1. Christmas Tree Text
Before Christmas, I sent a group text to my brother and sister, a first in using this form of communication between us. I’m sure my sister was a bit confused since she just got her first smartphone the week before. My unexpected text message: When did we get our Christmas tree as kids? Seems like we put up the tree around Christmas Eve. Certainly not at Thanksgiving.
Jack wrote back: We usually put it up on Connie’s birthday. Depended on Dad’s mood.
Connie’s birthday is December 14. I don’t remember this tree event happening that early. I barely remember anything about getting a tree. Not sure why I don’t remember decorating a tree. Surely, that was a pleasant memory.
Connie texted back: Why are you bringing up the tree?
Good question. Why was I bringing up the tree?
I didn’t want to think about the answer, because somehow I knew it was deeper than the date of decorating a tree, but I didn’t want to go there, wherever there was. I simply texted back: I thought we bought a tree on Christmas Eve when they were dirt cheap.
Jack texted: Sometimes. Everything depended on Dad.
Dad. Good old Dad.
2. New Year’s Eve
Nostalgia nestled in. I looked through old photo albums and discovered long forgotten photos of my family. Most of our family photos were taken on two specific days: birthdays and Christmas. On the birthday photos, we stood by the counter next to a 9 X 13 cake pan, preparing to blow out the candles. Year after year, the same photo.
At Christmas, we sat next to the tree, lifting up a gift. It was usually an oddball gift like the shampoo and soap holder for the shower, a gift my mother found practical, and it seemed like the holidays were a good time to purchase this item as a gift. There’s one photo where the three of us were all feigning delight over a popcorn popper. Our family was poor, yet, there was usually one true gift that we were thrilled to receive.
That gift wasn’t the popcorn popper. Or, I hope it wasn’t.
There was one picture of the three of us in our pajamas, looking sweet, sitting perfectly still next to each other on the couch. I liked this photo. My sister appeared to be one, I was two, and my brother four. Who were we on that evening? Was Dad happy then? Mom always said she wanted one more child, hopefully a boy for my brother. Having kids must have been enjoyable. We looked so normal, so content in this photo.
Our mother used to store the photos in an old shoebox in a closet. She’d always say we need to buy an album and organize these photos one day. Then one day she bought three albums and I lifted the plastic and placed the pictures in chronological order. One album of baby pictures for each of us kids. Our mom’s biggest hope was to live long enough to watch one of us kids get married, to become a grandmother but no one married until the year after she died. Every one of us waited until we reached our 30s to have children. My brother and sister married the person they were dating while our mother was alive. No one was in the marriage mode back then. We were always in the death mode, worrying we’d get the phone call from the hospital saying Mom was dead.
Before Mom died, and she died way too young, we’d walk around the house quietly, not so much worrying that we’d disturb her, but fearing we’d enrage our dad. Our childhoods were long gone before Mom died. After Mom died, there were no more birthday gatherings. Our family dissolved. Dad partied with drunken women. We moved on with our lives by leaving what was left of our old lives behind us. We all needed a breather.
Maybe I was groveling with the photos and trying to find a way to make our past less unbearable. My brother and sister never took their photo albums with them when they left home, and our dad had them in his house when a fire destroyed just about everything inside his home. I have a few photos saved from the fire, edges brown, faces melted. Recently, I posted the old pictures in an album titled Family Photos on Facebook. As I search through photo albums, which are mostly filled with pictures of my daughter, I find random photos of my mother when she was a girl. I add the photos. My brother writes the comment: “Nice, I’m saving these.” My sister texts: Where did you get these photos?
After we became parents, we made more of an effort to meet in our hometown during the summer. Not long after Mom died, my sister and I moved to different states. During one of these visits, my sister and I were staying at a campground with our kids and our brother came to visit. By this point in life, it was possible all of us had seen a counselor at least once as adults. Jack lifted his beer and said “Thank you, Dad, for making us a dysfunctional family.” Dad was still alive, but, certainly not at the campsite.
We rarely had honest conversations about anything, but, maybe this night was different because my sister finally had a glass of wine, and my brother a beer (I always drink, they rarely do), and we started reminiscing, something we tended to avoid. Connie mentioned the time Dad picked up a huge knife at the kitchen table and threatened to stab each one of us. Jack laughed and asked, “Why, was that another time you wouldn’t answer Dad when he asked a question?”
