El Charro Ranch, California
These photos were taken obviously when I was very young. According to the man in the photos, my real father, it was a happy time of his life. I, too, remember it as a happy time. A short couple of years after the sunny days of these photos, my parents divorced. For the next 45 years, I had only sporadic contact with the man that I see clearly now how much I resemble. I learned yesterday that he died Saturday in Kansas.
I had known that day would come, that by a phone call I would learn of his death. I imagined I would mostly take it in my stride. The tangled past was left behind somewhere along my journey. I did not imagine those feelings were not gone at all, but only quieted. I had gone months, perhaps years, without thinking of him, so it took me by surprise my reaction upon hearing the news. How instantly and perfectly I felt regret. It wasn't regret for anything specific, just that big cannon ball of regret when, in life, you know the end of potential has truly come.
Can you tell by looking at him that he had a great laugh? I can still hear it and still see his Adam's apple dancing. Unlike some men, he released his laughter easily. He had another special laugh, a distinct Late Show one that wafted through the house, hanging over our beds at night. I can't see a photo of Johnny Carson without thinking of his laughter at jokes that I never heard nor likely would have understood.
The years I lived him with him, 1959-1964 and 1972-1974, I recall him clearest in his uniform. He was an airplane mechanic for the U.S. Air Force. When I was 13, re-meeting him after many years, he gave me a tour of his work place. He showed me his desk, showed me some of the planes he worked on, and introduced to me to his coworkers. They all expressed how much we looked alike, which gave us both an illogical sense of pride. I recall telling him that maybe I would become a mechanic too -- that I had scored high in that area in aptitude tests at school. I said, "Think of it. We could open a mechanics shop and be 'Bleam and Daughter'." (Even at a tender age I was a rebelling feminist.) He burst forth one of those aforementioned no-holds-barred laugh. He wasn't laughing at me. I think the thought tickled him just like it did me.
Looking through old photos today, I see how from the beginning he never excluded me from any of his masculine world because I was a girl. With him, I rode horses just after learning to walk. I remember distinctly sitting atop a palomino, alone, while he opened and closed gates, although I was no older than three. I can remember sitting in his lap while he drove whatever automobile he had -- one those iconic, huge American machines from the 50s -- my little hands at ten and two on the slim inner horn wheel with his big hands above on the outer steering wheel. Once I even flew with him. No, he wasn't a pilot, but he and my mother took an aerial tour in a little propeller plane to see the vast wildflower crops over Lompoc, California. Again, I sat in his lap, buckled in with him. There are few times in life that match that feeling of simultaneous danger and safety. After spending the summer of 1972 with him and his family, he drove me back home to my mom and dad and two brothers. He and I traveled alone the 450 miles of lonesome highway to New Mexico. After dark, he suggested I drive. I'll never forget the thrill of that -- the thrill I kept hidden lest I seem too immature to handle it.
The next time I saw him was a year later and not the best of circumstances. At a troubled 14, I came to live with him and his family. That caused so much heartache and turmoil. None of us were wise enough to handle it well. Still, there were some good memories. I remember that my two teen sisters and I rotated the chore of mowing the lawn and trimming the hedges. We had a big lot and it was hard work, but it came with a whopping $10 payment from him, and sometimes, at the end of a sweaty job well done, a shared cold beer with the old man. Christmas was especially hard for me, the first Christmas I ever spent away from my mom. I received a camera, a gift more generous than I expected. There were six of us children, yet we all got something really nice like that from Santa. It was a Kodak Instamatic with the square disposable flash bulbs and somewhere I still have photos taken with it. It's hard now to express the delight it was to be able to take my own pictures and how precious each shot on the roll of film was. I just realized that gift from my father and step mom was my first ever camera.
By the next summer, I re-integrated into the family of my mother and step dad, the place where I really belonged, although by now they lived all the way in Lebanon. My father never wanted me to leave Kansas, to leave him, but eventually gave in to the pressures around him. In my teen mind, I saw his objections and power over my life as an obstacle to my happiness. Now, today, I have an idea that it truly must have been hard for him, another kind of cannon ball of regret, I suspect.
Over the next thirty years I saw him exactly four more times. Twice I traveled to see him. Twice he traveled to see me. I'm thankful I remembered to call him on his 50th birthday, but beyond that we didn't do much else for other birthdays or holidays. We talked on the phone maybe three times? It's no wonder I had to search today for good memories, of things I had forgotten. I had to sort through a lot first, things that will always remain enigmatic to me. He made more than a few bad choices in his life, and like the rest of us, he paid for most if not all of them. He and I spent our lives being estranged from one another even when we were together. And he never got to know my brother, his first son, at all.
It's like each time he and I tried to reunite we had to shout from across two opposite rims of the Grand Canyon, so distant were our points of view, so deep were our needs. The most recent time was an exchange of emails he and I had back in 2000. He was figuring out how to use a home computer and had found me through my high school web site. The subject line he gave his first email was "Bridges." I read maybe three of those emails today, although there were about half a dozen more. I knew I couldn't read more after reading the line he wrote, "You are my girl."
And what more is there? He apologized. He claimed me. He reached out to me.
Across another grand canyon, the one between the dead and the living, I hope he hears me as I say, "I'm sorry, too, Dad. I always loved you more than you knew." And I realize today, more than I knew, too.