What if the fantasy Dad you create as a child after the real one dies refuses to leave a decade later when the real one comes back to life?
Avocados drop from the tree behind our house in Santa Barbara, California like dead leaves in winter. Black-green ovals blanket our tiny back yard. Branches from that one lone tree drape all the way across our wire fence and over a portion the dirt alley that runs parallel with our property.
At three years old, I travel that yard at a very low level. The fence is trice my size and the scattered fruit is as big, if not bigger, than my bare feet. No matter how I try to step around them, I squish them instead. The sight of green meat oozing from their skin sends me squealing in horror and I run inside, under the safety of a solid roof where nothing drops.
Several blocks from the Pacific, our two-story house is set in a modest slant of a hill that faces the ocean. Like the home we had before it, farther north, I’m allowed to wander free. I run through our kitchen, still squealing, past our stairway to the screen door in our living room that looks toward the sea. Trees clutter my view, but I recognize patches of blue-green water through the tree’s limbs. The salty air tickles my nose and sparks my imagination. From memory, I conjure its full vision: White sand, wet sand, white ruffles along the water’s edge and then the endless sea.
The house is old and the walls, floors and ceilings are made of dark wood, which makes it shadowy. It’s almost summer and Mom’s not keeping the ceiling and table lights lit during the day like when we first moved in. We do have windows but too much shade prevents any meaningful light from entering.
There is one sunroom though and that is wherever Dad is.
At around seven each evening I sit on the bottom step of the staircase to wait for him to come home from the theater where he playacts and pretends. A long thin blade of fading light slices into the living room from a side window and dust floats inside its slivers. I follow the tiny particles with my eyes until I hear him whistling in the distance. The sound means he’s approaching the wooden gate at the end of our path. I get so excited I can’t watch anything but the exact spot he’ll walk through.
He stomps into the house the screen door slams behind him. He looks around as if he doesn’t see me. “Where’s my little girl?” he says in a big booming voice.
“Here, daddy. Over here.”
“Are you sure you’re my little girl?” He hovers over me. “I won’t stand for a substitute.”
“I’m sure, I’m sure.”
He picks me up and twirls me until I giggle with glee.
“You are my little girl,” he says and props me on his shoulders and holds my legs while we go from room to room to find Mom, Joy, and my brother, Jolly, who is six, three years older than me.
Until bedtime, my every moment is spent either following Dad around or perching myself somewhere where he’s in view.
Mom’s name is Joy but Dad’s the one who has it. I know the word because I asked. Jolly is jolly. But Mom is not joy. My name is Terry and rhymes with Harry so I don’t care if it means a cloth you dry off with.
Jolly and I share a room upstairs and down the hall from Mom and Dad’s bedroom. One morning we wake to Mom screaming. We rush in to see what’s wrong. Mom teeters on the edge of their bed, the straps of her nightgown slide off her shoulders and she holds a piece of paper. Jolly and I gawk at her undoneness. I don’t realize that moment is going to be one of those moments in time; a freeze frame I’ll remember forever.
“It’s a note from your father,” she says and the paper floats to the floor. When I see the handwriting on it, I understand just how powerful words are.
Later, Jolly interprets the note for me. “Mom had Dad go to the store to buy milk and he came home with buttermilk instead. He’s not going to live here anymore.”
It doesn’t make sense. “Can’t he go get the right one?” I ask.
“You’re too young to know anything,” Jolly says.
I’m not too young to know anything. In fact, I know to not let anyone know how much I do know. That’s what I know.
Without Dad, our house is darker than dark. A strangeness with no name and no future has moved in. We ask questions about Dad; Mom answers without saying much. She claims we are poor and cannot afford to buy clothes, as if poverty will replace him. At least poverty is something we can name.
I’m never out of her sight, and Jolly runs free.
Mom sews me an outfit and asks me to stand still on our front porch while she kneels beside me to fit it to size. Straight pins clenched between her teeth, she utters grievances about Dad with no mention of milk or buttermilk. My role in life takes form here as a silent-taker-in-of information, a pose-no-threat make-no-demands little girl.
“After all I’ve done for him,” she says again and again. She bought him a theater in town so he could do what he loved. “Isn’t that what he wanted?” She accidently sticks me with a pin.
“Ow,” I say under my breath.
Dad and Mom met in Hollywood.
He was a film actor under contract with Universal Pictures (he’s the sheriff in the foto below)
We move from Santa Barbara to Sherman Oaks, California for a fresh start. Jolly and I still share a room. We have twin beds. Our blankets are identical: wool off-white with bold yellow, red and black thick stripes across the top. The house is spacious, wide and light. We have a yard and a TV. (diagram of our house)
In place of Dad’s absence, Jolly and I rub the magic glow of anticipation and turn it into a belief that he will come back to us. Before we go to sleep at night, we polish our belief with stories detailing how he’ll make his entrance.