Poor Connie got the blame again.
She did have an interesting defense mechanism by refusing to speak to our father. Ever. Fortunately, even though we always set the table for our dad, he rarely showed up for dinner because he liked staying at the bar after he left the factory. If we were lucky, he didn’t show up home for several days. If he did show up to eat, and he did ask a question, he expected an answer. We’d kick Connie under the table, hoping she’d answer whatever lame question he asked, but she wouldn’t do it.
How was your day, Connie?
Not a word. And he’d have a fit. Eventually, he’d have a fit anyhow about something or another, so it’s more likely he lifted the knife to threaten to kill us because maybe he didn’t like how my brother or I did respond to his question, or he didn’t like the fish sticks, or he lost money gambling the night before, and our cupboards were bare, and our mother mentioned they had bills to pay.
Jack remembered the time we were all in the car driving back from Grand Rapids together. None of us could remember why we were thirty miles from home, in the town where Dad worked since Mom was in the car, which meant we weren’t visiting her in the hospital.
Once, we did go to Family Night at General Motors. I guess the managers wanted to make the factory look like a great place to work, so family members strolled through the factory while a guide pointed here and there. We couldn’t hear what was being said, but this tour convinced me I never wanted to work at a factory. Maybe the car incident was after this tour, and Dad felt let down by our lack of enthusiasm, or the tour pissed him off because, even though GM paid well, he wanted to sell cars, not make cars, and the tour showed him how much he hated his job. Whatever reason we were in the car, Dad started drinking whiskey, and he veered the car toward the edge of a bridge, screaming, “We’ll all be better off dead!”
He managed to stay on the road, but only barely, and we begged our mom to get a driver’s license, then sat in the backseat realizing how close we were to death.
My story was about the day we were playing a board game. Usually, the minute Dad stepped in the house, we turned off music, TV, and stopped speaking. This time, we were playing our board game in the front porch, and he came home angry, grabbed one of the rifles from the gun rack in the dining room, held it to my brother’s head and screamed “Would you be happier if I killed him? All your damn fighting and your Mom is dying. You worthless kids. Should I kill him?” We begged him not to. Then, he held it to my head. Then, my sister’s. All the while our Mom stood there yelling at him to put the gun down.
Not a one of us said we’d be happier if he killed himself.
But he knew that.
He got into his car and squealed his tires driving down the street to a bar.
We know why our relationships with each other are so fragile, so broken.
4. Dad’s Funeral
When Dad died of lung cancer about six years ago, every one of us was filled with an unexplainable, regrettable anger. My sister and I flew into Detroit and rented a car to make the three-hour drive to where my dad lived. At the car rental, I exploded when I realized my sister had changed her name to her new husband’s. I don’t know why this pissed me off. It wasn’t like she had to tell me this information, and changing her name was certainly something she’d do. Everything about her recent, and fast, second marriage infuriated me. She wasn’t single for a day. Her first marriage was at 18. A quarter of a century later she married a much older man from down her street in Vegas on Christmas Eve. Right after she married, she learned she had breast cancer. I felt like I couldn’t protect her from a damn thing. I was angry she had cancer, a new husband, and, once again, just like when we were young, I couldn’t keep her safe.
Buried deep down, we were all raging because of Dad’s death. When Mom died, there was a certain element of painful relief, just knowing she wasn’t suffering. When Mom died, there was quiet, an immersion into a deep and private loss. When Dad died, we didn’t feel that calm, emotional relief. The only thing released was anger.
The memorial was the next morning. My dad’s wife didn’t want to waste money on embalming (trust me, this wasn’t a decision made for environmental reasons), so the memorial had to happen soon because she had a little “surprise” awaiting us at the funeral home. Before we could head to the funeral home, Jack came inside the house screaming at Connie (she always takes the brunt of our anger because she rarely fights back) that she was an idiot and the plowing couldn’t get done because she parked the car in the street. Now, he couldn’t get the rental car to move, and he couldn’t get his truck out of the driveway. Connie dragged her sore body outside and tried to drive as he pushed. I finally decided to step outside to help, something I resisted because my dad was always late to everything, so let us be late to his damn memorial. A man pulled up to offer help, then laughed when he noticed the parking brake was on. Connie took the blame and explained that she always used a parking brake in Pennsylvania because it’s hilly. I told the man we were on our way to our dad’s funeral.
