy, it's an abstraction, even if true, because he remembers none of it.
"You were there? When I got polio?"
"I was there."
"I don't remember that."
"You were a baby."
"I was four."
"So, you were four. You don't remember."
"I would remember that."
"I was there. I carried you into the room we had."
"In Brownsville, this was." Sammy could not keep the skepticism out of his tone.
"I was there, god damn it."
Sammy Clay is a fictional character, of course, and thus has only paper memories in a paper existence, but he feels more real to me than my father Bradley does. Perhaps Barack Obama also feels similarly toward the dreamlike stories about his own father, abstract anecdotes despite Obama's search for the roots of identity in his father's Kenyan family.
Roots are important, but the present demands our attention, and the future beckons.
As I once told my mother following a long talk about Bradley, herself, my brothers, and me, I summed it all up in a banal but largely apt remark: "Life goes on."
"Yes," she agreed, "it really does."
And that is good...