The only time I ever saw my father cry was when his brother died. He was sitting on the edge of his king-size bed in the master bedroom, the huge room at the back of our California ranch-style house with a door that led out to the backyard, where lemon and orange and grapefruit trees grew, and a giant oak tree surrounded by tulips which towered over our suburban empire, branches reaching upward and outward like beneficent arms stippled with round, rotten oakballs, which I thought in my youth were natural products like acorns, not signs of disease.
I’d strolled in to the forbidden sanctuary to ask a question—could I borrow the car or get an advance on my allowance—but stopped short when I saw Dad sitting lifeless, arms hanging limply at his side, face dripping downwards like a Dali painting towards the threadbare quilted bedspread, blue eyes muddled in tears.
He wore one of his standard short-sleeve white nylon shirts, thin and loose to keep him cool in the Stockton summer. His polyester pants were dark blue, cinched under his pot belly with a faux-leather belt. His puffy feet were bare. He was almost bald at 52, his pink pate showing beneath a few slivers of hair. There must have been a glass somewhere, filled with ice and clear liquid, but I didn’t see it. There was always a glass.
“What’s the matter?” I asked with alarm. “What’s happened, Daddy?”
He didn’t answer, so I sat down gingerly beside him, placed a tentative hand over his and prodded gently, “What’s wrong?”
What was wrong was that Angus, my alcoholic uncle, the little brother my father had been trying to salvage for most of his life, was dead. Dad hadn’t succeeded in saving him. Jack Daniels had won.
Even when they were teens, even before they both joined the army during WWII, Angus drank too much and Dad covered for him—lying to their parents, making excuses to the girls they took out to the levee on double dates, driving the car home, and helping his little brother up the stairs, into bed.
After the war, when Grandpa decreed they would all become optometrists—my grandfather and his two sons practicing together in the same office on Main Street—the shielding continued. Dad took Angus’s patients when he called in hungover, rearranged the work schedule so Angus could sleep it off.
Angus was tall and rangy and red-haired, with deeply grooved flesh that hung loose on his face, an upper lip that sometimes curled back to expose his canines, and a gruff voice with a sharp splash of bile that he tried to present as humor. He ruled his home like a mad king, lording over his pretty blonde wife and sullen, neglected children, striking his dogs. I thought he was scary. I kept a wide berth.
But my father saw someone different. Perhaps he remembered a silky baby brought home from the hospital in a swaddling blanket, or a small child stumbling behind him down to the delta to plunge a fleshy hand in the silty mud, grabbing for pollywogs.
Family loyalty was part of it. Dad believed in that. He’d often told me about the Scottish clans in their kilts and how they stuck together—that bonds of blood superceded duty to God or the law—and I could picture Dad and Angus as boys, plotting exploits high in a tree house, or as young men lounging on the benchseat of their silver Studebaker, making plans.
So they grew, and they worked, and raised families, and each year they became just a little more distant, as each year Angus slipped a little bit deeper down his damp hole.
Then Dad invested some money for Grandpa and made a small fortune. And Grandpa set up trust funds for the grandchildren—to send us all to college—and put some aside to take care of Angus and his family, should the need arise. They could see the need arising.
Dad was put in charge of disbursements. And then Angus was divorced, unemployed, living alone in a squalid apartment, with a long line of credit at the corner liquor store and a heart full of hate for his older brother—the man who held the pursestrings, shut.
Dad tried to manage the money to preserve Angus’ health, paying for the necessities, but not enough to finance a bender. But Angus taught his children that my father was cheating them, keeping their rightful inheritance for himself, and one of them even carried Angus’ banner to court, where the judge found the opposite to be true: Dad’s investments had further enriched us all.
That pissed Daddy off, being sued by his nephew. But it didn’t make him cry. Nothing did. Not his father’s death. Not his wife’s cancer. Not his failure to amass a fortune in the stock market, the dream that had inspired his early retirement from optometry. Not even his commitment to a mental hospital one summer in Santa Cruz. Nothing made him cry. Nothing hurt that much. Only Angus. Only Angus had the power to produce those pearlescent tears. Angus, who would ask Dad for more money for more golden nectar. Angus, whom my father would refuse.
Dad looked up at me helplessly, like a befuddled child. What was I supposed to do? I moved closer and put my arm around his shoulders, offered what comfort I could. But I had no answer. And when I left the bedroom he was still sitting and staring off at a much different brother—a brother who loved him, a brother who was always outside Daddy’s reach.
In Greek mythology, the Bible too, there are stories of cursed families like the House of Atreus. Their troubles started with Tantalus, the half-mortal son of Zeus who fed human flesh to the gods, and extended to his great, great grandson Orestes who committed the worst crime of all. Bound by law and custom to avenge his father’s murder, he killed the murderer—his mom.
Modern people don’t see their problems as family curses, preferring to believe in the magic of genetics, or psychology, or the environment in which they were raised. Is it Nature or Nurture? they wonder. But I know it’s neither, because the curse on my own house is so apparent. Alcoholism weaves its wet way through our descendants. And mental illness snakes through me to my damaged daughter, along with the curse of disbursement. Like Daddy’s dilemna with Angus, my daughter wants money to feed her demon; I hold back.
