Old Man, Look at My Life*

Literary Themes Subconsciously Rooted in Childhood

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My father and his “Mama” on the family farm, early 1940s.

Insecurity and salvation.

These two themes recur often, yet unplanned, in the fiction and poetry I write. They usually emerge from a character’s self-doubt, countered by an unrealistic belief that situations, no matter how awful or threatening, will eventually turn out okay, that adversity will ultimately surrender to peace. But why do these particular themes keep showing up?

A few years ago, a political disagreement with my father ignited in him a firestorm of condemnation of other cultures and races—never mind the mixed racial heritage of my spouse and our daughter. Communication ended abruptly in mutual expletives. After more than five decades, he and I were finally done. I figured I’d never hear from him again, that the next time I visited him would be at his graveside.

The relationship with my father has always been tenuous at best. I felt safe with him only once—in 1958 as he carried me through the hospital parking lot on my way to a tonsillectomy. I was two. Fear soon obliterated that initial sense of safety, thanks to repeated episodes of rage, from verbal abuse and an eagerness to fight, to animal cruelty and domestic violence, a few incidents recounted in my published fiction.

My parents separated when I was twelve. I’d spent that summer of 1968 working in my father’s Phillips 66 service station in Crestview, Florida—sometimes alone and always under order to wear a “Wallace for President” Dixieland hat and campaign necktie. Dad’s small, two-pump station had three restrooms in back, designated as “Men,” “Women,” and “Restroom,” the third to which he directed people of color.

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My father, age 18, holding me, mid-1956.

In the station’s front window, he’d hung a hand-drawn recreation of an auto tag that read “Put your (heart symbol) in Dixie, or get your (donkey symbol) out.” One hot day, a traveller from a northern state noticed the sign after I’d gassed his car. “If I’d seen that damn thing,” he snarled, “I wouldn’t have stopped.” I was glad my father was away at the time. Otherwise, a fight would have certainly ensued.

Bizarrely hot-tempered, my father was quick to violence. I witnessed such fury that crippled and killed animals and bruised and broke people both emotionally and physically. I felt a flood of relief and freedom when my parents split and I ended up in Pensacola, Florida, fifty miles from Crestview and my father. Marrying his second wife shortly after the divorce finalized the following year, he moved some forty-five miles north to his hometown, Andalusia, Alabama. With his wife’s deft support, he established a used car dealership that provided a good income, even though he faced legal problems at one point for buying and selling stolen cars. Due more to his wife’s business savvy than his public charm or honesty, he skirted prosecution and became wealthier than he’d ever imagined he would, though it had no effect on his refusal to pay child support, doling out only small portions when I visited him.

During my visits that never exceeded two days, he appeared to have mellowed since the divorce—specifically, his propensity to violence had apparently evaporated. I became jealous of his wife’s two sons whom he’d adopted. They, I believed, enjoyed the father I craved, a reasonable man who respected them enough to do what a parent should do. The emotional distance between us increased while the frequency of my visits decreased. Only after his death did I become aware of the psychological and physical violence he waged against his new family.

Fast forward four-and-a-half decades.

My father’s wife died in April 2015, succumbing to cancer. During her decline, her children visited her at home, but not without consequence. When his wife’s daughter said she would not move into my father’s home to take care of him after her mother’s death, he became so livid he threatened to kill her if she ever returned for any reason. She didn’t. When his oldest adopted son visited his mother a few days before she died, my father accused the son of plotting to steal his money and slugged him. The son responded instinctively, knocking my father to the floor.

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The Phillips 66 station where I worked summers, afternoons, and Saturdays when I was age 9 to 12.

“Get out!” my father raged. “Get out before I kill you! I’ll put you in the ground you ever come here again!”

Increased paranoia followed his wife’s death and led to rabid accusations that relatives were constantly plotting to steal his land and money. He threatened to kill many and alienated all but one, a cousin whose tolerance ensured the care he needed.

