My earliest memories revolve around the divorce of my mother and father: my mom telling me that she and Daddy still love each other, but just can’t be together anymore; being taken to Aunt Pat’s house because Daddy didn’t have his own house and Mom was not financially able to take care of me; Mom calling me every single day without fail to tell me how much she loved and missed me; a 4 year old boy trying to find comfort in an upside down world. These are the foundations of my entire memory bank.
Of course there were other things of which I learned later; experiences I cannot remember; entire slices of my childhood lost to the self-protective mechanisms of the mind. I cannot recall seeing my father physically abuse my mother. As infuriating as the thought is, I am glad it was suppressed. Otherwise, the decade or so that my father spent as a hero in the mind of a child could never have been. Only in recent times have I begun to vaguely remember nights of Vietnam flashbacks. The idea was hidden from me that my mother faced time in jail for charges of check forgery. All of these, and many others, are issues with which a small child should not be confronted. Still, as strange as it sounds, I sometimes wonder whether I might be a more complete person had I retained these things in my psyche.
My first lucid recollections are of the final days at Aunt Pat and Uncle Donald’s home. Aunt Pat was my father’s older sister. There were joyous times spent with my cousin Donnie, who was like an older brother to me. Running through the woods behind his house. Visiting our grandparents (Dad’s folks) who also lived next to the woods. Grandpa had a huge garden and a granny smith apple tree in the backyard. Oh the tummy aches we endured to eat as many barely ripe apples as possible. Oddly enough, I have very few memories of my father from this period. He and I both lived with Aunt Pat and surely spent lots of time together, but the phone calls from my mother stand out much more vividly than the moments with Dad.
Then, at some point during my 5th year, the bittersweet moment arrived when my world turned 180 degrees once again. Aunt Pat called me down the stairs from Donnie’s room. My mother had come to see me. I approached the front door, ajar, with my aunt standing on the front porch. I peered out toward the driveway and saw something which was peculiar, even to an already confused little boy. My mother was standing in the driveway next to a man I had never seen. I remember being very excited to see Mom, whom I had seen only a couple of times during the nine months spent at Aunt Pat’s. But I also knew something was going on. I glanced at Aunt Pat, and she had a worried frown across her face. I looked back at Mom and she held her arms out beckoning for me. Aunt Pat said to go back inside. She said I should wait for my dad to come home from work. To this day, I shiver with the thought of the dilemma I faced that day. The entire encounter probably lasted 3 minutes, but it seemed hours. I cautiously walked out the door toward the front porch steps. My aunt implored me to go back inside, although she declined to actually stop me. I believe she knew this had to happen even though she wanted desperately to be my father’s advocate. Mom smiled so wonderfully as she stepped onto the lawn from the driveway and motioned for me to come down the stairs. I had missed her so much. By the time I made it to the bottom step onto the sidewalk leading to the driveway, Aunt Pat was silent. I looked back and saw a tear stream down her cheek. Then, in a flash, I was scooped up by the man I had seen standing next to Mom, and we were in his ’69 Chevelle backing up the steep driveway. I can now look back and appreciate what my aunt went through allowing me to walk down those steps. I can now understand that my father’s custody of me was temporary and ended that day. I realize Aunt Pat loved me as a son, knowing full well that my mother would eventually come for me.
The man who scooped me up in his arms that day was Terry. He would eventually become my stepfather, but at that time, he was Mom’s boyfriend. My new home would be the small trailer in which they lived. Now, for anyone other than a boy who loved and missed his mother, it would be an unbearable culture shock to move from the large suburban house of an upper middle-class family to a tiny trailer in a run-down mobile home park. But I was happy. Just before coming for me, Mom had gone to the SPCA and brought home a pretty black puppy named Smokey. Smokey was my first pet, and we became inseparable. I did not completely understand what was happening, and I was as yet unaware that I would never again have a real relationship with my father. The heated battle that was waged between my parents over the next several months was unbeknownst to me. I do not know exactly how long we lived in that trailer; a few months, maybe a year. I only know that the time spent there was a time of contentment for me. A contentment that was cut short by a violent act which, to this day, I cannot comprehend.
To even begin to fathom this event, two things must be understood about my father. First, Dad has the temper of a fire-ant and the subtlety of a neutron bomb. He is of the breed of fighters who, when mad, would as soon punch you in the mouth as look at you. Apparently, that was always his nature to an extent, but his time in the jungles of Vietnam certainly did not help. Secondly, he is burdened with a trait common among that breed: he acts first and considers the consequences later.
When Dad found out Mom had taken me to live with another man, he was understandably angry. He was filled with hurt, fury, desperation, and who knows what other dark emotions. These demons swirled like a tornado inside his soul. This is something with which I can empathize, being a father myself. It is the solution my father devised that still stuns me. One evening when my mother, Terry and I were not home, my father came to our little trailer blind with the angry delight of revenge. According to witnesses who later gave statements to police, he was drunk with no shirt and no shoes. He carried a gasoline can.
We returned home that night to a small crowd of onlookers, 2 fire engines, and the smoldering remains of all our earthly possessions. I will never forget the smell of that traumatic evening. A sickening, toxic stench of burning fiberglass and rubber signified the brutal destruction of our lives. Of course, for a five year old, loss of material things is less disturbing than for an adult. What is more agonizing for a young child is the loss of a treasured pet. Smokey was not just a dog. She was a devoted friend and playmate for a little boy who lacked both. I took little comfort in the fireman’s assurance that she died from smoke inhalation before the flames reached her.
I overheard conversations between Mom, Terry and the police that evening and was emotionally assaulted with the realization my father had committed this vicious act against us. I believe it was at that exact moment when the separation occurred in my mind. My father became two distinct individuals in my sub conscience. There was the strong and affectionate heroic figure who could do no wrong. And there was the heinous and wicked monster who committed unspeakable acts of cruelty. This division allowed me to continue to worship my father as young boys of divorced families often do. The man who did these terrible things was not my father. He was something else altogether. My anger and pain were never directed at my father during this time when wrongs should have been righted and healing could have taken place. Instead, those feelings were harbored until early adulthood. The suppression of those emotions lay the seeds for the breeding ground of demons in my own soul.
We then moved into a small apartment and started over. There was literally nothing salvaged from the fire. Our lives continued, but a part of me was incinerated that night in the flames. Something I could not have put into words then, and still find difficult today. Who can you trust in this life if your own father would burn your world down.