Dad’s Last Happy Picture
February 17, 2014
By Michael A. Calvert
I stared at the faded picture of Dad for a long time. As always, my breath quickened and my chest tightened, but I was not sure where these reactions came from. I did not have the same agitated response when I looked at Mom’s picture. I certainly loved Mom deeply; she was my hero. But my love for Dad was more complicated.
I had dug the picture out of a shoebox on the top shelf of my closet after returning from a vacation in Cancun. A chance to spend some time with my younger sisters, Kathy and Margy, had attracted me more than the beach resort.
After dinner in Kathy’s 5th floor condo, the three of us began talking about our old neighborhood as we sat on the balcony overlooking an amoeba-shaped pool fringed with deck chairs. A tame surf broke rhythmically on the narrow beach and the darkening Atlantic extended to the horizon as the sun set behind us.
Margy began by saying, “I drove by our old house recently, and it’s been painted and spruced up. I’ve kept in touch with Joyce and Janet Drum who lived next door to us. It’s hard to believe, but their parents still live there.”
“What about the Spires who lived on the other side of us?” Kathy asked.
“Long gone,” replied Margy. “He died of cancer before I left home, and she passed away soon after. They were good neighbors.”
As we took a census of our block, spouses drifted away. Kathy got me a Corolla and brought the wine bottle to refill her and Margy’s glasses. We settled in for a talkathon.
“When did Mom and the younger boys move away?” I asked.
“The year after Dad died. 1973, I think,” Margy said looking at Kathy and me questioningly. After a pause, she continued, “Do you remember that great picture of Dad with the sandwich…”
“Yes! Yes!” Kathy almost shouted. “I know the one you mean,” with a broad smile.
“The one where he had just raided the refrigerator!” I said nodding emphatically.
We all laughed, but our enjoyment was muted by the knowledge of what lay ahead for Dad in his final years. The years of depression, seeking relief in sleep in his bedroom.
“Dad got a rotten, damn deal,” I said. “Just awful.”
“Hard for Mom, too!” Kathy added quickly and looked at each of us for agreement, ready to make the case for Mom if either Margy or I failed to agree fully.
“Oh, yeah!” I said quickly.
Margy nodded vigorously, and said, “Mom had a tough time, but it wasn’t so great for us kids either, especially Steve, me and the younger boys. You know, you guys had Dad during his best years. Steve and I have a few good memories of Dad, but the boys never really knew him. As young as they were, they probably remember when Mom got upset when he didn’t show up after work and didn’t come home a couple of nights. Mom didn’t say much, but kids pick up on these things.”
“Yeah, but I don’t think he ever got over the war,” I said. “You know he was a forward observer for the artillery crews, phoning back to tell them how to adjust their next salvo. He was way out in front of the lines, totally exposed to German patrols. Uncle Edward visited him at the Battle of Monte Cassino and said it was much more nerve wracking than his missions flying a P-42 because he was able to unwind when he returned to base. Dad was exposed to attack, capture or death by the Germans for weeks at a time.”
“Yeah, his combat experience took a big toll, but don’t you think there was more to Dad’s mental problems than the war?” said Margy.
“Oh sure,” I said. “After all, his father ran off with some woman and abandoned the family when Dad was 10. Grandmother went from being a doctor’s wife and a member of society to a struggling mother of three boys in the Great Depression. She pushed her boys relentlessly to be and regain respect for the family. Dad’s mental condition had to be pretty fragile as an 18-year old shipping out to fight the Germans in North Africa and then Italy. He was definitely vulnerable.”
“Well, I like to remember Dad in that picture, said Kathy wistfully. “He was happy that evening. A glass of milk, a slice of ham on the Italian bread that he loved, hurrying back to the front room before the commercial was over.”
“I took that picture with my Kodak Instamatic with a flash cube. Dad had already turned off the kitchen light. He was amused, but a little sheepish, too. Like he was caught in the act,” I said.
“ Yeah, Mom often got irritated with him those times when Dad drank all the milk during his late night snacks,” said Margy.
“The picture was probably taken in the early sixties, before I moved onto campus. Dad would have been about 40. So young – particularly from our perspective now. He was depressed for most of his remaining ten years. Uh! So sad,” I said as we stared out at the darkness where the sea and sky had merged.
“He tried to sleep all day. When he couldn’t get to sleep, he would emerge from the darkened bedroom in that old blue bathrobe, with his remaining hair corkscrewed, a scruffy growth of beard and his worn slippers, and shuffle to the phone.
“Poor Mom. He would call her at work, several times a day” said Margy. “I tried to tell him that she couldn’t help him, but he just had to call her. His fingers shook as he dialed the number. I always hoped for the beep of a busy signal. When she answered, I could tell that Mom was being patient and sympathetic at first, then she had to insist that she was busy and had to get back to work as Dad said, “OK, but I can’t get to sleep,” over and over. Sometimes she just had to hang up on him.”