Jolly … “Dad’s on TV, riding a horse chasing men in black hats. He sees us watching him and gallops out of the TV and lands in our laps.”
“What about the horse?” I say.
“Your turn,” Jolly says.
“When I wake up and get out of bed, my feet can’t touch the ground. I float around and when I open my eyes, I’m on his shoulders.”
“I thought you said you woke up,” Jolly says.
“I did,” I say.
“Then your eyes should already be open.”
Alert to each other’s scenarios, we ferret out any flaws that might make them less real, less likely to come true.
Mom settles with Dad’s absence and the more she seems to move on, the more Jolly and I worry she’ll forget and not try to find him. She meets other theater people and jazz musicians.
One Saturday she takes us to a hot dog stand close where we live near Coldwater Canyon; a main link from the San Fernando Valley to the other side.
Each hot dog on the menu has a name, The Mutt, The Chili Dog, The Sunshine Dog, etc. There is a mechanical horse by the door, which can be ridden if you’re a kid with a nickel in your pocket. Just outside the front window by the red plastic covered stools, is Ventura Boulevard. A broad four-lane road that divides the haves, southward on the hillside behind it, and the have-less, northward, on the flat lands of the Valley. That’s where Mom, Jolly and I live. We live on flat land.
Right now we’re at a round table in the middle of the room. The Mutt, my favorite dog, arrives with a complimentary bag of potato chips. Jolly runs over to us and sits down in front of his dog, also a Mutt. He’s been by the mechanical horse where he’s been watching the other kids ride. Mom ignores him and stares at me, which makes me fidgety. I ask her for the umpteenth time when Dad is coming to see us.
“Never,” she says, her lips tighten across her teeth. “Your Dad is dead.”
The air sucks out of me. I can’t breath. I gasp and with that bit of oxygen cram nearly half The Mutt into my mouth, it goes down in lumps and lands in an empty hole. I need more and stuff the thing down until it is gone. Jolly asks some questions and I’m not aware of what they are or of time passing. Eventually everything is quiet and I have this thought: “that’s why he hasn’t been to see us!”
With Dad dead, days for me and Jolly level completely. Now not only do we live on flat land, we live in a flat land. No high expectations of his coming back to buoy us and no disappointments at his no-shows to turn into future possibilities.
Death deals its blow and slaps us down.
Mom moves us from Sherman Oaks to Studio City, one mile and one town over. We reside in an apartment building that faces the Los Angeles River; a man-made cement waterway created years previous to circumvent floods.
A family lives above us. The sounds of them walking overhead invites us to track their movements and we do so with no particular interest except to feel as if we’ve got one up on them.
Our front door opens and faces another front door just like ours. The only thing different about our neighbor’s door is the number on it. There’s an identical building across our courtyard also facing the river. Jolly finds friends there. All Jolly’s friends are my friends. I am his shadow. Jolly leads all of us in the plays he creates. He’s growing into a short version of Dad. Same dark curly hair same face shape same intense happiness while inventing stories.
Jolly enrolls in a new elementary school. When he gets home, we cross the street and head down a shallow incline to the barbed wire fence that travels the length of the river. We’re on a discovery mission. What do we see? Gray concrete, bits of stray green and a trickle of water sitting stagnant at the river’s lowest level. We look for lizards or just wait to see if something moves that looks like one.
Each night Mom lets us bring buttered whole wheat toast to bed. Happy hour.
A friend of Moms, an actor who runs a theater, lives in downtown Los Angeles. One afternoon she drags me along with her to visit him. She leads me through his house and into his kitchen, which is as big as our living room. Across from the sink there’s a picnic table with cookies on a plate. I sit by them and count. Twelve. I get a whiff of vanilla and chocolate. Mom reads my mind and whispers that, as a guest, I need to wait to be offered one.
Her friend is too busy to notice how much I want one of his cookies. He talks about acting and paper bags while Mom smiles and nods. As he spatters on, he leans against the sink and wrings his hands. His shoulder jets up to touch his ear as his voice rises.
Soon friends of his arrive with a son; my age. Their kid is blond wiry and jittery, as if he swallowed a bouncing ball. He grabs a cookie off the plate without asking and smiles at me. The kid’s mother is blond and wiry like him. The father has the bushiest eyebrows I’ve ever seen. They’re as thick as his mustache and when he stands profile they extend so far out, I imagine them a shelf for insects or a fly or two.
