“Hi, Honey. Can we talk?” my mother asked, her Southern accent velvety, more maternal than usual.
My mind flashed. The quiet sadness, the caution in her voice. Curiosity overcame dread and I asked. “What happened?”
“Honey.” Her voice more strained the second time. I shuddered. She paused for a long time. “Your father died.”
My head spun. I collapsed into my rickety cafe chair in my kitchen with a force that nearly knocked it over. Somewhere in the recesses of my mind, I knew it would happen, he would die. But I lived like he was already dead.
I can’t remember if my mother called him my “father” or “dad.” I’d quit calling him “Dad” years before. As a matter of fact, I didn’t recognize kinship and only referred to him by his first and last name, a last name I share.
My father and mother were married after a romantic and tender courtship, five years before I was born, and ten years before my younger sister. He was a dream for my mother, a divorcee in the 1960s with a young daughter, my older sister. He was a kind, handsome young man from Mississippi. In his black and white photos, he looks a lot like Elvis with his squared jaw, piercing eyes, and dark hair. My mother told me he was the most intelligent man she’d ever met. They could talk about any subject. She reminded me that she lived in Louisiana, and at the time, both intellectuals and divorced women were pariahs, even in the capital city.
She discovered three months into their marriage that he’d been “putting on a show.” They’d driven back from her hometown, Lake Charles, one hundred thirty miles away. As they unloaded the car, my mother dropped her bag in the yard and put her hands on her hips, declaring that she wasn’t cooking because she was exhausted. That was enough to pull my true father to the foreground. He punched her in the face right in the front yard for all to see. Like a snake egg, he’d incubated his anger and paranoia. It hatched at their three-month mark, as snake eggs will.
As is the modus vivendi of many abused mothers, mine hid bruises and invented stories about accidents. My father, more gregarious and compelling than my broken mother, became my best playmate. He helped me climb trees, sang songs to me, took my sister and me fishing, and taught us about Volkswagen engines, his shade tree hobby. Sure, he could be angry, especially after a night of drinking, but I drew in close to the broad-shouldered, freckled man who looked like me.
When I was ten years old, my parents finally split up after a night of violence. The evening ended with a gun to my mother’s temple and her waking her three daughters for help. Even with this, my ten-year-old self had only an inch of understanding. My parents fought like grownups did. I was my father’s child.
There was a drawn-out, ugly custody battle with friends and family compelled to testify in family court against my mother. The judge granted her custody anyway. A few years later, my younger sister went to live with my father in Arkansas. I stayed with my mother and her new husband.
Finally, when I was sixteen and my sister was eleven, the strain of being separated from her was too much, and I moved to live with them. By then, I’d developed an idealistic, independent nucleus, fledgling but firm.
The clash with my father was immediate and explosive. His house was small, and he was controlling. My younger sister and I supported each other through his periodic tirades. But he met my independent thoughts with tighter and tighter choke holds, with restrictions on who I could talk to, what I could think…or at least how I could express my ideas. Neither my younger sister nor I could listen to music by Black artists, he forbade me from spending time with most of my friends and then grounded me for months at a time for no reason. After two hellish years in his house, my financial aid came through, and I moved into the college dorm.
My college years were glorious, less about learning and more about friendship, self-exploration, and freedom. Late night study sessions, dances to the alternative music of the eighties, and simply wandering the campus. It was a four-year sigh of relief. When I returned home for holidays, I could hardly breathe.
I spent the holidays with him, imagining that things would be as they had been when I was a child. I wanted to drive the narrow Louisiana levees with my father to find shady eddies for fishing. I wanted to return to the Arkansas wilderness and camp in the popup trailer. But it was too late. Again and again, my sentiment could not rebuild our relationship, or return my untarnished image. I had changed, and he had deteriorated into a bottle.
After college, I moved to Chicago and only saw him every few years. The last time, I was in my early twenties, visiting my family in Louisiana. He drove from Arkansas to see me. We ate pizza and returned to my younger sister’s one-room apartment so she could put her baby to sleep. We filled the awkward air with predictable, light conversation. Yes, I was a Yankee now. Yes, I was a vegetarian now. No, I didn’t want to go hunting. Pokes about the N.R.A. and my accent. He asked me about my job.
I warmed with affection for my students. I have the honor of working with motivated, respectful adolescents, a rarity. Somehow, I expected my father to share my joy, to be proud of my work with the least privileged of our population. “My students are primarily Latino, Mexican mostly, some Eastern Europeans. I’m teaching them English.”
His face clouded. He crossed his arms and sneered. “Mexicans bring disease to this country.”
I squinted my eyes, as if adjusting my vision could aid my comprehension. I hadn’t considered, I hadn’t planned for this.
I waited for a long time, searching my mind for logic, facts. How could I defeat this personal assault?
“Ridiculous.” I turned away. That was all I had. The film of hate that clouded his eyes couldn’t be cleared with an anecdote, an example.
“They’re dirty. They’re stupid, and they’ll give everyone hepatitis.”
I was shaking, dizzy. “They’re good kids.”
He yelled, he repeated his accusations, added more.
“They’ll bring America down to their level. I thought you would know better.”
I rubbed my damp face with shaking hands, and still, he glared. My sister yelled over the crying baby that we both had to leave. We stormed out of the shabby apartment, him first, then me, and got into our separate cars, each fuming that the other was so stupid.
After that, we spoke on the phone once a year. A few perfunctory questions on both sides and some snide comments on his were the sum of our conversation. But still, I made the phone calls for years afterwards until I let them dwindle to none.
What people don’t understand is that you know what you’re missing when you had a father like mine, and that longing and absence intensifies when he dies. Even if you’ve been out of communication for years. You keep that hope alive into your forties — that there will be a reconciliation, an apology, an acceptance, a dynamic character arc.
The other assumption people might make is that because he was an abusive alcoholic, he was a sexist, a narcissist, and blatantly and cruelly racist, that he was a simple and static character in my life. Yes. Yes, he was all those things, but I have some memories of a real father, a caring and kind father. There are scenes where my father and I studied the insides of televisions or Volkswagens together. I was the object of love and affection…and admiration for my interest and intellect. But there are too many scenes of violence, entrapment, insults, that play in my head without warning. These scenes haunt me in sweaty nightmares, but they don’t necessarily cast a shadow on the bright memories, the ones where my father and I studied the insides of televisions or Volkswagens together. These two realities coexist.
My father called me “Doodle Bug” and wrote me a song when I was little. He sang it to me at bedtime. He boosted me up into low branches of tall trees, he celebrated my love of the saxophone as he himself had been “the best clarinetist in Jackson, Mississippi.” Yes, this was the same man who hated my daughter without meeting her because she’s bi-racial. He also gave money to David Duke, a white supremacist who ran for governor in Louisiana. When I search myself for a feeling, there are multiple, conflicting sentiments. Chills and sweats and nausea. Contentment and sadness and apathy.
For myself, I long for equilibrium in this most final of separations. For my father, I hope you find a peace in death that you never found in life, Mr. Baxter.