“That’s too bad,” he mumbled before driving away while my brother yelled, “This ain’t hilly Pennsylvania, and this ain’t no stick shift car! Dad would be pissed if he knew you rented a foreign car and put it in his driveway!”
“Who cares what Dad thinks?” Connie said to me. And, I was proud of her for saying something honest.
All our anger raged and flared from so many directions. In the past, it seemed like we all remained silent during our family gatherings, doing our best to not have any conflicts, since we so rarely all got together.
Our anger was stoppable now.
At the funeral home, we discovered our dad’s wife’s surprise: Dad’s body lying on a gurney covered in a green sheet, shoved in a broom closet. “I wanted you girls to see your dad one more time.” Connie and I looked at each other awkwardly, looked at his body, then left the closet. “That’s all? Don’t you have something to say to your dad?”
Our dead dad? A conversation now?
To make things worse, our kids, who came by to see what we were looking at, discovered their Grandpa. Such an unexpected oddball surprise. Even at their young ages they knew this wasn’t right.
Nor was it right when my brother decided to shove the gurney into the room for the service because my dad’s wife and he suddenly decided it’d be nice if everyone could see Dad. The funeral home director went after them, whispering loudly that it was against the law to have an unembalmed body at a funeral, and he agreed to only let his immediate family see the body one more time.
“Screw you,” my brother hissed. “We paid a lot of money for this funeral.”
I doubted it cost that much, and I knew that Dad had already paid for everything. He made it clear he wanted to be cremated. He should have been a bit more explicit. How was he to know he’d end up on a gurney with an old green sheet covering his naked body at his own funeral?
Joke was on him.
So, there was Dead Dad parked in front of the poster boards filled with photos of Dad’s real friends, his drinking buddies, and hardly any pictures of us, so few of us that our kids kept saying: Who are these people? Where are we?
Everything made sense to the kids during the service when people stood up to share their memories, and not one word was said by my brother, sister, or I. Relatives kept whispering, Don’t you have anything to say? For once, we all agreed upon something. Stone-faced, we ignored them all.
Maybe our long dead mother’s advice finally rang true, perhaps a tad too true: If you don’t got nothing nice to say, don’t say nothing at all.
5. If Only
I’m sure we all have our “If Only” moments. If only Dad wasn’t an abusive drunk. If only Mom didn’t have cancer. We didn’t care that we were poor. That was the least of our concerns. We did care when we were out of money and Mom needed a prescription filled. Our local pharmacist was a kind man and he always took our good faith last dollar bill and handed us our mom’s prescription. I didn’t know if that pharmacist ever got his money, but I did know his kids went to school with my brother, sister, and I, and that this man was incredibly kind. As an adult, I could imagine what it was like for him to have one of us kids ride our bike to his store, handing over that last dollar bill, explaining that our mom was in a lot of pain, him taking the dollar, handing over the drugs, and saying, “Don’t worry.” I coudn’t imagine what would have happened if the pharmacist didn’t give us the prescription.
When someone knocked on the front door, our mom’s first response was “Duck!” This meant drop to the floor, be quiet, and not move until the person left. Once they were gone, Mom would mutter, ”I can’t stand those bill collectors. You gotta be quiet when they come or we’ll be living on the streets. They’ll take our house.” I remember looking at the street in front of our house, imagining what it’d be like to actually sleep on the street. My brother wouldn’t have a room to himself any longer.
6. Mom’s Cancer
When we were young, (maybe my sister was four, my brother eight, me six, Mom thirty) we learned that our mom had breast cancer. We never met either of our blood grandmothers because our mom’s mom died of cancer when she was ten and my dad’s mom died of cancer when he was seventeen. Even though Mom endured her cancer for many years, we kept losing bits of each other as we lost more and more bits of our mother. When I was ten, and Mom was still alive, I felt fortunate. I’m sure it was painful for my dad to watch his wife die of cancer. Deep down, he had to know his own kids wished it was him dying of cancer, and, he too may have wished it was him dying instead of our mom.
