The son of a poet explains how his cantankerous, melancholic, alcoholic father was able to convey the deep and complex nuances of a father’s love.
I was ten years old when my father slammed his fist into a painting that hung on a wall in my mother’s bedroom, that brought to a climax another rancorous quarrel with my mother.
‘You just destroyed a beautiful work of art!’ my mother exclaimed. This was a blatant stab at my father, a poet who supposedly should have known better. Not missing a beat, my father shot back: ‘No, now it’s a work of art, because now it has passion!’ If ever there was a defining moment in my parents’ marriage, this vociferous retort of my father’s was it: a cri-de-coeur which exposed the passionate hatred I grew up believing my parents felt for each other.
It was hard to think otherwise. With their countless altercations. The spew of insults hurled at each other. The complete absence of any displays of love and affection. My father sleeping on the couch; my mother sleeping in her own bed. My father working during the day and my mother working at night, both making no secret that they set it up this way to avoid interacting with each other.
But they had to have loved each other once, right? Years later, my father gave me journals that he wrote in the months before and after I was born. His unhinged lifestyle was already evident. He wrote about going out on a binge and coming home next morning to my mother with a roll of toilet paper, toothpaste, and a pack of cigarettes, saying ‘Lyn was none too pleased’; about pawning a television to firefighters because he had no money and then using the money to get drunk in a bathtub of gin; about waking up on a cold winter morning in January and finding his car stripped bare, no food in the fridge, no work lined up, not a friend in sight, and feeling as alone in the world as it was possible to feel.
How did my mother ever fall in love with this man? And yet, years later, I came across a book in my mother’s bookshelves, an anthology of ‘Poems That Live Forever.’ My mother had given the book to my father as a Christmas gift six months before they were married, with an inscription: ‘To David, Merry Christmas! Love Forever, Linda 1976.’
My parents met in February 1976. My mother went out with her sister to Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel in Providence, RI one night, and saw my father performing at a poetry reading. My father courted her and invited her to his next reading and she accepted. At the next reading, my father was inebriated and fell off the stage. My mother, who was the daughter of a nasty alcoholic, became disgusted and vowed never to see him again. Somehow my father managed to win her back. I once asked my mother how. ‘Oh I don’t know,’ she answered. He was handsome. He was charming when he wanted to be. He was a poet who knew a lot of artists and musicians and she liked that milieu.
As the years went by, after my sister and I were born, my mother lambasted my father as a mean and angry drunk who got into arguments with everyone he knew, which was true. My father said my mother was a drama queen, which was also true. I would not have believed that, as my mother told me, ‘we were madly in love once.’ I did not know about my father’s past abuse of hard drugs like heroin, or my mother’s Valium addiction.
I also had little understanding of my father’s love of poetry, and that my mother had once loved him because of his poetry.
I suppose that growing up with the conviction that one’s parents hated each other can distort one’s intuitions about love. But whatever they thought about each other, I was always convinced my parents loved me and my younger sister. I believed it was their love for us that ultimately kept them together. Maybe inertia also kept them together, or the need to pay the rent and bills, or the fear of loneliness. But I was not old enough to perceive such adult complexities. I only knew how my father demanded we kiss his bristled cheek every night; how he called me embarrassing nicknames with a mawkish lisp; how he requested that my sister tuck him in every night. I knew how my mother worked two jobs and made sure I got to hockey practice, baseball practice, basketball practice, piano lessons, gymnastics practice, and Cub Scouts.
They could have selfishly abandoned me and my sister. I thought at one time my father did, and I remember telling my mother I hoped he would never return. He had left one night after a ferocious argument with my mother and did not return for a few days. My mother conducted a fire sale of our household items and took us into hiding in a women’s shelter.
My father tracked us down after a month, impersonating my mother’s brother when calling the women’s shelter, tricking house management in order to get my mother on the phone. When she picked up the phone, she heard his low growling voice: ‘I want my kids’.
Within a month, during a sojourn with my aunt in western Rhode Island, my father showed up. The adults thought I was asleep, but I could hear loud and clear from under my pillow when my aunt yelled at my father:
‘Your son said he hoped you would never come back!’