I am sitting in the passenger seat while my husband drives us through the Santa Cruz mountains when the words “blocked number” show on my cell phone screen.
“Hello?” I answer tentatively.
“MOM!” She is drunk on anger already, calling from the hospital. “Where do you want me to live?”
The redwoods lining Highway 17 are straight and tall. Their bark is deeply grooved, the color of cinnamon. They are the tallest living things on the planet—longer even than blue whales—and they only grow here, in the Northwest U.S., and a few small pockets of China. I stare out of the window at their rough skin.
“Can you call me back in five minutes? I’m in the middle of something.”
“Okay.” She sounds relieved to hang up. We both are. We need time to gird for the familiar battle.
“She wants me to help her find a place to live,” I tell Stanley.
“Don’t do it!” He is drunk on disappointment. We’ve been arguing over this daughter for 10 years--more. “She’s 25 years old. She has to learn to take care of herself.”
“But she’s not well…”
Stanley’s fingers tighten on the steering wheel. He stares straight ahead as he navigates the twisting highway. There are hard, shiny cars hemming us in on all sides, speeding aggressively towards the summit. A mountain shoots up to the left of us, a cliff drops off to the right.
“She’s never going to improve if you don’t stop enabling her.” It used to upset me—being blamed for Stella’s problems. Now I feel defeated. This is her 13th hospitalization in seven years.
I remember a scene from Euripedes. Clytemnestra pleads with her son Orestes for her life: Stop, my son. Look—my breast. Your heavy head dropped on it and you slept, oh, many a time. Your baby mouth, where never a tooth was, sucked the milk, and so you grew…
“What are you afraid is going to happen if you follow my fucking advice, for once in your life?” Stanley barks.
“She’ll be hurt; she’ll feel abandoned. She could commit suicide—that’s a symptom of mental illness.” My voice is shrill.
“She’s never shown any inclination to do that.”
The sun barely penetrates through the redwood forest. All six lines of curving highway are in shade. The car is cold. I clatter my knuckles against the window.
“She might get mad and disappear—never call us again.” Now my voice is wavery—an old crone begging on the side of the road, gnarled hand thrust out.
“She’s never shown any sign of that either!” Stanley is exasperated with his stupid, stupid wife. “She’ll call when she wants something. She has to call when she wants money because you still get her disability payments.”
“I don’t know if it’s reasonable to expect her to find a place to live on her own. What if she can’t do it?” I turn toward him. The elevation isn’t much here—1700 feet—but I can’t breathe.
“She’s never going to progress unless she learns some responsibility and humility. She hasn’t got a shred of either one. She thinks she’s a fucking rock star—that she can do whatever she pleases, and you’ll clean up the mess!”
The phone rings again as we drive by the site of the old Santa’s Village, a place I loved to visit as a child. Dad would pull over on our way to vacation in Santa Cruz, and we would buy fresh gingerbread from a log cabin with simulated snow on the scalloped roof. Now it’s a medical marijuana collective.
“MOM! What did you decide? Where do you want me to live?”
“I don’t know, Stella. It’s your life. You need to figure it out.” Stanley nods at me with exaggerated enthusiasm and waves a thumbs-up sign in my face. I turn to look at the trees.
“How am I supposed to do THAT from the hospital?”
“I don’t know. Ask them to help you. You have $875 a month in disability payments. Tell them that’s your budget.”
“MOM!” Stella chants, the Greek chorus. “That’s not going to work! People want first and last, and a deposit. I need $2,000 to start my life over!”
“You haven’t got $2,000.”
“What about my back pay? What happened to that?”
“Your back pay? That was two years ago, Stella. You spent it.”
“You shouldn’t have given it to me!”
“I don’t know what to say...”
“MOM! If you don’t HELP me, they’re going to release me to a HOMELESS shelter, because that’s what YOU want—that’s where YOU want me to live!”
I want to say, That’s not true. I wanted you to live in the last place I found you. But you preferred to take street drugs and change up your meds; and start a war with your landlord; and overdraw your bank account to buy an ipad so you could leave it in the park; and torment your new boyfriend until he moved back to Virginia; and alienate everyone you know who could help you; and spend a month bouncing from Berkeley, to Fremont, to Olympia, Washington before finally checking yourself into a hospital back home.
“Can’t they find you some low-income housing?”
“No, MOM,” she spits out my name like a curse word. “They can’t.” I catch a glimpse of Orestes’ sword.
“And, Mom?” she asks as we crest the Loma Prieta summit.
“The NEXT time you want to call me—DON’T. The next time you want to call me just SHUT THE FUCK UP.”
“Okay.” I picture the drink Daddy had beside his bed that afternoon, hear the bright, percussive “clink, clink” of the ice cubes as they drop into the glass.
Stella hangs up. Stanley drives on. And the car lifts slightly as we start down into the Santa Clara Valley, nosing our way into the phalanx of hard, shiny cars that spreads over the parched, brown landscape like the metal wing of some giant, fantastical bird.
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