Everyone talks about the friend’s theater. I watch Mom flick ashes off her cigarette into an ashtray next to the cookies. She laughs.
The kid asks about a house next door at the back end of the vacant lot. It’s where the theater props are kept. I’m intrigued in this kid. He has a way with adults. He gets them and Mom to agree to let him show me the prop house.
I follow him through to the rear house. When we get inside, I see a mirror on legs and opened suitcases on the floor with bright colored sequined dresses and men’s suits spilling out. We go into a bigger room crammed with furniture, boxes of make up and several more of those suitcases. A rack of hats and wigs stands in the corner.
The windows are dirty and dusted over. I sit on an ottoman across by the couch.
The kid paces in circles in front of me and starts to talk in accents, pretending he’s an actor. He tries on different hats. He asks me to try on a wig but I don’t want to move from the safety of my seat. Besides Jolly, I’ve never been alone with a boy.
In a lightening fast movement, the kid picks up something from a side table and shakes it against his ear. It makes a scratchy sound. He brings it over to me. It’s a box of stick matches. He lights one then blows it out. Then he lights another and blows it out, too.
“What are you doing?” I say, pressing my legs against the ottoman.
“Playing,” he says. “I got an idea.” He holds the box out to me. “Why don’t you light one of these matches, put it back in the box and see what happens.”
“I don’t know how to light them,” I say, not taking the box.
“It’s easy.” He demonstrates and with one quick strike, lights a match and blows it out. He hands the box back to me.
I think it may not be such a good idea, but so far the kid seems smart. I do what he says. I strike the match and put it inside the box. The matchbox explodes out of my hand and onto an old stuffed chair. I jump up and stare at the chair.
A thin line of orange ember quickly ripples across the chair’s back. The kid yells to smother it with the clothes from the suitcases We toss costumes on it and they erupt into flames, leap over to the couch inches from where I’d been sitting and smoke fills the air. I am frightened until I see panic in the kid’s eyes, then I am terrified.
We run outside and hide behind a garbage can in back of Mom’s friend’s house. Panting, coughing, we huddle together and watch the smoke billowing out all over. The kid talks as fast as the fire spread. Shut up, I think. Shut up. Shut up. I feel things I can’t name because I’ve never felt them before. They’re hard and grind at my insides and they’re dark and point at him, the kid.
Firemen in yellow hats drag fat hoses across the lawn. Mom frantically calls my name, “Terry, Terry.” I can’t come out. I’m guilty. I started the fire. I look over at him, the instigator and watch his mouth move. But, I don’t hear him anymore. I’m full of promises to never ever do what anyone tells me to again.
The fire finally goes out. The prop house and everything in it has burned to the ground.
When Mom’s friend goes with the firemen toward the rubble, the kid and I scurry back into the kitchen.
I run into Mom’s arms. “Where were you?” she asks, relief in her voice. I cling to her. She knows. I don’t say a thing. I vow right there never to speak again.
A fireman walks into the kitchen and squints his eyes at me and the kid.
“That place was a fire hazard,” he says. “All those old rags and chemicals. Good thing no one was hurt.” He tips his hat to me, bends down and asks me if I, or the kid, know how the fire got started.
I shake my head and glance at the kid who has his head in his hands. For the first time that day he’s not talking.
A year passes and, at six, with the exception of my first grade teacher, I’ve been a rock of stubborn resolve about not talking. Unbelievably, Mom still carts me to her friends’ houses and one Saturday we visit someone new. We drive through a canyon in the Hollywood Hills, take a bunch of one-lane roads and stop in a driveway. Mom pulls hard on a hand brake and grunts.
There’s a cement stairway way up where we enter through a sliding glass door. The entire house is glass and wood. Outside one glass wall, a steep mountain buttes up against a beautiful pool of cool blue water.
The friend, a woman, says something to me.
“She doesn’t speak,” Mom explains. I don’t know what I’m going to do with her. Ever since that dreadful fire last year at Dean’s, she’s stopped talking. I’ve tried everything. You’d think a child her age would want to talk so she could have friends.”
The spiel Mom gives is part of our routine. We’ve been performing it for her friends on a regular basis since I took a vow of silence. It’s our ‘act’.
“I suppose I should at least be thankful she nods her head,” Mom says.
On cue, I nod my head both ways.
The woman takes a few steps back. She wears a bright patterned cape over a matching swimsuit. Her legs are thin and her toenails long, longer than I think they should be. She turns her head this way and that at me as if I am something she’s about to decide on. ‘Should I buy this one?’ Her head turns the other way, ‘No, on second look maybe not.’