‘Oh Yeah?!’ My father struggled for a response, but could find no retort.
How I resented my aunt for that!
Soon enough, my father returned to our life and we moved into a new apartment. My mother went into the hospital for a few weeks while my father cared for me and my sister, taking us to visit my mother at the hospital until my mother was released and we were a family again. I did not know she was recovering from Valium withdrawal.
Within a few years, my parents finally separated. My father found an apartment in Providence. I moved in with him because Providence had one of the best high schools in the state of Rhode Island (we had been living as a family in Pawtucket, RI). My sister would make the same move a few years later. My mother reconciled to a new life without my father. She ended up settling down with a man who has treated her well for over twenty years.
My father did his best to survive with me as his dependent, working as a cab driver in the winter and a house painter in the summer. No longer straightjacketed by marriage, and seeing that I was increasingly independent, he reemerged on the Providence poetry scene.
My father was a poet, and as poets go, he was a man who deferred to his moods without inhibition. When he was still with my mother, he would come home from work, sit at the kitchen table, eat pasta from a pot that my mother had prepared before rushing off to her job as a waitress, and brood. He would lie on the couch all day on Sunday after my mother went to work and watch Westerns on TV, while my sister and I tried to find ways to stay occupied, wondering not why he needed time to himself but why we didn’t have parents who took us to the zoo or the beach or the aquarium. One summer night, while neighbors across the street were having a barbecue, he got so fed up with the noise that he went out into the middle of the street with no shirt on, wielding a steak knife, and hurled invectives not fit for print.
His moods were combustible and too often erupted into outbursts of anger. I learned not to bother him when he spent hours playing computerized chess, or seemed to wrack with frustration tending to business matters when he ran a house painting business in the 1980s, or sat at the kitchen table with a notepad and a melancholy gaze directed towards anywhere but me.
This was probably why I felt distant from him as a child. And yet from early childhood, I always knew he loved me. It was the nicknames he gave me; his attendance at my Little League games; and the way he smiled at me with his glazed eyes when he had friends over and they cracked open beers while hanging out in the driveway.
It was the look of a father’s pride, in a man with the soul of a poet. His eyes conveyed a warmth and love that compensated for all the suffering he had caused over the years. Maybe it was the same look that drew my mother to him years ago?
I am reminded of that look of love as I now read, in the years since his death in 2008, my father’s collection of letters archived at Brown University. I recently came across a letter he wrote to another poet, in which he said that my mother had an abortion before they were married and that it took about ten years before it ‘hit him’ and that it still affected him after many years. ‘The one who got away,’ he wrote.
Had my mother had an abortion because the animosity between them already had taken root before they were married, convincing my mother to terminate a pregnancy to terminate the relationship? I worked up the courage to broach the abortion to my mother and she confirmed that this was so. ‘He was acting crazy and I got really scared.’ If so, how had my father convinced my mother to stay with him? My mother offered an explanation: ‘he was very sensitive about [the abortion], and I was shocked.’
My sister and I apparently came very close to never being conceived, until my mother was shocked by my father’s sadness and hurt after telling him she had aborted his child.
And if my sister had never been conceived, neither would the three children she has now. My father’s comment in the letter was prompted by reflection on how my sister had recently given birth to a newborn girl at age nineteen. His new granddaughter, he wrote, had made up for ‘the one who got away.’
He wrote excitedly about buying popcorn for her when she visited. He did not mention my sister was only nineteen years old when she became a mother. No condemnation of my mother for having an abortion. He only raved about how he would love his granddaughter.
When I was growing up, I used to see the four letters L-O-V-E tattooed to my father’s forearm and think them ironic.
I know now it was never meant as a joke.
Bob Dylan has a song in which he says: ‘Strange how people who suffer together have stronger connections than people who are most content.’ Suffering was part of being my father’s wife or, in my case, his son, but I loved my father more than anyone I have ever known, not in spite of his life, but because of it. I always knew that he loved, even if for much of his life the rest of the world thought otherwise.
Photo: Getty Images