Already receiving thrice-weekly dialysis treatment before his wife’s death, my father had developed a notorious reputation among Andalusia’s medical workers for verbally abusing doctors and dialysis personnel. In early August 2016, he suffered a mild heart attack that placed him in a hospital where doctors determined he’d require rehabilitation center placement upon release. Facilities in his hometown, thanks to his reputation, refused to take him, necessitating placement in a Crestview facility where he required sedation most of the time. Shortly after placement, my cousin informed me that his condition had begun to deteriorate rapidly, that he suffered from advanced diabetes, kidney disease, and increasing dementia.

Living in New Mexico, I decided not to visit him. Any possibility of reconciliation, no matter how remote, had surely vanished within sedation and the distortions of dementia. Then my wife’s brother in Pensacola died unexpectedly, and we made the 1,350-mile drive to attend his memorial, placing us within forty minutes of the Crestview rehab facility.

On a rainy Wednesday morning in a town that’s grown unrecognizably large since my childhood, the nurse in the rehab facility’s locked wing pointed out my father at the end of a line of wheelchair-bound patients parked along one wall. The greasy pompadour he’d worn most of his adult life had been replaced by shorter hair, brushed into a faux mohawk, the result of a nurse’s playfulness. He stared blankly toward the opposite wall, murmuring. I knelt before his chair and took his hand.

“Dad?”

He slowly turned his gaze.

“You know me?”

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My father in his prime.

After a moment, he nodded almost imperceptibly.

“Who am I?”

He smiled slightly. “Ray,” he whispered.

“No, not Ray.” I have no idea who Ray is. “Try again.”

Something clicked. His face tightened, his lips parted slightly, and he began to cry. “Chris…”

Just as quickly, his expression muddled, and the stare returned. He nodded. And nodded.

I engaged him in talk as best as possible and took a few photographs.

He held my hand off and on, muttering things like, “I used to have lots of money. No more. It’s okay, it’s okay. Madelyn [his deceased wife] is coming soon.”

Aides began wheeling patients to the dining room for lunch.

“You seen Mama?” he asked. His mother had died some forty years earlier. “She ain’t been by.”

“No, but you’ll see her soon,” I said. “She’s waiting.”

A shadow of a smile played on his lips. He nodded once. “I love everybody.” He nodded again. “Everybody loves me.”

“I’m sure they do.”

He leaned slightly forward. “I’m proud…”

My breath caught with hope that, at last, he’d express something he’d never before expressed.

“I’m proud,” he whispered again, “real proud of my life.”

I let the breath go. “Yes, you should be.”

He sat back.

An African-American nurse arrived to take him to the dining room. My father, whose racist rants were legendary, reached for her hand and grinned.

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My father (right) discussing one of his used cars with a potential customer.

“She’s nice,” he said. “People…people’s the same everywhere.”

The nurse positioned herself behind the chair.

“We need to go,” I said. “Time for you to get some lunch.”

He raised a hand toward my wife—that unsuitable, racially-diverse person who married me thirty-eight years ago.

“I love you,” he whispered.

She hugged him.

He then held his hand out to me. His face twisted momentarily as though he might cry again.

“I love you,” he said. And he nodded.

“Yeah, I love you, too, Dad.”

His eyes glazed.

I lowered his hand to his lap and let go.

The nurse said, “Y’all can wait or come back after lunch if you’d like.”

We thanked her and stepped aside, and she wheeled him away.

Six days later, the day after our return to New Mexico, he died. My cousin said that he had been en route from dialysis to the rehabilitation center when he went to sleep for the last time.

I didn’t travel to Andalusia for the funeral, but my cousin filled me in. The preacher of the church my father attended—designated as a primary recipient of Dad’s estate after he disinherited his wife’s children and me—delivered a glowing tribute that had some attendees wondering who the hell the preacher was talking about.

That’s fine.

Southern preachers consider eulogies sacred opportunities to exploit insecurity and harvest souls by lobbing sizable chunks of fire and brimstone while praising the exceptional life of the dearly departed, now cozied up in heaven with Jesus.

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My father six days before his death. (May 11, 1938 – August 16, 2016)

What does it hurt?

