Tuesday, June 24, 2014

That Time of Life: Weddings and Funerals

I have reached a point in my life when I'm attending the weddings of my friends' kids and the funerals of my friends' parents. I scan the obituaries every day, and once a month I either know a person or it's a six-degrees-of-separation thing. The Bay Area is actually a pretty small community.  

This last few years has seen the deaths of major parental units. My own father died some years ago. A very troubled man, it's hard to describe him without resorting to accolades or lambasts. Or vice versa. He was that kind of guy.

My mother and I were sitting at her kitchen table yesterday, and she was telling me that she'd never met his mother, my grandmother. Can you imagine in this day and age? Not meeting your husband's mother? But it was a different world then. A post-WWII life had people emigrating, fleeing to the U.S. where there weren't bombed out blocks and rationing. The family was in the process of a slow disintegration, either through war casualties or emigration of those who had survived.

My father never talked about his childhood to her. Or to me and my sister. My mother said that she thought it was "hard." He wasn't a strong, silent type--I wish he had been as his racist, anti-Semitic diatribes were the stuff of legend--but family wasn't talked about. Ever.

Why I'm blathering on like this is that after people die you are left holding scraps. You try to put together a vision of who that person was from your memories and the memories of others. It's the only way of holding on to them, keeping them near you even though they have physically vanished. Emotionally, of course, they haven't vanished. We all haul around the baggage of our childhood, and I'm beginning to think that we always will. The baggage doesn't get lighter exactly, maybe the handles get a little more comfortable to grasp, but all that crap is still as heavy. It's just easier to carry around.

Since my father wasn't a talker--except for his politically unacceptable ravings--I've had to construct the sort of person he was--before the bitterness owned him. What I'm left with is a love of Steve McQueen and Hemingway. One of my happiest memories of my father is him taking me to see Bullitt. WHICH HAS THE BEST CAR CHASE SCENE EVER MADE. Of course, part of its charm is to see how they spliced sections of San Francisco with shots of 280 and remember that McQueen did the driving himself. The strong silent man who rails against the stupidity of the system and keeps on doing what he has been doing and damn the consequences was pretty much my father's blueprint. Professionally he got kicked in the teeth for his uncompromising attitude, much like I think that Frank Bullitt would have been fired at some point in his career had the movie continued beyond its plot denouement.

And he loved Hemingway. Guns, war, and fear of death floated my father's boat. Hemingway was a man who sabotaged every relationship he had, especially with women. Hemingway had always longed for a daughter and only had sons. My father had sons and daughters, and couldn't relate to any of them. Nor his wives. He was the type of man who related to men. Who understood men. The rest of us were confusing and demanding, and as I aged I began to understand that he understood that he was failing of us, but he had no idea how to not fail us. This doesn't excuse his abysmal parenting skills, of course, but it does put it in some context.

We are left with these memories, which I think are largely subjective, and these partial constructs. I remember going to that movie with my father and thinking how wonderful it was. You know, it probably wasn't. He was a very fast driver and I hated his driving as a child. Ironically, I'm a too-fast driver now, and my ability to sail through life with only one speeding ticket to date is something of a miracle. But I imagine that trip to the theater was a hellish ride, me with my fear in my throat. And the movie was probably too old for me. I remember being pretty young, and at the time there was a fair amount of violence. But what's a divorced man supposed to do with his daughters on a Sunday afternoon. Dad?