Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Spring is hard.

I'm not sure why it is, but I have a hard time in spring. New beginnings, but I associate it with endings, too. My dad passed away in the spring about 12 years ago, after a long hard battle with cancer. I just found out that my aunt, one of my dad's sisters, has just passed away as well, almost on the same day that he did. She was the last one who knew any of the history of their family.

Family is hard. Most of us love our families in one way or another, but isn't it odd how you also get a ton of your major life lessons to be learned and dealt with from your family?

My dad had some tough issues to deal with from his family. He was considered a gifted child artistically; his teachers had him put into a special art program in school when he was quite little. He was the spoiled favorite, from what his older sister told me many years later, his mother's favorite and a darling boy to her. He was probably also dyslexic, judging from his writing and spelling, but such things weren't diagnosed back then.

When he was around seven his mother was taken away suddenly, and in the course of a single day he and his sisters had to pack a small suitcase each, were taken away from home and they never saw her again. They were told at the time that she had died, though it was later found not to be true; her husband and her brothers had her committed to a mental institution for many years and she was subjected to electroshock treatments and eventually a lobotomy. There was never a clear picture of why this was done to her; there may indeed have been some mental illness, but there were family rumors of a plot between her brothers and her husband to get her share of family money. She apparently recovered enough many years later to be released and she remarried a good man, from what my aunt said. My dad only learned of this years later after she had died and he was told by his older sisters.

After his mom disappeared, he and his sisters lived with their father and his new wife, who already had a daughter, her own favorite. Sonny Jim, as he was called, was no longer the favorite and he had a rough time at home; his step-mom was abusive and his father was a cold, distant man who punished by beating. He told me many years later of being chained in the garage for a week like a dog, being told that if he was going to act like dog he would be treated like one. His father resorted to 'farming him out', sending him to a farm during the summers to work, with a fee being paid to his father for him. Being sent off to work on a farm for the summer wasn't uncommon back then, but his descriptions and stories of what it was like would be considered abusive child labor these days.
Sonny Jim was probably around 11 or 12 here,
about the age of my guys now.
I received some old family photos through my sister and my mom recently. There have never been many pictures of my dad, especially not of him when he was younger, so it was a surprise to discover a few early photos of him and a few small transcribed letters from his family, talking about him.
On leave, visiting the family. This was taken in 1944,
so he was about 19 years old.
One of the letters talked about how he had re-upped in the Navy, despairing that he would ever figure out what he was going to do with his life. He looks pretty cocky and self-assured in these early pictures.
He ended up getting court martialed at one point for killing a man when he was a Chief Petty Officer, though he wouldn't talk about it. I do know he received an Honorable Discharge from the Navy, since I saw the papers in his effects after he died. This picture from the deck of the ship he served on was also in his papers, and is also in the archives of the Smithsonian:
From the deck of the USS Kitkun Bay. That is a Japanese aircraft going down.
I posted this picture a while back over in my Flickr site, and it's been the magnet for a lot of comments from others who also had relatives who served on the Kitkun Bay. It's been oddly touching to have this side of my dad's life verified and talked about, since he never talked about his service much when we were kids. He told me bits, many years later, about a kamikaze attack on their ship and how he saw his best friend burned alive in front of him. He ended up going overboard during an attack with several other men, and told me about using his pants for a float. He was the only one rescued, over 24 hours later. He was sent to a VA hospital with severe pneumonia and had a rib and part of his lung removed, with a scar that ran most of the way around his ribcage, and that was the end of his naval service.
1948, soon after he was discharged from the Navy. He was 23.
There was a lost year after that, with no record that I have found of what he did or where he went.
He resurfaced and went to art school, studied ceramics and other things. I have his most prized art book from that time, and it's become one of my most prized books as well.
He met my mom sometime after art school. He was restless, though, and left Kansas City for California and wrote long letters to her. Writing long rambling letters and stories was a life-long habit of his; he often wrote to his sisters and much later, to me, with his idiosyncratic spellings and acidic observations about people. His letters to my mom were convincing enough to persuade her to fly out to join him in California. They got married and started a family, moved around a lot and stayed consistently poor. He didn't hold down jobs for long, getting fed up with pompous fools and bored with following rules and restrictions. His impatience and refusal to settle down caused turmoil not only in his career but with his marriage and my parents had a long and troubled relationship. My mom ended up doing a lot of compromising and making do and working at whatever she could to make ends meet while he went from one job to another with long periods in between.
In the Mojave Desert, with the new car. Around 1966, I think.
We moved a lot when I was a kid. He worked sporadically; my mom was the steady one. He never smiled much and he was very rarely happy. We knew he would never go see fireworks and he would disappear suddenly if a car backfired nearby. We knew him as a dad easy to anger, rarely pleased, frequently critical. I used to dream about running away. Oddly enough, though, I never really doubted that he cared about us; I think he cared intensely and wanted us to do well for ourselves, have better lives than he'd managed for himself.
Around 1976. He was about 51,
though he felt much older to me.
 It's odd to miss someone so cantankerous and grouchy. He was critical of my drawings, even while he encouraged us to draw and work on our crafts and the things we enjoyed. He told me not to become an artist like him, to go into science. He told me to be happy and get well educated; have a decent career. I rebelled and went into art anyway, determined to prove him wrong. Before he died he told me that I was a better artist than he'd ever been, and he was glad to see me making my living as an artist. I think he'd be pleased to see me now with my boys. I suspect the notion of having grandsons at all would give him pause, since he never completely accepted the notion that he had kids himself. I know the boys would drive him crazy with their noise and nonstop talking, but I suspect he'd be proud of them, too, and maybe a bit touched to see that he had smart, kind grandsons. It's hard to know, since he died the year before they were born.


