Sunday, June 17, 2012

With Dad and Rita Hayworth

If I ever got a book deal to pen a memoir or a collection of essays, I'd most certainly write something about Dad.  One of the most complicated, turbulent yet ultimately touching relationships I've had in my life was the relationship with my late father.  True, if I had written a children's book based on my early years with him, I could've called it Daddy, My Head Is Not a Piñata!  He had a scary temper that appeared suddenly and wreaked physical havoc.  Like a twister.  In those unexpected moments of rage, Dad just plain forgot that he was bigger than the little boy receiving his severe physical punishment. One time Dad hit me in the head so hard with a hurled object that it broke my skin and drew droplets of blood.  Fortunately, that kind of stuff all ended by the time I started 4th grade.  Then there were times Dad could make me happier than any kid on the block.  Like the Christmas he gave my my first classic movie reference book.
I was in grade school.  My brawny dad may have been blind to the fact that he was bigger than I was but he did notice that I was fascinated with old movies on television.  I'd ask him who the people in them were.  "That's Fred Astaire" or "That's James Cagney," Dad would answer.  I was so happy with that book.  It was like a big pictorial passport to a wonderful new world.  Before I'd finished the sixth grade, I learned so much from that book and others that I could correct my father when he watched TV.   Mom once asked him what he was watching.  He said, "Susan Hayward.  Cover Girl." I was sitting on the floor in front of our TV.  "No, Daddy, that's not Susan Hayward.  It's Rita Hayworth.  Rita Hayworth in Cover Girl."  Dad was a weight lifter in his youth.  A native-born Texan. A veteran of World War II who served overseas in Europe.  I still recall the expression on his face when I corrected him about Cover Girl.  Like he was new figure on Easter Island.
My parents divorced when I was on the brink of beginning high school.  Dad and I had not seen each other in 20 years, when I took a few steps forward towards reconnection and reconciliation in the early 1990s.  He'd married again and divorced again.  I flew to see him in Seattle.  That first meeting was a little nervous but I went there without great  expectations and without anger.  I just wanted to see him.  I'd heard he had attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.  I never ever saw him get out of control with alcohol nor did I ever smell it on his breath when I was a kid.  That news was a shock and surprise to me.  When I was a youngster, if Dad had a 6-pack in the refrigerator, it would be about 5 days until all the beers were gone.  Gingerly, I asked him about it.  "I could never do what you do," he answered.  "I could never get on TV and talk.  I'd be too scared.  When I was young, I used to drink to steady my nerves in public."  Dad was a tough-looking but shy man.  I asked him if he still attended the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.  "No," he said.

"Why, Dad?" I asked.  "They can help you."

Dad said, "It was that public speaking thing.  I just couldn't get up in front of people and say 'I'm an alcoholic.'  You know...like Rita Hayworth in I'll Cry Tomorrow."
I looked down so he wouldn't think I was laughing at him with the smile on my face.  I didn't correct him and say "THAT was Susan Hayward.  Susan did I'll Cry Tomorrow and Rita Hayworth did Cover Girl."  Though the first steps were awkward, we were both on a road to recovery.  In 2000, he was hospitalized for a couple of days.  On the phone, he made me whoop with laughter telling me a story about his short hospital stay. He'd made me cry as a kid when he whipped me but he'd never really made me laugh.  Several months later, before he passed, his last words to me at the end of another very pleasant conversation were, "I love you, Son."  I said, "I love you too, Dad."  At one time, for a long time, I told myself those were words I'd never say. But I said them.  And I meant them.

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