“You know, that picture shows Dad in one of his last good periods, maybe his last one,” Kathy said. “He had probably been making sales calls, pushing what he called advertising specialties, you know, key chains, pencils, notepads with the business’s name and logo printed on them.. He got samples with his name, R. G. “Bob” Calvert, to give to potential customers. ‘You can get these with your business’s name on it to remind your customers to come back, again and again,’ Dad would tell his prospects.”
“Remember how he would start talking at Mom the moment she walked in the door, worn out from work and going right into the kitchen to get supper on the table? He would relate the details of every call, what he said, what they said, the products they might order, on and on. Mom listened and nodded as she put water on for potatoes and began making a salad,” said Margy.
“Actually pretty pathetic, “ I said shaking my head. “He got a goddamn rotten life.” In silent agreement, we all stared at the lights of a freighter heading north toward Vera Cruz. The gentle Atlantic surf lapping at the beach was barely audible.
“Anyway I’m glad we have that picture,” said Kathy and we all mumbled our agreement. “
“It’s one-thirty in the morning, you guys, “ I said as stepped inside and I pulled down the murphy bed in the living room of the condo. “I’m going to bed. See you in the morning.”
“Good night.” my sisters said in unison, prompting small smiles that we all shared.,
As I looked more closely at the picture a week later at home, I was not so sure Dad was happy at that moment despite all of our statements to the contrary in Cancun. His smile seemed tentative and his eyes were unfocused. He looked guarded and a bit apprehensive.”
He had probably made sales calls that day wearing the suit with the handkerchief carefully positioned in his breast pocket and changed his shirt for dinner. He was not just in a good mood; sadly he was in one of his manic phases. Perhaps the weak smile in the picture reflected his understanding that he was just going through a phase of blazing optimism, teased by a short time with the blue bird of happiness only to be crushed by the black dog of depression that would always return. He had been through it before. But maybe he was completely captured by his euphoria. I hoped so, but I doubted it.
Over the years, I had embraced the sophisticated explanations for Dad’s bad behavior. Mental illness was undoubtedly brought on by abandonment by his father, demands for success by his mother, sibling rivalry and all the other neuroses cited by Dad’s V. A. psychiatrists. All of this was then exacerbated by the pressure of his harrowing experience beyond the front lines in Italy.
Nevertheless I could not forget all the pain he caused Mom. The times when he got his disability check from the mail box during the day and disappeared for a couple of nights with his high school drinking buddy Jim Conner. Bill collectors called incessantly, the Borden’s milkman and the Omar Bread’s deliveryman cut off credit and pink notices of late mortgage payments arrived in the mail. My friend Jimmy Stafford knocked on the door to collect on past due payments at his dad’s tab at Stafford’s Grocery. Most upsetting were days when Dad failed to meet Mom at the bus stop and she had to walk two miles home after a long day that began with at 5:30 am when she got up to fix oatmeal for all of us before going to school.
Once, and only once, I lost control and shoved Dad in the kitchen the morning after one of his disappearances. He reeled back and broke the window in our back door. Mom screamed my name. I turned and walked out the front door and went for a long drive. I shuddered when I found myself thinking how much better it would be if he died. A heart attack or a car wreck. I was immediately appalled that this thought had occurred to me, but it would return late at night, especially on the nights when he failed to come home and Mom was waiting up for him or a phone call. I wanted that phone call to say that he would never come home again. I always assured myself that I wanted an accident – nothing more.
These private thoughts were buried beneath my explanations to Kathy, Margy, my brothers and friends about the “shell shock” he suffered serving our country and defeating Hitler. I believed what I was saying, but I also remembered all the painful suffering Dad inflicted on Mom. I rationalized that Mom was tough and she could soldier on. I also felt the twinge of betraying Dad who I knew couldn’t really help himself if all those V. A. psychiatrists couldn’t find a cure for him.
Not too long after Dad died, I proposed writing his biography. I was aware that the younger children knew only the severely depressed man they only saw when he went to the bathroom down the hall. I circulated a letter to Kathy, Margy, and my brothers as well as Mom asking for anecdotes and stories to incorporate in Dad’s story. Uncle Edward responded with a wonderful remembrance of his younger brother’s childhood. I soon learned that Mom was taken aback and upset by this idea. I quietly set the project aside.
We all recognized Mom as the heroine of our family, supporting everyone in the darkest days, but I had wanted to record Dad’s good periods when Kathy and I were young. Those good times had been overshadowed by escapades during his frantic, manic phases and utter listlessness during his abject depressions. I wanted to recapture his underlying goodness I remembered. The lessons he taught me like ripping a band aid off my knee quickly to minimize the pain, putting my fingers on the laces of a football to throw a spiral, buying milkshakes for us at the drug store soda fountain, and driving Kathy, me and our grade school friends to the movies on so many occasions. I also wanted to make amends for my intense anger and disloyalty towards him.
I focused again on the photograph. Dad’s sheepish smile and the ambiguous eyes. I knew he had caused Mom much agony, but I also knew I loved the good man he was as he struggled with the demons of his childhood and the memories of war in Italy. I could see that goodness in the photo and that’s what I chose to remember.