Most of us—kind or cruel—reach for higher standards at some point. And we all fail in different degrees. It’s okay to remember people as better than they were. It’s okay to grant a little salvation.

At some point, I’ll stand at my father’s graveside, keenly aware of how he influenced me to strive to be his opposite, of how he will always affect the characters and themes in my fiction and poetry.

Perhaps I’ll thank him.

Perhaps not.

 

* from Neil Young’s “Old Man”

 

Montessori Rules ~ A Tribute to Peggie Ann Kilpatrick

On rare occasion, we realize upfront a person is special. Peggie Ann Kilpatrick was such a person.

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Ms. Peggie and the kids indulge during the 1996 Halloween party. (Children’s faces have been blurred to prevent identification.)

When our daughter Tegan turned three, Bonnie and I decided to place her in a preschool for socialization and early education. Our acquaintances’ children were older, and Tegan had no one her age for company. Finding a good school, however, wouldn’t be easy. State regulations governing preschool operation were loose, to say the least. Employment required little or no professional training or educational background. Many facilities were (and probably remain) so poorly regulated, they were at best safety hazards. Beyond regulations, many, if not most, promoted the teachers’ and owners’ political and religious agendas. Such schools were not for us. We required a secular school that served children without regard to racial, social, cultural, religious, or ethnic group, that reflected community diversity and respected the child and child’s family without promoting ideological agendas.

We began our search with traditional schools, but none lived up to their promotional material, operating more like babysitting services than preschools or kindergartens. So we turned to schools based on alternative teaching methods. Among the few in our area, only one discipline intrigued us—Montessori. Montessori educational method dates to 1907 when Maria Montessori, realizing a desperate need in Italy for a more effective educational system to serve lower income families, opened Casa dei Bambini—the Children’s House—in one of Rome’s low-income districts. Although few U.S.-based Montessori schools today serve specifically low-income families, most encompass Maria Montessori’s methods by centering on whole child development, including the physical, emotional, social, and cognitive aspects, with younger children learning from older children who reinforce what they’ve learned by teaching the younger, a system that mirrors how most people socialize and learn in the world at large. Further, Montessori method incorporates special tools and aids for students to learn and experience through sensory-motor activities to develop cognitive powers such as sound, sight, smell, taste, movement, and touch.

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Peggie (far right) dances with the kids as fathers perform a special version of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” during the 1998 kindergarten graduation ceremony. (Children’s faces have been blurred to prevent identification.)

We visited the first Montessori school on a chilly midweek morning. Children ranged from three to five years in age but reflected no cultural or racial diversity. They sat at small tables, engaged in solitary activities, from puzzles to coloring, in a large room that exhibited obsessive attention to order. As the owner spoke with us, a “teacher” drifted around the room, hands behind back, monitoring and instructing kids to do tasks in a certain way rather than encouraging them to explore. What struck us most was the room’s extreme quiet. It was mid-morning with lunch soon approaching, and not one child was talking. It felt uncomfortable. Our daughter expressed no interest when the owner offered to show her some of the activities. We left, disheartened. If this school was representative, how could anyone praise Montessori method as better than Snaggletooth Dorothy’s Backyard Babysitting Service?

The second school renewed our hope somewhat. Kids were more engaged and social, better reflecting Montessori basics, but tuition proved prohibitive for our budget. That’s when we visited Peggie’s school, a converted house that had once served as a restaurant, the main room large, but not cavernous, to accommodate the complete student body when the kids weren’t in smaller, open rooms involved in group and individual learning activities. About twenty-five children—Japanese, East Indian, black, white—engaged in a variety of tasks, assisting and interacting constructively with each other. Without invitation, our daughter squirmed out of my arms, walked over to a table, sat down next to a girl about her age, and began to work on a puzzle.

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Tegan, then in middle school, with Ms. Peggie during a visit to Ms. Peggie’s school.

Peggie—Ms. Peggie—grinned. “Looks like she’s found a home.”