Finally, hands on her waist, she bends over and puts her face next to mine. “That’s all right with me, dear,” she says. “Go ahead. Refuse to talk. Joy and I will talk without you.” She stands straight and says, “I suppose you’ll want to go in the pool?”
No, I nod.
“You’re so right, Joy,” the woman says. “She is an odd one. At least I got a nod out of her.”
Drinks are fixed and I follow them out to the pool where they sit at a table, opposite the mountain and at the shallow end. I sit cross-legged on the flagstone by Mom’s feet. Not paying any attention to what they say, I study different tree shapes in the mountain. Eventually I wander off toward the green and stop at the deep end of the blue. I kneel at the edge and lean over to see all the way down to the shiny silver drain and fall in.
I don’t know how to swim and go under.
The information I have at six on drowning is that you can come up twice but not three times.
On the slow float down, I’m certain Mom will see I’m in trouble and rescue me but when I come up that first time and turn to her, she’s looking the other way.
I go under again.
Unsure Mom will save me now my thoughts veer off to memories and fantasies of Dad. I submerge myself into his warmth. Wherever I end up, he’ll be there. I imagine him pulling me out of the water and holding me against his chest. I feel his heart beating. His arms tight around me to reassure me I’m not going to fall. He’s never going to let me go. I’m in a reverie of Dad’s embrace and not aware of how far down I’ve gone until the soles of my feet feel the cold chrome drain. Alert, I try to dive back into the dreamy state of Dad but cannot. I struggle in the water, flapping my arms and legs until I realize movement is keeping me down. When I stop fighting, I float closer toward the light at the surface not knowing which way I’ll end up: out, or, back down and out.
When I come up that second time, Mom’s there! She pulls me out of the water. She’s shaken I can tell. Her eyes flit from me to the water and back. Her friend stands behind her and gapes at me the way I’d seen women do in scary movies. I’m relieved. I’m saved.
Angry and apologetic, Mom dries me in alternate strokes. Roughly then gently. The woman echoes everything Mom says. They both speak at the same time. “I wish she would talk!”
On our drive home, Mom issues orders like…“Young lady, you need to speak. Do you hear me? I won’t have it anymore, do you understand?”
And I nod to let her know I understand.
Until that day my not speaking was the only thing I had that was mine, that I could control. But, the second time down in the pool’s deep end had given me something else: a trick to go where Dad lives. And, it’s a place I’m able to call up whenever I want. I know because after dinner that night, while Jolly and I were watching TV, I went there.
Extra money can be a real pick me up, usually. When Sven Nordstrom, Mom’s stepfather, dies he wills her a lifetime monthly stipend and to us kids he wills a nice amount, which we’ll get when we’ve grown. Though Jolly and I are young, we’re old enough to be cheered by the idea of being rich one day.
Sven invented a valve that streamlined oil drilling. It made him millions and millions of dollars.
But, as it turns out, Sven leaves most of his fortune to the Red Cross. And, according to Mom, because she moved to Santa Barbara with Harry, me and Jolly, he deprives her of his ranch house in Contra Costa County by willing it to a distant relative; her cousin.
And the ranch house Mom thinks should be hers/ours:
Along with the oil valve, Sven invented a cow-milking machine; a steel orb with tendrils that protrude from the hub and jet upward to latch onto the cow’s dangling nipples. When the machine turns on, a massaging motion extracts liquid and funnels it into the orb. We all drank the milk of Sven’s generosity while living at the ranch house. The first three years of my life were spent there, along with Mom, Dad and Jolly.
As a toddler, I was allowed to roam around by myself. I’d waddle down to the chicken house, where the ranch’s helpers lived and visit with them or I’d sit on top of a hill that overlooked a range of horses, cows and goats and gaze in wonder at how large they were. I never felt lonely. I felt safe. On many days, I’d follow a long dirt path to Sven’s work shed. He’d greet me with a gentle smile and prop me on a table so I could see how he constructed picture frames; his hobby.
The sun streamed in through an opened window and onto long strips of timber in varied shades of lights and darks all stacked against the walls of his shed. He’d pull one out to lay on his work table and sand and polish that strip as if it were the only thing that existed. Except for the sound of his labor that came from his breathing, it was quiet. Oh, maybe he’d nod in appreciation as he let me feel how smooth he’d made the wood or he’d utter a serious “see” as he showed me the precision of a corner piece, but that was it. My apprenticeship in the art of his framing, came without words. When almost finished, he’d puff out his cheeks and blow on the frame and send sand dust flying.
