AccessMyLibrary provides FREE access to millions of articles from top publications available through your library.
All is true!
--Balzac, borrowing from Shakespeare, Le Pere Goriot
February 20, 1951
We had landed, my mother, little brother, and I, at the old Atlanta airfield that sunny morning, returning from Saint Petersburg where we had been staying for two weeks. I had been unwell too much of the winter, and Dr. Fowler, our family pediatrician, had advised that I be taken to Florida where I would profit from the sun and warm weather. As the taxi turned the corner onto our street, I gleefully saw in front of our home a long line of automobiles that I instantly recognized as belonging to my aunts and uncles. How proud was I that they had all turned out to see that I was so much better.
Silhouetted, however, against our front stoop stood my maternal grandmother in a black dress. "Something has happened to your father," my mother began screaming. "Something has happened to your father." Frantically, she started to pull at the mercifully still locked door before the driver could even slow the taxi. "Wait 'til I stop the car, lady, or you and those little boys are going to fall out onto the street."
One of my uncles opened the car door and paid the driver. Our housekeeper then swept my brother and me up in her arms, hugging us close to her bosom where we caught wafts of her ever-present Desert Flower dusting powders, tears cascading quietly down her cheeks. My grandmother walked slowly towards my mother. Then fell a terrible silence.
My father, as people used to say in the old South, had "gone away," a phrase that even as a small child I found bizarre, especially for someone who had voluntarily put a revolver into his mouth the day before and pulled the trigger. I was almost four and my little brother one and one-half. Our beloved housekeeper Ruby had discovered my father's body when she had let herself into our home the day before. She had worked and worked, after the police had arrived, followed by the city coroner, then by Patterson and Sons Funeral Home to take away his mortal remains, struggling to get what was left of my father's head off the floor and walls before we returned to Atlanta. Dear Ruby never would talk about that infamous day, never once, even though I asked her about it hundreds of times as the decades swept past.
"Take the boys somewhere, George," insisted my mother's oldest sibling, whom everyone lovingly called Big Sister. My little brother Jeff and I were quickly hustled into Uncle George's Nash Statesman and driven to Paramour's Pharmacy at the end of the streetcar line on Dill Avenue. We had cherry Cokes, although Jeff did experience some difficulty operating his straw successfully. I sat there without saying as much as hello or even thank you to the boy behind the counter, trying to make sense of what horrendous event had just happened in our lives. All my child's mind could conclude right then was that I probably should not be sitting there at the counter of Paramour's Pharmacy drinking a cherry Coke with my brother and Uncle George while my mother was crying because my father had "gone away," whatever all that peculiar Southernism could possibly portend.
I do not know if it would be the same for a daughter to lose a mother while so young, but I do know for certain that if a boy's father dies when his son is a little lad, by his own hand and thus by his own volition, all that remains is emptiness and myriad unanswerable questions. Why on earth would anyone do such a thing? If my father were haunted by demons unimaginable, like those that must have haunted his mother, nee Nancy Bayne Burch, who had also taken a gun to her head eight years before in 1943, why would he knowingly ever sire children? When at the age of fourteen I drove slowly through the Atlanta streets to the reeking municipal garbage dump without ever telling another soul, flaunting my arrogance before the law, to hurl my father's gun as far into the detritus of the past as humanly possible, all I could do was to ask God to condemn the revolver to hell for being the instrument of the bleakest of robberies, the most final of separations.
The moments of abandonment sear themselves into a son's memory. There is no one around to show you how to tie a fisherman's knot or how to cast properly. No one to explain how to keep your football from plunging leadenly to earth instead of spinning appropriately through the air to its intended target. No one to teach you how to play catch with your baseball or even how to hold your glove. When Mr. Bowman, our scoutmaster and a great dad to his three sons to boot, would ask for a show of hands to count how many fathers were going on the next camping trip, and hands smilingly, proudly, fly up all around you, you long to wave your hand eagerly too, just once, just to show your buddies that of course your father is going camping with us. Instead, you have to respond over and again to the same question, "How did your dad die?"
And so you make up things. Well, he had brain cancer, which he heroically kept all to himself, until he collapsed dead right there in one of the bedrooms of our home while we were off in Florida that February of 1951. But he really was a great dad, what with his not wanting to worry …