7. At Night
My sister and I shared a bed. In the dark, we had our best conversations while tucked beneath the blankets. “If I ever act like Dad, you gotta tell me. You gotta promise me this!”
“I promise, now let me sleep,” Connie would say.
Our mother, when frustrated, would yell at our brother “You are just like your father!” Surely, she regretted her words, and surely, those words pained my brother, and I lived in fear that I could become cruel toward my mom, angry like my brother, and that this anger was another terrible family disease like the cancer and alcoholism that ravaged both sides of our family.
One night in bed, Connie, who strived to get all As and had lofty plans to leave our factory rat family by being the opposite of all of us, told me how her Sunday School teacher said our mom got cancer because of something one of us had done wrong, and she believed she was the one who had done something terribly wrong. Who knows what this wrong was, Connie never said, but the following Sunday I tracked down this teacher. By this point I was a teenager, and I had been a holy roller, a partier, and all the other shit that happens to kids who grow up too young and can be out all night without a curfew, yet, not be old enough to get a license. This Sunday School teacher just looked at me after I told her what she said to my sister was a huge lie, and she’d never find evidence of any of this doing wrong business in the Bible.
Her words to me: “I know what goes on in your house.”
Yeah, I thought. All you fuckers know what goes on in our house and you don’t do a damn thing.
My final words to her: “Apologize to my sister. You are wrong.”
Everyone thought they knew what went on in our house, but if they truly knew what did go on in our house, they would hang their heads in shame for not helping us. My dad’s drunken escapes would be announced on a radio show and printed in the local paper. My mom’s cancer was no secret. I like to believe no one really knew what happened in our house, because no one should allow that kind of shit to happen.
My brother had his own room. No one to talk to at night. No wonder he was more angry than the rest of us. Not only did he share our dad’s name, he shared his rage, and no matter how much he tried to earn our dad’s approval, that never happened.
It’s no wonder my brother and sister married young to leave the house. Though, they could have just left the house like I did. Mom died when I was 18. My sister was still in high school. My relatives thought I was selfish for moving out and leaving the family to fend for themselves, except for our grandma, who lived four houses down the street.
“It’s about time you get out of there,” she told me. “You’ve taken care of them your entire life.”
8. Those Old Photos
Our family didn’t take many photos. Photos costed money. Maybe I should be relieved we have these calm, smiling photos from our earliest days together: the days before Mom had cancer, the days when our childhood appeared to be normal, the nights we probably slept peacefully, the times we were free of all the grief that was about to enter our lives.
It’s rare we take pictures when we’re all together. My sister and I are much closer than we are to our brother, so we have taken vacations together, visit each other at our homes, and we have current photos of these gatherings; but, my brother remains absent. He got short-changed in this family.
Last year, when he joined the ranks of being one more family member with prostrate cancer, we had frequent phone conversations, and it felt like we were one of those brother-sister people in Hallmark movies. Fortunately, he is cancer-free, like my sister, and we have been beating our family odds of alcoholism and early deaths to cancer. We are all evolving. My brother has worked hard at dealing with his rage, laughing more, being a kinder father and husband. My brother and sister rarely drink. They probably worry I am the alcoholic of our family. All things considered, we’ve all done well for ourselves.
Maybe we just need to place more effort at connecting and spending time together. To this day, despite being a three-some, someone still feels left out.
The hell with worrying about documenting any time we spend together with photos. Though, some happy photos could restore a sense of faith and serve as a gentle reminder our relationships aren’t permanently destroyed, we know that our main connection is that we are not our Dad.
Together, we share the same mantra: I am not Dad. And, knowing this is all we need to stay connected.
Diane Payne’s most recent publications include: Obra/Artiface, Map Literary Review, Watershed Review, Tishman Review, Whiskey Island, Kudzu House Quarterly, Superstition Review, Blue Lyra Press, Fourth River, Cheat River Review, The Offing, Elke: A Little Journal, Souvenir Literary Journal, Madcap Review, and Outpost 19. Diane is the author of Burning Tulips (Red Hen Press) and co-author of Delphi Series 5 chapbook. She is the MFA Director at University of Arkansas at Monticello.