They say the building blocks of our personality are formed from parts of our parents’ emotional bodies. I had a dark and a light parent. Machavelli would’ve been proud of my dad’s success and death by 53. His empire was vast. His kingdom in ruins. An evil court jester seduced and sequestered his wife in a New Orleans restaurant famous for its kolaches. The thing is, he was a sweetheart and a lush. He came by his drinking naturally. An alcoholic mother and a tea-totling father with a grudge.
I was napping one afternoon, as I often do, and he appeared to me, like a vision. I might have experimented with that cannabutter on French toast earlier in the day. I felt great pride when I saw his radiant physician image. He was wearing his lab coat. Smiling. Reaching out toward me like Jesus. A warmth spread through my body. Okay, the cannabutter was a bit stronger than I’d imagined, but not strong enough to bring on forgetfulness. Over the course of minutes, I lived a touch of my dad’s tragic arc.
The message for me was: he was hated for his success. Yes, his later alcohol-lost years were black. But his allergy clinic for kids in a city known for its ragweed was a windfall. The epic house on the lake, a mile up from his father’s house on the lake, was on the covers of Architectural Digest and even the Texas Almanac a year after it was completed. Inside the house, all hell was breaking loose. You had a teenage hippie sneaking out all the time. A disappointing son who was more of a chip off the old block than even he’d care to admit. You had the golden child. And then me. Six years behind. A magician, football star, and artist. And a full bar room. It later became my bedroom when my single mom had to rent out the back half of the lake house to keep from defaulting.
My mom, smartly, just severed the house in two. The original lake house had served for many years before I arrived. And my mom put a wall up and rented out the back. The first tenant was a family who recently moved to Austin and was going to attend the same high school as me, in the Fall. They were all pricks. Still are. But the mom was dying of cancer last I heard. Still married to the dad. Well, good for them.
Dad was buoyant, I hear, when there were only three kids. My mom never could explain why he hated his son, his JR, so much. But they never hit it off. Is it possible my dad could sense the gay molecule that would emerge fully engorged years later, after his death? In the early days of my dad’s drinking in the lake house, he was volatile all the time. If my brother had known or had hinted at his “condition” there would’ve been a murder. My dad was a simple man. A good doctor. Not in touch with the dark current seething under his rage.
It’s hard to imagine a greater defeat then being kicked out of your mansion by the sea. Then to have that mansion awarded to your ex-wife, along with custody of your one remaining custodial child, me.
The huge Christmas events my mom threw became quite solemn. I moved into my dad’s bar as we consolidated and the other kids were off at school and starting college and stuff. There was this cool space, just behind the back wall of the living room. It was like a hallway, that opened against the bedrock of the hill the house was inserted into. A storage place for party wear and seasonal decorations. It was my clothes closet. That’s where I developed the habit of stacking my shirts flat in a pile rather than folding them. “What’s the point?” I still think that. I think that about how much of the housekeeping duties are just to keep people busy. I have other stuff I want to be busy with. Dishes, laundry, and vacuuming are not anywhere near the top of my to-do list.
I haven’t given my dad a space on my mantle for years. I had one photo of him on a shelf. It was a sad, wide-eyed shot of my dad co-piloting a helicopter. Fear radiates. It’s how I saw the father I got to know. I think I might’ve already said it, but the chemo kept him from drinking. So he got clear-headed just as he was being memorialized by his hunting buddies.
The helicopter of his real estate friend John B, flew right onto the lawn of my father’s new (further from the lake) mansion. The high power lines and TV towers were a bit risky, but if you’ve got money, you can get even an experienced Navy helicopter pilot to do stupid things. The sons and my dad were picked up for a little catered tribute out at John B’s ranch. It was a moment. The celebration in the big game room (as in, huge trophy animals hanging everywhere in the church-like hall) was sanguine. They were going to live. He was on his way off the mortal coil. He had more in common with the zebra rug than the man who indulged in a moment of empathy. The flight home was quiet. The pilot tried to get my dad to do some of the radio calls to the traffic controllers, but he was lost in thought.
Before the cancerous sobriety moment, he was often lost in thought of a different kind. I’m only recently getting the hang of alcohol. It’s been on my avoid list. There’s a tequila, however, that touches a warm fuzzy spot in me. Drinking reminds us all of sad moments. We say it’s for celebration, but all the alcoholics I’ve met just get bombed and tell sad stories about their high school or college escapades. Over and over again. It’s like, there’s no other input in their lives, so they repeat and echo their triumphs of the past. A sad drunk is not far from a raging drunk, though, so keep your distance.
I also have a prime example of it not being the alcohol, exactly. My best friend’s dad, Desmond Kidd Sr., just passed at 96. He and Jayne were happy and quiet drunks. Always happy to offer stronger-than-expected eggnog at our joint family Christmas gatherings. And they stayed together. Happy. Buzzed. Asleep early.
Our house lit up with violence, yelling, thrown objects. I would escape the house up to a stone fort I built in the hill above the lake house. I could still hear my dad’s voice. My sticks were rifles and my rocks hand grenades. Most of the time my mom or sister would notice I was missing. “John!” they would yell from the back door of the back house. The old house, from when things were still fun. I hear my dad loved to play GATOR. He’d chase the three kids and their friends for hours. I saw this in myself and my roughhouse enthusiasm for my kids and any kid in the pool who would wander close enough to be caught. I’d find myself with a line of kids waiting to be thrown. I didn’t mean for that to happen, but apparently a lot of kids are starved for a father’s affection and strong arms. I would throw kids until my arms failed. I was pronounced “He who makes the pool fun,” by my kids and their friends.
Dad, my dad, was a bit harder. At a juncture, after the divorce, I was spending one night a week with my dad and his new wife. In one episode of fun I was in the pool with him. Messing around a bit, he got a grip around my neck and was holding me under the water. Alcohol was always involved at his new wife’s house. He held me until I panicked and kicked him in the nuts. I survived. My dad visits became more infrequent. His housekeeper made a killer diced potato thing that was better than anything you could buy. And, the new rule was my mom would ALWAYS come pick me up. No more driving, even three miles, back to the lake house.
But the lake house and my departure from my dad’s influence was already in the planning phase. My short stories were being typed up by a service near the university. I had three short stories that went in with my normal prep school admissions application.
One of the schools, St. Georges, really wanted me. “Oh, you’re a writer. I enjoyed your stories very much. I think you will find a supportive environment for your creative pursuits.”
The school, the sports complex, the library, the setting of Exeter was too much to resist. I should’ve gone with the Dead Poet’s school. That admissions guy was super nice, and I did get the feeling that I would’ve thrived at a smaller, more personal, school with a closer watch on the mental health of their students. I would wonder “what if” for many years after these events. I’m happy with the alumni page on Facebook, though. And the reunion I attended some years ago when I was engaged to be married to an alcoholic. That one didn’t work out, thank god.
At the reunion there was a guy at the ’81 table who chatted me up. “So, what dorm were you in?”
“The stoner dorm.”
“Yep. The stoner side of campus.”
“I came as a junior,” he said. “Rowing. I was in the athletic dorm.”
“Other side of the coin,” I said.
“Yeah. Did you play sports?”
Turns out, kids from up east got kicked out of Exeter all the time. It was more like a time-out for them. Many of them would return after a semester back in their hometown high schools. This rower introduced a new term to my lexicon, “Boot and reboot.” I guess a lot of those booted kids came back and got booted again. Just the once for me, but I’m jumping ahead of the story a bit.