Tuition, though lower than that of the other schools, threatened to exceed our budget, but Peggie was completely open about operation costs, with every penny justified as she ran the school on a shoestring, serving as owner, CEO, lead teacher, curriculum developer, chef, chauffeur, handyman—you name it, Peggie filled the bill. When we did the math, we concluded Peggie had to be a magician. So we found a way to fit tuition into our budget.

Peggie and the two teachers she employed—in particular, Beth Allison Young—engaged every student with respect and positive guidance, loosely termed Montessori Rules, to create a dynamic, cooperative, fun community of little people developing their educational and social skills. Peggie’s Montessori Rules became the foundation for personal responsibility and action that still guides our daughter today, some twenty years later.

Peggie’s grace extended beyond the children to their families. When conservative politicians forced a federal government shutdown in the mid-1990s, they created budgetary havoc in households of federal employees, including ours. Peggie offered to delay tuition payment during that time, something we could not accept. She was overextended already, but her gesture was an example of how she cared for others, how every family whose child attended her school became a part of her own extended family.

As Tegan progressed from preschool into kindergarten, Peggie underwent medical tests that revealed smoking-related lung scarring. By then, she’d lost twenty percent of her breathing capacity due to early-stage emphysema. A week after the medical news, someone sideswiped her on her way to work, putting her car upside down in a ditch. She crawled out through a broken window with minor injuries, lucky to be alive. If parents brought up either the accident or the medical results, Peggie deftly shifted to another subject. She steadfastly refused to burden the school’s parents with her problems.

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Ms. Peggie and Tegan after Tegan’s juggling presentation to Ms. Peggie’s students in conjunction with a high school homework assignment.

Shortly before the end of Tegan’s last year with Peggie, a friend and I performed a program of folk songs for the school. The kids enjoyed the show, and Peggie asked us to perform a couple of songs at the upcoming graduation ceremony, the school’s biggest annual event. My friend couldn’t make it, but two other Montessori fathers—Jamie Gauthier and Joe Schartung—joined in to play a song we designed specifically for the event, a blues-rock version of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.”

Flustered and flushed when speaking to a roomful of adults, Peggie persevered until she could redirect the spotlight to Beth, a child, or a parent, deflecting praise for herself to others, no matter how much she deserved honor. During this graduation, however, she couldn’t dodge the compliment we fathers built into the song. As Peggie and the kids danced together, we belted out the last verse:

“Young Ms. Peggie has a school, E-I-E-I-O
“And in that school are wonderful kids, E-I-E-I-O
“Well the kids learn here, the kids play there,
“Learn here, play there, grow in Montessori care.
“Oh, young Ms. Peggie has an excellent school, E-I-E-I-O.”

Tegan remained in touch with Peggie after kindergarten, visiting during elementary, middle, and high school, once to conduct a hands-on juggling presentation for Peggie’s Montessori kids as part of a high school class assignment. Even Peggie tried to juggle. The kids loved it just as they enjoyed most events and activities Peggie arranged, activities that included rudimentary lessons in Spanish and Japanese, a professional clown’s performance, and child-and-parent cultural demonstrations on food and clothing.

Not long after the juggling presentation, Peggie retired, and our contact with her became more sporadic. Shortly before moving to another state a couple of years ago, I bumped into her at a department store. Her emphysema had worsened, and she now required supplemental oxygen, a topic from which she quickly moved with “Let’s talk about that girl of yours.”

Each of us encounters so many people along life’s path, but few have profound and permanent effect on us. Peggie’s influence was broad and substantial as she equipped young children with the tools to build a solid, respectful, moral, productive foundation for success in all areas of their lives. Whether by negligence or design, the Peggies of the world traverse their journeys mostly unrecognized and unthanked. Luckily, we were able to express several times to Peggie our appreciation for all she had done for Tegan. In typical Peggie style, she’d say, “The credit lies with that girl.”

Each day the world loses special people. Everyone is transitory, a brief flicker in the firestorm of time, but some survive death through the reputations they craft in life. Peggie is one of those people. The influence she’s had on hundreds of children and their families will extend for generations to come. The children she taught—and their children and their children—will continue to employ, benefit from, and pass on the values Peggie instilled, the values of Montessori Rules.

