Monday, February 25, 2008

Dreams of My Absent Father: An Anecdote not on Race but Inheritance

Kavalier and Clay?
Well, every boy loves an adventure...
(Image from Wikipedia)

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.

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.'"
Here, Uncle Cranford picks up the tale again:
We got our coats and started for the door. Aunt Bertha asked, "Where are you boys going?"

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.
Uncle Cranford then comments:
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."

"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'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.

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...

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At 8:20 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How old were you when your father left? Did Uncle Cran raise you like a son or were there other father figures? I don't recall you mentioning your mom during your visit, so I'm guessing she has passed away.

Let me tell you about my father. He was obese, a heavy smoker, and on his way to becoming an alcoholic when my mom walked down the aisle because at 21 years old, she was afraid if she didn't take him up on his offer, nobody else would marry her. Good Catholic that she is, Mom kept popping out sprogs every one or two years, which stressed my father as the breadwinner. My mom actually cried in the doctor's office when she heard she was pregnant with me, for she feared my father's reaction. After 13 miserable years of fights over drinking and money, she finally tossed him out with a choice: either it's the booze or us, not both. Luckily, he chose us. After my father died of a massive heart attack in his late 40s, my mom shared me with some details about his childhood. I already knew how his father was an alcoholic who ran out on his seven children after losing my grandmother to post-natal complications two days after she gave birth to my dad. The children were raised by two aunts, a widow and a spinster. After my father died, my mother shared with me how my dad was scared of his father and would run and hide behind the couch when my grandfather would come to visit his children. Suddenly, I had tremendous compassion and greater respect for a man who was a far more responsible and loving father than the one he knew.

As you noted, your father loved you enough to recognize your need for nourishment and see that you got it. Your father, like my father, has a story.


At 11:41 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sonagi, after I reached five, my father had little influence, but even in my first five years, I was often with other relatives because of various difficulties that were beyond his control.

From the age of five, I was raised by my maternal grandparents. My mother eventually came to live with us, too -- five boys with a young mother who was in some ways more like a sister, all being cared for by an old couple.

They had help from other relatives, of course, including those on my father's side. My maternal grandfather had been best friends with my paternal grandfather, who had died over a decade before I was born, and I was named for both of them.

Thanks for the story about your father. As you say, everyone has a story to tell. From the story of your father, I gather that he accepted the responsibility of being a father. My maternal grandfather took on that role.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:18 PM, Blogger Hathor said...

Maybe your uncle wants you to remember your father as he, or at least share the feelings of his memories.

At 2:28 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Hathor, I think that you're partly correct.

Uncle Cranford has told me that in my position, he'd likely feel the same as I do, but I think that he wants me to see that my father is a more complex, more multifaceted, more sympathetic figure than I experienced.

I don't doubt that I could learn much about Bradley and have a fuller, deeper understanding of who he was, but all the stories about him, no matter how compelling they might be, can't add up to fatherhood. That ship sailed a long time ago.

Still, the stories of him are interesting.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can only speak for myself and being so, as much honest with myself as I allow have yet to come to grips with how I feel. I have more feeling with those without myself.

My first child's birth I attended, and I was overwhelmed by what I realized. I must continue what I'd embarked on to "do my best." When I returned I again realized I'd failed in the first regard.

No one knew me and when I looked into the mirror I did not know myself. I was young enough to think I might continue without reflection. Another child was born. And thinking that my previous performance was less than adequate; I considered it best for that child the best I could do for her was to not be in her life.

I had failed, I could only repeat what I had failed to learn.

Some decades hence: I contain my regret and my... I realize in the fullest sense that I shall be and have been rightly judged, inadequate, unequal to the task I set for another.

I make no excuses, and justifications for what I've done are not within reach, or want. This is very difficult to explain, I'm uncertain that I shall ever be granted the Grace to understand my self.

But I do believe that I spared the curse of myself to a child. I read your earlier post, and did not comment because I saw myself in another's place. I ask for nothing in posting here, I gain nothing, I'll not allow myself any comfort. I speak for no one.

My wish for you my friend is that all the pain which you may or may not have wished: has been delivered. I speak only for myself.

Herschel D.

At 8:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The circumstances surrounding you, your brothers, father, mother, maternal grandmother, and your paternal relatives, is an unusual, complex story beyong the scope of this blog. It would make a compelling story, requiring someone who could be objective and fair in their evaluations. I can only say that Bradley loved you boys, and always held out hope that reconcilation could be made. the tragedy is that he waited too long to make the attempt.
Uncle Cran

At 2:56 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Herschel, perhaps we all fail in ways that we swear that we never shall. It's a rare man who has never failed at something important.

I've failed in ways that I don't even like to think about, but I've been fortunate to have met Sun-Ae and to have a happy if culturally complex relationship that works pretty well.

I still have things to learn, for I noticec (to my chagrin) that my brothers Tim and John are both much better at playing with my children than I am.

I think that my kids even like them better! Maybe I should spank Sa-Rah and En-Uk for that...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:59 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Uncle Cranford, I think that you're right about Bradley's tragedy. He waited until we boys were all more or less indifferent, and that was decidedly too long.

Jeffery Hodges

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