  1. The pix, and datelines, are interesting there. Odd to think of the Dad as younger than I am now, when he looked and acted decades older at the time of that last pic. He physically hurt a lot of the time by then, had stiffness issues getting up from chairs, that kind of thing. The grumpiness was a combination of being tired, hurting, his mental coping issues, how badly noise and confusion bothered him (some Autism spectrum traits there), walking into many bad temp jobs with lousy supervisors and coworkers, and inherited mannerisms from harsh Midwestern models. Nobody ever complimented anything, as a matter of principle; only criticism. It's surprisingly hard to break away from that and learn to free things up, praise things, give and accept thanks from people.
    He also had an interesting eye on critiquing other people's artwork--he could see wrong anatomy and bad proportions quite clearly, but couldn't fix it on his own work a lot of the time. Reminds me now of folks in SF & F fandom who can see flaws in writing, and themselves cannot perform at the same level they require of others. It's not hypocrisy, they know there's problems with their own work too, but they can only articulate it and suggest fixes on the work of others.

  2. Beckett, I'm so sorry to hear about your aunt. Thank you so much for sharing about your father on your blog. Especially the last paragraph, which made me teary-eyed.


  3. I hadn't heard that she had passed, I wish I could have gotten to know all of them better.

    It is sometimes hard to remember him as he actually was, not a monster or a saint, just a guy who'd been through some rough stuff doing the best he could.

    This is the first year I'll be lighting the Yahrzeit candle for him, even though he wasn't Jewish and neither are we particularly. I think it would have amused him though. The rite just seems fitting. To light a candle for 24 hours and remember him as a good man, doing his best.

    I love ya, sib. See you soon.

  4. My Dad admitted there was something wrong on Boxing Day, was diagnosed with cancer shortly afterwards and died on May 17th. Spring will always feel like waiting and death for me, too.

    I get that "It's odd to miss someone so cantankerous and grouchy" part, too. My Dad never laughed out loud - I don't think he knew how - but could pick an achievement apart easily. But I miss him like I'd miss air.

    Hugs and love.