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Peggie Ann Kilpatrick
November 19, 1949 – July 9, 2016
Please visit the online memorial.

Personal Experience Effect

No matter the effort to avoid it, personal experience—from the drama of relatives to political shenanigans—creeps into every writer’s work, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. The Confederate flag hoopla and the fight for and against the rights of people of color, women, and homosexuals are examples of issues that have proved provocative, disruptive, even destructive in interpersonal relationships and a godsend for the political powers who use division as a control device. Buying into the propaganda of political and media organizations, we make extreme decisions that affect our interpersonal relationships for the rest of our lives. When those decisions involve a writer, you can bet the effects will be reflected in the writer’s work.

Politics is naturally contentious, each generation viewing its own political tomfoolery as more contentious than what came before. Since the advent of 24/7 “news” channels, whose primary purpose is not to report news, but to stoke fear, frustration, hatred, and anger, politics has been exploited fully as a tool to divide and punish rather than to find compromise and serve the common good. I’m not so naïve to believe this use of politics is something new, but its in-your-face nature has strengthened exponentially in recent decades, thanks to technology. We’re assaulted relentlessly through our televisions and radios, computers, smartphones, tablets—umbilically connected to designer “news” sites that feed our prejudice and fear to the point we lose grip on reality and rationality and strike out at all who differ in opinion, worldview, gender, sexuality, religion, lifestyle, or race.

I grew up in South Alabama and Northwest Florida during the late 1950s through the early 1970s. The region wasn’t then nor has it become one of the most tolerant of diversity. Flaming midnight crosses lit up country pastures. Robed, hooded figures gathered like kids at a mega weenie roast, singing angry, hateful campfire songs about folks born of different race or religion, preaching the end of the world was nigh if lesser races acquired the same rights whites already enjoyed. Oh, save us, Jesus! It’s Armageddon! Color me silly, but I don’t think Jesus the Jew would be welcomed at such an event.

A close relative was then and remains a man of the white robe, flames flickering in his eyes, despite his interaction over the decades with a variety of people of color and cultures, thanks to his public sales business. He has never felt a need or desire to question the region’s prevalent stereotypes and fears of people who’re different, to overcome the hatred, to grow. Why, I don’t know. To my knowledge, he’s never suffered physically, financially, or mentally due to malicious acts by any person of color. And he certainly hasn’t lost his rights to groups or individuals gaining their own. He has, however, been a willing, unquestioning consumer of the Wallace/Thurmond/Trump/Helms/Cruz/Santorum/Fox/et.al. stream of fear and hate mongering, never once seeking objective verification to even the most extraordinary claim, never once attempting to understand any issue through a viewpoint other than his own bigotry.

During a phone conversation four years ago, I voiced support for the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. “Don’t you tell me,” he growled, “you like what that communist nigger’s done.” I wasn’t shocked by his response. We’d debated his use of such small-minded epithets on numerous occasions, especially this particular word which he uses not only in reference to anyone black, but also to persons of Middle Eastern, Mexican, and other cultural and racial backgrounds. I suspect he used the word this time simply to anger me as he began a litany of irrational charges against President Obama, that the President had “ruined” the economy, that he’s Muslim, that he’s waging war against Christians, that he’s not even American—all the batty, right-wing talking points and conspiracy theories that even reality can’t counter in the true believer’s mind. Then he asserted that the U.S. should have never pulled out of Iraq, that Obama had secured the destruction of America by doing so.

“We never should have invaded Iraq in the first place,” I said.

He took a breath. “That’s something we agree on,” he said. “We should’ve nuked the hell out of them because them A-rabs ain’t even human.”

That was it.

We were done.

After a lifetime of shared, reluctant tolerance, our relationship had abruptly come to an end.

