Friday, January 4, 2008

Is he still wrong?

Charles Atlas fans, circa 1950, my Pop is the guy on the far right

This last December I made a long overdue visit to my Dad's house. When he opens the door I hug him and he feels smaller somehow. He stoops a tiny bit and when he bends over slightly I can see the top of his head. Life sure is full of surprises.

There's something about being in someone's home which is intimate and important. You experience another level of character when you see what someone has created for themselves to live in.

My Dad was kinda scary when I was growing up; who would know that living by himself in his late 70's he would buy the cutest little tree and decorate it, or that he would put up those sparkly icicle lights around the patio outside his apartment?

He still has the prints of dancing Balinese women in his study, with their perfectly circular breasts, beads, patterned dresses, stylized oriental arms and hands that embarrassed (and fascinated) me as a little girl. His library is full of books on sailing, physics, the stars.

After dinner, my Dad's longtime girlfriend pulls out a file of old photos that I've never seen before. My parents' marriage was turbulent, my father's life before our nuclear-in-every-sense family a taboo subject. At the dining room table I see a picture of a my Dad, impossibly young, smiling next to a beautiful dark-haired woman. With a tiny baby in his arms. My half-brother, Jon.

So where is this guy? Dad lost touch with him a long time ago. Jon grew up in Oregon, so maybe he's living in the Pacific Northwest somewhere. What does he do? No idea. Where did he go to school? Nyet. How old is he now? In his 50's. gives me 136 Jon Simons' across the country. A discounted (for the holidays?) rate of $2.95 will give me addresses. gives me a name and phone number in Bremerton, Washington. Perhaps I'll gather my courage and make that call.

I do have a vague memory of meeting him once, when I was about 3 or 4. I'd gone to the doctors, where they'd given me a pretty balloon. When I came home, Jonny popped it. Big disappointment.

Another picture brought tears to my eyes, how is it that I've never seen this one? My paternal grandmother, holding my dad in her arms. Dora Bell Bledsoe of Brock, Kentucky, who earned a Bachelor's degree in Education from the University of Kentucky, followed by a Masters degree from George Washington University in DC, in the 1930's. She met my grandfather while working as a secretary in San Francisco, had three children, and died of breast cancer at 49.

Dora Bell and Dad

What happened to American families in the 60's and 70's? Was it the diaspora of people coming to the West coast, to California? The divorce epidemic dovetailing with the all-American desire to break with the past, to re-invent oneself, to play down family history and all its sentimental, painful associations? I think in my family there was a dawning awareness of what later generations would call dysfunction. We evolved away from our frame of reference because it was the only healthy option available.

For much of human history, "family" has been such a big part of who we are as individuals. To not know one's family, or to have no real connection with those who are related to you, seems more of a modern, developed-world phenomenon. Maybe we are more "free" — to create, to be ourselves — when family bonds are weak. Or maybe, having lost our context, we are left to float on a sea of genetic material we can't begin to understand.

At breakfast the next morning (bacon, eggs, strong coffee and sliced grapefruit slathered with sugar) he looks at us and grins wickedly. "A man goes into a forest, and he's all alone, all by himself. He says something. Is he still wrong?"

Dad and girlfriend Linda. Thanks, Dad, for giving me the comic timing.

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