The old song lyric “Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage” is wrong. It’s really love and tears that go together, but that’s harder to rhyme. Love is, as my grandfather used to say about life, “a tough climb up a steep hill with a short stick.”
Yesterday I was standing at the check-out line in the liquor store buying champagne for New Year’s Eve and my long dead father snuck up behind me, his handsome ravaged face, teasing eyes and little Errol Flynn mustache were suddenly as clear to me as my own hand cradling the champagne bottle. By the time I reached the check-out counter I had to bite my quivering lip and put on my sun glasses to hide my tears. Out of the blue, in the liquor store (which was appropriate) there he was cluttering up my life again and making me cry.
My earliest childhood memory is of my father wearing his brown, Air Force uniform, squatting down under a Maple tree with arms reaching out to me, military cap tilted back over his broad forehead and bright blue eyes. It was 1945. I was five. Dad had just arrived in a taxi from the train station to surprise us on the sidewalk in front of our house. “Hi Butchie,” he said with a grin. Why he called me that I never knew but I still have a war time photograph of him taken in Italy standing in front of his B17 with that name painted across the fuselage. A small replica of the same plane made from its wreckage sits on my desk. I never liked the name but I loved the man my whole life long. I just didn’t understand him.
Dad met Mother in the 30’s in Caracas, Venezuela where she lived with her parents who worked for Shell Oil. Dad was a young geologist just out of Yale. He was what people called a bon vivant, a charmer. Mother said he was “wet behind the ears.” He thought she was a snob. In a flickering home movie, she strolls toward the camera with sophisticated insouciance and hint of come hither playfulness. A white, mid length dress clings to her slender body and petal shaped sleeves flutter about her shoulders like butterflies. Men in white tropical suits drink champagne under the palm trees. She smiles at the camera and you just know Dad is the camera man. They were married in 1938.
Their early married life was spent in less elegant surroundings. Dad’s work took him out of Caracas to the jungle oil fields where they lived in a house on stilts with a tin roof. The sound of rain pelting that roof is another of my earliest memories. But in 1942, when the United States entered the war, everyone’s world changed. Dad wanted to be a pilot and the need was so great that, even though he cheated on his eye exam, he got his wish. Fortunately for us all, he cheated death as well. Many of his squadron mates were not as lucky. More than half of them died during the first year in Italy, flying reconnaissance missions up the Poe Valley. I think, in some ways, he loved the war, as well as a hospitable Italian Countess Mother, in later years, used to call “old horse face.”
After the war, like so many young couples, Mother and Dad forged a new life. Dad started a successful business building homes for returning GIs while Mother fell into the fifties feminine cliché of hats, gloves and lunch with the ladies. She smoked cigarettes and drank martinis. Dad didn’t do the cigarettes but he did the martinis, in spades.
The first time we really argued about something other than cleaning my room or feeding the dogs was when I was in 8th grade. It was about capital punishment and whether hardened criminals could be rehabilitated. “But Dad, why can’t you just educate people and teach them a better life. What about forgiveness and ‘thou shalt not kill?’” Finally, in exasperation, he shook his head and said. “Wait till you grow up, Butchie. You’ll understand. Now you’re just the first pup to jump over the fence.” I was an idealist. He was at the other end of the spectrum and we remained at those opposite poles in many ways for the rest of our lives.
But, you didn’t have serious conversations with him for long. Life with Dad was an endless game. We shot candles out of Mother’s silver candelabra on the picnic table. I learned to drive racing the jeep around hay bales in the fields around our house. We had crazy spontaneous costume parties, went deep sea fishing in Mexico and cruised to Tahiti. He was a world class prankster, who would ride his horse into the kitchen, lean over, open the fridge door and pull out a carrot for Port just to taunt the poor maid. He carried two passports, his own and a duplicate with a photograph a chimpanzee drinking a bottle of champagne, which he would present to the immigration officer first, just to see what would happen. Everyone laughed. Today he would be arrested.
My sophomore year in college Mother and Dad built a big house in Pebble Beach and things began to unravel. Slowly, over the next ten years, Alcohol did its relentless work. The building business went downhill. Golf and cocktail hour were Dad’s primary loves, while Mother grew older and felt more estranged. Finally, they had to sell the home they designed together and furnished with French antiques from New Orleans. She never recovered. He, however, kept dancing and partying and having the odd fling or two. But, he would always come home, usually bearing gifts.
He was a man who expressed his love with laughter and presents. Sometimes expensive, sometimes sweet, sometimes outrageous. For my 17th birthday he gave me a white Ford convertible with turquoise upholstery. When I drove it into the back of a truck the next week, he never told Mother. When I got all A’s my first semester in college he sent me a bouquet of yellow roses even though, he lamented, I was studying to become a communist. On my 21st birthday he had his gold-filled molar turned into a ring set with diamonds and presented it to me with a great flourish. On Mother’s birthday one year he got drunk and bought her a life size Kodiak bear carved out of red wood which he had installed in her garden as a surprise. After he died one of the first things she did was to have it ground into mulch.
Eventually he walked me down the aisle, patted me on the derriere at the altar looked at Michael and said: “Now you can pay her parking tickets.” I know he meant it to be funny but it pissed me off. I could never be mad at him for long, though. No one could, except Mother. She sold her diamond bracelet so that they could go on a cruise to Europe if he would promise to stop drinking. He tried but he couldn’t. She was furious, not because of the bracelet, but because of what was happening to their life. She was mad at him until the day she died.
But for Dad life was always a party. You weren’t allowed to cry no matter how sad you were. When my grandmother died, he and my uncle went up into her attic and found a couple of old flapper dresses, cloche hats and feather boas which they put on, got drunk and sang silly songs all night. I thought it was so inappropriate. I just didn’t understand his way of grieving.
The last present he gave me before he died was a photo button of himself taken at the county fair. He had asked me to go with him but I tearfully refused on the advice of the AA counsellor who said alcoholics have to hit bottom, they have to lose everything before they stop drinking. “You have to withdraw your love for his sake.” I wanted to go with him so much but I wanted him to stop drinking more. He went to the fair by himself and was gone all afternoon. When he came back he gave me a button pin with a picture of himself wearing his favorite tweed jacket. That pin is still in my dresser drawer.
When I was a child, we used to play a swimming pool game that we called “King’s X and Cabbadoni.” The object was to tag your opponent’s elbow underwater, but if they said “King’s X,” it didn’t count and they won. But if you said “Cabbadoni,” before they said “King’s X,” that cancelled the King’s X, and you won. There was a lot of sputtering and laughter and holding each other underwater. The dogs would bark and Mother would think we were drowning but it was our favorite game. I think his life was just one long game of King’s X and Cabbadoni, scrapes and escapes. Until he got caught in a love affair with a bottle that he couldn’t win. He drowned before he could say “Cabbadoni.” Had I seen it as kind of crazy, addictive love, I couldn’t have saved him but I would have understood and gone to the fair. That I didn’t has haunted ever since.
Grandfather was right, life IS a hard climb up a steep hill with a short stick and so is love, but in the last analysis, worth every bloody step of the way.