Earlier this week, my spouse received an email from one of her relatives, an email purporting that the factual histories of the Civil War and Rebel battle flag are instead myth, that the war had little to do with slavery, that the flag is a symbol of only southern heritage, not racism. The sender did not copy me on the mail, perhaps because she understands my view of such bigotry and did not want to risk rebuttal. When my spouse replied to the mail, she copied all to whom the original had been sent, and she copied me as well, addressing the original mail as though her relative had offered it as an example of how gullible people are when something supports their bigoted worldview:

“People will believe anything rather than admitting that it’s been 150 years since the end of the Civil War and we still have racism. How sad and disappointing. As a nation we have made progress, but we still have far to go.”

A day later, the following landed in my mailbox, thanks to my spouse’s relative who hit “reply to all.” It’s presented unaltered:

“No one living today is a slave or has owned a slave, am I wrong in not liking group of people who have different views of life than I do? I have always been told ‘your rights end when they intruded on mine’ how much longer do we as Americans need to bend over and take it up the as…before these people realize they need to start to take care of themselves? This crap has been going on for years. The American public has, in my opinion done way too much to make amends for what has happened in the past and they still want more, work for it like the rest of us have done and quit asking for a hand out.”

It would have been wise not to reply to the rant, but I’m not a wise man. I thought that, by engaging the writer in a rational, fact-based discussion, he might look beyond the hyperbole of pundits, might change his mind. So I responded, copying all on the list:

“Thanks for your entertaining mail. If you would like to engage in a rational debate on specific issues, backing your points with objective, valid sources (not political organizations such as Fox News or DailyKos), I’d be happy to debate you. However, specifics are required. For example, instead of generalizations such as ‘these people,’ define whether they are black, of Mexican descent like yourself, Jewish, Middle Eastern, East Indian, Asian, etc., since the average southern white lumps all races of color into the same lesser-than category. Another example would be ‘handouts’ and the group to which the so-called handout is provided–social security, Medicare, food stamps, housing assistance, etc.–and how it affects you and how or why it is right or wrong. Back your argument with objective sources. Another example is ‘your rights end when they intrude on mine.’ Be specific. For example, do you mean you have the right to fly a Nazi flag on your property, but you don’t have the right to demand government or public entities to fly the flag on their buildings or property since that property represents all people? Or I have the right to worship the Flying Spaghetti Monster but not to force you to say my prayers in school?

“You get the idea.

“If you and the others in this mail exchange do not desire a rational debate but would prefer to vent anger and frustration over issues based on the ‘factual’ nonsense regarding the Confederate flag that began this exchange, I prefer to be left out of the loop.\

“Take care…”

A few moments later: “Fuck you.”

My response: “Okay.”

Then: “Just forget my email address and I don’t ever want to see you or any of your family again. Chris you are a looser.”

“For future reference,” I replied, “it’s ‘loser,’ not ‘looser.’”

When we refuse to engage in rational discussion, when we set our minds so rigidly based on irrational hatred and fear, when we refuse to consider another point of view unless it agrees with our own, when we refuse to grow, all of us are losers.

From fiction to poetry, creative nonfiction to straight reporting, personal experience colors my work in some way. One example of experience influencing my nonfiction work began with intervention in three on-the-street domestic violence incidents in Hawaii in the early1980s, which led to an article for Honolulu Magazine on the state’s problem of domestic violence, what police termed “local love.” The article helped in a small way to push a mandatory arrest bill through the state legislature to become law, requiring police to arrest aggressors when responding to domestic violence calls. In fiction and poetry, the above relatives, as well as others, have provided models for characters in stories such as “Side-Road Shack” and “Luau,” the novel Big Daddy’s Fast-Past Gadget, and in many of the poems in White Trash & Southern ~ Collected Poems, Volume I.

We writers are grateful to the relatives who manufacture drama, the politicians who stir the pot of fear and hatred, the citizens in our communities who fuel suspicion and discontent. By simply being who they are, these people prove an ironic benefit to writers. We thank them for helping us to explore the irrational, the hateful, the destructive through the characters they inspire. If, by chance, our work benefits the reader or society at large in any measure, we owe them that much more gratitude.

Yes, we’re deeply indebted to them.

I wish we weren’t.