Something went on in that shed that was pure. Acts of worship were made there. Not just out of wood, but out of silence, sunlight and a union that felt true.
Now, just four years later, Sven is as dead as Dad.
Furious to be left out of the bulk of Sven’s will and losing the ranch house to her cousin, Mom paces, smokes and fumes. Determined to get what’s rightfully hers, she carts me and Jolly back up North to settle things once and for all.
Leaving the San Fernando Valley for Lafayette and the promise of reward plus the actual relocation to a new house is almost a complete distraction for me. Very little time for drifting off to my fantasy world where Dad comes alive, I’m too busy adjusting to a new street and a new school.
Jolly soon finds places to play so he doesn’t have to stay at home. I’m a girl, he tells me, so I can’t tag along with him anymore. I’m on my own as far as friends go and don’t do too well since I rarely, if ever, talk. Mom leaves me with a sitter after school and sometimes overnight while, she says, “She goes off to fight the good fight.”
The sitter, an old woman, lives in a tiny apartment in Oakland and always has something freshly baked for me when I arrive like a warm peach cobbler or a cherry pie. She’s kind, soft and round and wears flowered dresses and old sweaters. She’s got a couch with scratchy material where we sit and watch TV.
If the channel needs changing, it’ll take some effort for her to get up off the couch. She’ll slowly bend over, the long chain with her silver cross will swing out and away from her, she’ll clutch the cross mid-air with a fierceness I recognize and turn to me and wink, like we share a secret. We do. On the many days and nights she’s sensed my fear, she tells me about her undying belief in the cross as the symbol of protection.
What am I so afraid of? Being left.
One day, while in San Francisco with Mom, I see a gold cross in a jewelry store window. I long for that cross. I crave that cross. I must have it and ask Mom to buy it for me. She says if I want it, I’ll have to save my allowance and get it myself. That’s fifty cents a week for thirty weeks until I have the amount I need to buy the cross. Mom drives me to the store, reluctantly. I take her displeasure at my own determination as a sign. A symbol.
I’m no longer left with the old sitter.
The good fight takes years. Mom doesn’t win.
A lump sum must have been given to Mom because she rents us a house in Sherman Oaks on the “haves” side of Ventura Boulevard. We’re up from a winding road called Valley Vista and have arrived, or so Mom thought.
I attend elementary school.
Jolly and I don’t share a room anymore. I’m twelve and he’s a full-blown teenager and is always gone somewhere. Mom’s a tornado of rage, high heels and taffeta skirts. Her tormented beauty attracts a man that she brings home to live with us. They stay up late and throw things at each other. One night Jolly comes into my room saying he thinks the man was going to kill Mom. The police are called.
I don’t speak in that house. I’ve muted myself again. When I return from school, I take two steps down from our white-carpeted living room into our brown-tiled den, to retreat into the refuge of the TV club I belong to, The Mickey Mouse Club. All my fellow club members are happy, honest and willing to be led on wonderful adventures where nothing bad ever happens. Each day I pretend I’m either Doreen or Cheryl. Cheryl’s blond but I could be her.
One day, while I am transporting myself into the club on TV, Jolly appears in the doorway between the living room and the den with the real Cheryl, without her Mouseketeer hat and sweater.
“This is Cheryl,” Jolly says. “She’s just three houses away, the yellow one!”
They step down into the den and Cheryl takes a seat next to me on the couch. I’m truly speechless. I couldn’t talk if I wanted to. I go from Cheryl in the TV show to Cheryl next to me and back again. They’re both as real as real can get and I’m as happy, honest and as willing as can be.
“Kids,” Mom, says to Jolly and me one afternoon at our dinette table. “I was mistaken about your father being dead after all. He’s alive.”
I’m thirteen and gullible, especially after a Mouseketeer on TV became someone whose house I’d been inside. But, I’m not stupid. The dead don’t come back to life.
“Can we see him?” Jolly asks. He’s always confronting Mom, testing her.
Mom lights a menthol and tosses the match into her empty coffee cup. I study her face to see how she’s gonna respond to this one. She takes a puff, grey smoke drifts from her mouth and circles her nostrils, she grimaces and nods, yes.
“Are you sure?” I ask.
“Yes,” she says.
He is alive! Hope inflates me like helium. I feel myself float above the table. Looking down at Mom smashing her cig out out on a plate, I notice that her mouth is moving. But her voice feels faint and distant. She may have said Dad had another family but I didn’t hear it.
………. S T A Y T U N E D
These are the first few chapters of a memoir I’m pitching about reconciling my fantasy Dad with the real one.
Thank you for stopping by!